Before this college basketball season started, most had North Carolina State in the middle of the pack. If everything broke right, including the continued offensive development of star defensive center Manny Bates, a fourth-place finish would be realistic. So, of course, less than one minute into the first game of the season, Bates injures his shoulder and is out for the year.

Losing your starting center is rough on any team. It was even worse for State because they weren’t particularly deep in the front court. Ebenezer Dowuana is a highly-touted sophomore but he essentially didn’t play at all his freshman season. The plan was to spot him for 5-10 minutes a game this year and hope he was ready for prime time as a junior. Ernest Ross is this year’s Dowuana – highly touted but raw. Jayon Gibbons is even more of a project. Without Bates, this group is in a lot of trouble.

Fortunately, the beginning of State’s basketball season wasn’t too difficult. Unfortunately, without Bates, they had trouble in the early going in their non-conference slate. There were some close wins against teams that were ranked in the triple digits by KenPom. And the only power conference team they played, Oklahoma State, gave them their only loss. Now, Oklahoma State didn’t look particularly good and the Wolfpack came up short, even if they were within two points with under a minute to play.

Last night was their second game against a power five team, as they hosted Nebraska in the annual ACC-Big whatever-the-number is now challenge. Again, Nebraska is not thought to be one of the conference’s elite teams. But in the second half it looked like they were going to blow State out, as they built a 14-point lead.

State cut the deficit to 10 on a 3-point bucket by Jerricole Hellems. After the bucket, which was right in front of the State bench, Hellems flexed in front of his teammates. A Nebraska player didn’t like it and came up to Hellems and gave him a forearm shiver. Both benches emptied and the game was delayed for quite some time while the refs tried to sort things out. Ultimately three Nebraska players were ejected, along with Wolfpack PG Cam Hayes, who was a guy that State needed to score down the stretch.

Hayes did come up and give a shove to the Nebraska player who gave the cheap shot to Hellems. It was understandable why he was ejected but at the same time it would have been reasonable to give him a technical and keep him in the game.

With Hayes ejected, State had to play 6’7 Dereon Seabron at point guard. Seabron’s been their best player this year and he’s certainly capable of playing point for a bit. The problem is they also needed him inside to help get rebounds. And with Hellems having an off night and Casey Morsell leaving with an injury, the offensive load completely fell on Seabron.

And he delivered.

Seabron carried the team on his back, handling the ball, driving fearlessly to the basket and doing his part on defense, too. Behind Seabron, State tied the game to force overtime. The game went into a second OT. And then a third. Finally, State won the game in the fourth overtime, escaping with a 104-100 win. Seabron finished with 39 points and 18 rebounds. Hellems was the next high scorer with 15 before he fouled out.

This State team may not be very good. But it’s going to show up and give you everything they have. The record’s not going to be pretty. But any win they get is going to be like the Nebraska game, where the players just outworked the other team, despite the deck being stacked against them. Before the game started, news came out that coach Kevin Keatts landed a top recruit, as 5-star PG Robert Dillingham committed to the Pack. He’s considered one of the top 10 overall players in the 2023 class.

So, State will have to take its lumps this season. Yet one of the hallmarks of Keatts’ State teams is that they generally play better in March than they do in January. Instead of obsessing over wins and losses this year, we’ll be looking for improvement in Dowuana and Ross while rooting for Seabron to be an All-Conference player.

And if we can beat the Evil Empire, that will be great. In case you missed it, in the final regular season football game of the year, State rallied to beat UNC by scoring twice in the final minutes, with the winning score coming after the team recovered an onside kick. That play was completed by the kicker, who recovered the ball after it went 10 yards. Not sure I’ve ever seen that before. State played that game with seven starters on defense missing the game due to injuries. The football team clearly had more depth than the basketball squad. But here’s hoping the hoops team can take some inspiration from their football brethren.

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