NC State must make shots to stay in hunt at top of ACC

Raleigh, N.C. — “We have to make shots.”

Coaches frequently make that statement, and while fans sometimes scoff at the comment, it’s certainly true. In basketball, games often come down to whichever team shoots the basketball the best.

NC State fans are all too familiar with it and have seen both sides of the spectrum. On Feb. 2, the Wolfpack almost literally couldn’t make a shot, scoring just 24 points while hitting only 2 of 28 3-pointers in the Virginia Tech loss. It still doesn’t feel right pointing out the Wolfpack’s ineptitude in that defeat.

Fast forward just a week later, and NC State is able to go on the road and hit a season-high 14 three-pointers in a 79-76 win at Pittsburgh – a victory that could end up saving the team’s season.

So yes, NC State will have to make shots, but that is highlighted when facing Syracuse, a team known nationally for Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone offense. Syracuse is a tough team to defeat because of just how sound they are defensively. They can stifle teams within the halfcourt, especially if you can’t hit three-pointers, because it’s so hard to score in the paint over their length and athleticism.

It is critical that NC State hits shots, and Kevin Keatts reiterated that leading up to the game.

“Their zone is so good,” Keatts said. “You can’t simulate their zone in practice… you hope you put your guys in right spots, but we’ll have to make shots.”

He’s correct. NC State will have to make shots, but how are they going to create those opportunities? Look for them to attack Syracuse through the high post because it can be a weak spot in the zone.   In last year’s win in the Carrier Dome, Keatts made a great adjustment in sliding point guard Markell Johnson into the high post. Johnson was able to create shots for his teammates and get the ball moving — but also score, which was critical.

State won 74-70 by hitting 10 three-pointers with 17 assists on 27 made field goals.

Finally, defending the three-point line will also be a major point of emphasis for the Wolfpack. In the 2018 victory, State limited Syracuse to just 5-of-14 shooting from deep… yielding a +15 advantage in three-point scoring. That proved to be the difference, and this season Syracuse is currently 8-3 in ACC play but 0-2 in games where the opposition made more three-pointers than the Orange.

All of that sets up well for NC State, a team that is outstanding in three-point defense — ranking in the top 30 nationally in three-pointers allowed (5.8, No. 15), three-point attempts allowed (18.9, No. 29), and opponent three-point percentage (30.5%, No. 29).

Look for the Pack to really pressure the basketball and force Syracuse’s guards to attack the basket and/or attempt mid-range jump shots instead of yielding wide open three-point looks. If NC State can keep Syracuse’s three-point attempts down that will bode well for the Wolfpack.

This is a big, big game for NC State. At 5-6 in the ACC, a win would pull the Pack back to .500 with Saturday’s rivalry game against No. 1 Duke looming. That matchup in Durham will be a tough task, obviously, so this game is even more critical — not to mention it is at home, where NC State has lost two straight games.

Don’t expect the Wolfpack to simply settle for three-pointers – especially with memories of the Virginia Tech offensive debacle still lingering. They will push tempo to try and score in transition, because the easiest way to score against the zone is to do so before a zone is even setup.

However, the three-point line is key tonight. If NC State can be effective from three and keep Syracuse under control, they should be just fine.

As always, they are going to have to make shots.