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Opinion: NC State will never reach full potential until defensive fundamentals are taken seriously

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I’ve hinted about this for over a year now. I’ve gone play-by-play on game footage to show you that I’m not making this stuff up. And now I’m going to scream it.

NC State will never reach its full potential until defensive fundamentals are taken seriously.

I’ve been a vocal Keatts supporter since he arrived, despite many potential coaching red flags. I believe he has the intangibles that very few coaches have and things you really can’t teach.

For one, his players love playing for him. For years, NC State fans have complained about lack of effort from their teams. Keatts’ kids give 100% every time out. Over his tenure, I can only remember one or two games where I felt the team wasn’t scrapping and playing their hearts out. That’s the first thing a coach needs to be able to do to achieve success.

Secondly, Keatts is very good at evaluating talent. He got commitments from Josh Hall, Jalen Lecque, Saddiq Bey, Terquavion Smith, and more recently Trea Parker. All of these guys were 3-star recruits when Keatts first got involved. He’s able to get the jump on larger programs by trusting his own eyes instead of waiting on recruiting gurus to tell him who is college ready.

Keatts offensive system isn’t all that bad either. I know most fans criticize the fact that they play a lot of 1 on 1 basketball, but his teams have always been top 5 in the ACC in scoring and with decent bigs this season, you can see that he’s not afraid to have his guys dump it down and play from the post when needed. This offense works fine when you have elite playmakers, and for the majority of Keatts tenure, he’s had that.

But there has been one glaring weakness since he’s arrived…

Defense.

I’ve said it probably 50 times. This style of defense, where you switch on all screens 1 through 5 (or 1 through 4), you press almost all game, and deflections are rewarded, is undermining this basketball team’s chance to succeed.

Keatts and staff probably don’t want to hear it, and believe if they stay the course they will succeed with it, but the numbers don’t lie. It’s not working at this level.

This type of defense works at lower levels. The press dominates against smaller guards with lower court-IQ. The length, speed, and hustle overwhelm teams not accustomed to pressure. And it leads to steals, which leads to points, which leads to wins.

However, the ACC is filled with big, smart, athletic guards, and coaches are prepping their teams on how to dismantle the Wolfpack. Meanwhile, the Pack is wasting valuable energy, while consistently giving up uncontested easy buckets. This forces even the best offensive team to have an uphill climb to win.

Just look at the last game vs. Miami.

Smith, Joiner and Burns all had great games. Morsell played fine. Yet, NC State still lost.

You can blame the foul trouble of Jack Clark if you want, but all 5 guys shouldn’t have to play perfect basketball to get a win. Having 2 guys have big games should be enough on most nights, and when both your guards and your big man go-off there should be no excuse for losing.

So what the heck is going on?

Just look. NC State racks up the turnovers in non-conference play with their press, but against ACC opponents, those turnovers drop off. Miami only turned the ball over 6 times against the Pack. The trade-off from 6 turnovers was a ton of spent energy, and a bunch of easy, uncontested buckets from Miami when they broke the press.

NC State is not getting good value from its press. If you ask me, Keatts would be better off having his guys pick up at half-court most of the game, playing a more fundamental, traditional style of defense, and then surprising his opponents with the press in certain situations.

The key for the Pack, it seems, is to make their opponents score OVER them. Meaning, stop letting guys get to the rim and start limiting easy buckets.

Very few teams will be able to out-score NC State if they have to rely on jump shots.  However, Wolfpack opponents get a big chunk of points off rim runs from breaking the press, or isolations when a mismatch occurs because of a switch.

The ‘switch-everything on defense’ strategy that swept college basketball for a decade has been a failure for most. The ACC is too talented to think your 4 man can guard the opposing point guard. NC State can probably switch 1 through 3, however, I wouldn’t even do that. I would challenge my team to be disciplined enough to hedge and recover on ball screens. So what if they get off a few 3s here and there? What this team needs to do is limit drives to the hoop. That’s where all the havoc is being created.

For example, when Joiner’s man goes off of a screen set by Jack Clark’s guy, NC State switches that screen.Clark takes Joiner’s guy and Joiner takes Clark’s guy. Suddenly you have a point guard attacking the 6’8 Jack Clark, and while Clark is very versatile for a 6’8 guy, a smart, talented PG is going to exploit this. All he has to do is get a half step on Clark, which then means someone needs to pinch in to help, leaving someone open on the wing for a wide-open shot (or a big helps over, opening up a window for a dump-off).

The idea of the ‘switch everything’ defense means that there are no windows for open shots or drives off of ball screens. However, they leave you with a mismatch that teams are taking advantage of over and over against NC State.

If you don’t switch, there are small windows where the ball handler could get off a shot (if the defender goes under the screen). And if the defender goes over the screen, the drive is open if the hedge isn’t perfect. But this is where you have to teach smart, situational defense.

There are few shooters good enough in the ACC to warrant chasing them over top of a screen. In those cases where you have an elite shooter, switching the screen might make the most sense. However, the rest of the time, having a hedge from your big, going under, and recovering keeps the ball handler out of the lane and keeps the matchup Guard vs. Guard.

So what if Isaiah Wong wants to launch a 3 from 4 feet beyond the arc with the outstretched hand of a defender in his face? The guy is a career 34% 3 point shooter and with a hand in his face that number is certainly lower.

Instead of baiting marginal shooters into shooting contested shots, NC State continues to take away those shots and bet they can handle the mismatch because of their versatility.

That bet has lost a lot of games for NC State, and unless you can put together the perfect roster AND eliminate injuries every year, it’s going to continue to lose games.

It’s not rocket science, in fact, most State fans are saying a version of this same thing. Even if they aren’t aware of the intricacies of defensive strategies, they see the Pack constantly on their heels defensively.

Sure, some nights you can outscore the defensive flaws, but like we saw against Miami and Pitt, some nights you can’t.

The most frustrating thing is that this can be fixed. It just takes a little pride-swallowing and demanding defensive communication. It isn’t like Keatts doesn’t know how to teach defense. He does, he’s just teaching a system that isn’t working.

If NC State is going to reach their potential under Kevin Keatts, they are going to have to adjust their defensive strategy. Hate that statement if you want to, but after 5 and 1/2 years, it’s getting hard to argue that it’s false.

A pasta eatin', Wolfpack lovin' loudmouth from Raleigh by way of New Jersey. Jimmy V and Chuck Amato fanboy. All opinions are my own and you're gonna hear'em.

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Papajohn
Papajohn
1 year ago

Great write up.

Rev
Rev
1 year ago

I agree. I would add that I think adding a zone, any zone, would give us another situational option. Just like the occasional press, a match up zone would not just surprise an opponent, it might help protect big men in foul trouble.

NC State Basketball

Here is the 2024 ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament Bracket

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The bracket for the 2024 ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament is here. The 10th ranked NC State is the #2 seed in the tournament, and their first game will be on Friday at 5pm on ACC Network.

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The Wolfpack will play the winner of the Duke (7 seed) vs. Georgia Tech (10 seed)/Pitt (15 seed).

NC State defeated Pitt 83-47 on February 11th, and they defeated Georgia Tech 86-85 on February 18th.

The Wolfpack lost to Duke 58-69 on February 25th. NC State entered the game as 1.5-point favorites, but ended up losing in enemy territory.

Georgia Tech defeated Pitt 68-58 on January 7th. Duke defeated both Georgia Tech and Pitt this season, defeating the Yellow Jackets 84-46 on January 14th, and the Panthers on 69-38 on February 1st.

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NC State Basketball

There is Reason to be Frustrated

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If you are an NC State fan, it’s only reasonable that you’re frustrated with the state of the Men’s Basketball program.

Under Kevin Keatts, NC State has gone to the NCAA Tournament twice in 7 seasons. The Wolfpack didn’t win a game in the Big Dance in either of those appearances.

Keatts has led NC State to a 3-5 record in the ACC Tournament, failing to reach the semifinals a single time.

You could make an argument that his first season in Raleigh was his best (I don’t think it was), because the Wolfpack finished 5th in the ACC, which is the highest the team has finished in the conference under his watch.

2017-18 – 5th
2018-19 – 8th
2019-20 – 6th
2020-21 – 9th
2021-22 – 15th
2022-23 – 6th
2023-23 – 9th (currently)

Average finish: 8.3

(For context, in 6 seasons, Mark Gottfried’s average finish was 8.7.)

Over the past 7 seasons, NC State has been ranked in the Top-25 in only 8 polls (2 separate seasons), with the highest being on January 7th, 2019, when the Wolfpack were ranked 15th.

Under Gottfried, NC State was ranked in 13 polls (all one season). With Herb Sendek at the helm, the Wolfpack were ranked in the Top-25 in 5 different seasons, in a total of 35 polls.

Do I think Kevin Keatts is the worst coach at NC State in recent memory? No, that award goes to Sydney Lowe. In all reality, NC State’s record overall and in conference play is nearly identical under Keatts, as it was under Mark Gottfried and Herb Sendek.

(Overall/Conference)
Kevin Keatts – 58.3/48.3
Mark Gottfried – 58.9/45.3
Herb Sendek – 59.1/45.0

What’s the difference between Keatts and the other two?

A couple of observations.

Sendek finished his time at NC State with 5 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, and Gottfried started off his tenure with 4 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. The Wolfpack advanced to the 2nd round 3 times, and the Sweet 16 once under Sendek. Under Gottfried, they advanced to the 2nd round twice.

Sendek led NC State to the ACC Championship game 3 times (in 10 years), and the semifinals 4 times. Gottfried led the Wolfpack to the semifinals on 3 occasions. Heck, Sidney Lowe led NC State to the ACC Championship game once, and the semifinals on another occasion.

Is the NC State Men’s Basketball program worse off under Keatts than it was under the previous coaches? If you simply look at total wins and losses, that’s not necessarily the case, but when you look at the Wolfpack’s production in postseason play, there is no other answer besides ‘yes.’

Every now and then you have to be willing to eat crow. Years ago, I was of the opinion that Herb Sendek needed to go. Do I think that Sendek would have brought NC State back to where it was in the 80’s? I didn’t think it then, and I’m not certain my opinion on that has changed, but the past 20 years has proven to me that the grass isn’t always greener.

Call me nostalgic, but from a historical perspective, I believe NC State fans have right to expect their Men’s Basketball program to be successful…to consistently be ranked in the Top-25…to finish in the top half of the ACC…compete for conference championships…and go to the Big Dance on a regular basis.

There is reason to be frustrated.

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NC State Basketball

Madison Hayes Will Be Returning for Her Final Year of Eligibility in 2024-25

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Last night NC State Guard Madison Hayes was honored on Senior Night, but she also announced that she would be returning in 2024-25 for her final year of eligibility. She was honored alongside Center River Baldwin and Forward Mimi Collins, who are both out of eligibility after this season.

Hayes is in the midst of a breakout season this year, averaging 11.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, which are both career highs. She ranks 3rd on the team in scoring, behind the other two Guards in the starting lineup, Aziaha James and Saniya Rivers, who will also be back in 2024-25. Even though she is a Guard, Hayes leads the Wolfpack in rebounding. Her 44.1% Field Goal Percentage is the best of any of the Wolfpack Guards, and her Three Point Percentage of 41.7% is the best on the squad.

As a Senior in high school, Hayes was named a McDonald’s All-American in 2020, and she earned a spot on the All SEC Freshman team in 2021 as a member of Mississippi St. In 2021-22, she transferred to NC State, and played in 26 games off the bench, but earned a spot in the starting lineup last season.

Big news for the Wolfpack Women’s Basketball program!

 

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NC State Basketball

NC State 64 #9 Duke 79: BOX SCORE

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#9 Duke defeated NC State 79-64 in PNC Arena this evening. With one game remaining for the Wolfpack in the regular season, they are now 17-13 overall, and 9-10 in ACC play. Below is the Box Score.

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