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Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Next Up - #24 North Carolina State
Iowa faces its third ranked opponent in only its sixth game of the season when they play North Carolina State tomorrow night. The game is the final matchup of the annual Big Ten - ACC Challenge that our conference gets dominated in every year.

Since I tend to focus on Big Ten teams, I thought it would help to delve into the mind of an NC State fan and learn a little more about our opponent. Steven, the man behind Section Six, an avid Wolfpack fan, and a very capable stathead, was cool enough to answer a few questions I had about his favorite team. My questions are in bold, his responses are not. Easy enough.

Last year's team was clearly centered around Julius Hodge, a first round NBA draftee. Has a new leader emerged this year, or will the team be much more balanced?

Out of necessity more than anything else, I expect more balance. I don’t think there is anyone on the roster that is talented enough to carry the load like Hodge did last season.

That said, Gavin Grant is doing his best Hodge impression. Like Julius, Gavin has been productive in three major categories (points, rebounds, assists); and like Julius, Gavin has been using a lot of possessions. Grant has a lot of work to do, though. He’s not nearly as efficient as Hodge was.

With the maturation of the Wolfpack’s sophomore class (Brackman, Simmons, Grant), NC State should have more reliable scoring options than it had last year, and that should also lead to more balance.

Which players should we know heading in the game? What do they do well?

In addition to Gavin Grant, who I mentioned above…

Ilian Evtimov is one of the most important pieces to the Wolfpack’s offense. He is an excellent passer and a good outside shooter. As I’m sure you’ll see on Wednesday, he isn’t shy about taking a deep three-pointer. Evtimov also likes to post up near the baseline, about 10-15 feet from the basket and penetrate/distribute the ball from there. He is a non-factor on the glass because he plays more like a guard than a forward. Plus he’s had like fifty knee operations. He will also commit his share of turnovers, but that’s because distributing the ball is a big part of his game.

Cedric Simmons is arguably off to the best start of anyone on the team, leading the Pack with nearly 20 points/40 minutes. Long and lean, he is NC State’s only “true” post player—he won’t be shooting from outside 15 feet too much. Although he’s quite good at blocking shots, his low post defense still needs work.

NC State had one of the country's better offenses last year, and is off to a great start this year, but few people realize that because of the team's slow pace. How are they so efficient?

The slow pace is a big part of the Wolfpack’s success. NC State doesn’t rebound very well (at either end of the court), so the Pack employs a style that helps it maximize its possessions. NC State does that by shooting well and shooting a lot from outside, and by maintaining a low turnover rate. The pace naturally causes some bellyaching among the fans, but I think it’s less frustrating this way. NC State is extremely patient, which makes for a lot more good shots than bad ones.

What other strengths and weaknesses will be apparent Wednesday night?

I like the Wolfpack’s perimeter defense. NC State has big guards that can make open jump shots more difficult to find. But I noticed that Horner and Haluska aren’t lacking height, so we’ll see how that goes.

At the offensive end, NC State is more comfortable operating against a man-to-man defense, as that allows the Pack to be more versatile and to take advantage of 1-on-1 matchups. The offense can bog down and become more tentative when a team goes to zone defense, especially if the three-pointers aren’t falling. Regardless of what the opposition is doing, NC State sometimes relies on the perimeter shot too much.

Rebounding and interior defense are also issues. I’ll get into those things below.

Cedric Simmons and Andrew Brackman were both good shot blockers last year, but aren't very sizeable. Do they make points in the paint hard for all opponents, or can they be neutralized by thicker players, like Iowa's Greg Brunner and Doug Thomas?

Although both put on some muscle during the off-season, I fear that Brunner and Thomas will neutralize them. Simmons and Brackman are sophomores who still need plenty of work against good post players. Against Notre Dame on Saturday, they struggled to defend Torin Francis, who had 13 points on 6-8 shooting and collected 11 rebounds (4 at the offensive end).

Simmons and Brackman both have a couple of inches on Brunner and Thomas, which I’m hoping will help. Even if Brunner and Thomas struggle to score, they will almost certainly win the rebounding battle.

Iowa is a decent rebounding team - does that worry you?

I worry about rebounding every time NC State plays someone not named Stetson. Rebounding has been the Pack’s biggest weakness in the past, and so far this season it doesn’t look like that has changed. Simmons is probably the team’s best rebounder (he should be, anyway), but his rebounding percentage through five games is just 11.5%. That’s well below the numbers that Brunner and Thomas have been putting up in their careers.

Does NC State get overlooked with the other basketball powers in the state?

Definitely. Duke and North Carolina cast big shadows; they’re hard to avoid when you’re just 30 miles away. I think a lot of the older Wolfpack fans have a difficult time because it didn’t used to be this way. I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so it’s been easier for me to come to terms with the situation.

Don’t get me wrong, though: the unceasing brilliance of Duke and UNC makes me want to hurl.

How do you like the Wolfpack's chances against Iowa? In the ACC?

I expect the game to be close, but I don’t expect the Wolfpack to win. Even though NC State did play a major conference team over the weekend, I don’t really have a feel for how good the Wolfpack is. Playing a road game against a ranked opponent should be instructive. I am looking forward to one of the better games of the challenge.

I’m optimistic about how NC State will fare in the ACC. Georgia Tech and North Carolina are going through massive rebuilding years, and Wake Forest hasn’t looked particularly strong in the early going. Relative to some teams in the league (like those just mentioned), NC State didn’t lose very much. I think a top-4 finish is realistic.

Thanks Steven!
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