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‘Hoos previews: Virginia faces tough task in guard-heavy NC State

uva nc stateStory by Zach Pereles

Virginia looks to continue its strong start in ACC play when it visits a dangerous North Carolina State team coming off a wild win against Clemson. The Wolfpack trailed by six points with 26.5 seconds remaining but came storming back thanks to four missed free throws from Clemson’s Marquise Reed and a game-winning three from guard Braxton Beverly.

Kevin Keatts’ squad comes into this contest ranked No. 23 in the most recent AP Poll with a 16-4 (4-3) record. In conference play, the Wolfpack have alternated wins and losses, but Virginia certainly has some work to do to make sure that trend stays true in what will be its best challenge since the Duke game.

NC State makes things difficult on opponents with a four-guard lineup, a lineup that is significantly better with the return of Markell Johnson. The junior guard missed three games after taking a hard fall on January 12 against Pittsburgh but scored 16 points in the Wolfpack’s win over the Tigers on Saturday and is one of four players averaging double figures. Keatts likened Johnson to the team’s “quarterback” on the conference’s Mondsay teleconference.

“When you look at Markell, he’s probably the only guy on our roster — or best guy on our roster I should say — that can obviously create for himself and then create for others,” Keatts said.

Scoring certainly isn’t a problem for NC State — the team ranks 10th in the nation at 85.4 points per game and 18th in the nation in shooting percentage at 49.1 percent. The Wolfpack also do a good job creating second chances, coming in ninth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage.

“They can score,” Bennett said during Monday’s ACC teleconference. “They play with athleticism. All four of their guys on the perimeter, I think, that Coach Keatts recruits can all make plays. … I think getting Markell back, he’s such a key to their team. … I think that stabilizes them. … There’s a fine margin of error here.”

Virginia will counter with a significant size advantage. The Cavaliers start two players — Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite — who are as tall or taller than the Wolfpack’s tallest starter, Wyatt Walker. Establishing early dominance inside has been something Virginia has done with Diakite in each of the past two games, and he could have the chance to do so again. Virginia needs to rebound well on the defensive end, something it has done well against every opponent except for Duke. Offensively, outside shooting could be an advantage for the Cavaliers. The Wolfpack have shot just 33.9 percent from three in conference play while the Cavaliers have shot 40.6 percent.

Three Cavaliers to watch:

De’Andre Hunter. Hunter has taken advantage of pretty much every opponent this conference season. He’s too big and strong for opposing guards and too quick for opposing big men. The same story should unfold against NC State. The Wolfpack are already going to going to be out of position trying to defend both Salt and Diakite — the Wolfpack never play bigs Wyatt Walker and DJ Funderburk together — so Hunter will almost certainly have a significant size and strength advantage. This has the potential to be a Virginia Tech-esque scenario, and Hunter terrorized the Hokies to the tune of 21 points on just 12 shots.

Mamadi Diakite. Though Virginia figures to have the size advantage, that comes with the downside of having to defend quicker players on the other end. Diakite is Virginia’s best big defender in space, which makes him a natural selection to be the featured big man in this game. Diakite will likely have to extend his defense to the three-point line and avoid fouling. If he can do that, he can feast on an undersized Wolfpack team.

Kihei Clark. Virginia could try to play a smaller lineup against a small NC State team, and that could mean lots of Clark. The pesky guards has already endeared himself to Virginia supporters with his on-ball defense, and any contributions he makes offensively are a plus. He scored a career-high 12 points against Notre Dame.

Three Wolfpack players to watch:

Braxton Beverly. The sophomore point guard has had his ups and downs shooting the ball this season, but he can get going in a hurry, often against the best teams he faces (15 points vs. Auburn, 21 vs. UNC, 19 vs. Louisville). Virginia limited him to just four points in the only meeting last season.

Torin Dorn. The team’s leading scorer (14.3 points per game) and rebounder (6.9 rebounds per game), Dorn is the most obvious candidate to defend DeAndre Hunter. A steady senior, Dorn has scored in double digits in five of NC State’s seven ACC games. Slowing him down will be a major step in the right direction for the Cavaliers.

DJ Funderburk. A sophomore big man, Funderburk is already at his third school. He originally started at Ohio State but was dismissed from the team. He spent last year at junior college Northwest Florida State and then came to North Carolina State this season as a redshirt sophomore. Funderburk is talented has actually logged more minutes than starter Wyatt Walker in conference play. He is very efficient offensively and, Keatts believes, finally settling into his role.

“Even though he is a sophomore, I really consider him a freshman when you think about him really playing his first year at the college level and especially in the ACCC,” Keatts said. “He and I talked about — in the last week or so — obviously playing with a little more energy. … I think his energy is what this team needs for us to be successful. Hopefully he brings that, because when he plays with great energy and passion and does a great job rebounding the basketball — especially on the offensive end — we become a different team.”

Both Walker and Funderburk are liable to foul issues, though, so if Virginia can force the issue, NC State will have trouble defending the paint.

KenPom says: Virginia, 75-65 (82 percent chance of victory)

Final notes:

  • Virginia has defeated NC State six consecutive times. The last NC State win came in the 2013 ACC Tournament.
  • Kevin Keatts is a Lynchburg native and coached at Hargrave Military Academy in southern Virginia for over a decade. Among his players there was former Virginia star Mike Scott. “Tony and I talk about it all the time,” Keatts said. “He did a tremendous job with Mike and [was] certainly one of the reasons Mike’s been able to be successful at the professional league.”
  • UVA has two players from North Carolina: Jay Huff and Braxton Key. NC State has no players from Virginia.
  • NC State is no stranger to upsetting highly ranked teams during Keatts’ tenure. It beat No. 7 Auburn earlier this year, and it bested No. 2 Arizona, No. 2 Duke and No. 10 North Carolina last year.

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