Who: North Carolina State Wolfpack (4-2)
When: Tuesday, December 1st, at 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Where: PNC Arena -- Raleigh, N.C.
Michigan will head to Raleigh to participate in the 17th annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge, hoping to shoot down the Wolfpack and help extend the Big Ten's unbeaten streak in the conference challenge to seven straight years (4-0-2). This year, it is knotted up at one apiece after Wake Forest edged Rutgers and Minnesota beat Clemson last night. This will be the the 15th time the Wolverines have competed in this event and the fourth time that such a game will be against NC State. It should be noted that the home team has won each of the prior three matchups between Michigan and NC State in this challenge, with the Wolverines winning in 2003 and 2012 and the Wolfpack securing the victory in 2006.
On a personal level, this is another important game for Michigan. It's a winnable game against a quality opponent in what will be the Wolverines' first true road contest of the season. This isn't the same as playing in front of 500 people in a transformed ballroom in the Bahamas. PNC Arena has the seventh-largest capacity in Division I basketball, and it will be filled with screaming Wolfpack fans that want to rattle and frustrate Michigan. Plus, true road games against comparable competition usually don't go well for the Wolverines. Under John Beilein, Michigan is 22-47 in true road games against KenPom top-100 teams. NC State is #57 on KenPom, so this should test Michigan's resiliency.
Despite not having faced a top-50 team yet, NC State is 4-2. The Wolfpack's two losses were to William & Mary, who's #80 on KenPom, by 17 points at home in the season opener and Arizona State (#79) by three in the semifinals of the Legends Classic at the Barclays Center. NC State has only one respectable win: an 83-72 overtime victory against LSU (#89) in the third-place game of the Legends Classic. So even NC State's best win right now is equivalent to beating a lower-tier Big Ten team. It's fine but nothing to applaud. Michigan clearly will be the best team that the Wolfpack have played this year.
Offensively, NC State doesn't pose much of a threat from the perimeter. Only 27.1 percent of its field-goal attempts have been from downtown, which is 322nd in three-point rate, and the Wolfpack have only two players that have tossed up more than seven threes through six games. NC State prefers to do its damage inside, though it doesn't shoot well there either as the Wolfpack have converted only 47.3 percent of their twos (201st). However, they compensate for their lack of shooting by producing in other areas. They take care of the basketball (37th in TO rate), grab their missed shots 34.1 percent of the time (91st), and committed to getting to the line (53rd in FTR) after the loss to W&M.
NC State's length -- ninth in average height and start four players that are at least 6-foot-7 -- bolsters the team's interior defense. Opponents have made only 40.9 percent of their twos against NC State (28th), and the Wolfpack block a fair amount of shots (74th in block rate) while committing few fouls (33rd in FTR). However, despite its length, NC State doesn't force many turnovers (252nd) or contest perimeter shots frequently (276th in three-point rate). Opponents have had looks from behind the three-point line and have capitalized, draining 35.7 percent of them. That's where NC State most likely will be beat.
NC State is led by its 6-foot-2 junior point guard, Anthony "Cat" Barber, who was given his nickname by his older sister. Barber is a workhorse. He leads the nation in MPG (39.2), consumes a team-high 27.9 percent of NC State's possessions, and averages 21.0 PPG, 6.7 APG, and 6.3 RPG. Notably, in his most recent game against Winthrop, Barber went off for 37 points and eight assists, and it wasn't the first 30-point game of his career either. Barber is at his most dangerous when he's distributing the basketball (31.7 ast% to 11.8 TO%) and getting to the free-throw line (86.2 FTR), where he's knocked down 88 percent of his freebies this season. The crazy thing is that Barber isn't even a good shooter from the field. He's 30-of-80 inside the arc (37.5 pct.), where the baselines are the only areas where he's been above average, and 0-of-7 on three-pointers. He scores only when he sets up shop at the free-throw line, which he does very well given that he's attempted at least 11 free throws in each of his last five games, including 22 vs. Winthrop.
The Wolfpack start a pair of 6-foot-7 wings that are their only two shooters. One is sophomore Caleb Martin, who has 15.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, and 1.5 SPG. Martin essentially is only a threat from the perimeter, where he's made 40.4 percent of his threes as opposed to only 43.8 percent of his two-pointers -- though Martin is an average finisher at the rim. His favorite spots from deep are on the right side and the left corner. However, his offensive prowess is limited once he's forced to shoot mid-range jumpers, where he really struggles to knock down shots. The other shooter is freshman Maverick Rowan, who was the #40 recruit in the 2015 class. Rowan averages 14.5 PPG, but he hasn't been as deadly from downtown (33.3 3P%) as Martin has. Conversely, Rowan has no problem going inside, where he's hit about half of his mid-range jumpers around the free-throw line and 71 percent of his shots at the rim, making him more of an all-around scorer.
NC State's starting power forward is 6-foot-8 sophomore Abdul-Malik Abu, who's recorded 12.0 PPG and 6.5 RPG. Abu really likes to pull the trigger -- leads the team in shot rate -- and his range extends out to about 15 feet, where he's canned an excellent share of his jumpers. However, Abu hasn't fared as well closer to the rim. Though he snags lots of offensive rebounds (9.3 OR%) and draws fouls often (45.2 FTR), he's made only 57 percent of his shots within five feet of the tin and only half of his free throws.
The starting center will be 6-foot-9 junior Lennard Freeman, who's not involved much offensively. Freeman averages only 4.7 PPG and has fired only 20 shots in six games. Though he's an average finisher around the rim when he does look to score, the only area on offense where Freeman has a significant impact is on the glass, where he's hauled in three offensive boards in each of his last four games. Further, Freeman is just as good on the defensive glass, too, which is why he has averaged 7.0 RPG in just 23.8 MPG this year.
Mark Gottfried will send in only two reserves after West Virginia transfer Terry Henderson tore ligaments in his right ankle in his NC State debut. The first is 6-foot-7 sophomore wing Cody Martin, who is teammate Caleb Martin's identical twin brother. Unlike Caleb, Cody doesn't shoot from three-point land. Rather, Cody likes to drive to the rim, where over 75 percent of his field goals have been this season. Cody also helps in two other areas: perimeter defense (2.9 stl%) and offensive rebounding (10.4 OR%). The second reserve is 6-foot-9, 285-pound junior center Beejay Anya. Anya has trimmed down since his freshman season, during which he weighed 325 pounds, and that has helped him become a better finisher at the rim (75 pct.). Also, Anya's physical presence is a problem for most defenses, which is why he's attempted 20 free throws to only 14 field goals this season. However, Anya hasn't made defenses pay for this as he's connected on only 35 percent of his freebies. Lastly, Anya is an excellent shot-blocker (15th in blk%).
Torch the Twine from Three: Michigan's offensive strength is three-point shooting (8th), having knocked down 26-of-48 triples (54.2 pct) in its last two games, while NC State's defensive weakness is on the perimeter. Given that the Wolfpack are stout down low defensively, the odds are that Michigan needs another hot-shooting performance.
Contain the Cat: Anthony "Cat" Barber is the engine that makes NC State's offense go. Not only is he an excellent distributor that gets his teammates open shots, he's terrific at earning easy points at the free-throw line despite not shooting well from the field. How Michigan -- Derrick Walton and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, in particular, now that Spike Albrecht will be rehabbing his hips for the next month -- defends Barber, who's NC State's only playmaker, will have a huge say in if Michigan wins this game. Look for Walton and MAAR to sag off of Barber when he has the ball in his hands.
Body Up Down Low: NC State has a size advantage in the interior with Abdul-Malik Abu, Lennard Freeman, and Beejay Anya, and much of the Wolfpack's offense is derived from getting second-chance points and making its way to the free-throw line. Not only do Ricky Doyle and Moritz Wagner need to be strong up top and keep their arms straight in the air, Michigan's wings needs to double down on NC State's big men when they're guarding Wolfpack players that aren't seeking to score from the perimeter. If Michigan can do that and neutralize NC State's advantage in the interior, Michigan should win.
NC State is very similar to Michigan's last opponent, Texas. Both the Wolfpack and the Longhorns lack shooters but win by hitting the boards, drawing fouls, and guarding the rim. Michigan beat the Longhorns because they were on fire from three, and, on paper, there's no reason why Michigan shouldn't be able to replicate that performance again. However, games aren't played on paper. Can the Wolverines make over 50 percent of their threes for the third straight game, especially in what will be their first true road, hostile atmosphere of the season? I'm going to say yes, but I can see it going very sour.
Michigan 77, NC State 74