Does NC State have what it takes to make a deep NCAA tournament run?

North Carolina State's Saniya Rivers (22) celebrates a basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Duke, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)

Saniya Rivers is the motor that powers NC State. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)

Even with the parity in women’s college basketball at an all-time high, there’s still a surefire way to generate buzz around your program: beat Connecticut.

And that’s exactly how NC State (18-2) started its season, with a 92-81 upset of then-No. 2 UConn. The Wolfpack weren’t ranked when the season opened, but now, with an 18-2 record and wins over three top-25 teams, they have risen to No. 5 in the AP Poll.

The Wolfpack followed that victory over UConn by defeating Colorado two weeks later and started the season 14-0 with an overtime win over Florida State. Those were the highlights.

The lowlight came Jan. 18 with a puzzling loss to Miami in which everything seemed to go wrong for NC State.

Now, midway through the season, we’ve seen NC State at its best and worst. It’s time to ask the question: How can NC State make a deep run in March?

Star power

Everything NC State does starts with Saniya Rivers. Even if she doesn’t end up in the box score with an assist or basket, chances are Rivers had a hand in creating for the Wolfpack. The junior plays the most minutes on the team (33.1) and boasts a balanced stat line: 12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.6 steals and nearly 1 block per game.

When the Wolfpack topped UConn, Rivers had the best game of her career with 33 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks. When she’s at her best, the junior is one of the top players in the country. Her ability to create at the rim and get to the free-throw line (she was 10-of-14 against UConn) opens up the floor for her teammates. Rivers is also a skilled defender, whose length allows her to get in passing lanes and disrupt scorers at the rim.

Typically, she takes care of the basketball with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But when Rivers is careless with the ball, NC State will struggle. In the loss to Miami, Rivers had a season-high seven turnovers, one of three games this season in which she had more turnovers than assists.

Rivers is the kind of player who can get hot and dominate anyone in the country. If she puts together a string of games like she had against UConn, the Wolfpack could blow through opponents in March.

RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA - JANUARY 21: River Baldwin #1 of the NC State Wolfpack moves the ball against Kennedy Brown #42 of the Duke Blue Devils during the second half of the game at Reynolds Coliseum on January 21, 2024 in Raleigh, North Carolina. NC State won 72-57. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

River Baldwin of NC State works against Kennedy Brown of Duke during the second half at Reynolds Coliseum on Jan. 21, 2024, in Raleigh, North Carolina. NC State won 72-57. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

The glue

Fifth-year senior River Baldwin is having the best season of her career, and it’s paying off in a big way. In the win against Colorado, the center had a season-high 24 points. On the season, she’s averaging 10.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks, while shooting 59.3% from the field. All of those marks are career highs. In two previous seasons (first at Florida State and then NC State last year after transferring), Baldwin had never averaged more than 6 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest. Her development has been an unexpected luxury for the Wolfpack.

The proof of Baldwin’s importance is in NC State’s two losses, which she missed with an ankle injury. In the Miami game, NC State gave up 38 points in the paint and against Elizabeth Kitley and Virginia Tech, the Hokies had 26 paint points. Both of those totals would likely have been drastically lower with Baldwin playing.

Defense wins games

The Wolfpack are at their best when they can pack the paint and make teams shoot from outside. They know how to defend solid post play, with Baldwin taking the main defensive assignment and the rest of the team sagging in to offer help. It’s a disruptive defense that worked to perfection against Colorado.

The Buffs have three solid 3-point shooters in Quay Miller (34.8%), Frida Formann (40.8%) and Maddie Nolan (38.7%), but Jaylyn Sherrod and Tameiya Sadler, two guards who spend a lot of time with the ball in their hands, are both shooting under 21% from beyond the arc. NC State’s defense is effective because it understands assignments and personnel. Clogging the paint only works if you know who to guard on the perimeter and who to leave open. NC State has this down, allowing it to stop certain shooters from letting it fly and penetrators from getting to the hoop, all while stopping easy entry passes to the post.

This is a strategy that has proved effective for teams in March – like in Iowa’s Final Four upset over South Carolina last season. When a season can end with a single loss, every missed shot adds more pressure, and NC State’s defense will play mind games with opponents.

The Wolfpack also limit second-chance points by rebounding effectively across the board. From 1-5, they hit the glass hard, averaging 32.7 defensive rebounds per game, the second most in the NCAA.

Other key players

The Wolfpack have a balanced lineup with six players who average nine or more points per game. Aziaha James leads the way with 15.5 points, followed by Rivers (12.8), Mimi Collins (12), Madison Hayes (11.9), Baldwin (10.4) and freshman Zoe Brooks off the bench (9.7).

Brooks has continued to improve, and her presence gives NC State options. She’s a natural point guard, so when coach Wes Moore subs the freshman into games, it allows Rivers to move off the ball, giving the Wolfpack a different look offensively.

But after Brooks, the Wolfpack don’t get much bench production, which could spell trouble in the postseason. Fellow freshman Laci Steele has been solid in stretches, playing 15 minutes per game and averaging 5.1 points. She gave the Wolfpack a lift in the Virginia Tech loss, making two 3-pointers off the bench.

If Steele is more consistent heading into March, that will help NC State. Otherwise it may struggle if a starter gets in foul trouble or has an off game.

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