We have been in awe of the exploits of T.J. Warren for an entire season, and he just keeps getting better. Since his lone game of the season when he failed to reach double figures, Warren has scored at least 20 points in 18 straight games, averaging 27.1 points per game in that stretch. His 25 points in N.C. State's pleasantly easy 74-59 opening round win over Xavier in the NCAA tournament pushed his season point total to 843, the highest single-season total in the history of the program.
We are witnessing greatness. But his singular greatness alone will not make a peaking Pack team great. Players without Warren stitched on the backs of their jerseys combined to shoot 54.3% from the floor against the Musketeers. Warren's teammates dished out 14 assists to just six turnovers, blocked nine shots, and made seven of their eight free throw attempts. After perhaps the Pack's most complete team effort of the season, it's time to pat everyone on the back because everyone contributed.
- Tyler Lewis: Pressed into playing extra minutes, including the entire second half, due to Cat Barber's illness, Lewis had a game-high eight assists against just one turnover. He added seven points and three rebounds. The rebounds
matched a season highwere neat and the seven-point output, including an early three, made the Xavier defense honor him. "Teen Wolf," as he is affectionately known in these parts despite the fact that he is not actually a teenager, had been held scoreless in two of his last three games.
- Ralston Turner: Turner provided the second scoring option the Pack desperately need in support of Warren, scoring 17 points. Known as a three-point specialist, Turner buried three from the bonusphere but also displayed a nice midrange game, making three of four two-point attempts. Turner not only scored 17 points, he made big shots, including a three that put State up four after Warren went to the bench early with two fouls. A couple of buckets later in the game served to answer and end Musketeer runs. Turner, who is occasionally prone to completely losing his man on the defensive end, did a nice job on all Big East guard Semaj Christon. Christon had 14 points but turned it over seven times.
- Jordan Vandenberg: The Aussie was outplayed early by Matt Stainbrook, but a three-point play on a nice assist from Lewis with 14 seconds left in the first half seemed to awaken the fifth-year senior. Including that play, which accounted for his first points of the game, he outscored his counterpart 9-7 over the remainder of the game. Vandy added four boards, four blocks, and two assists. The four blocks were just one off his career high.
- BeeJay Anya: In addition to a rim-rattling follow jam, Anya used his considerable length to block three shots and corral three rebounds. Xavier shot a very solid 65.6% on two-point attempts that weren't swatted. Vandy and Anya made sure many of those two-point attempts never had a chance to find the net.
- Lennard Freeman: The ultimate "glue guy" with poise way beyond his 18 years, Freeman pulled down a team-high six rebounds to go with two points and a blocked shot. He and Turner both drew a charge.
- Kyle Washington: Freeman got most of the minutes at the four due in part to Washington's foul trouble, but "the General" gave the team a much-needed scoring punch in the game's opening minutes, scoring six of the team's first nine points while Warren was still getting his bearings. He also grabbed a pair of rebounds.
- Desmond Lee: When Turner is hitting, Lee loses minutes, but Lee was called upon in a three-guard set when Warren was whistled for his second foul. He promptly got in the lane, got fouled, and sank both of his free throws to help State hold the lead while Warren was out. He also calmly sank two more at the end of the game when the Musketeers were fouling to play catch up. Lee even joined in the block party with a rejection.
- Cat Barber: Barber only scored two points in eight minutes but showed courage by taking the floor at all. He risked not only the embarrassment of a public puking but also criticism if he played poorly while not feeling his best. Even if his guts went awry, he is no bubbleguts. Let's hope the 44 or so hours he has between the final horn and the next game is enough to get over his illness.
No matter what happens from here on, N.C. State proved it belonged in the tournament with its decisive first four win. And Mark Gottfried, having piloted an incredibly young team to an ACC finish three spots higher than the pundits predicted en route to a third straight NCAA tournament, has silenced this critic. Perhaps, rather than seeming to not coach to his fullest in some of the team's disappointing losses (NCCU stands out), Gottfried was letting his team flounder so they would listen and buy in to his direction. Failure is an opportunity to learn, and clearly the improvement of this team indicates they have taken the teachings of their coaches to heart.
Regardless of how it ends, watching this young, likeable team mature has been a joy, and if the Pack continue to get contributions from one through 10 in the rotation, this ride might be far from over.