We are less than a day away from the No. 17 Kentucky Wildcats matchup with the No. 10 N.C. State Wolfpack on Monday night in the Round of 32. N.C. State is hosting the first two rounds and if their game against Maine was any indication, they should have a rowdy crowd behind them with a chance at playing in the Sweet 16.
For a little background, the Wolfpack play in the ACC and have only faced Kentucky five times total, but haven’t seen each other since 1995, when N.C. State beat the Cats 66-62 on Dec. 30.
So this is a team that we know nothing about, but I’m going to try and change that a bit. Let’s take a closer look at the three-seed, starting with their resume.
*Attached to each statistic is the team’s national rank out of 351 teams*
Overall record: 27-5 (12-4 in ACC): three-seed
Points per game: 71.3 (67th)
Opponents points per game: 60.4 (71st)
Scoring margin per 100 possessions: +16.3 (31st)
Simple RPI: 65.3 percent (7th)
Strength of schedule according to MasseyRating: 52.45 (25th)
Key wins: Syracuse +4 (25-8), Miami (FL) +2 (25-8), Belmont +15 (26-7),
Key losses: North Carolina -13 (18-15)
- N.C. State currently only uses six rotational players. A slew of injuries to key players throughout the season has destroyed the team’s depth but without much consequence to the win-loss column. Two key players, Grace Hunter – who averaged 14.6 points per game before her injury – and Erika Cassell, both tore an ACL within the span of six weeks. Cassell averaged 6.6 points and 17.4 minutes per game before the injury. Armani Hawkins played 13 games before tearing her ACL against Pittsburgh, which took away another 4.2 points and nearly 10 minutes per game. Before the season even began, graduate guard Kaila Ealey was ruled out for the year with an injury.
- But that didn’t stop them from starting the season off 21-0 and ranked seventh in the nation. However, those injuries would eventually affect them against the powerhouses of the ACC conference. The Wolfpack lost back-to-back games against North Carolina and Florida State and then fell against Notre Dame and Louisville twice. In the games against Notre Dame and Louisville, N.C. State was outscored by a combined 63 points.
- But back to the roster make-up. Against Maine in the first round of the NCAA tournament, head coach Wes Moore stuck to mostly a five-player rotation with all five starters playing at least 30 minutes.
- The backcourt consists of Aislinn Konig, Kiara Leslie, and Kai Crutchfield. Starting with Konig, who is the team’s best long-distance shooter. She takes 6.9 three-pointers per game and hits them at a clip of 40.1 percent. The 5-foot-9 junior is one of only five players in school history to make at least 200 three-pointers. She’s also a sneaky passer, leading the team in assists with 3.9 per game. Over 70 percent of her shot attempts come from beyond the arc. Basically, Kentucky should have someone on her at all times.
- Next is Kiara Leslie, arguably the team’s most important player. She led her team with 20 points on 8-15 shooting while also grabbing six boards against Maine. She leads the team in scoring at 15.6 points per game and can score from practically anywhere. At six-feet tall, she is tall enough to fight for boards but quick enough to take her defender off the dribble. She can be a bit prone to turnovers but is an excellent rebounder and solid distributor.
- Finally, we have Kai Crutchfield. The 5-foot-8 guard averages 6.1 points per game and is the least efficient scorer of her three backcourt teammates. She shot 5-10 from the field and 3-5 from deep for 14 points against Maine, but it was only the eighth time this season she topped double-digits in scoring.
- As for the frontcourt, DD Rogers and Elissa Cunane hold it down in the paint. Rogers is the team’s top rebounder with 7.8 boards per game and also converts on over 58 percent of her two-point shots. Cunane stands at 6-foot-5 and will undoubtedly give Kentucky a handful of problems in the paint and on the glass. She averages only a shade under six rebounds per game but makes for up it with 13.7 points per game on 57.6 percent shooting from inside the perimeter. Rogers is one of the better defensive rebounders in the entire country while Cunane is an incredibly efficient scorer, averaging 1.26 points per scoring attempt (39th in the nation out of over 3,000 players) by being adept at getting to the free throw line.
- The sixth-woman on this team is Kayla Jones, who averages 4.8 points per game in almost 18 minutes per game. She put up only two points in 20 minutes against Maine. At 6-foot-1, her main job is going to be crashing the glass. She pulled down six rebounds int he first round and posts an impressive defensive rebounding percentage for how much time she plays.
- N.C. State is a team that does not foul. They rank 4th in the country when it comes to opponents points off of free throws (only 12.2 percent of their opponent’s points come from the charity stripe). Kentucky isn’t a team that relies on free throws to win them games, though. The Wildcats are one of the top teams in the country when they do get to the line (74.6 percent), but only 18.2 percent of their overall points come from free throws.
- You know how I keep harping on how poor of a rebounding team the Wildcats are? Well, this next stat won’t ease those worries. N.C. State is one of the top-five teams in the country in terms of rebounding opponents misses. In fact, they rank 4th nationally in defensive rebounds per game at 31.0. Kentucky averages 34.0 total rebounds per game. Rogers and Jones both rank in the top 90th percentile in defensive rebounding rate while Cunane and Leslie both post above average defensive rebounding numbers. They have the size to dominate Kentucky on that end and it will be a true test to just how committed the Cats are to sneaking in and winning 50/50 balls off of their own misses. Kentucky is solid at crashing their own glass, but this Wolfpack team is a whole different type of beast in that area.
- They give up a lot of threes. N.C. State let Maine shoot 37 of them (although they made only 11). Out of 351 Divison I teams, they rank 343rd in opponents three-pointers attempted with 766. They’ve allowed 247 of those to go in, which ranks only slightly worse at 344th. If you’ve watched even one Kentucky game this year, you’d know they love to shoot it from deep. With Maci Morris and Rhyne Howard patrolling the perimeter, it’s hard not to hoist up as many triples as possible. The Wildcats have shot 36.7 percent from three on the season, 22nd best in the nation. Against Princeton, they converted on nine of their 18 three-point attempts. Expect the Cats to try and have a field day from deep.
- Lastly, N.C. State is not going to turn Kentucky over. The Wolfpack force only 11.4 turnovers per game, one of the lowest marks among all teams and average only 4.8 steals per game. Just for perspective, Taylor Murray records 3.3 steals per game just by herself. There isn’t one player for N.C. State that posts a steal percentage of higher than 2.0 percent. Kentucky has seven of them.
I’ll be back tomorrow with some keys to the game and how Kentucky can pull off the upset, but I feel pretty good about where the Cats are at right now. They showed perseverance through a couple of tough stretches early against Princeton and looked energized towards the end of that game. The Wolfpack can only go six deep. Kentucky has nine full rotational players. It should be a high-pressure game from start to finish.