#10 North Carolina State Wolfpack (21-3) at Clemson Tigers (11-14)
3 p.m. EST (time changed)
Littlejohn Coliseum - Clemson, S.C.
Live stream: ESPN3 (outside ACC country)
SB Nation site: Backing the Pack
James Bowman and I didn't plan this double dose of N.C. State for today, but it's reasonably appropriate given the team achieving their best ranking in the AP poll in over a decade.
James has already done a great job providing an overview of the program's improvement and their outlook for the remainder of ACC play. The outlook isn't necessarily rosy as the Wolfpack has two big games in the next week that could have an impact on their 2014 NCAA Tournament seeding: a home game against North Carolina (who they already lost to once) and a road game against Duke (who recently lost to UNC).
On a player level, one thing that really stands out is the improvement of 6-foot-5 center Markeisha Gatling, whose play is starting to garner some national attention this week: she has been announced as a midseason addition to the 2013-14 Wade Watch List and, just yesterday, named to the Naismith Midseason Top-30 List.
Statistically, she's putting up numbers that could earn her a high pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft.
Gatling leads all Division I post players (or, really, any player in the nation not named "Tricia Liston") in scoring efficiency - whether you prefer points per weighted shot or true shooting percentage - on the strength of a DI-high 69.6% field goal percentage. Sticking with true shooting percentage, Gatling has made a massive 10% leap from her junior season. If she maintains that level of efficiency, she'll be the second most efficient scoring post to enter the draft during the 11-player roster era behind just Carolyn Swords in 2011 (73.9% true shooting percentage) - players simply don't maintain a scoring efficiency at the level Gatling is performing right now.
With scoring numbers like that, it would make a lot of sense to start looking for factors that might be inflating her numbers. The first thing might be to wonder if she's just not shooting much, but as James has already outlined she has increased her scoring output dramatically and has a team-high usage rate of 26.5%, meaning she's involved in just over a quarter of the team's possessions (not to mention all the times she establishes position in the post and her teammates fail to get her the ball). N.C. State's strength of schedule ranking of 65 is solid - and coincidentally about the same as Swords' 2011 Boston College team (64) - meaning she's not exactly just beating up on a cupcake schedule. In watching her play, she's not a one-dimensional player who's relying heavily on one type of shot or a single move to score - she scores off cuts, high-low plays, and from either block within N.C. State's offense.
But sbas2 of SB Nation's N.C. State site Backing the Pack commented on a potential weakness for Gatling after a 5-for-13 shooting performance against the Syracuse Orange.
Part of the problem was that Gatling was off while a larger part of the problem was the Syracuse defense. The Cuse at times uses a zone press; however, their tendency in this game was to pack the lane around Gatling. As such, when Gatling received the ball, she was further from the basket than she normally is forcing her to shoot short jumpers instead of bank shots. While Gatling can shoot these at a high percentage, she did not in this game...Gatling just was off. In the end, packing the lane around Gatling [paid] off for State with Miah Spencer, Myisha Goodwin-Coleman and Kody Burke hitting threes to get State back into a game in which they were down by 9 with nine minutes left. I would bet that more teams are going to surround Gatling like Syracuse did and make other State players beat them. Of course, Goodwin-Coleman, Spencer, Brown and especially Burke can do that.
Where Gatling excels is establishing low post position within 2-5 feet of the basket and using her size to overwhelm defenders; push her outside of that range and her efficiency certainly declines.
Yet not elaborated upon in that piece is another strength of Gatling's that stands out from that Syracuse game: when she's not beating N.C. State opponents by scoring, she's hitting the boards hard with a strong 13.5% offensive rebounding percentage, which gives her a skill that should transfer to the pros at her size. Against Syracuse, she had a career-high 15 rebounds in that game.
Gatling is by no means a perfect WNBA prospect - a steals + blocks per foul ratio below 1.00 is a red flag and she's at 0.61 - but her senior season suggests that she's a big player who could find a way to contribute to a pro roster as either a scorer or rebounder, which definitely makes her stand out in this draft. And if nothing else, Clemson doesn't figure to put up much resistance to Gatling today: the Tigers are last in the ACC in both defensive efficiency and rebounding percentage (in combined conference and non-conference play). The Tigers have three 6-foot-3 players, but none have a frame anywhere near as strong as Gatling. So with Gatling inside and a number of capable 3-point shooters around the perimeter, it could be a long day for Clemson but a great showcase for N.C. State's strengths.
For more on draft prospects, check out our 2014 WNBA Draft prospect watch storystream. For more on N.C. State women's basketball, check out SBN's Backing the Pack.