Preview: No. 8 ND @ NC State

Notre Dame looks to achieve another program-first tonight in Raleigh: a 4-0 start in conference road games.

• Game 21: No. 8/9 Notre Dame (18-2; 6-1 ACC) @ North Carolina State (13-7; 4-3 ACC)
• Date: Jan. 25, 2015
• Place: PNC Arena
• Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
• TV: ESPNU
• Location: Raleigh, NC
• Nickname: Wolfpack
• 2013-14 Record: 22-14 (9-9 ACC)

NORTH CAROLINA STATE HEAD COACH
In the midst of his fourth season at the helm in Raleigh, Mark Gottfried (83-45, 361-200 overall) remains in contention for a fourth-straight 20-win season. Each of his previous three campaigns have concluded with an NCAA Tournament berth, including a trip to the 2012 Sweet Sixteen.

Over 16 full seasons, Gottfried's Murray State, Alabama, and Wolfpack squads have qualified for NCAA play 10 times, peaking with an Elite Eight appearance in 2004 as coach of his alma mater Alabama Crimson Tide. His resume includes a national championship as an assistant under UCLA's Jim Harrick for the 1995 title-winning Bruins.

NORTH CAROLINA STATE SCOUTING REPORT
The Wolfpack have played 12 games over the last six weeks, splitting the dozen with six wins and six losses, never winning or losing two consecutive. That's W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L…with Notre Dame on tap tonight in a must-win home tilt.

North Carolina State's best efforts (an 87-75 win over Duke and an 71-69 defeat to North Carolina) and their worst (a 16-point loss at home to Cincinnati pros to the New Year) has come in that span.

2014 ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren has moved on, replaced at the top of the scoring chart by junior transfer (Alabama) Trevor Lacey's 16.7 points per game. A high-volume shooter, Lacey has hit for double digits in four straight though he's shot just 25 of 66 over his last five games, a string that's featured four of the ACC's seven-best squads (Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, and Miami).

When Lacey struggles, so too do the Wolfpack: in their last four losses the six-foot-three guard is a combined 12 for 45 from the field, 6 of 22 from beyond the arc. (He conversely drilled five of seven from long range in a 12-point win over Duke at PNC Arena.)

Aiding Lacey's efforts in the backcourt is fellow Alabama prep product, Ralston Turner (12 points off the bench against the Irish last January). Turner has hit at a 40.6 percent clip from three-point range this season, hoisting an ambitious 44 over his last five outings, connecting on 25 of 59 (42.3 percent) in ACC action. The senior guard went off for 33 points (8-17 from long range) in a mid-December win over Tennessee.

An 88 percent free throw shooter, Turner has visited the charity stripe just five times since the New Year -- relevant in that the Wolfpack has shot fewer free throws than its opponent in eight straight games. (They were 25 of 32 from the foul line in last January's win in South Bend.)

Turner has hit at a 45 percent clip from beyond the arc at PNC Arena this season while he and Lacey have combined to hit 97 triples, the most by any ACC tandem. (Eight more than Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton and Demetrius Jackson.)

The Wolfpack's three-guard lineup is completed by triggerman Anthony "Cat" Barber, a quick-footed sophomore that broke into the NC State starting lineup in November of his true freshman season last year. Barber scored 16 in a 77-70 win over Notre Dame in South Bend last January, helping to ice the game with a 7 for 8 effort from the charity stripe in the final two minutes.

Unlike his backcourt mates Lacey and Turner, Barber is not a long-range threat (17 of 66 career, 25.8 percent).

In the paint, sophomore forward Kyle Washington averages 7.7 points and nearly five rebounds per game. Washington has played well against the best the 'Pack has faced, posting a double-double (13 pts., 10 reb.) at Virginia, scoring 17 vs. North Carolina, and contributing nine points and four blocked shots in the aforementioned win over Duke. He's connected on 53 percent of his shots in the last five games.

Six-foot-eight freshman forward Abdul-Malik Abu is coming off his best effort of the season, a 19-point, 5-rebound outing at Miami (won 65-60 by the Hurricanes). Abu connected on 9 of 14 shots after hitting for double figures just twice on the season previously.

North Carolina State enjoys regular bench contributions from part-time starting forwards Lennard Freeman (6'8" 245 lbs.) and BeeJay Anya (6'9" 300, a combined 19 boards in last four outings). Anya proved pivotal in the 87-75 win over Duke, scoring 14 points on just eight shots with six boards and four blocks. After dropping 50 pounds since last season (300 is indeed his current listing), Anya's hit 62 percent on an economical 61 field goal attempts this season. Freeman leads the Wolfpack in rebounds by a wide margin (6.1 per game) despite averaging just 18 minutes per contest.

Freshmen swingmen -- and twin brothers -- Caleb and Cody Martin also earn quality time off the pine.

NC State ranks second in the ACC behind Louisville with 5.85 blocked shots per game, tied for fifth with Miami in three-point percentage (37.2%) but second-to-last in total assists with 225, a whopping 88 fewer than the Irish and 125 behind conference leader North Carolina.

IRISH TRIO CONTINUES TO ROLL
Mike Brey's self-proclaimed "men" Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, have been as advertised: Brey offered both should be ranked among the league's 10-12 best pre-season and the pair has played well-beyond that projection.

Connaughton has been dominant in ACC action, connecting on 18 of his last 39 from long range (46.1 percent in a recent six-game span) while collecting 62 boards in seven total league outings (8.8 per game). Grant is in contention for National Player of the Year honors, hitting nearly 52 percent of his shots (as well as 19 of his last 31 from the floor over the last three games) while leading the ACC with 6.4 assists per contest. His 16.8 ppg. ranks fourth.

Aiding the upperclassmen's efforts has been sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson. Among the nation's most improved players, Jackson ranks fourth in the ACC with two steals per game, scoring at a 13.6 ppg. clip while shooting better than 53 percent from the floor and 42 percent from beyond the arc. Jackson is inarguably the best of the Brey-era in terms of pressuring opposing point guards and his ability to finish despite contact in the paint has likewise been a welcomed addition to the 2015 attack.

NORTH CAROLINA STATE - NOTRE DAME SCOUTING REPORT
It's offense vs. offense Sunday night at PNC Arena as Mike Brey's rolling Irish invade Raleigh in the midst of an unforeseen 3-0 road start, the first in program history. (Notre Dame first joined a conference for the 1995-96 season.)

The Irish rank second nationally in field goal percentage (52.6), and first in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.74), while leading the ACC at a 40.5 percent clip from the three-point arc. As important, Brey's bunch has a remarkable 49-23 assist-to-turnover ratio in three conference road games while draining 29 of 66 (43.9 percent) from long range in the trio of ACC contests away from home.

A repeat of both tonight would likely elicit road win No. 4 at the Wolfpack's expense.

Playing its third straight home game against a ranked foe, NC State trails only Notre Dame among ACC teams with a 46.9 percent overall shooting effort. The Wolfpack have made more field goals than any team in conference play including a whopping 33 (on 60 shots) in a 12-point win over Duke.

Well-documented as its accepted weakness, Notre Dame ranks at the bottom of the ACC in both rebounds and offensive rebounds. Fortunately for Irish fans, the Wolfpack are merely mired in the middle of the latter, but NC State out-rebounded North Carolina in a 71-69 home loss earlier this month. By contrast, the Tar Heels battered the Irish 43-26 on the glass in a 71-70 home defeat.

North Carolina State is 12-2 when out-rebounding its opponent this season.

Thus, barring a lights-out effort from long range, key to Notre Dame's efforts tonight will be it's second-shot defense and ability to defend the paint. The Irish have closed out shooters well and more often than not dissuaded initial forays to the hole, but second-chance points are often available to opponents, the result a middling 1.06 points allowed per possession (ninth in the ACC).

"If you watched the Duke game, we're a different team when we get some production from our interior guys," Gottfried told ESPN.com. As always, the battle on the boards is the matchup to monitor tonight for Irish fans, especially with the desperate Wolfpack expected to be buoyed by a sold-out crowd.

The most difficult defensive matchup of the evening will likely go to Irish sophomore forward Steve Vasturia who, at least initially, will be tasked with keeping Trevor Lacey from doing what he does best -- absorbing contact and finishing in the lane. It's a pick-your-poison scenario considering Lacey's penchant for firing from long range.

Few teams are playing with more confidence than Brey's Irish, but the law of averages appears at play tonight in Raleigh, at least if you follow the Vegas point spread which initially staked Notre Dame as only a one-point favorite over the inconsistent Wolfpack. (By contrast, Duke was a whopping 9-point favorite when it lost at PNC Arena earlier this month.)

A win tonight would cement Notre Dame's place among the nation's top 10, regardless of what happens later this week when Duke travels to South Bend. Four wins in as many conference road games is unheard of for the program (not only technically, but in terms of any pre-season realistic projection) especially considering a victory over North Carolina is included therein.

Conversely, a loss tonight won't damage the Irish resume or season's goals, other than their stunning, unexpected pursuit of a No. 2 ACC regular season finish -- a projection not offered by anyone outside, or for that matter inside, the program's walls.

If the game were to be played in South Bend, Notre Dame would be the definitive pick. And a potential ACC Tournament rematch on a neutral floor would likewise favor the Irish. Tonight however, it's likely to swing the way of the more desperate home team. Look for the Wolfpack to start hot, for the Irish to shoot their way back into the contest, but ultimately fall short, both in terms of total points in the paint and, as result, the scoreboard.

• Point Spread: Notre Dame -1.5
• Irish Illustrated Prediction: NC State 78 Notre Dame 72
• Season Record: 14-6 straight up; 6-6 vs. points


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