First Four Game Preview: NC State Takes On Xavier

It's the T.J. Warren and Semaj Christon show tonight, ladies and gentlemen.

And it begins.

We can hate on the fact that the first round of the NCAA Tournament now consists of just four games, but at least we have non-16-seeded teams playing prior to the usual Thursday tip-off, right?

Tonight, two of the “last four in” teams face off for the chance to go on and play the Saint Louis Billikens. While many will assume the winner of this game won’t mean much to the NCAA Tournament as a whole, I’ll simply defer you to the 2011 NCAA Tournament, where Virginia Commonwealth, an 11 seed, played in one of these games and ended up in the Final Four.

Now, that would be foolish to think that Xavier and North Carolina State will be heading there, but let’s not pretend these teams have no hope. There’s plenty, and it all starts tonight.

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A Tale of Two Very Different Endings

At one end, you have a Xavier team that seemed to struggle down the stretch, going 4-5 over their final nine games, losing to teams like Georgetown, Marquette and Seton Hall. And in the Big East Tournament, the Musketeers couldn’t hang with Creighton, losing by eight.

Conversely, you’ve got the NC State Wolfpack, a team that was destined for the NIT less than a month ago. But a four-game winning streak that started at Pittsburgh and ended with a huge win over Syracuse in the ACC Tournament lifted the Wolfpack into the Big Dance, despite being the worst at-large bid selected, according to our metrics.

Neither team is all that impressive analytically. Xavier ranks 78th offensively and 119th defensively according to our metrics, and combined with other factors, rank 44th in terms of nERD. Meanwhile, NC State’s even worse, ranking 87th on offense and 206th on defense, good for a 71st-ranked nERD.

You could argue that Xavier is a better version of NC State, playing better ball on offense – they’re much better at rebounding, too, so watch for that – without the unfortunate reality of having a defense that’s worse than East Carolina’s. But there’s one thing that Xavier doesn’t have: T.J. Warren.

Tonight’s Studs

You have to feel bad for T.J. Warren. He’s one of the best college basketball players on the planet, but has played on a team filled with mediocrity. This year, he finished third in the country in points per game behind only Doug McDermott and Antoine Mason, and his player efficiency rating ranked sixth. He’s bound to take shots, and you’ll see a lot of that tonight against Xavier’s average defense, but he’s not simply a volume player – he’s incredibly effective.

NC State relies on Warren almost as much as any other player on any other team in the country. He’s fifth in usage percentage, and a top-six player in offensive win shares.

During NC State’s four-game winning streak prior to their ACC Tournament loss to Duke, Warren scored 41 points against Pitt and 42 points against Boston College, and was able to put up 24 and 28 against Miami and Syracuse respectively. For reference, our numbers have Pitt with the 35th-ranked defense, while Syracuse ranks 14th. He’s capable of taking over games.

But don’t think that he’s the only stud that will be on the court tonight, as Xavier has their own T.J. Warren (in there eyes, at least) in Semaj Christon.

A sophomore guard, Christon averaged 17.1 points, 2.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists this season, and was by far the most productive player for Xavier. Christon is one of three players averaging double-digit points for the Musketeers, while the second-best scorer, Justin Martin, sits over five points behind. If not for Doug McDermott in the Big East, Christon could have been the conference’s best player

Christon scored double-digit points in every conference game this year, showing that he’s ready and able to perform during important games. It should be fun to watch him and Warren go back and forth tonight.

Who Moves On?

An interesting component to this game is the fact that Saint Louis, the team taking on the winner, is over-seeded and capable of being upset. The Billikens play great defense, but have a lot of trouble scoring points, which is what Xavier and NC State are good at doing.

This isn’t to say that the winner of this game will beat Saint Louis next, especially considering the nERD scores for these play-in teams are lower than that of the Billikens. However, keep an eye on the potential for a 12/5 upset, as documented by Bryan Mears yesterday.

Who will win tonight? Well, that’s something our game projections can tell you. You didn’t think I was going to give away all of our secrets, did you?

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