Analysis | N.C. State’s Final Four run has been magical. It’s also been lucky.

Analysis | N.C. State’s Final Four run has been magical. It’s also been lucky.

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

North Carolina State, the only double-digit seed left in this year’s men’s NCAA basketball tournament, has reached the Final Four. It’s been a sensational story. The Wolfpack had lost seven of their last nine regular season games to end the regular season with a 17-14 record, a résumé too lackluster for earning one of the tournament’s at-large bids. Yet they punched their ticket by winning five games in five days in the ACC conference tournament, and then ripped off four straight victories to reach the men’s Final Four as an 11-seed.

“Our guys are fighting and as locked in as you can be,” coach Kevin Keatts told the News Observer. “And to be quite honest, these guys are playing through some disrespect from a lot of people.”

The disrespect Keatts is talking about has to do with his team’s seeding in the tournament, and a poll which ranked the Wolfpack last out of the Sweet 16 teams last week. It could also be a reference to the perception that the Wolfpack are lucky to have advanced this far in the tournament. Don’t get me wrong, Keatts and the team deserve credit for peaking at the perfect time; but as we will see, North Carolina State’s opponents are doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

Put simply, the Wolfpack have benefited greatly from their tournament opponents missing shots at unusually high rates. According to Bart Torvik’s data, North Carolina State allowed 101.2 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. But during the ACC tournament, that dropped to just 98.5 points per 100 possessions — and in the NCAA tournament, that has improved again to only 89.5 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, Iowa State led the nation in defense with an adjusted efficiency of 87.5 points allowed per 100 possessions.

How did the defense get so good so quick? It didn’t. Opponents started missing their three-point shots in droves. During the regular season, opponents hit 221 of 630 shots from behind the three-point line (35 percent). In the ACC tournament, opponents were 38 for 115 from distance (33 percent). In the NCAA tournament, opponents are shooting 24 percent (28 for 117) against North Carolina State from behind the arc. Only Oakland, their round-of-32 opponent, shot anywhere close to their season-long average.

This is likely the point in this article in which North Carolina State fans start yelling at me, explaining that these numbers are simply evidence of the Wolfpack’s fierce defense. But studies have shown that three-point defense, at least defined by an opponent’s three-point shooting percentage, is not a reliable thing. For example, Ken Pomeroy looked at what teams shot from behind the arc against teams with good, average and poor three-point defenses (as measured by opponents’ three-point percentage), and found little difference in performance.

The best illustration of this is looking at only unguarded catch-and-shoot three-point opportunities by North Carolina State’s opponents. These are shots that could be considered wide open, with no defensive element standing in the way. Take the following example from North Carolina State’s win over Duke Sunday in the Elite Eight. Midway through the first half, Duke guard Jeremy Roach runs a high pick-and-roll and gets the ball to Kyle Filipowski, a 36 percent three-point shooter this year, for an open attempt. Filipowski obviously won’t make every shot, but this is a shot that college players make 38 percent of the time, per data from Synergy Sports.

During the regular season, North Carolina State’s opponents hit 64 of 175 unguarded catch-and-shoot three-point attempts (37 percent), per Synergy. In the ACC tournament, its opponents were successful on 15 of 42 attempts (36 percent). In the NCAA tournament, opponents are just 8 for 30 (27 percent) on these wide-open three-point attempts. The chances of that happening is 18 percent.

Now, we should give credit where it’s due, and it’s true that the Wolfpack have improved on offense during their NCAA tournament run. They were scoring 112.4 points per 100 possessions at the end of the regular season and improved that to 122.3 and 116.3 in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, respectively. Forward DJ Burns Jr. has helped lead the way here, with 24 points in a second-round win over Oakland and 29 in Sunday’s victory of Duke. His overall offensive efficiency has improved from 0.9 points per possession in the half-court offense during the regular season to 1.1 points per possession in the NCAA tournament.

So, is North Carolina State’s good fortune set to run out? Purdue, its next opponent, is a very good three-point shooting team (41 percent, second in the nation), but the Boilermakers don’t rely heavily on the three-point shot (35 percent of field goal attempts, 246th). If they can stick to their formula of running the offense through 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey around the rim, a cold shooting night wouldn’t necessarily sink their chances. So even if the Wolfpack’s shooting luck holds, they’ll need to be both lucky and good to advance to Monday’s national title game.

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