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Meet Auburn, which comes to NC State with a well-deserved top-10 ranking

The Tigers do a lot of things well.

Clemson v Auburn Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

NC State is back at it Wednesday night for a rare home meeting with a ranked non-conference opponent, and it goes without saying that it’s the biggest game of the season for the Wolfpack.

Auburn is 9-1 on the year, its lone loss a 78-72 defeat at the hands of Duke in Maui. The Tigers have a top-15 team this season, and the credentials to prove it: they have four wins against KenPom top-100 teams, three of them by double figures. Their most impressive win was a 22-point victory over Washington, which is 54th in the Pomeroy Ratings.

There’s never been any doubt that Bruce Pearl can coach; it’s just been a matter of his willingness to do so within the constraints of NCAA rules. Pearl took over an Auburn program that hadn’t been to the tournament since 2003, and as he’s increased the program’s recruiting profile, the results on the floor have followed in kind. His team ended a 15-year tournament drought last year.

And they’re better this year, arguably the best team in the SEC. They’ll be back in the NCAAs and in good position to do some damage, which would be a welcome piece of redemption after Auburn flamed out in the second round in 2018.

This Tigers team is excellent at both ends, ranking in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The most obvious “key to the game” that jumps off the page is turnover margin: Auburn is number one in the country in defensive turnover rate. NC State ranks seventh in that category. The team that gets the better of the other here could win on the strength of that advantage.

Turnovers are important for Auburn because it is not very good on the defensive boards and its effective field goal percentage defense is ranked just 124th. So you can have success against this unit as long as you aren’t fumbling the ball away all night.

Avoiding that fate will require focused decision-making, because Auburn makes working the ball into the interior a difficult proposition. The Tigers are blocking over 22% of its opponents two-point shots, which ranks first nationally. NC State will have to be aware of Auburn’s primary shot blockers at all times.

On the offensive side, Auburn is paced by Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, who are averaging a little over 16 points per game. Brown is an excellent jump shooter, and has made nearly 38% of his three-point tries in his career. He’s made at least four threes on five separate occasions this year, and he is not going to be shy about attempting them.

Harper is an undersized point guard who uses his quickness to his advantage—he spends a lot of time at the line, where he’s a career 78.8% shooter. This year he’s been practically automatic, canning 92% of his freebies. He is also a solid perimeter shooter and an excellent distributor. He can create a lot of problems.

As a team, Auburn has been heavily perimeter-oriented, and it has four rotation guys hitting 40+ percent from three. They match that versatile outside attack with excellent rebounding on the offensive glass. For a team that doesn’t have imposing size, they’ve done and excellent job there.

If NC State can contain Auburn on the boards and also win the turnover battle, then the Pack will have a great shot to win. Regardless, this game figures to be a tough one. The Pomeroy Predictor likes State by one point. So flip a coin.