When the pairings for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge were released, Michigan and North Carolina State appeared to be on a collision course for a top-five showdown in Ann Arbor.
Some variables have changed since that time—namely, N.C. State’s loss total and national ranking—but the appeal of the matchup didn’t waver. The game didn’t disappoint either. Michigan held off a late N.C. State run, knocking off the Wolfpack, 79-72, to score another win for the Big Ten in the interleague challenge.
These two teams have more in common than a cursory peek at the box score would indicate. Both teams own a pair of all-conference caliber talents—Michigan’s Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. and State’s C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown. The Wolverines and Wolfpack each share a star-studded freshman trio as well. Both teams mix in zone defenses (one is much better than the other, to be fair), lean on strong guard play and engage their talented, multi-skilled forwards on the offensive end.
The difference between No. 3 Michigan and No. 18 [and soon to be unranked] N.C. State is not the talent level or personnel. Although John Beilein takes Mark Gottfried to the cleaners in terms of system coaching, the X’s and O’s have little to do with the drop-off either.
Michigan’s edge over N.C. State at this point in the season is a function of the team’s togetherness. The Wolverines, unlike the Wolfpack, play well with one another. They move the ball exceptionally well, rotate on defense and communicate on both ends of the floor. N.C. State is lucky if three players touch the ball on one possession, or if a help defender knows to leave his man to deny dribble-penetration.
Why does Michigan run a killer 1-3-1 matchup zone while N.C. State, despite similar talent, struggles with a basic 2-3? Because Beilein’s bunch embraces the team philosophy. Gottfried’s men play for themselves, for their stat lines and pro stock. The Wolverines hit you with the clout of a closed fit. The Pack merely brush you with the slap of five fingers. Note the difference.