Wednesday, December 20, 2006

ACC Preview #3: North Carolina State

Team: North Carolina State
Record: 7-3 (0-1 ACC)

Gavin Grant (93.8% minutes, 1.03 PPWS, 13.1 DRB%, 21.9 A/B%)
Courtney Fells (84.8% minutes, 1.11 PPWS, 1.7 Stl%, 1.9 Blk%)
Brandon Costner (85.5% minutes, 1.22 PPWS, 17.1 DRB%, 1.9 Blk%)
Ben McCauley (84.5% minutes, 1.24 PPWS, 8.9 ORB%, 12.0 DRB%, 13.1 A/B%, 2.6 Stl%)
Bryan Nieman (60.8% minutes, 1.01 PPWS, 2.4 Stl%)

Key Reserves:
Dennis Horner (45.0% minutes, 1.27 PPWS, 15.5 DRB%)
Trevor Ferguson
Engin Atsur* (37.0% minutes, 1.47 PPWS, 20.5 A/B%, 12.1 DRB%, 2.4 Stl%)

Biggest Win:
74-67 over Michigan in the ACC/Big Televen Challenge

Worst Loss:
Engin Atsur to a pulled hamstring, 14:00 mark of the first half, Michigan game.

Conference Schedule:
Play Twice: Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest
Play at Home: Duke, Boston College, Clemson
Play on the Road: Georgia Tech, Miami, Florida State

There is no team in the conference that lost more than NC State over the off-season. Tony Bethel, Cameron Bennerman, and Ilian Evtimov graduated. Cedric Simmons declared early. And Andrew Brackman decided his future was as a pitcher, not a power forward. All in all, the Pack brought back only 2 players who averaged more than 6 minutes per game. From the outset of the season, Sidney Lowe’s design was to heavily rely on his starting five (Atsur, Grant, Fells, Costner, and McCauley) and go only two deep off the bench (Nieman and Horner). Before the game against Alabama, only 11 minutes had been played by the bench outside of the first two subs. So if there was any team that could ill afford to lose a player, it was the Pack.

Unfortunately, they did lose a player, and not just any player, but their best player. 6’4” senior point guard Engin Atsur pulled his hamstring 6 minutes into the Michigan game, and has been out of action since. They hope to get him back for the main start of conference season in a couple weeks, but the timetable for his return is still uncertain. And Atsur was off to an incredibly hot start – in the first 4 games he was 17 of 20 from 2, 10 of 23 from 3, with 19 rebounds and 21 assists against only 6 turnovers. Without question, he’s the Pack’s best player, and a guy they desperately need to return – and at full strength – if they hope to be frisky in the conference season.

In Atsur’s absence, 6’7” junior Gavin Grant has tried to carry the load, and it’s proven to be just a little too heavy. In the 6 games without Atsur, Grant has taken 70 shots, but hit only 25. He’s also turned the ball over 34 times in those 6 games. Still, he is the go-to guy by default with Atsur out, and he’s sat only 25 minutes total all season. Grant does play solid defense, as he’s quick enough to guard smaller players, but he has been a black hole on offense, with only a 1.03 PPWS and a .461 EFG%.

The Pack’s most efficient scorer (sans Atsur) has been 6’9” sophomore forward Ben McCauley. He’s been in double figures in 8 games this year, and is 43 of 74 shooting in the last 6, with 43 rebounds tossed in for good measure. McCauley is not quite as skilled a passing forward as Evtimov was, but he has shown the ability to dish the rock, racking up a 13.0 A/B% and a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio.

Also stepping up has been 6’8” redshirt freshman Brandon Costner. He leads the team in scoring percentage (25.4%) thanks in large part to a strong ability to convert inside (.645 2pt%) and a decent ability to knock down an outside shot (a respectable, but not great .348 3pt%). Costner is also the team’s leading rebounder and shot blocker. And with a free throw rate of 49.1, he’s the only NC State player who’s shown even a passing ability to get to the line.

The final man in the intended starting five is 6’5” sophomore guard Courtney Fells. Fells’ outside shot has struggled this year – he’s taken 45 threes but has yet to make more than 2 in a single game, and he hits just 28.9% of his threes overall. Fells has been an adequate defender (at least in the stats categories) getting steals and blocking shots at a passable rate.

Rounding out the current starting five is 6’6” former walk-on Bryan Nieman. It’s unclear what Nieman does other than eat up minutes. He doesn’t shoot very much (9.4%), or particularly well (1.01 PPWS, .452 EFG%), doesn’t really distribute the ball (7.9 A/B%) or rebound that well, but also doesn’t turn the ball over much (1.2 TO%, 2.60 A/TO). Lowe would love to reduce his minutes, and the newfound eligibility of 6’5” Pitt transfer (sorta) Ryan Ferguson will give him that chance. Ferguson never attended a full semester at Pitt, only summer classes, and then didn’t enroll at NC State till the spring semester. Still, he was subject to the NCAA transfer rules, and was forced to sit two semesters. Now that fall semester is over, he’s available again, and it couldn’t have come at a more needed time. Ferguson played 23 minutes against Alabama, with 3 points, 2 boards, and 5 assists. More importantly, his playing time limited Nieman to 26 minutes, which still is a lot, but much less than the 36 and 40 of the previous two games. His presence in the rotation will be a big lift. Finally, 6’7” freshman Dennis Horner has been seeing a shade under 20 minutes a game. He scores well (1.27 PPWS) even if his contribution is more limited (14.7 score%), and has also been active on the glass. Personally, I would have given him some of Nieman’s minutes, but that’s just me.

Overall, the Pack is very much a team without its leader right now. Atsur was not only their best offensive player, and their most experienced player, but also their only point guard. Gavin Grant has been given the role of temporary de facto point guard, but he turns the ball over way too much to be effective in the job. Still, Atsur should be back relatively soon, and with the addition of Ferguson, the Pack may actually have some normal depth just in time for the conference season to start. NC State’s schedule is not easy, doubling up against UNC, Maryland, Virginia, and Virginia Tech. Going 2-6 in those 8 games is realistic. They do have a beneficial schedule against the opponents they play only once, as the three tougher ones (Duke, Clemson, BC) all come to the RBC, and their road games at Georgia Tech, Miami, and FSU are at least slightly less imposing. Still, I think anything over 5 conference wins would be a big accomplishment for Sidney Lowe and his squad. His team doesn’t rebound well (28% offensive, 67% defensive), shoot the three well (31.5% on the year), or get to the line at all (only 14 points a game from the stripe). But they play decent defense (1.01 PPWS and .99 points per possession by opponents) and don’t turn the ball over terribly much, particularly outside of Gavin Grant, two characteristics that help keep teams in games. The Pack is a pretty young team – only Atsur and Nieman are seniors, and there are a total of 9 freshmen and sophomores on the roster (even if only four of them play). Lowe’s first season will be a tough one, but hopefully his young players will improve and the Pack will be competitive again in the 07-08 season.

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