What did we just watch?
As someone who is a big-time believer in Keatts and his style of basketball, this one was just disappointing.
The Pack came out guns blazing, jumping out to a quick 7-0 lead over UNC and it looked like the Heels were simply going to be out-physicalled and out-talented by the Pack. But after the Heels hit a few jumpers, the opposite happened. NC State seemingly lost interest in the game.
Where are the seniors?
Markell Johnson was in ‘float-mode’ again. This is what I call it when he just glides around the court without being in any sort of attack mode. He gets loose with the basketball, doesn’t take contact well, and looks hesitant on whether he should be shooting it or passing it. Markell finished with 12 points (on 6-19 shooting, 0-5 from 3pt range), 4 turnovers, 6 assists and less than stellar defense.
Don’t get me wrong, when Johnson is locked in, he’s one of the best players in the ACC. There are times when he’s very north-south with the basketball, very decisive, inviting contact and fighting through it. But those occasions seem to become rarer as the season wears on. As a senior, you need to have honed your consistency and effort-levels. Markell has not, and NC State is suffering because of that.
And what is going on with CJ Bryce? Is this a post-concussion hangover? You have to think that’s the case. His first game back against Clemson, he shot the ball and rebounded well, but he was extremely sloppy with the ball, leading to 4 turnovers. But you couldn’t blame him after missing so many games. Then against Virginia, he cleaned . up those turnovers, didn’t shoot it particularly well, but did hit one of the biggest jumpers of the game to secure the win. However, these last two games, it’s easy to see something is wrong. CJ, the toughest, most physical player on the floor, looks soft. He’s playing loose with the basketball, his shot is off, and his confidence seems completely lost. NC State’s leading scorer coming into this game hasn’t scored a single point in the last 2 games. If they’re going to turn things around, this has got to change.
Funderburk, Hellems and Daniels came ready
These were the three guys that really showed up against the Heels. Funderburk should have been the focal point of the offense for the Wolfpack, and really needs to be going forward if Markell and Bryce don’t get their act together. He’s been the most consistent player for the Pack all season and he was almost unguardable in the post last night. He finished with 18 points on 7-9 shooting (his only misses were a 3 from the corner and long jumper from the baseline). 8 boards, 2 steals and ZERO turnovers. Not force-feeding Funderburk was a mistake.
Jericole Hellems carried the Pack early with 5 points out of the gate, but foul trouble forced him out of the game. Part of that was because he was being forced to guard Garrison Brooks, which was a problem State was going to have regardless, with Bates just returning from concussion-protocol. While Hellems really didn’t do much after that initial burst, he did play with energy and played with the type of physicality required against Carolina.
Devon Daniels has earned his playing time this season. The Utah transfer has gone from a guy who really wasn’t playing within the flow of the offense, to a key piece of this team. His physicality on the defensive end and constant energy have been welcomed on a team that just doesn’t have enough toughness right now. When State’s defense is clicking, Daniels and Bryce are the two guys really muscling up on the perimeter and stopping drives to the hoops. With Bryce’s physicality missing lately, Daniels has been the only stopper Keatts can count on. And it’s not only on the defensive end. DD is increasing efficiency offensively. He still does need to clean up some of the off-balance shots he takes, he’s at least kind of earning them by being one of the only guys playing with the type of toughness required in this conference. He finished with 17 points (8-17), 6 boards and led the team with 3 steals.
The defense was BAD
This NC State team is so frustrating because they are so inconsistent. There are times when their halfcourt defense looks amazing. Teams have no driving lanes, the paint gets shut-off and the rebounding is great. Then there are times when it looks soft and porous, like last night.
Keatts instructs his guys to switch 1-5. Meaning if you get screened, you switch. That’s fine, but you have to understand that when you do that it’s easy for the screener to slip that screen. Obviously the players are aware of this, but last night they couldn’t stop it. Time after time, UNC, a team that struggles to shoot the ball were allowed to go off a ball screen and slip a pass into the screener who slips to the basket. At some point, you have to adjust. If you aren’t able to cut that pass off, you need to just allow your guard to go underneath. Force the Heels to shoot it. I mean, that’s the scout on them. They are THE worst shooting UNC team in modern history, and while they did hit more than usual last night, State should have lived and died by allowing them to take those long-range shots. Instead, they were picked apart by decent passing and punished in the paint by a group of mediocre bigs (yes, I’m calling Garrison Brooks mediocre)
Where to go from here?
Good question. I guess first you need to identify the problem. From the outside, it looks like something going on with this team internally. They aren’t playing as a unit, they don’t look bought in and they certainly don’t look focused. Secondly, you’re going to need Johnson and Bryce to get their act together going forward. These are big asks and if Keatts really is who he says he is, then he can right this ship. But right now, things aren’t looking good for the Wolfpack.