A 67-55 overtime win over Tennessee State doesn’t look impressive at all on paper. In fact, it might make fans worry that this team just isn’t ready for prime time. However, sometimes the box score doesn’t tell the whole story. Let’s take a look at why we feel the ugly OT win was actually a positive step forward for NC State.
Dennis Smith Jr showed signs of emerging
Smith’s 7-19 shooting might not set the world on fire, or even cause you to think that Smith played particularly well, but his 19 points weren’t the impressive part. What the box score doesn’t show is the way Smith rose to the occasion when his team needed him most. As the game started to wind down, Smith started to get going. We’ve waited all year to see this player. The guy who takes control of a game. The guy who creates plays and puts the team on his shoulders.
We talked last week about Smith playing a little conservative. We questioned whether he was not trusting his knee or if he was still unsure of the role this team needed him to play. On Saturday night, he finally started to show signs of figuring things out. Smith started to control the basketball game. He kept the ball in his hands a little more and forced the issue more than we’ve seen so far this season. He did miss a few, and get blocked a few times trying to make things happen, but it was the fact that he was playing more aggressive that had us excited. He then hit a big shot near the end of regulation as he faded away, seemingly behind the basket, for a baseline jumper to tie the game. In overtime, he continued to attack. His and-1 layup had the crowd on it’s feet, and as Smith walked over tot he crowd, flexing his muscles, you could see a freshman growing up. He finally go to feel it. He finally saw Wolfpack Nation embrace him as their leader. He capped off the game with a massive windmill dunk that sealed the deal.
Stat line aside, this game was huge for the confidence of Dennis Smith Jr. You could feel a proverbial barrier being broken down and Smith coming into his own. If the Wolfpack is going to be successful, it’s going to be on the back of their freshman guard, and on Saturday night, it started to become clear to him that this is his load to carry.
Beejay Anya played up to his potential To be honest, it was starting to get to the point where it might be time to write off Anya. The senior big man had been averaging under 10 minutes a game over his page 4 games. He was providing very little on offense. Defensively, he had gone from a feared shot blocker to cheap foul machine who baled out his men with petty reaches and lazy footwork. Maybe it was Gottfried getting through to him? Maybe it was the fact that this was possibly his last chance to prove his worth with Omer Yurtseven coming back next game? Whatever it was, it worked. Anya played with passion, he played with grit, and most importantly he played smart. Anya finally was back to manning the middle by simply keeping his hands up. He used his massive wingspan to alter shots, block shots, and grab rebounds.
On offense, Anya did what NC State needed of him. Tennessee State decided to take their chances with the Wolfpack bigs by pressing up on the guards and not helping down on the blocks. This ended up coming back to bite them as Beejay hung a season high 12 points. He also connected on 6-11 FTs, which isn’t great, but is a step up for the big man who has struggled from the line his entire career.
With Yurtseven back against App State, Anya needed to prove that he was a viable option on the blocks. He did that and more, nearing a triple-double with 12 points, 14 boards and 7 blocks. This only adds to the trusted depth that Gottfried can dip into as the rigors of the ACC season approaches.
Defense finally showed up
If you look on the message boards or on twitter you’ll see a lot of people continuing to criticize NC State’s defensive effort. But while it wasn’t perfect, it was definitely improved. The guards did a much better job of keeping their men in front of them. There was less reaching and more position defense. This led to less steals, but it also made it tougher for Tenn. State to get easy looks or break down the defense by demanding help.
The biggest difference however, was the interior defense. Anya’s smarter play was a big reason that the Tigers shot a dismal 32%. They were forced to shoot over Anya and he was able to alter shot after shot without fouling. This forced them to look elsewhere, and had them taking shots from the perimeter that were often contested.
Overall, the NC State defense took a step forward against Tenn. St, and while it still is a work in progress, you have to be realize that this is a very young squad and team defense is almost always the last piece of the puzzle to come together.
They found a way to win
Say what you want, but the fact that this team fought the way they did to squeak out the win is impressive. Sure, the Wolfpack was the more talented team, but they are also a group that has not been in many do or die, late game situations. Finding a way to win is something that is usually learned. Luckily, for NC State they have some natural born competitors. Guys that are wired to win. Dennis Smith Jr’s late game demeanor was very telling. This is a guy who is not used to losing and he’s willing fight to keep it that way. His body language and intensity was contagious and you could see the whole team feeding of his (and at times Beejay Anya’s energy). Tennessee State is no power house, but they were making play after play down the stretch in regulation. There were many times that NC State could have folded, but they never did. That is good to see from a young group and something that will only continue to get better as the season goes forward.
While we believe this game was a net positive for NC State, it was far from a complete success.
• Rebounding still a concern: Rebounding continues to be a struggle for this team. Abu’s 3 boards in 20 minutes is inexcusable and if you run out a 3 guard lineup you better have both of your bigs putting up big numbers on the boards. Dorn added 8 of his own and Henderson had 5, but that isn’t going to make up for the 5 total you got out of your PF spot (Abu and Kapita). Now, maybe Yurtseven will fix this problem, but Gottfried needs to keep a eye on this situation. If you can’t rebound in the ACC, then you can’t win. If that means giving up your athleticism and running out a more traditional bigger lineup, then that’s what might have to happen. However, doing that would take away from the elite athleticism and the electric potential that this roster possesses. The answer here really needs to be getting big time rebounding numbers out of both your C and you PF. Until that happens, this team will not reach it’s final form.
• Shooting numbers were bad…very bad: 35% from the floor against Tennessee State just isn’t going to cut it. This team needs to be knocking down shots at a better clip than that. Getting Rowan back in shape will certainly help that, and Terry Henderson was 5-10, however the rest of the team needs to pick up the slack. You could argue that this game was played at Reynolds Coliseum, and that the team is not used to that gym, but really that’s not a good enough excuse. What really was going on was that the team was not running any sort of real offense for most of the game. Poor screen setting and guys (at times) going through the motions off-the-ball are the culprits. This means less open shots, more contested jumpers, and a shooting percentage in the mid to lower 30’s.
With the athleticism that this team possesses, you should be seeing easy buckets on the regular. You should be seeing guys driving, drawing and dishing. You should see screen and roles where the defender is literally picking their poison. Adding in Yurtseven with the high screen and roll is a major factor. This will give State a guy who can pick and pop, or pick and roll, and that makes it nearly unguardable if Smith is your ball handler. No matter the case, NC State needs to be getting better looks. They need to be taking smarter shots. And they need to go through their sets before they start playing isolation ball and hoping their athleticism will bail them out. They will have to learn this quick, as ACC play is a game of maximizing your points per possessions.
Overall, if you are looking at this team for what they really are and what they really could be in the grand scheme of things, then you have to believe that this was movement in the right direction. For those who thought that this group of freshmen, transfers and new faces, were going to come in and just start playing like a veteran group, then you likely haven’t watched much college basketball (or at least paid attention to how team’s grow and progress.)
This is a group that is learning as they go, and unlike many teams in this league, this is one that is void of any true on-court veteran leadership. They not only had to figure out how to play together, but they had an entire leadership paradigm to figure out, and that is not something you can sketch out on a whiteboard or talk through in the locker room. These are the things that need to play out on the floor, in battle. There are small moments where confidence is built, and if you aren’t paying close enough attention, you will miss them. So if you are hoping to see a finished product on the floor anytime soon, then you’re kidding yourself. Wait, watch and be excited for the moments where progress is made. Against Tennessee State, there were a few of those moments, and once that ball gets rolling, it gets rolling fast. Over the next two or three games, be ready to see a team that looks a little different, and a group that is game by game, a little more sure of who they are and what they are capable of.