The last time the Miami Hurricanes and North Carolina State Wolfpack met, Reggie Johnson walked away a triumphant hero. The Miami center tipped a rebound into the basket with .8 seconds remaining on the game clock, giving the Hurricanes a titillating, 79-78, victory at PNC Arena in Raleigh.
At the time, the win took Miami to a shocking 8-0 in the ACC, a wave which the Hurricanes would eventually ride to a regular-season conference title.
This time, the stakes will be much higher. The Hurricanes, following Duke’s shocking loss to Maryland, are unquestionably the favorite to walk away with a conference tournament crown. Though it seemed like their No. 1-seed hopes were dead in the water a week ago, the selection committee will be hard pressed to pass on the ACC regular-season and postseason champs on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Wolfpack are trying to get away from potentially playing a Miami-like team in their second game of the Big Dance. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has them as a No. 8 seed, which historically speaking would almost certainly relegate N.C. State to a two-and-done scenario at best. A rampage through the competition in Greensboro, though, and the Wolfpack may be sitting pretty for a No. 6 seed when all is said and done.
With both sides having a ton to play for, this second matchup may well live up to the first. For that reason, here is a quick breakdown of advantages each side has and a prediction for Saturday’s contest.
ACC Tournament Bracket and Game Information
When: Saturday, March 16, at 1 p.m. ET
Miami Advantages: defensive efficiency and three-point shooting
While Shane Larkin and Kenny Kadji have gotten plenty of recognition for their offensive exploits, Miami is first and foremost a defensive juggernaut.
To understand why that’s the case, you have to look long and hard at Miami’s offensive blueprint. Jim Larranaga, a 63-year-old basketball lifer, has forever been known as a chameleon in terms of his offensive systems. He bases how the team prepares on the talent of his own team and Miami’s scouting of the opposition. This season’s Hurricanes have been particularly heavy on set plays, with Larkin being just about the only player willing and trusted to break the sets on occasion.
Miami runs at an adjusted tempo of just 63.3 possessions per game, which is 281st in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy. They also rarely crash the offensive boards, ranking 229th in that category, and have not gotten better in that facet as the season has gone along.
However, what the slower pace and lack of offensive rebounds take away in terms of putting points on the board, they more than give back on the defensive end. Miami’s lack of rebounding is a schematic decision Larranaga makes, preferring that his players get back on defense rather than crash the boards. And the adjusted tempo on the offensive end keeps opposing teams’ possessions low, which obviously gives them fewer opportunities to score.
As a result, the Hurricanes are one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Employing Larranaga’s patented “scramble” defense, Miami ranks 18th in defensive efficiency, rarely committing bad fouls and forcing teams to shoot a paltry 44.8 effective field-goal percentage.
Considering the brilliance of N.C. State’s offense—and we’ll be getting to that—it will be interesting to see which side prevails.
Also of note on the Miami “strength” side: The Hurricanes can and do take three-pointers on a regular basis. They score 28.8 percent of their points from beyond the arc, which isn’t an exceedingly high number—but it is when compared to N.C. State. The Wolfpack hit threes when they take them for the most part, but only 19.9 percent of their points come from beyond the arc, which ranks 325th in the nation.
It’s a relatively small advantage, but one that may come into play if Miami stretches a lead to double-digits or needs to make a comeback. Teams that can make threes historically come back more often than those squads that cannot.
North Carolina State Advantages: offensive efficiency and interior presence
We briefly touched on the Wolfpack’s offense by calling it “brilliant” earlier, and that’s just one of a bevy of positive adjectives you could use to describe the attack. Ken Pomeroy rates N.C. State 10th in the nation in offensive efficiency, 18th in effective field-goal percentage. They also take five more free throws per game than the Division I average.
The reason for N.C. State’s offensive efficiency is so easy to figure out—if this were 2005, I’d tell you a caveman could do it. But for those who haven’t spent much time watching college basketball this season, it’s time to get acquainted with C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell, arguably the best offensive interior duo in the country.
Leslie and Howell combine to score 27.9 points and grab 18.2 rebounds per night, seemingly carrying one another on alternating nights. On Thursday, Leslie went just 3-of-8 from the field for 15 points and seven rebounds, so Howell countered with a whopping 22 points and 12 rebounds, missing just two of his 13 attempts. Friday, the opposite was true, as Howell scored only six points (but did grab 12 rebounds) and Leslie picked up for his underperforming teammate with a double-double.
That’s all without even mentioning forward T.J. Warren, who is far from a slouch. The freshman is averaging 12.2 points and 4.3 rebounds per game while only getting limited touches in an offense so heavily predicated on the excellent duo in the middle.
Overall, the Wolfpack shoot 52.8 percent and get 59.4 percent of their points come from inside the three-point stripe—plenty of which come in the paint. Kadji and Reggie Johnson are both very strong defensive players, but they struggled to contain Leslie and Howell in the first matchup and may do the same again on Saturday.
Who will win?
The last time these two teams played, it was one of the single best matchups of the ACC regular season. While the game played into N.C. State’s hands with higher possession totals and even better shooting percentages, Miami still came out on top.
However, at the time the Hurricanes were one of the hottest teams in the nation—not the squad that limped into Greensboro and failed to impress versus Boston College until the waning minutes. The Wolfpack, meanwhile, look like they may have hit peak form right before the Big Dance. They crushed a Virginia squad in desperate need of a resume-solidifying win and look like they are in fine form offensively.
It will be another close contest, but this time Johnson won’t get the opportunity to save his team with a tip-in.
Final Score Prediction: North Carolina State 74, Miami 68