NC State is heading to their second Sweet 16 in the Mark Gottfried era after knocking off #1 Villanova (who had lost only 2 games all season). They did it by executing with laser focus, playing with fire and tenacity and having well well balanced attack where everyone was involved. It was a team win where everything that needed to happen, did happen. Their leader, Trevor Lacey, played like their leader. Cat Barber controlled pace and disrupted Nova’s defense. Malik Abu continued his onslaught in the paint. And senior Dez Lee played an (unexpected but deserving) huge role in this one. Let’s take a closer look…
Lacey Came Focused and Hungry
This was the type of performance you need from you leader in big games. As Tyler pointed out in our pregame piece on Lacey, this was a nice matchup for him. He’s struggled with bigger guards that have length who have made it tough to get his shot off. Against Ennis he had a size advantage and it showed. Trevor pretty much did what he wanted against the Villanova defense. His 17 points were a team high and he also added 6 rebounds and 4 assists. Overall Lacey was as advertised. He hit huge shots and found a perfect balance for his attack. He didn’t take bad, forced shots, but picked his moments and came up huge. This is the Trevor Lacey that can lead NC State to the Final 4.
Barber Poised, Aggressive
Boy, Cat Barber has certainly arrived. A guy who at one point in the season was actually removed from the starting rotation has come back to become the motor that runs the entire team. Barber has become a true PG. Look at his stats. 13 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds. Not all that impressive right? But if you watched the game then you understand that he was the one controlling it. He set pace, he made the offense flow, and he was locking down on defense all night long. Great PGs don’t always light the stat sheet on fire, but when you watch one play, you can feel it. Last night you felt it. Barber’s ability to get in the lane, break the press and make shots when the team needed it was paramount in this victory.
Gottfried Calls Dez’s Number
Maybe it was the quick fouls on Turner, or maybe Gottfried just saw his senior missing shots and getting beat too often on defense in this one. Whatever it was, the call to pull Turner and play Dez Lee was a game changer. With Barber, Lacey and Lee on the floor, State became a different team. They stopped hunting down 3s and started attacking to basket. They ran their offense, found cuts, got their bigs involved and took control of the game. Sure, the fact that Lee came in ready to play, made some huge buckets and played lock down defense (without any miscues) was huge, but the real takeaway was the team dynamic. Ralston has been great for NC State. He’s won this team a lot of games with his shooting and he did knock down some big FTs at the end, but trying to run the offense through him and relying too much on his shot digs the Pack into some deep holes sometimes. We’ve been saying this since midseason. Turner is still a major part of this team, but if he’s not hitting his 3s then why not go with someone else? Turner is a great spot shooter, but having Lee on the floor bring a lot more defense, flow and versatility to this lineup.
All that being said, let’s turn our focus on the feel good story of Dez Lee. The guy who transferred in, played a large role as a junior but saw a lot of his minutes eaten away by the arrival of Trevor Lacey and the shooting of Ralston Turner this season. Lee could have pouted, been disruptive and gone sour on this team, but he didn’t. He kept working. He kept playing hard when his number was called, and on the biggest stage of his career he put forth his biggest performance. You’ve got to be proud of this kid! But I don’t think he’s done just yet. With Abu coming into his own as an offensive threat and Freeman and Anya capable as well, all of the sudden NC State doesn’t have to live and die by the 3. If Ralston isn’t hitting, or State needs to ramp up the defense, I think you’ll start seeing a lot more D Lee in the Sweet 16.
Abu’s Paint Dominance
You could see Abu’s potential when he arrived. Great body, scary athleticism, but hard hands, no back to the basket footwork and poor touch around the rim. Turns out, a lot of that was just getting comfortable and adjusting. Sure, the staff has worked hard to tailor his skills to the college game, but the talent has always been there. Now you’re starting to see the confidence and the hunger in his game. He’s playing hard, inviting physicality and demanding the ball in the paint. With Abu’s ability to score NC State become much more well rounded.
The talk over the past few days was all about State’s guards vs. Nova’s guards, but as we stated in our pregame articles, the bigs could end up deciding this basketball game. They did. With Turner’s shot off and Nova being a bit undersized, State was more than willing too feed Abu. And he did not disappoint. The freshman dominated the Wildcat bigs to the tune of 13 points and 12 rebounds. His relentlessness in the paint was a huge factor in State’s 13 offensive boards and their 32-20 difference in the rebounding numbers. I think last night is certainly going to make teams edit their scouting report to factor in this kid.
Don’t Forget Freeman
I think we can all agree. Lennard Freeman is taken for granted. The guy isn’t flashy, doesn’t throw down monster dunks and gets blocked more than almost any other big I’ve ever seen, but 11 points and 12 boards against a 1 seed doesn’t lie. And he’s been doing this since being inserted back into the lineup mid season. Freeman gives State energy. He gives them muscle in the middle and he gives them a workhorse who you can plug in and know what you’re going to get every time. Think of him as a late blooming Richard Howell. Freeman was an afterthought when he was recruited, but he’s become a big piece to this puzzle and he’s only getting better. Remember that this kid, age wise, could really be a freshman, but take a look at him and he looks like he might be a senior. He’s got a massive frame and he’s been using it.
Against Villanova Freeman was awesome. Fighting for rebounds, playing great position defense, and slowly but surely getting his offense together. It was nice to see him open up the second half with a little back-down baby hook. Him showing some scoring ability was big. It made the Nova bigs have to stay put and not help one another (with Abu on the opposite side). Sure, most of Freeman’s buckets were garbage buckets, and they might always be, but that’s how Richard Howell made a living and it’s a huge reason State is surviving and advancing. Let’s not make the mistake of overlooking him.
Gottfried Pulling The Right Strings
How many NC State coaches in history have ever gone to the NCAA tournament 4 times in their first 4 seasons? None. How about over 90 wins in their first 4 season? None. How about 2 sweet 16s in that time period? None. Gottfried is breaking all kinds of records at NC State and he’s just getting started. The guy knocked off 4 hall of fame coaches this season and took a team picked to finish 10th in the ACC to the Sweet 16. How has he done it? Well, he’s made a lot of smart moves, especially this year, many of which I think have gone overlooked.
For instance. Moving Kyle Washington to the bench and inserting Lennard Freeman. I can’t tell you how many people questioned this move. Freeman can’t score…we need offense…etc. All that move did was turn the season around by refocusing the team’s needs and channelling shots through Lacey and Turner. Washington was at times a black hole and with him as the 4, they needed him under the basket instead of on the short corner taking jumpers. State was being beaten on the boards and they already taking enough quick shots with Lacey and Turner. They didn’t need Washington doing the same. There was a lack of flow and chemistry on the floor and Gottfried recognized it while others were pointing the finger elsewhere. (Not taking shots at Kyle here because as you saw against LSU, he’s a very valuable player at times, but at this point more of a off-the-bench energy guy.)
And how about Cat Barber? When Tyler Lewis left there were a lot of people who wondered if Gott had made the right choice. Barber looked lost at times and just didn’t look like a true game changing PG. Gottfried knew otherwise and went all in on Cat. He coached him, mentored him and has really made it his duty to make Cat into a elite player. That work has paid off for both of them. Cat is now showing his ability to lead a team on a national stage and Gottfried has a guy he can trust running his team.
All of these things have been coming together over the last half of this season and they all seemed to meet and peak last night. Like we stated earlier, the Dez Lee move was just masterful. Maybe it was a bit lucky or maybe the staff had pegged Lee as a guy who could be big against Nova. Either way it worked and while we are heaping praise on the players, I think taking a step back and really seeing what Gottfried is doing with this program is advised.
Kansas Transfer MJ Rice Makes Quite the Impression in his NC State Debut
We’ve seen a lot of new faces on the NC State Men’s Basketball team this season, but one face we haven’t seen yet is Kansas Transfer Guard/Forward M.J. Rice (6’5″/215)…until tonight.
Rice stepped away from the program for personal reasons earlier this Fall, and when he returned, he had a little catching up to do. It wasn’t until today during shoot around that Rice and Keatts both knew that tonight would be his debut.
“He’d been practicing for the last couple of weeks, and you know, I was just trying to figure out when he was ready. He and I, we talked a little bit after shoot around today and I said ‘MJ you ready to go tonight?'” said Kevin Keatts. “and he had this big huge smile on his face. He’s like ‘You sure you ready?’ He’s like ‘Ask me some plays.’ So he and I sit over there on the scores table at the Dale and we went over plays and I was like ‘You know what, you are ready to play.'”
Out of all the transfers Keatts brought in this offseason, Rice might have the highest ceiling. Rice was a 5-Star prospect in the 2022 recruiting class, and ON3 ranked him as the #24 overall prospect nationally. He committed to Kansas, where he played in 23 games for the Jayhawks as a Freshman in 2022, averaging 2.2 points in 7.6 minutes per game. Rice was a huge pickup in the Transfer Portal, ranked as the #2 player in the Portal, with three years of eligibility remaining.
Rice also isn’t new to the area either, playing high school ball at Durham Academy, before heading off to Oak Hill Academy and Prolific Prep.
In a short sample size, Rice gave us a glimpse of what the hype is all about tonight. He scored 11 points in 11 minutes of play, also grabbing 6 boards. Rice was 5-6 from the field, and hit the only three he took. In the most electrifying play of the night, Rice took it coast-to-coast, finishing with a soaring dunk.
“He gives us another dimension. We’ve been playing with six of our new dudes. Now we added the seventh and I’m happy for him. He’s going to help us. He’s going to be really good for us.” said Keatts. “I said this on the radio just now…we’ve got some older guys, but two really good young players in Dennis Parker Jr. and also MJ Rice. It was good for MJ to see the ball going in. I think he played 10 minutes had 11 points. He made a three. He had a big time dunk, so I was excited for him.”
“He gives us the ability to play a little bit more small ball. If we have to, we can play him and Dennis Parker both at the three and four. Really good defender at that position and can rebound the basketball,” said Keatts. “It’s going to take time. I’m trying to figure out how to kind of put him into the rotation, and now we’ve added another really good exciting piece to it, but it was good to have him back out there.”
Welcome to the Pack MJ! We’re glad you’ve arrived!
NC State 93 UMES 61: BOX SCORE
Pack Insider’s Highlight Reel of NC State’s Win Over BC
Ready to watch NC State’s Men’s Basketball team play in the ‘old barn’ tonight against Maryland Eastern-Shore? Well, until 7pm, go ahead and get yourself hype by watching Pack Insider’s Highlight Reel of the Wolfpack’s ACC opening win over BC this past Saturday. Check it out above.
NC State’s a 20+ Point Favorite Over Maryland Eastern-Shore
NC State (5-2) will host Maryland Eastern-Shore (2-5) in Reynolds Coliseum, and the Wolfpack are 24.5-point favorites, and the Total is 147.5.
- NC State is 3-4 Against the Spread.
- Maryland Eastern-Shore is 2-4.
- NC State is 3-0 at Home Straight Up.
- They are 2-1 Against the Spread at home.
- Maryland Eastern-Shore is 0-4 Straight Up on the road.
- Maryland Eastern Shore is 1-3 Against the Spread on the road.
- The Total has gone Over twice, Under twice, and pushed once in NC State’s 7 games.
- The Total has gone Over 4 times and Under 2 times in Maryland Eastern Shore’s 6 games that had spreads.