First Four Previews 2019 - Wednesday Night

(16) NC Central vs. (16) North Dakota State

-Matt Cox

Initial Thoughts: Congratulations NC Central and North Dakota State! For your stellar play in your respective conference tournaments, you’ve been awarded the following prize…

*Drum roll*

A one-game playoff for the chance to get completely and utterly obliterated by this guy!

Here’s what NC Central head coach LeVelle Moton had to say on Saturday about the proposition of playing Duke – be careful what you wish for folks…

North Carolina Central on Offense: Moton is one of the best coaches in the country no one knows about, a fixture at Durham, North Carolina’s other D1 program. He knows his meal ticket is Raasean Davis, a 6’9 surgeon on the low block who towers over most MEAC frontlines. Few teams could check the former Kent State transfer this season 1-on-1 in the low post, nor could they keep him off the offensive glass. Davis and his paint partner in crime Zaccary Douglas manhandled MEAC forwards on the boards, which explains how NC Central led the conference in both offensive AND defensive rebounding rate.

The odd bugaboo for the Eagles this year was ball security, a head scratching flaw given how smart Moton’s teams typically play. Jordan Perkins and Julian Waters split the point guard duties, both of whom are excellent distributors, but Perkins has been careless with the ball at times this season. They’re responsible for directing Motons assortment of offensive sets, most of which are predicated on freeing up Davis inside. North Dakota State won’t do anything fancy defensively and will likely play their typical man-to-man defense that picks up well beyond the 3-point arc. Head coach Dave Richman is a big proponent of the new age, analytic-driven school of thought that places a premium on winning the battle of the 3-point line. But as much emphasis as Richman puts on denying open looks from the outside, his extended man scheme does not force many steals. This bodes well for NC Central being able to run their stuff consistently without turning it over and should enable Davis to get his touches in the middle.

North Dakota State on Offense: In an interview during the Summit League tournament, Dave Richman discussed how the Bison’s trigger-happy offense intentionally emulates the Golden State Warriors. While they don’t play at that same NASCAR-paced tempo, NDSU guns threes at one of the highest rates in the country – in fact, 48.2% of all shot attempts came from the land of plenty this season, the 10th highest clip in the nation. At any given time, all five guys on the floor are threats to shoot it from distance, even 6’10 Rocky Kreuser, the Bison’s primary rim protector on defense. There’s nothing overly complicated about North Dakota State’s offense, as Richman gives his players unrestricted freedom to make plays and feed off each other organically. Tyson Ward is an especially tough cover at 6’6 who loves to set up shop around 15 to 18-feet and attack the rim via face-up drives from the mid-range area.

Key Factor(s): It all comes down to whose stylistic DNA ends up getting the net advantage in Wednesday night’s chess match. Will it be Richman’s perimeter-oriented lineup by stretching Davis and the other NCC bigs away from the paint? Or will it be Moton’s more traditional lineup by exploiting North Dakota State’s shaky post defense – and that’s putting it nicely – with a true back-to-the-basket scorer in Davis? While the Bison have had success against teams with a dominant post presence this year, it’s not been because they’ve shut down that particular player. According to synergy, NDSU graded out as one of the worst post defensive units in the entire country this season, surrendering 1.11 points per possessions on post-up possessions (this score ranks in the 1st percentile nationally).

Final Predictions: Most of the matchup dynamics push me toward taking NC Central, but the lack of a proven floor general for the Eagles does give me some pause. Highly touted JUCO newcomer Vinnie Shahid has solidified this role for the Bison, a major reason why their offense has blossomed into the most prolific scoring attack Richman has had in any of his five years in Fargo. A Bison 3-point barrage could turn this game into a blowout, but I’m banking on Moton to devise a game plan that’s geared toward running shooters off the arc, which will force the Bison to score in the mid-range or over Davis at the rim.

The Eagles proved they can stand up to quality mid-major opponents in the non-conference, evidenced by strong efforts at Saint Louis (lost by 9, despite leading by 5 at half) and at Coastal Carolina (lost by 4, but had game tied with two minutes left in regulation) – for reference, both of those teams would be favored over North Dakota State if they played on a neutral court today. Give me NC Central with the points in a game that should come right down to the wire.

SU Pick: North Dakota State
ATS Pick: NC Central +5.5
O/U Pick: Over 135

(11) St. John’s vs. (11) Arizona State

- Ky McKeon

Initial Thoughts: The bubble was an absolute mess this year to sort out with arguably eight teams having a legitimate shot to be selected by the almighty Committee. When the dust settled, the all-knowing overlords said, “screw it!” to the new NET system and included #73 St. John’s and #63 Arizona State, the two lowest ranked at-large schools. Both the Storm and the Devils likely got in due to their number of elite wins, but ASU’s four bad losses and the Johnnies’ ghastly NET rating didn’t seem to matter at the end of the day.

Regardless, we’re here now and we get the pleasure of seeing what should actually be a competitive and fun-to-watch basketball game. St. John’s comes into this one losers of five of their last seven, while ASU remains one of the most “Jekyll & Hyde” teams in the country – equally able and likely to beat and lose to anyone.

St. John’s on Offense: The Johnnies embrace the “Pace & Space” philosophy, looking to attack in transition whenever possible and maintain a spread-out offensive look in the half-court. The Red Storm rank 12th in the country in quickest average possession length, putting up shots in just 15.4 seconds. Mullin’s group mainly pushes off the defensive glass or off turnovers in an effort to beat the opposing defense down the floor with their array of shooters and dynamic guards.

The Storm primarily play four guards and a de facto “5-man” in Marvin Clark, each of which is a threat to knockdown an outside shot. The spread floor gives stud point guard Shamorie Ponds plenty of room to work – majority of St. John’s buckets comes via his penetration to the cup or kickouts to shooters. Here’s an example of what that space looks like:

Ponds is the type of senior PG that can take over in March; his ability to get his own shot (only 50% of his threes this year have been assisted) and set up his teammates makes the Storm incredibly hard to stop on the offensive end. His one weakness is his tendency to force the issue at times, opting to take a tough contested jumper when a better option can be found. Mullin will consistently put the ball in Ponds’ hands, though (and he should), and he and Mustapha Heron should be able to find consistent success driving to the bucket and drawing fouls against a defense that sends opponents to the charity stripe at a bottom 50 rate.

ASU’s defense this season is the best it’s ever been under Bobby Hurley, led by Pac 12 All-Defensive Team members Luguentz Dort and Zylan Cheatham. The Devils’ size on the wing could be problematic for players like Justin Simon, LJ Figueroa, and Heron on offense, but Remy Martin will likely have to guard Ponds, and the Johnnies PG should be licking his chops at that matchup. The Devils are a better interior and penetration-stopping defensive unit than they are at stopping the three. Only about 40 teams in the country allow more three-point looks than ASU, and Marvin Clark particularly could exploit a player like Romello White when he pulls the big man away from the basket. White is often slow to close-out on big men that play out on the perimeter, so Clark’s shooting ability could be the ultimate size neutralizer.

Arizona State on Offense: Like St. John’s, Arizona State’s primary focus on offense is to get out in transition and look to score while the defense is backpedaling. Unlike the Johnnies, the Sun Devils have a more traditional half-court look with White serving as the standard post player on the block and Cheatham and sophomore Kimani Lawrence serving as in/out wings. Hurley has opted to go the dual big man route with De’Quon Lake starting alongside White, as he did against Oregon, but that lineup, while fierce on the glass and in the paint, has struggled mightily to score this season. Against a St. John’s team that plays four guards pretty much the full 40 minutes, I doubt we see much of the White/Lake combo.

Aside from transition, ASU is looking to attack the basket every chance it gets, primarily by way of the pick-n-roll. Martin, Dort, and Cheatham are all very capable of scoring one-on-one via ball screen or in isolation and each get to the foul line at a stupid high rate. The Devils as a squad rank 6th in the country in FTA rate, which could be a real problem for a Red Storm team that tends to hack limbs. Clark is the one to watch out for – if White and/or the ASU guards get him in foul trouble, St. John’s is in real trouble from an interior defense and offensive standpoint. Here are the splits with and without Clark on the floor this year, the difference is STARK:

Source: Hoop Lens

The good news for St. John’s is even if the Red Storm do send the Devils to the line frequently, which they likely will, ASU ranks just 300th in the country in FT%. This has been a real destroyer for the Devils this season, as high volume FT shooters like Dort (68.7%), Cheatham (60%), White (58.8%), and Martin (73.2%) constantly leave points on the table from the stripe.

From an individual matchup standpoint, Justin Simon is as good a defender as any in the country. He likely draws the Cheatham assignment and could be a real challenge to the talented slashing wing. However, just like Ponds should have his way with Martin on the other end, whoever draws Figueroa on this end could have an advantage.

Key Factor(s): For St. John’s, it’s staying out of foul trouble – particularly Marvin Clark. Mullin needs his forward on the floor to win this ball game. ASU likely won’t outshoot the Storm, but the Devils could absolutely destroy them on the offensive glass, in the paint, and from the foul line.

For the Devils, the key will be to make free throws and get out on perimeter shooters. Ponds will score 20+ points no matter what, but ASU has the ability to limit the other players’ effectiveness.

Final Predictions: This will be a hard fought, up-and-down game with both teams able to take advantage of the other on the offensive end. Ultimately, I’m going with the superior guard play led by Shamorie Ponds. I made the Johnnies a favorite in this game, so I’m happy to take them as a 1-point dog. I can’t believe I’m betting on Chris Mullin.

SU Pick: St. John’s
ATS Pick: 
St. John’s +1
O/U Pick: 
Over 153