Well that happened fast. Believe it or not, NC State basketball is back and tips off their regular season tonight against Mt. Saint Mary’s. Coming off a surprise NCAA tournament appearance, this version of Wolfpack hoops welcomes a sizable load of newcomers which has gotten mixed previews from members of the media heading in to the season. There’s one thing that’s for sure: this season will either be good, bad, or somewhere in between. How the following questions get answered will go a long way in determining the success of the season.
How will the new pieces mesh?
This is probably the most important question with eight players who didn’t suit up in a State uniform last season expected to contribute. There is certainly no shortage of talent, but this is a team that simply doesn’t have experience playing together. Chemistry can be such an underrated aspect of a team’s success, and it’s not just getting along with one another. Learning the tendencies of teammates and how they like to play can make a world’s difference even if not visible to the average person. Knowing where someone likes to catch the ball or having a feel for when someone is going to cut is something you can’t teach without actually playing with one another.
On top of all that, with so many new faces it will be important for everyone to figure out and accept their roles. This is also on the coaching staff to tinker with some different lineups, putting guys in different positions in order to get a good idea of who needs to do what and which guys play well together. Some have complained about the amount of 200+ RPI teams on the non-conference schedule again (there’s seven), but the soft early schedule should give this roster the time it needs to get comfortable with each other. The Pack essentially has six warm up games in PNC Arena before it plays the next four out of five against Power 5 opponents. If the pieces fit, there is no reason that this team can’t finish in the top half of the ACC.
Is there enough in the middle?
Last year Keatts rolled out a mixed bag of three interior options; Omer Yurtseven developed into a reliable scorer but constantly got exposed on defense, Lennard Freeman was a rugged defender and rebounder but limited offensively, and Abdul Malik Abu was a disaster. All three have departed and coming through the revolving door are Wyatt Walker, Ian Steere, and DJ Funderburk. Each one brings something different to the table with Walker being experienced in college as a rebounder and gifted passer, Steere as the powerful freshman, and Funderburk being more of a hybrid 4 as opposed to a traditional post player. You probably won’t see any of them playing together too often as Keatts has many more options to be able to play a four guard lineup.
I really believe Walker will be the unsung hero of this team with the way he plays and how well it fits the system. The other two have talent and can do some different things, but what worries me is their ability to consistently defend in the post. Steere is big and physical but has a lot to learn, as Keatts has made it clear he’s far from a finished product. Funderburk is long and athletic but thinner than a toothpick. How will they hold up throughout a long season? They shouldn’t have too any issues early on, but they will be tested in the ACC. Any injuries and/or constant foul trouble would also pose a problem.
Where does outside shooting come from?
NC State shot a decent 37.2% as a team which was good for 69th in the country (keep in mind there’s 351 teams in Division 1). However, the team lost three long ball threats who all shot at least 38.5% from deep in Yurstseven, Al Freeman, and Sam Hunt. They’re not going to stop shooting 3’s, so some guys are going to have to step up and show they can knock down shots. Everyone knows Braxton Beverly can be a volume shooter and still hit at a good percentage. But outside of that? Now we get in to a bit of a gray area. Devon Daniels wasn’t asked to shoot a ton at Utah but his shot looked good in the exhibition and he figures to be the most reliable deep threat along with Beverly.
Other than those two you’ll probably see everyone pitch in here and there. CJ Bryce wasn’t necessarily known for his three point shot at UNCW, and that thing looked broke the other night against Chowan. His form and release were all over the place, but he is a career 35% from three so he’s definitely capable of knocking some down. Markell was a joke from deep as a freshman but he quietly shot a solid 40.9% last year. He’s really improved in that area and Coach Keatts wants him to be more aggressive in looking to score. Funderburk could be the type of mismatch that Yurt was in being able to draw big men away from the basket with a smooth stroke. Also, keep an eye on Jericole Hellems. He comes in with a reputation as being an excellent all around scorer, and he could find his way on the court more if he shows the ability to be a consistent shooter.
All in all I think we will see a little dip in three point shooting percentage, but I don’t think it’s make or break for this team. There are enough guys who can get out in transition and attack the basket to offset some inefficient shooting, however they could potentially struggle if they get in to a half-court game where defenses go zone.
Who becomes “the guy”?
No matter how you felt about Al Freeman, that team last year doesn’t sniff 21 wins without him. I was as big a critic of his as anyone else in the first half of the year. But after he realized that he could trust his teammates and didn’t have to play hero ball every possession, he was the unquestioned leader. When the Pack needed a basket it was Freeman who often delivered. In fact, he led NC State in scoring the final eight games of the season and shot better than 42% in all but one of those.
So who’s the guy this year? Who steps up when the shot clock is running down or it’s late in the game and somebody needs to make a play? The obvious answer is probably senior Torin Dorn, but he’s never been the top dog on a college team. Markell is a dynamic point guard but has struggled at times with poor decision making and being too passive. Beverly is a heck of a shooter, but he’s certainly limited due to lack of size and athleticism. From the newcomers, Bryce and Daniels are the only two that stick out to me as viable options in this category. Time will tell who becomes “the guy”, but I think it’s safe to say he’ll come from this group.
What can we expect from the Keatts wardrobe?
There has been a ton of negativity towards the zebra striped shirt that Coach Keatts sported in the exhibition game. I know I’m in the minority here, but I didn’t hate it at all and would go as far as to say he pulled it off. Was it the most beautiful shirt ever? Absolutely not. But it was bold, and I can respect bold. Now if that’s a shirt he plans on wearing several times then we could have an issue. But I love that he can mix it up from the boring plain button downs with a black or blue suit, and I hope we see more curveballs from him on the sidelines this year.