This NIL stuff makes it really tough to know what you’ve got coming into a season.
That’s why these early season games, which used to not matter, are a lot more fun to watch these days. Suddenly, I’m packing an entire off-season of speculation into a few weeks in early November.
There literally was no way to know what this team would look like coming into the season. Sure, you could look at the pieces and try to imagine what they’d look like together, but the only real way to get a reading on this team was going to be to watch these first few games.
With that said, here’s my takeaways against Citadel.
– This is going to be Kevin Keatts’ best defensive team.
Bold prediction based on history, but just 5 minutes into the game last night told me everything I needed to know. If NC State needs to lock down, they can go with DJ Horne at the point, Jaden Taylor at the 2, Morsell at the 3, and depending on who your opposing 4 man is, you can go with Dennis Parker Jr. or Diarra at the 4, with Burns or Middlebrooks at the 5.
In years past, Morsell was really the only guy you could count on to hawk an opposing dribbler, but this year you have Jaden Taylor who in my opinion might be a better on-the-ball defender. Morsell may have the advantage in terms of getting in position, but Taylor is super athletic and really feisty when he digs down and defends. Then you have Dennis Parker Jr at the 4. He’s going to split time with Diarra, but when State can go smaller (Parker is 6’7) Parker is super athletic and is a very good defender for a freshman (both on the ball and in help situations).
– This team is going to be a lot less frustrating to watch (in terms of team basketball)
I loved watching Joiner and Smith get hot, but as a big fan of team basketball and finding good, open shots, the way those guys played could be frustrating. Now, look, I’m old-fashioned. I know basketball has changed and the 1-on-1 isolation era has arrived. But does that basketball really win games? Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t.
This team did a great job of moving the ball, staying patient, and finding the open man. When you do these things, the shots will eventually fall and it will be a pleasure to watch.
– Mike O’Connell is the new Engin Atsur
Deep cut for all you older state fans, but O’Connell isn’t a flashy PG who is going to break you down off the dribble. But he’s a guy who can control pace, find the open man, and knock down open shots. A lot like former NC State PG Engin Atsur used to do during the early 2000’s.
O’Connell finished with 14 points and 7 assists. That’s a Markell Johnson type stat-line that we haven’t seen here in a while. Now, before you get TOO excited, O’Connell knocked down four 3s and was 4-5 from downtown last night. This is a guy who shot 33% during his best season at Stanford. He’s going to get out-quicked in a some games and he’s not going to be Archie Miller, draining 3s all over the place, but he’s going to be a good solid PG for NC State and the type of control-guard that they haven’t had in a long time.
– DJ Burns was as advertised.
16 points in 26 mintues. He looked as you’d expect and will have the offense run through him all season long.
– DJ Horne is going to be our best-scoring guard
He was off last night, but you can see how this guy can score in bunches. He doesn’t look like a volume shooter, and was picking his spots last night, but you can tell that when he gets hot he’ll be hard to stop. Very quick, great body control and confidence from deep. He finished with 6 points, 6 boards and 4 assists.
Horne will be a hybrid guard who plays PG a lot this season (especially in games where O’Connell is out-athleted.)
– Jaden Taylor is TBD
Defensively, I already told you that Taylor is going to be VERY good. But offensively it’s still a question in my mind. He knocked down 2-3 from downtown, but was 3-9 overall for 9 points. He looks very athletic, but didn’t get to see enough of him to understand what he’s capable of at this level. He does looked to be locked in as NC State’s starting 2-Guard.
– Mohamed Diarra is the 4 Keatts has always needed
Keatts thought he could replicate his success at UNCW by going small and out-quicking opponents in the ACC. It didn’t work. And while I’m not so sure he understands that yet, he’s about to get a full season of convincing. Dennis Parker Jr (6’7) was recruited for this position, to take the place of Jack Clark, who had taken the position of Jericole Hellem, who had taken the position of CJ Bryce, who had taken the place of Torin Dorn.
Look, the 4 position under Keatts had always been a huge hole. They were undersized tweeners who would have dominated in lower leagues and actually had some success offensively at times, but in the ACC you need size, and when Diarra committed here, it was finally a situation where we’d get that.
Diarra is 6’10, but is super-mobile and can guard the perimeter. There aren’t many guys like this, which is why building a system where this position needs a guy like this seems like an uphill battle, but I guess every now and then you land one of these agile giants.
Anyways, Diarra was great. He played back-to-the-basket center last year at Missouri but now gets to play his more natural position where he’ll get a ton of wing touches. He finished with 10 points and 14 boards (adding 3 blocks). When NC State needs to go big (and they will need to a lot) Diarra gives them a real twin-tower situation down low. And it also gives them a true rebounder, since Burns struggles to rebound at times.
– Ben Middlebrooks TBD
Middlebrooks looked really physical in his 14 mintues, but I didn’t get to see enough of him to figure out what he’s capable of. My guess is that he’ll get minutes at the 5, when Burns needs a break and might actually get some time at the 4 when NC State plays a team with a bunch of front line bruisers and Diarra isn’t strong enough to bang on the blocks.
– Dennis Parker Jr. is going to be good
Biggest surprise of the night for me. I thought this kid looked great. He’s extremely athletic, he’s not a nice shot and he’s got a high on-court IQ. I think Parker, the lone freshman, is just scratching the surface. He’s going to be a big contributor this season and will be perfect to compliment Diarra when NC State needs more quickness on the perimeter. The good news is, they won’t be giving up any toughness, as this kid loves contact, and is also willing to attack the rim with reckless abandon.
Parker had the 2 most eye-popping plays for me last night night. His crossover and drive to the hoop (which he missed) was an elite athletic move with a great combination of clean footwork and inviting contact. The other play was his help-side block where he saw a driver with a clear lane to the hoop, left his man and rose up to throw the layup attempt into the first row. Elite athlete and will be a fan favorite soon.
NC State vs. UMES: BY THE NUMBERS
NC State defeated Maryland Eastern Shore 93-61 on Wednesday night. Here’s a look at the Wolfpack victory BY THE NUMBERS.
NC State dominated in all 4 Factors that lead to victory. They shot better, won the turnover battle, grabbed more offensive boards and got to the free throw line more.
Six NC State players scored in double figures. Last time that happened? March 6, 2020.
Junior Jayden Taylor led the Wolfpack in scoring with 21 points, shooting an impressive 8 of 11 from the field, and 3 of 5 from three. Over the past 2 games, Taylor is shooting 68% from the field and 63% from beyond the arc. Taylor has now led NC State in scoring in 3 of their 8 games, and is averaging a team high 14.9 points on the season. He is also shooting an insane 50% from deep, which is obviously a team high. What makes that number so impressive, is the fact he shot 32.6% from three last year at Butler.
Senior DJ Burns had 15 points, and was back to his normal self, shooting an efficient 7 of 9 from the field. Over the prior two games, Burns had made only 40% of his shots, which isn’t like him.
Senior Casey Morsell had 12 points on 4 of 8 shooting (1-4 3PT) and 5 rebounds. Morsell is shooting 36.1% from three on the year.
Sophomore MJ Rice made his NC State debut, and made the most of his 10 minutes of playing time, scoring 11 points and grabbing a team high 6 rebounds (2 offensive boards). He shot 5 of 6 from the field.
Sophomore LJ Thomas continued to provide a spark for the Pack, and like Rice, maximized his playing time, scoring 10 points in 9 minutes of play. He also had a team high 3 steals.
Senior DJ Horne had 10 points, shooting 4 of 7 from the field, and 2 of 5 from three-point land. Horne also led NC State with 4 assists, and now leads the team in assists on the year.
Junior Ben Middlebrooks picked up his first start of the season. Middlebrooks and Junior Mohamed Diarra ended up playing equal minutes (14). Diarra was seemingly more productive, with 8 points and 5 boards (averaging a team high 6.9), compared to Middlebrooks’ 2 points and 4 boards. Before you write off Middlebrooks’ impact in his first game as a starter, NC State was +23 with him on the court, which was a team high, compared to Diarra’s +7.
The Wolfpack will be back in action next Tuesday night in PNC Arena, against UT Martin at 7pm.
NC State’s NET Ranking After Defeating Maryland Eastern Shore
NC State defeated Maryland Eastern Shore 93-61 last night, improving to 6-2 on the season. Ironically, they fell one spot in the NET Rankings, from 51st to 52nd.
NC State’s two losses were against #1 BYU (!) and Ole Miss (#89). BYU was a Quad 1 loss, and Ole Miss was a Quad 2 loss.
The Wolfpack currently rank 7th in the ACC.
ACC Teams in NET Rankings
52) NC State
71) Virginia Tech
91) Boston College
105) Wake Forest
107) Florida St.
159) Georgia Tech
212) Notre Dame
For a refresher on how the NET Rankings are calculated:
Using the quadrant system, which was in its fourth season in 2020-21, the quality of wins and losses will be organized based on game location and the opponent’s NET ranking.
Quadrant 1: Home 1-30, Neutral 1-50, Away 1-75
Quadrant 2: Home 31-75, Neutral 51-100, Away 76-135
Quadrant 3: Home 76-160, Neutral 101-200, Away 135-240
Quadrant 4: Home 161-353, Neutral 201-353, Away 241-353
The number of Quadrant 1 wins and Quadrant 3/4 losses will be incredibly important when it comes time for NCAA tournament selection and seeding. (NCAA)
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!