All season the debate has raged on Wichita State and the overall legitimacy of their current undefeated run and the opponents that they have beaten to get to where they are today. The same debate, though decidedly less interesting, would rage on with Iowa State’s first opponent in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina Central has played an abysmal schedule this season but what does that all mean? Ultimately, we’ll find out on Friday but for now we’ll do our best to make sense of everything in preparation for the Friday night tip.
All stats via kenpom.com
That schedule I mentioned? 348th in the NCAA out of 351 teams. The Eagles have played just four top 100 opponents and the vast majority of their schedule is littered with teams below the 200 line, or worse. One other opponent (Old Dominion) falls in at 187 in the Ken Pom ratings which means the other 28 games have been played against 200+ competition. That’s cataclysmically bad.
While you think that may explain such Pomeroy numbers like their defensive efficiency being 60th in the NCAA, it doesn’t because that scoring number is adjusted for the opponents played in Pomeroy’s system. The same is true for their 115th best offense that scores nearly 108 points per 100 possessions.
Though, their schedule has clearly played a role in their success. In their current 20 game winning streak they have played 18 games against teams outside the top 250 and the other two games were against Morgan State who sits at 220 in the Pomeroy Standings. So how has NC Central climbed up to 73 in the Pomeroy system?
Because for the most part, they are absolutely demolishing their opponents. In the last 20 games they are winning by an average of 19.4 points and only five games have been decided by single digits (1, 4, 6, 7, and 9). Meanwhile they have won four other games by more than 40 points in that 20 game span and two others by 50 points earlier this year (though those are discounted from the Pomeroy ratings because they were against non-Division 1 opponents).
To put that into perspective, ISU has played two games versus 250+ teams (UNC-Wilmington and UMKC) and four more against 200+ teams (Texas A&M-CC, Northern Illinois, and TCU).
North Carolina Central appears to pack a defense as they have the fifth best opponent eFG% and fifth best turnover percentage in the country. But while scoring numbers are adjusted the raw stats are not, and really, cannot be. That has to be factored into this discussion of analyzing them as a threat to Iowa State’s success.
To do that, I looked at their games against top 100 competition against Cincinnati on November 8th, North Carolina State on November 20th, Wichita State on December 22nd, and Maryland on December 31st. In those games they were 1-3 with the lone win coming at NC State but it should be noted that all of the games were true road games for the Eagles.
Their opponent offensive stats in those games are in the table to the right for three of the four factors (I omitted free throw rate, sue me), in the red cells the opponents performed worse against NC Central than their season average and in the green cells they did better than their season average. The first column is the points scored per 100 possessions followed by effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, and offensive rebounding percentage as of today.
It isn’t a huge surprise that only North Carolina State underperformed on offense and that they ended up losing to the Eagles. NC State and Cincinnati were also under what ended up being their average eFG% but Cincinnati was able to overcome that deficit because they dominated NC Central on the offensive glass. As did Wichita State and Maryland. But Maryland also struggled big time in the turnover department yet still managed a 14 point win.
One other factor that can’t be overlooked is that two of these games took place in November and two of them in late December. Think of all of the changes that Iowa State has undergone in that same time period and you realize that there could be a lot of variances in the time since these games, both good and bad. But, it is still perhaps the best barometer we have.
To look more closely at how North Carolina Central performed overall in these games I made another quick table. The Eagles have played 33 games so far, for each of the stats above I ranked their offensive and defensive performances against these top 100 opponents. I highlighted any performance in the bottom 25% of games red, the top 25% green, and the middle 50% yellow. As you can see, more often than not against tougher competition they had some of their worst outings and only two top 25% outings.
In that Wichita State game, whether lucky, good, or otherwise the Eagles went 10/24 from the three point line. That 41.7% clip far out paces the 32.6% that they average for the entire season. Also of note in the NC State game is the fact that they got to the free throw line 45 times and connected on 41 of them, which new rules still being called or not is completely absurd.
Plus, one final note that I wanted to make about these games: at half time of each of their losses the opponent had at least an eight point lead. Cincinnati led 40-26, Wichita State led 40-24, and Maryland led 28-20. In the lone win in these four games against NC State the Eagles were ahead 33-27 at halftime. It seems important to gain an early lead and force them into trying to play a more up-tempo game, something that they don’t normally do.
The Eagles play at an adjusted tempo of 64.3 possessions per 40 minutes which is the 276th slowest in the NCAA and a long way down the list from where you’d find Iowa State. The Cyclones are 13th in the NCAA at 71.7 possessions per 40 minutes. But there is an interesting aspect here.
Using Pomeroy’s average possession length data we can see into a window of what is actually happening. The Cyclones get a shot off within an average of 15.1 seconds on each possession which is the sixth quickest in the country. Meanwhile there defensive possessions tend to last up to 18.5 seconds which is 271st.
When the Eagles have the ball they get a shot off within an average of 18.0 seconds, the 169th fastest. That isn’t fast, but it is a bit faster than you’d expect for a team that sits at 276th in adjusted tempo. So how does that happen? Their average possession length on defense is 19.3 seconds which is the 340th longest out of 351 NCAA teams. Their defense is what makes them play at an exceedingly slow pace. One of three things is happening or some combination: 1) remember from above that their schedule is one of the least difficult in the country this year, now match that up with a respectable defense and all of a sudden offenses couldn’t score and had to work very hard to get shots 2) Offenses deliberately held the ball to slow down the game 3) NC Central’s defensive rebounding percentage is 245th in the country which makes for longer possessions for opponents and overall slower paced games.
Any of those three things would be good news for Iowa State. ISU will be the best team NC Central has seen since the calendar flipped to 2014 and will not hold the ball to slow down the game and they should be able to capitalize on the offensive glass. The offensive rebounding numbers for Iowa State haven’t been good this year (just 277th) but in glimpses it has been very good when it has been strategically attacked (see the last two games against Kansas State).
Long story short, my initial concerns on the slow pace of play that the Eagles prefer to employ is not nearly as worrisome as it once was. Surely, they’ll look to slow it down when the can but regarding offensive possession length they are more middle of the pack than anything else.
The two things there offense does that will be the biggest keys are their turnover percentage and ability to get to the free throw line. NC Central turns it over on 17.4% of possessions which is 108th best in the country but only 8% of possessions are ended with opponent steals which is 61st fewest. Iowa State isn’t a big steal team, but they have done it in stretches and that has enabled the fast break.
NC Central also has the 18th best free throw rate in the country (free throw attempts/field goal attempts) and gets to the line often. Again, this is against a lower level of competition but it is still noteworthy in terms of their style of play. The Score 26.8% of their points at the free throw line wich is 18th most in the NCAA. The Cyclones have done very well in avoiding opponent trips to the free throw line with a free throw rate that is the 20th best in the country.
They struggle big time from beyond the arc by scoring just 20.9% of their points from out there (311th) but they don’t shoot too many of them with just 29.4% of their shot attempts being from long range (258th).
Enter, Jeremy Ingram.
First things first, I haven’t seen a lick of him playing so this is purely based off of the numbers, but we can still learn a lot about his game. He shoots 47% inside the arc and a 38% outside the arc (63/165) but he really does his damage at the line where he draws the 61st most fouls in the country among players and has shot 263 free throws and made 76.4% of them.
He is for all intents and purposes the only cog in the offense. He is responsible for 31.1% of the shots his team takes (58th most for any player in the NCAA) and only has an assist rate of 8.1%. The fact that he doesn’t appear to break guys down of the dribble and look to dish is pretty evident. But, even with that aside, based on the numbers and the praise of Jay Bilas I have to wonder how close he is to being one of the more dynamic scoring guards that ISU has seen so far this year. He can shoot the three ball and get to the line. He’ll be tough to handle but DeAndre Kane will likely be the one tasked with guarding him.
Their other key contributor to the offenses is Emanuel Chapman who assists on 35.1% of his teammates made shots, that is the 18th highest assist rate in the country. He and Ingram each play 85% of available minutes and are the keys to their offense. Chapman doesn’t really get to the line often (36/44 this year) and has taken just 118 shots inside the arc, making 55 and 61 from the three point line, making 22. He must be kept out of the lane.
So what do I think will happen?
Yes the Eagles have a good defense (thought ISU’s is actually rated better by Pomeroy) and yes they beat North Carolina State and yes they kept scores relatively close with Maryland, Cincinnati, and Wichita State and yes they are on a 20 game winning streak. But, Iowa State is a much better team.
They typically don’t shoot the ball extremely well and they don’t play as slow on offense as their overall tempo would suggest. They do rebound the ball reasonably well on offense (which again was against very subpar competition) but they really struggle on the glass on defense and they also put opponents on the free throw line…a lot. The 274th most in the NCAA.
I think Iowa State will be able to force tempo and I think they will have more success on the interior than most teams have had against the Eagles as they do not have length on the inside that has bothered ISU on semi-rare occasions this season. I think the Cyclones will be able to rebound well enough at both ends, but especially on defense to get the break started. I think ISU will be able to handle Chapman and Ingram well enough to keep their team scoring down.
Iowa State will have to take care of the ball like they usually do and make shots. Getting an early lead would be beneficial as to not let the Eagles build a lead, confidence, and then slow the pace and make things really difficult on the Cyclones. That and avoid foul trouble as much as possible with Niang, Ejim, and Kane.
This tournament and this game is about one thing for Iowa State; themselves. Play to their capabilities and they will do very well.
Iowa State – 79
NC Central – 64