Busting Brackets

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: (2) Marquette vs. (11) NC State in Big East, ACC Showdown

Tyler Kolek and Oso Ighodaro headline a Marquette team of veteran-leadership while NC State is equipped with savvy leaders of their own in DJ Horne and DJ Burns.

Number 30 in white-&-red, DJ Burns, is built like a house; or better yet a moose. The Wolfpack's 6-foot 9-inch 275-pound power-forward is blessed with the frame and game of a younger Eric Dixon. From below-the-rim, Burns (still) has an above-the-rim type of presence; think Al Horford with better touch, slower feet and (the same) good-feel as a passer.
Number 30 in white-&-red, DJ Burns, is built like a house; or better yet a moose. The Wolfpack's 6-foot 9-inch 275-pound power-forward is blessed with the frame and game of a younger Eric Dixon. From below-the-rim, Burns (still) has an above-the-rim type of presence; think Al Horford with better touch, slower feet and (the same) good-feel as a passer. / Joe Sargent/GettyImages

After the 3rd-seeded Kentucky Wildcats were ousted by the 14th-seeded Golden Grizzlies (of Oakland) in the first round, one two-time national champion head coach, Jay Wright, expressed his thoughts on the game’s surprising outcome; pointing out the stark difference between each team’s level of experience. As Wright mentioned, Kentucky played a lot of freshmen while Oakland had the luxury of leaning on their many upperclassmen. Consequently, the Golden Grizzlies not only played like a(-n underdog) team with “house money” but they had more composure, poise, and toughness than the younger Wildcats.

Throughout Kentucky’s 2023-‘24 season, 6 freshmen earned consistent minutes including the SEC’s Rookie of the Year, Reed Sheppard (12.5 PPG), and the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year, Rob Dillingham (15.2 PPG). By mid-March, John Calipari’s group of young talent had become the nation’s (third-) best offensive team largely thanks to 6 freshmen averaging about 57 PPG (not including U’Conn and Purdue). As is often expected from young players, however, Kentucky was an inconsistent defensive team at best; able to secure wins with their innate offensive ability which, in turn, set them up to be unaware and unstable on defense. So when it (finally) came time to win a different way in a sudden-death environment, Kentucky couldn’t. During that fateful upset in the Round-of-64, the shots simply weren’t falling for Kentucky’s 6 freshmen, who made 9 of their 30 field-goal attempts en route to 29 (combined-) points. The Wildcats’ poor performance on defense was of equal importance, which stemmed from their inability to cope with their offensive struggles.

Notably, Kentucky’s Reed Sheppard was visibly frustrated for the better part of the game. Finishing the upset loss with more turnovers than field goals and a measly 3 points on 1-of-5 shooting, the SEC’s top freshman was gun-shy from the field and unsure of himself to the point where his immaturity bled into his body language and (his) defensive play. As Sheppard and (his) company continued feeling sorry for themselves, Oakland senior Jack Gohlke took notice; capitalizing on the Wildcats’ defensive lapses by hunting his perimeter shot and burning them for 32 points.

Like Wright said (but) in his own words, the older Golden Grizzlies were able to feed off of Kentucky’s distressed demeanor and nervous/tight play; turning the Wildcats over 11 times, protecting the ball on their offensive possessions, out-working the blue-&-white on-the-glass, and making them pay for their not-good-enough defensive-closeouts (via sharpshooter Jack). During the Jay Wright era at Villanova, you had to be a heck of a player to earn consistent playing time as a freshman. For all the right reasons, Jay just didn’t trust young players to the extent that most coaches do. Perhaps Calipari should consider ditching his “one-&-done” culture….

In any event, there’s a(-n above) reason why the NC State Wolfpack is where they are now. Other than (junior-) Mohamed Diarra, the 2024 ACC Tournament champ’s starting-five has nothing but seniors in it. More than that, the Wolfpack’s top two players, DJ Horne and DJ Burns, are currently playing for their third school; not to mention this is Horne’s fifth year of college ball and Burns’ SIXTH season. Yeah, that’s a lot of experience for one duo; in years and terms of well-rounded competition. Before transferring to NC State, Burns played for Winthrop and was named Big South Player of the Year in 2021-‘22. As for Horne, he started his college career as an All-Missouri Valley Conference performer at Illinois State.

Such accolades aside, Burns and Horne have seen it all; from savvy, disciplined, not-terribly-athletic players (like those) in the Ivy League to quality mid-major players from the Missouri Valley with athleticism, skill, but modest-size and questionable work ethic to the best of the best in the power conferences. On a micro-scale, Burns’ late-season surge can be attributed to his “old-man”, unconventional game. While Burns certainly isn’t known for playing above-the-rim, his ground-bound game is a lot like Eric Dixon’s or Al Horford’s; one that works thanks to his innate size (at 6’9” 275 lbs.), strength, and skill as a passer and finisher. Sprinkle in some quality footwork, fundamentals, and a little southpaw to top it off, and you’re left with an extremely strong, experienced paint presence that is a load for any defense to handle. Although Oakland’s Gohlke dropped 22 points against NC State in the second round, he made just 6 of his 17 shots and the Wolfpack did a much better job than the Wildcats did (w/) staying attached to him on the perimeter.

Not unlike the 11th-seeded Ducks’ near-heroics versus Creighton in the second-round, the 11th-seeded Wolfpack is red-hot entering their Sweet 16 game against Marquette; having been crowned ACC Tournament champs by winning 5 games in 5 days before extending that streak to 7 games with back-to-back wins in the NCAA Tourney. At 287th in the nation in rebounding-margin, the 2nd-seeded Golden Eagles are not a strong rebounding team; a weakness that could come back to haunt them as early as the Sweet 16 if they’re not careful. With 6-foot 11-inch forward Oso Ighodaro, Marquette has an ample amount of passing, ball-handling, scoring, and defense in their front-court; but for a man of Oso’s height he isn’t much a of a rebounder. Look for NC State to attack the glass on both sides of the court, especially if Burns gets cookin’ offensively against Ighodaro in the early going. In other words, if Burns has his way as a scorer with Ighodaro guarding him, there’s a good chance Ighodaro won’t be in great defensive-rebounding position when a (or Burns’) shot goes-up.

If NC State wants any chance to win this game, they’ll have to contain Tyler Kolek as a scorer and playmaker. For that to happen, you have to force him to his right hand at all costs and make him finish with that hand at the rim. Once Kolek gets downhill with his dominant left, the kid is deadly in the paint. But, forcing Kolek-right isn’t as simple as you might think, given the fact that Marquette likes to run a pick-&-roll with him and Ighodaro in the middle of the floor. If NC State can slow-down the game by slowing-down Kolek, they can give the Golden Eagles a run for their money; especially if NC State comes to-play with an effective match-up zone that discourages dribble penetration and forces Kam Jones and Kolek to operate as mid-range threats. If Kam and Kolek are getting to the rim at-will and given enough space to drain perimeter shots, NC State will be in a world of hurt.

If I’m NC State, I’m making Tyler Kolek work all night; (by) sending multiple (different) bodies at him if one isn’t working and seeing if I can tire him out. After suffering a torn oblique weeks ago, Kolek missed a handful of games and looked very tired at times against Colorado in the second round. When Marquette is playing defense, we gotta get Kolek in-space and attack him off the dribble. That way, we may be able to tire him out. As far as a defensive scheme, forcing Kolek right is rule number 1 and not overreacting to dribble penetration would be rule number 2; given how good of a passer Kolek is. That being said, NC State should send double-teams at Kolek if he’s scoring the ball early; make someone other than Kolek beat you.

Contain Kolek by forcing him to his right hand and not overreacting to dribble penetration.

Offensively, slow the game down and attack Kolek off-the-dribble. Crash the boards and see if it’s possible to wear down the Golden Eagles inside.

Kolek hasn’t played a ton of ball in the last several weeks (given his injury); meaning let’s see how he’s feeling from beyond the arc and adapt accordingly.

I gotta slow-down the game if I’m NC State and take care of the basketball. If I’m Shaka Smart, I’m drilling it into my guys heads that they can’t allow themselves to get beat on the glass. Rebounding the basketball needs to be the priority. Other than that, I’m putting the ball into my best players (Kolek, Jones, and Ighodaro’s) hands and telling them to take care of it and take what the defense gives you. If NC State rolls out a matchup zone, I’m putting a guy at the free-throw line who can make a wide-open 15-footer, drive to the basket, or pass out of it once that zone collapses on him. Against Colorado, Marquette wasn’t tough enough defensively and especially in the paint. Joplin has to be a force on the defensive glass and we need to expect a tough game from start to finish.

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A wise man once said…..

Offense wins games, defense wins conferences, and rebounding wins championships.

Unless the Golden Eagles start to impose themselves on the boards, chances are they’ll be going home before the Final Four.