The Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina State Wolfpack will square off at 12 p.m. today in the PNC Arena, where the Wolfpack hold a significant home court advantage. Duke’s young roster has yet to play a true road game this season, and that will be an even bigger factor due to the loss of Ryan Kelly. The Blue Devils star senior power forward gave them crucial leadership, rebounding ability, and had a high degree of importance in the offense. That’s going to be the toughest thing for Duke to overcome against N.C. State.
The game between these two ACC rivals will be televised on ESPN, and it will probably end up being the second most important ACC game when we look back at the season’s end. The most important one? The second time these two teams face off on the 7th of February.
N.C. State opened up the season as the favorites, because they have the most talented starting group in the ACC. The only problem is that Mark Gottfried’s squad lacks depth, and that’s been something that has hurt them this year when looking at the two early losses on the schedule. Scott Wood has been a little slow out of the gates this season with only the fifth-best PER on the team, but the four guys ahead of him all of PERs above 20.
Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie, in particular, have been playing lights-out basketball throughout the season. Howell’s incredible play has been especially notable, and he has emerged as one of the elite players in the nation with a 27.6 PER on the strength of some brutally efficient shooting totals. He has also made an enormous impact as a rebounder with roughly ten boards per game to go with about 13 points per game and the best defense on the team.
Both teams have elite, top 20 offenses, but the difference is that N.C. State is better on offense. Their shooting ability and offensive efficiency is just ridiculous, and they are clearly a top ten offense. Duke’s offense is also nothing to sneeze at, because they are 16th in college basketball in team ORtg and have a trio of players with TS% above 60% in Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee, and Ryan Kelly. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, their second most productive player (Kelly) will be out today.
That’s the main reason why plenty of people are picking the Wolfpack to knock off the Blue Devils, but it isn’t the only reason. N.C. State have more veterans, which is a huge advantage since Duke is playing on the road in Raleigh at PNC with a team with a few key freshmen who have never played in a real road game in their college basketball careers- much less at a hostile environment like the one in Raleigh.
My reason for picking the Devils to win this game in a hard-fought battle is because of the disparity between these two teams on defense. N.C. State’s defensive efficiency numbers are outside of the top 200, while Duke is safely nestled in the top 25. I think Duke has enough depth to overcome the loss of Kelly, but the fact that they are such a young team is what makes the loss of Kelly even tougher to swallow. The Blue Devils can survive without Kelly, because they are clearly the best team in college basketball right now and are a cut above N.C. State. The gap isn’t significant without Kelly, but its still present. I think N.C. State’s No. 20 ranking is a little bit too generous, but that’s just nitpicking.
And honestly, I’m fine with N.C. State proving me wrong here and having some fans tweeting to me “I told you so”. I’m just looking for a great game here, and it’s a game that will be made all the better for neutral fans due to the loss of Kelly.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.