There were high hopes coming into the 2020-21 season for the Wolfpack. However, Covid disruptions, injuries and a longer break-in period for the freshman than hoped for have all contributed to a disappointing season. However, the team seems to have finally found its footing, despite the season-ending injury to Devon Daniels, and nowhere was that more apparent than in yesterday’s 68-61 victory on the road against #15 Virginia.
Immediately following Daniels’ injury, State lost four of its next five games, with the lone win coming against a Boston College squad struggling with its own Covid issues. But State has now won three straight games and another injury has helped pave the way for this latest winning streak.
Starting guard Thomas Allen, a junior playing his first season in Raleigh after transferring from Nebraska, has missed the last three games with a leg injury. With Allen sidelined, redshirt freshman Dereon Seabron has been inserted into the lineup. A 6’7 wing, Seabron can do a little bit of everything and his intensity has made a big difference in the lineup.
Down Allen and Daniels, there have been more minutes for Seabron and true freshmen Cam Hayes and Shakeel Moore. Hayes looked primed to play major minutes before being sidelined with Covid and it’s taken longer than expected for him to return to his early-season strong play. But in his last three games, the point guard Hayes has combined for 38 points with just eight turnovers in 93 minutes, terrific numbers for a freshman in conference play.
With Seabron in the starting lineup, the Pack has done more full-court pressure, the system we’ve been hoping to see since Kevin Keatts became coach four years ago. The pressure is not as successful as Keatts’ teams at UNC-Wilmington but State is trying to run it while only going seven deep, which is less than ideal.
But paring down the rotation has resulted in better play, as it seems the freshmen are comfortable in their roles. It’s up for debate if the improved play is the result of more minutes or if it’s a case of the youngsters simply adapting to the level of play. Whatever the reason, we’re now seeing the type of team that we hoped to at the beginning of the season.
In the Virginia game, State jumped out to an early lead and essentially dictated play for 40 minutes. The color man for the game, former Notre Dame star Jordan Cornette, said near the end of the contest that people would think this was a game that Virginia lost. But anyone who watched it would know it was a game that N.C. State won. It’s an important distinction.
State has three games left on its schedule before the ACC Tournament. However, there is the possibility that games that were postponed earlier in the year could be made up. State lost three conference games to Covid earlier in the year. Yesterday’s Virginia game was rescheduled from its original January 20 slot. Still outstanding are a game at Louisville and home against Georgia Tech.
In an interview with Syracuse.com Mike Waters that was published on February 4, ACC Senior Associate Commissioner for Basketball Paul Brazeau said:
” It’s going to be difficult to play all of the postponed games, but we are exploring all options to make up as many as we can. We want to keep them on the table. We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve been able to schedule some games to replace postponed games and we’ve been able to make up some postponed games.’’
Here, three weeks later, it seems unlikely that any more games will be added to the schedule. The Georgia Tech game would be a good one to have available, as the two teams are close in the conference standings and it would be a chance for State to add a win to its resume.
An NCAA bid would probably require the Wolfpack to advance to the ACC tournament finals, if not an outright win of the tournament. It’s not what we expected but given all of the uncertainty with the world at large, it’s hard to complain too much about a basketball team’s output.
To end on an encouraging note, this State team did not quit when it would have been incredibly easy for them to do so. Despite a lousy record and losing their top player to a season-ending injury – on top of all of the extra precautions that athletes need to take to avoid the virus – this team fought to the very end. They played their most complete game of the year on February 20 against Wake Forest. And then they played a better game on February 24 against defending champion Virginia.
In the last two seasons, only two conference teams have won a game at Virginia. That would be N.C. State in 2019-20 and State again in 2020-21. The Pack should have at least four more games remaining this season. Hopefully they can keep up their strong recent play and give fans another highlight or two before the year ends.