Over the past couple of days I have harped ad nauseum on N. C. State's second half woes in ACC play. (Relive the horror here and here.) My conjecture has been that a thin bench and the grind of a long regular season is the culprit for second half shortcomings, but not all thin benches are created equally. The Wolfpack's biggest depth issue is in the post, where Calvin Leslie and Richard Howell are the only consistently reliable options. T. J. Warren is more of a wing pressed into eating a few minutes inside, and Jordan Vandenberg has not developed into the shot bothering rebounder one might have expected from a seven footer.
I do not contend that Leslie and Howell are poor or unwilling defenders, but rather that they have been coached not to foul because of the team is better off with a timid interior defense than with no offensive post presence. The result, unfortunately, is that opponents are eating the Pack alive inside.
Please consider the following:
- Against Boston College, Ryan Anderson put up 22 points and pulled down 13 rebounds. The points were his second highest output in ACC play and the rebounds were the most he has grabbed this season in league games. Anderson averages 16.2/8.7. Dennis Clifford had a five-point, five-board game, both the second best numbers he has posted in league play this season. Clifford averages 3.8/4.2.
- Against Georgia Tech, junior Daniel Miller looked like an all-conference performer, posting a double-double of 15 and 10 on 7/11 shooting. But Miller is not an all-conference performer. The 15 points was just one off the junior's career high in nearly three seasons for the Jackets, and he averages just 7.8 ppg. Robert Carter added 12 and seven, both slightly above his season averages.
- Against Duke, the Pack did a decent job against POY candidate Mason Plumlee, holding him to 15 points (he averages 17.6). But, Plumlee was a blistering 7/10 from the field and will no doubt be utilized more in Durham. He also grabbed 11 rebounds, slightly more than his season average (10.8). Meanwhile, Amile Jefferson put up 10 points, which was just the second time he had been in double figures during his career to that point. Yes, he was starting for the injured Ryan Kelly and got more minutes than usual, but his buckets came far too easily.
- Against Maryland, in a Georgetown-esque ugly game that made eyes bleed, almost no one had anything resembling a strong offensive performance. Alex Len was a bit hampered by early foul trouble, but Len still managed to get free for the easy game winner. Some guy named Shaquille Cleare picked up some of Len's slack, going for eight and five. Cleare has only managed more than eight points in games against powerhouses Georgia Southern and Maryland Eastern Shore, and the five boards are the second most he has had in a game thus far in his career.
Through four games, with perhaps the exception of Miller's career day, the defense has been suspect but not atrocious. Not surprisingly, the Pack are 3-1 at this point. Then things get ugly:
- Against Clemson, Devin Booker went off for a very uncharacteristic 27 points. His previous career high was 22, and he has only gone for 20 or more three times in his three-year career. Booker was 13/18 (72.2%) from the floor against the Pack; he is shooting 54.6% on the season. The 27 points are more than double his average (12.7).
- Against Wake Forest, Devin Thomas continued the Devin show with 25 points on 10/13 (76.9%) shooting. The 25 points bettered his previous career best by 13 points. He also snatched 14 boards, which matches his career high. Thomas's 25 points are more than triple his season average (8.1), and he has been a 50% shooter against everyone else.
- Against UNC, Jim Mike Mac managed 13 points and 11 boards despite foul trouble. He shot 50% against the Pack but makes just 45.6% for the season. The 11 boards were the third most of his career and well over his average (8.6). Snoopy walker Jackson Simmons managed six and three (averages 2.7/2.1) and Joel James also scored six points (averages 2.8). Six points matched the second best output for both gentlemen in their careers.
- Against UVA, Akil Mitchell posted a double-double with 14 and 12, both above his season averages (12.4/9.1), but the guy who really killed the Pack was Mike Tobey, who went for 13 and seven. The seven rebounds ties Tobey's career high, and he averages just 6.5 points and 2.5 boards per game.
- Against Miami, Julian Gamble donned his superman cape and matched his career high with 16 points, nearly 10 over his average (6.8). Gamble's previous 16 came against perennial power Hawaii. Reggie Johnson added 15 and 8. Though he is coming off an injury, the supersized Johnson had managed a total of 11 points in three prior games against ACC competition. He was 2/14 (14.3%) from the floor in ACC play before going 6/10 against the Pack.
Not surprisingly, N. C. State is 2-3 over the recent five-game stretch of being torched by opponents' post players.
So what's to be done? The most obvious answer would seem to be doubling the post, a strategy the Pack has rarely employed this season. If they cannot afford to play aggressive defense, Leslie and Howell need help down low. If that help results in open three-pointers there will be some nights when the Pack dies by the three, but that would seem to be a better gamble than challenging 6-9 guys to beat you in a layup drill.
The Pack could also zone more, but zoning tends to slow the game down and the Pack want to play up tempo. With block out assignments being vague in comparison to man-to-man, zoning also seems to lead to more offensive rebounding opportunities.
Another option is to give more minutes to Vandenberg or take a flyer on athletic 6-8 walk-on Jevoni Robinson, who at the very least has five fouls to give. At 10.9%, Vandenberg's career total rebound percentage resembles that of a six footer. For comparison, Leslie's career total is 14.4% and CDB's is a supertastic 19.5%. But big Vandy has bothered shots at an 8.1% clip (more than three percent higher than Leslie's career rate (Leslie has totally disappeared as a botherer this season, by the way)). And Vandy is a career 54.2% shooter from the floor, so perhaps he is not completely useless.
Interestingly, when allowed to play a little bit, Vandy has played his best minutes. He got 10+ minutes against St. Bonaventure and Wake Forest. Combined in those games he had eight points, five rebounds, and two blocks in 26 total minutes. Not great, but serviceable. In 15 other games he has a total of 70 minutes, eight points, six rebounds, and nine blocks. Perhaps, like a giant Tyler Lewis, if he is allowed to get in the flow of the game rather than getting jerked after a two-minute stretch, he could help.
Or, perhaps, if Vandenberg is the answer you're asking the wrong question. Regardless, there are too many trends at work here (second half swoons, opponents' play in the post) to chalk it all up to flukishness or #ncstateshit. Opponents have identified the Pack's interior weakness and will continue to exploit it until Mark Gottfried and staff make an adjustment.