Penn St vs North Carolina St Preview: Can Lions Pass Their First Road Test of the Season?

By Eric Gibson on November 29, 2017 at 10:10 am
Abdul-Malik Abu
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
North Carolina State
North Carolina State Wolfpack
5-2 (0-0 ACC)
7:15 p.m. ET – WEDNESDAY, NOV. 29
TV Info: ESPNU | Live Stream
KenPom Rank: 92 OVR, 82 AjOE, 113 AjDE
Vegas Line: Penn State -1.0

There's been a common theme developing at Pat Chambers' press conferences this year. Whenever the head coach has been asked about the upcoming opponent, he immediately deflects and says he's more focused on his own team. While he'll then give the usual lip service to the enemy about how they're a good team and a tough matchup, his coaching focus does genuinely seem to be internal. 

That's probably the right mindset to adopt with his players right now, because hopefully they're not paying attention to the rest of college basketball, particularly the Big Ten's struggles so far in November. We'll touch on the increasingly dire situation in more detail this week, but after a 6-1 ACC start in the annual challenge, the Big Ten is nowhere near as strong as projected coming into the season. That is only increasing the pressure on the Nittany Lions to win as many games as possible against what's looking more and more like a mid-major schedule. 

But it's not even December yet, so the Lions can't be concerned about postseason projections. They just need to focus on the task at hand, one game at a time. Tonight, that task is the North Carolina State Wolfpack under first-year head coach, Kevin Keatts. Gone is Mark Gottfried after back-to-back losing seasons.

Projected Starters
Penn State   North Carolina St
No. 10 - Tony Carr - 6'5 - So. PG No. 10 - Braxton Beverly - 6'0 - Fr.
No. 33 - Shep Garner - 6'2 - Sr. SG No. 11 - Markell Johnson - 6'1 - So.
No. 23 - Josh Reaves - 6'4 - Jr. SF No. 12 - Allerik Freeman - 6'3 - Gr.
No. 11 - Lamar Stevens - 6'8 - So. PF No. 2 - Torin Dorn - 6'6 - Jr.
No. 24 - Mike Watkins - 6'9 - RS So. C No. 1 Lennard Freeman - 6'8 - Sr.

The Wolfpack were picked to finish 12th in the ACC. That seems reasonable under a new frontman in Keatts, who comes to Raleigh after a successful three-year stint at UNC-Wilmington. After opening with four wins against irrelevant competition, they captured headlines last week after upsetting No. 2 Arizona in the Battle 4 Atlantis. While that raised eyebrows across the country, Arizona then proceeded to soil itself with two more bad losses and became just the second team in history to fall out of the AP poll after being ranked No. 2. NC State followed up their shocking win with two losses to Northern Iowa and Tennessee, so that Arizona upset probably doesn't indicate as much as you might think. 

Scouting Report

Although Dennis Smith Jr. is currently tearing up the NBA, the cupboard Keatts inherited wasn't entirely bare. In fact, it's his frontcourt options off the bench who may be his best players. Seven-footer Omer Yurtseven has been on the NBA radar for a few years after playing professionally in Turkey (he was suspended for nine games last season because of that). If he can ever cut down his foul troubles (7.7 committed fouls per 40 minutes), he could be a valuable offensive weapon. Six-foot-eight forward Abdul-Malik Abu could potentially start tonight, although he just returned from a sprained MCL that kept him out of their first four games. The senior with 20 career double-doubles came off the bench in all three of NC State's games in Atlantis last week. 

NCSU Four Factors eFG % OReb % TO % FT Rate
Offense 50.0% (181) 37.0% (26) 16.5% (53) 41.4 (67)
Defense 48.1% (101) 32.2% (259) 25.4% (15) 44.2 (293)

The Wolfpack have been paced so far by graduate-transfer Allerik Freeman from Baylor, who is averaging 15.9 points per game. However, he's been wildly erratic shooting the ball from all over the court (38.3 eFG%, 23.7 3P%). Torin Dorn has been far more efficient as a second scorer (13.7 PPG, 122.0 ORtg). You may remember Dorn from a few years ago when he was a freshman at Charlotte. He hit some huge shots against the Nittany Lions in that wild double-overtime loss during D.J. Newbill's senior season. 

Keys to the Game

This is an intriguing matchup, because both teams play similar styles. They'll both push the tempo and look to create live-ball turnovers with fullcourt pressure. Tony Carr has been solid so far taking care of the basketball, but this will be his toughest test to date in that regard. If Penn State's able to get into their halfcourt offense, the Wolfpack are vulnerable and have put opponents on the foul line at a high rate. Free throw shooting could be a factor as Carr and Lamar Stevens should draw a lot of fouls. 

For Penn State, this is their first opportunity to prove their defense is for real. While the season numbers have been stellar, they were thrashed by a really talented Texas A&M team. This is a more manageable foe, but the Wolfpack did post 90 points on Arizona. They don't shoot the ball well from three, but they do a great job attacking the offensive glass. Penn State has shown some weakness there, often getting caught out of position going for blocks or deflections. North Carolina State will make them pay if they don't box-out on the weak side. But if Penn State truly has a top-20 defense, they will thwart this Wolfpack attack that failed to surpass 60 points in their last two games. 


Penn State is only a 1.5-point favorite tonight by the Vegas bookies. KenPom likes the Nittany Lions a little more with a 78-74 projection and 64 percent chance of victory. I like the confidence Penn State has played with the last week, but this will be their first game in a hostile environment. I expect it to be close most of the way, but I like Penn State to get the stops down the stretch that allows them to pull away late. Penn State 81 North Carolina State 72