We’re now six games into the season and nobody knows for certain if this team is good or not. It all started with everyone needing to be talked off the ledge after losing to Georgia Tech on opening night. Look I get it, it sucks being 0-1 in conference on November 5th. But the absence of two of your best players can’t just be discounted. They win that game with a full squad. Georgia Tech is also improved from the last few years and will give teams in the ACC a tough game. That being said, they absolutely still should’ve been able to hold on to that game at home. Which, without two of your best players, should be a good sign right? Since then the Wolfpack has rebounded with five fairly comfortable wins, although maybe not by as wide a margin as some may be hoping for.
From an individual standpoint as Steven wrote about the other day, CJ Bryce and Devon Daniels have led the way with solid all-around play. It’s been encouraging to see Bryce seamlessly take over the Torin Dorn leading scoring/rebounding role, as well as Daniels improved decision making and just overall seeming more in control. It has also been needed, since Markell doesn’t look like Markell just yet. I’m not too worried about him yet and you shouldn’t be either. Braxton Beverly and Pat Andree will both fire up well over 150 threes this year, which will be great if they both keep hitting over 40% of those. Down in the paint, DJ Funderburk and Manny Bates look like a dynamic pairing with each bringing something different. Jericole Hellems hasn’t really passed the eye test for me, but his KenPom numbers show pretty solid improvement across the board. Maybe it’s just that god awful knuckleball 3-point shot that he’s so enamored with. That thing would get Tim Wakefield all hot and bothered.
I still just don’t know what to make of this team though. It just feels like there’s something missing. Dereon Seabron would’ve been a nice piece to be that third versatile two-way wing along with Bryce and Daniels. Blake Harris would’ve filled the void (that he created) of a true backup point guard and added another defensive weapon. Is the current roster without them enough to compete for another top 4 ACC finish? Not sure. But the metrics so far are decent, and the competition hasn’t been as poor as some may think. Georgia Tech, FIU and Little Rock are ranked 62, 150 and 151 in the KenPom rankings, respectively. For reference, a year ago State didn’t play a single team in the top 300 until the sixth game, which was Mercer at no. 199.
Conflicted on how to feel like me? Wait no longer. The next five games are going to tell us everything we need to know about this team going forward. In a way that’s both exciting and frightening as hell. Starting tomorrow, NC State will play five straight games against top 100 teams, with four of five coming away from home. But it’s not simply an uptick in the level of competition that will be telling, it’s the unique challenges that each game will pose. We’re going to see how this team competes against different styles and roster makeups in a variety of environments.
First up is the neutral floor matchup with Memphis, who is arguably the most talented during this stretch even without two of their top four scorers in James Wiseman and Lester Quinones. There’s still superstar freshmen Precious Achiuwa, DJ Jefferies and Boogie Ellis along with super-efficient sophomore Alex Lomax. State and Memphis are similar in several areas. Both play up-tempo with a lot of guards, thrive at turning over their opponent, and crash the offensive glass better than the defensive glass.
While Keatts talks all the time about how he wants to play faster, Memphis actually does so ranking 3rd in the country in adjusted tempo. They’re not a very good three-point shooting team, so when they push it they’re looking to get as deep as possible and are one of the best at getting to the free throw line. Achuiwa in particular has already taken 46 free throws in six games, although he’s only converting 47.8% so far. It will be critical for Bates and Funderburk to be physical without fouling. Both Keatts’ teams have been less than stellar with two-point defense, but slowing down Achuiwa, Jefferies and Lomax inside the arc could be the difference.
Six days later, the polar opposite comes to Raleigh when NC State gets a much-anticipated rematch with Wisconsin. Whereas Memphis is the youngest team in the country in terms of experience and plays at a breakneck pace, the Badgers have plenty of familiar faces (hello Brad Davison!) and rank 335th in adjusted tempo. Now, I started working on this Monday night but since then Wisconsin put together two absolute stinkers against Richmond and New Mexico. And I mean they were UGLY. They’re still very good defensively and at holding opponents to one shot, but man that offense looked bad against two average at best defenses. The offense has run through Ethan Happ the last few years, and with him gone now they’re searching for complimentary players to step up. This is still a mid-tier Big Ten team and will be a tough game. Davison, D’Mitrick Trice, and Brevin Pritzl won’t combine for 5-32 from deep like they did in the last two games.
Back to back road trips to the Triad will be interesting. NC State struggles in Winston-Salem no matter if it’s basketball or football, and until proven otherwise, games here will continue to make me nervous. Danny Manning is still the head coach though so Wake Forest is not great. So far they have losses to BC and UNCC, but also picked up a nice win over Davidson last week. Wake’s overall offensive and defensive numbers are ehh, but they’re elite on the defensive boards and make a high percentage of their three-point attempts. Keatts always stresses crashing the glass on offense and defending the three-point line, so those two things will be put to the test. Early on Wake has been susceptible to big games from their opponent’s point guard. Look for the Markell we know and love.
The second Triad affair might feature the better team in UNCG. They’re coming off three straight 25-win seasons under Wes Miller and are solid again this year, already going into Allen Fieldhouse and giving Kansas a competitive game. The Spartans are one of the best in the country in terms of turning people over and not coughing up the ball themselves. This team won’t be afraid of the Wolfpack after they knocked them off in Raleigh two years ago. On paper, State will be favored in both, but can they lock in mentally to avoid a loss in either game?
This tough stretch ends on the road at Auburn and The Jungle. While there may be more raw NBA talent on the Memphis roster, Auburn has looked impressive and is probably the more complete team at the moment. The 2020 version isn’t quite as deep, especially after losing the top 3 scorers off their Final Four squad, but it’s still a darn good one. Samir Doughty has been outstanding so far leading the team with 19.3 ppg, seeing both his usage and efficiency skyrocket as the new alpha, which is a recipe for stardom. This is a team that still takes a ton of threes (38 the other night against New Mexico) and also still makes a decent percentage. They lost some size off last year’s roster but have actually seen improvement in their rebounding numbers. Overall a tough matchup for the Wolfpack in a raucous road environment. If nothing else, would like to see Bruce Pearl sweat through another shirt.
I can’t remember State playing a consecutive stretch like this in December in awhile, so it’ll be interesting to watch it play out. The jury is definitely still out on this team, but I think three weeks from now there will be a clearer picture on what they could possibly accomplish this year. Each game will offer something different for us to see from this group. Everything from if they’re able to slow down talented up-tempo teams, generate offense against a gritty defensive unit, and take care of business as a favorite on the road. Hoops season is now in full swing. Welcome to it.