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What’s behind NC State’s return to elite status?

Vanderbilt v NC State Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

NC State has had one of the most impressive starts in women’s college basketball, collecting decisive wins over UConn and Colorado, and vaulting from unranked to the top five in the polls. After the way last season ended, it’s a staggering change.

The Wolfpack finished last season at No. 32 in adjusted efficiency margin (note: all numbers in this post come from CBBAnalytics.com) and so far in 2024 ranks seventh. But the 2023 team faded badly beginning in January, and here CBBAnalytics helps tell that story: 62nd in adjusted rating over the final five games, and just 73rd over the last 10. It was an unpleasant finish, but no need to go back through that. You’ve seen, you’ve heard, you know.

Offensive Comparison

Offense AdjOE (Rk) eFG% (Rk) TO% (Rk) OR% (Rk) FTR (Rk) 2FG% 3FG%
Offense AdjOE (Rk) eFG% (Rk) TO% (Rk) OR% (Rk) FTR (Rk) 2FG% 3FG%
2023 105.8 (39) 48.1 (91) 16.2 (39) 29.5 (217) 26.4 (245) 48.4 (67) 31.5 (152)
2024 117.5 (17) 51.3 (53) 17.3 (72) 36.2 (67) 37.2 (49) 51.8 (51) 33.6 (98)

State’s shooting is up. which is no particular surprise given that we’re only dealing with non-conference stats for this season, but the improvements in offensive rebounding rate and free throw rate are indicative of how this roster is different—and better—than last year’s.

State last year had a lot of possessions go through Diamond Johnson, Camille Hobby, and Jakia Brown-Turner, none of whom were good at getting to the free throw line. Johnson, who was limited by her size, took more than half her shots from three and had a free throw rate below 10%. That team also shot 71.7% at the charity stripe, which was just average.

This year’s group already is proving much more dynamic here, and that’s primarily due to Saniya Rivers having the ball in her hands more often—she’s elite at drawing contact (53.1 FTR) and is far less inclined to shoot threes than DJ. Ditto Zoe Brooks, for that matter, who also is eschewing threes and getting downhill with positive results. And this team is at 78% at the line.

On the boards, River Baldwin and Madison Hayes have been excellent, and the injection of Mallory Collier, albeit in limited minutes, has helped make the team more formidable here. Baldwin was an excellent offensive rebounder last year as well, but didn’t play as much, lessening that impact.

Defensive Comparison

Defense AdjDE (Rk) eFG% (Rk) TO% (Rk) OR% (Rk) FTR (Rk) 2FG% 3FG%
Defense AdjDE (Rk) eFG% (Rk) TO% (Rk) OR% (Rk) FTR (Rk) 2FG% 3FG%
2023 83.8 (39) 42.6 (52) 17.3 (287) 26.4 (33) 21.0 (15) 42.6 (91) 28.5 (52)
2024 67.8 (2) 35.2 (5) 17.4 (289) 23.9 (19) 17.4 (17) 34.1 (4) 25.1 (54)

Wes Moore’s teams generally don’t force a lot of turnovers, which is of course a function of style—so it’s important not just to contest shots well but also clean up the glass. State’s interior defense thus far has been stifling, even without an elite shot blocker in the middle. The Pack has a number of above-average shot blockers, and so a significant portion of the lineup has proven capable of making shots difficult. It’s been impressive to watch.