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Here’s what makes NC State’s women’s basketball team a national championship contender

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We can talk about it; they’re that good.

NCAA Womens Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Championship - Miami v NC State William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

Now sure, we could dwell on depressing basketball stuff for a third straight day on this site, or we could instead talk about the women’s basketball team. The Wolfpack Women so far have had no problem rising to the pressure of expectations: this group was picked to win the ACC and delivered the regular season and tournament sweep.

We’ll learn the particulars of the Wolfpack’s NCAA Tournament draw on Sunday night, but two things are already certain: they will be a No. 1 seed, and their first two games will be in Reynolds Coliseum.

In the mean time, let’s take a closer look at why they’re so good.

2021-22 Wolfpack Women

... Adj OE/DE (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
... Adj OE/DE (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
Offense 116.5 (2) 52.4 (11) 15.0 (12) 34.5 (78) 22.6 (?)
Defense 75.9 (6) 40.5 (19) 18.1 (237) 25.0 (11) 18.1 (?)

(A note on Free Throw Rate: HerHoopStats is a comprehensive source for tempo-free stats but they have a screwy in-house metric for FTR that I don’t like. The only other source I found for the traditional FTA/FGA calculation doesn’t list national rankings, hence the question mark. But I can tell you that the offense is in the bottom 20% in this category while the defense ranks in the top two percent! Anyway I would like to apologize for this entire parenthetical, just in general.)

NC State plays at a slightly below-average pace, which is typical of Wes Moore’s tenure. State will run when the opportunity presents but doesn’t need to force the issue to create offense with a roster that is better one-through-seven than the vast, vast majority of its opponents.

State ranks 17th nationally in 2FG% (51.0) and 10th in 3FG% (36.9). The Pack’s depth of versatility is impressive, with Elissa Cunane and Kayla Jones and Jakia Brown-Turner able to stress offenses inside and out. They open up a lot of opportunities for their teammates.

The offense still revolves around Cunane, and State doesn’t take threes as often as you might figure based on how frequently commentators on television talk about a “four-out-one-in” offense. State is right around the national average in three-point attempt rate. They’re pretty good at finding the right spots, though, and the emphasis on the paint makes pretty good sense.

Their shooting heat map:

(red is good, blue is bad; larger tiles indicate more shot attempts)

A strong formula for success: shoot well but more specifically shoot well in the paint, while also finding the right spots beyond the arc. NC State does a good job of creating three point attempts from near straightaway, and in that sweet spot just to the left of the basket, State shoots 42-44% from three. Cunane is 13-29 from three this season and does a good job picking her spots within this region.

There are only two zones where State shoots below average: the left corner and the right baseline.

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On the defensive side, NC State relies on forcing missed shots and taking care of the glass. The Wolfpack ranks in the bottom half nationally in both block and steal rates, which is reflected in the overall turnover rate. It’s not a disruptive defense.

The concern for any team that can’t force turnovers is that you are over-exposed to the occasional heater from your opponent—and State’s opponents have felt compelled to attempt threes at a well above-average clip. Can’t blame them for that, but it’s exactly what State wants, too.

(blue is good for the defense, red is bad)

This approach works because frankly there just aren’t that many teams with enough perimeter options to make it an issue, and in any event NC State is counting on shutting down the paint to make up whatever difference is needed, and further the offense may render all of this irrelevant.

But State just does not surrender quality two-point shots often, which is the crux of it: opponents shoot just 39.4% inside the arc, and they also don’t draw very many fouls. Opponents aren’t often going to create a lot of second-chance points, either.

So NC State does a good job of creating a desert inside the arc, does well playing off of that by aggressively contesting the perimeter, and does even more well playing off of that, with the occasional live-ball turnover for the offense, when applicable.

I mean, it works, I guess, if you like winning 91% of your games.