Our preview of Missouri will be up later today, but first, welcome to a special hoops Q&A edition, where we will talk all things NCSU-Mizzou. I spoke with Rock M Nation contributor Sam Snelling about the Tigers, and what we should expect from them on Saturday night. I also answered a few questions for Sam, which will appear over at Rock M Nation. [EDIT -- here's the link.]
BTP: The Tigers are struggling so far in a number of areas--offensive rebounding percentage, three-point shooting, avoiding fouls, forcing turnovers ... where do you see this team improving as the year goes on?
SS: Mizzou is very young, this is a large part of their struggles to date. On top of being very young, they aren't very big, and the size they do have doesn't do a great job of rebounding. Lately there have been a few guys, Russell Woods and Jakeenan Gant, come on and rebound better than initially, but they're still a long way away from being good rebounders. The three point shooting has mostly stood out in just a few of the games where they've shot poorly.
Overall, there are good shooters on the team, Namon Wright and Cullen VanLeer specifically, they just haven't gotten on track in the way the fans or coaches expected to date. Moreover, the youth has performed better at home than away (although the competition has been lighter at home), so the results at home are much better than when they've travelled (Terrence Phillips is 7/15 at home, VanLeer is 6/15, and Wright is 9/20). Improvement for this team is being much more efficient with the ball on offense against Power 5 teams (specifically in conference play). I don't know that they'll ever be a team that forces a high amount of turnovers, but they certainly need to improve at forcing tougher and well defended shots.
BTP: Shooting has been, uh, something of a problem for NC State this season, whether inside or out. Should we expect to see the Tigers play some zone defense?
SS: The Tigers aren't a primarily zone defensive team, and Kim Anderson at heart is very much a man-to-man coach. The Tigers will show zone to switch things up, but I think what you'll see is them revert to a more pack-line style of defense. The pack-line is something that they've toyed with at times this year, and frankly they are much better defensively when they go to that defense. They just don't have the length or size to impact the game in a half court trap or zone defense, so if they sit back and try to close up driving lanes, they will probably have more success.
BTP: I'm curious how y'all are feeling about the transition to the SEC, from a purely basketball standpoint. The league seems to be improving, but it hasn't quite had the overall quality of the Big 12 over the last couple years.
SS: Considering that Mizzou's last year in the Big 12 they were ranked in the top 10 in the country, and have only seen things slump towards last year's 9-23 debacle, I think you'll find a lot of dour opinions on the move to the SEC from a basketball perspective. The big loss is the traditional rivalries like Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State. Since Nebraska and Colorado each left the Big 12, those were the only remaining Big 8 schools left. There wasn't much of a history with A&M, Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor. From a football perspective, getting to play against so many traditional powerhouse schools in the SEC has helped ease the separation from the old Big 8. But in basketball it's stung. There are no natural rivalries outside of Arkansas, and even that has been forced down the fans' throats a bit.
And while the SEC is improving, there just isn't that history of interaction that can get fans excited for games against South Carolina, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Auburn. Kentucky will get anyone excited, but with 18 league games, you are rarely going to get Kentucky at home. So it's been tough for a lot of fans, and when you compound it with the decline in the level of play, interest in Mizzou basketball has struggled to say the least.
BTP: Which matchup, at either end of the floor, do you expect to be the most difficult challenge for the Wolfpack?
SS: Probably defending penetration, Mizzou has a lot of players who are smaller and quicker (maybe other than Barber) and should be able to drive. So look for Wes Clark, Terrence Phillips and K.J. Walton to attack the rim at a high rate. Clark is probably the most dangerous, followed by Phillips. I don't know how good of a defender Barber is, but if I were Mizzou I would be attacking him regularly off ball screens and forcing him to make defensive plays. Especially with the new rules giving so much benefit of the doubt to the offense. But if they can't find success there, then I would be looking to attack Martin and Rowan from the wing.
BTP: Along those lines, which scorer should we be most concerned with, aside from Kevin Puryear?
SS: Puryear is a solid scorer, but not a great one. He's efficient in that he'll usually end up with 8-12 points no matter what. He gets tough when his jumpshot is falling, because he has range out to the 3-point line. Aside from him, the two sophomore contributors are guys you have to keep an eye on. Namon Wright is a very good shooter who hasn't found the mark as often as he'd like this season. He's excelled in attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line at a much higher rate this year. But for me the two keys are going to be Jakeenan Gant and Wes Clark. Clark is a guy who hasn't seen his shot fall with any sort of frequency, but he's the most dynamic with the ball when he gets going. And Gant is a long and rangy forward with great athleticism who is starting to gain confidence, and is a difficult matchup. But where Mizzou is best is when they have balance. I doubt we'll see anyone go for more than 20 points, and most likely having 5-6 guys in the 8-14 range.