What better way to put the nightmare that was the 2021-22 college basketball season behind us than with a blowout in the first game of 2022-23. And that’s exactly what the N.C. State Wolfpack did Monday night, as they trounced the Austin Peay Governors, 99-55 at PNC Arena in Raleigh.
So, if you missed it last year – and good luck if you did – a think NCSU team lost its only legitimate inside presence when Manny Bates went down with a shoulder injury in the first 60 seconds of the first game. And to make matters worse, Bates transferred in the offseason, bolting for the greener pastures in Butler. And several other players transferred, too, but none was as big of a loss as Bates. Additionally, Dereon Seabron, who had an outstanding year, left pro early. He’s now playing in the NBA for the New Orleans Pelicans.
Kevin Keatts had his work cut out for him and he hit the transfer portal hard, bringing in three starters and a fourth player expected to see multiple minutes. Instead of wondering if three and four-star freshman can play and contribute right away, Keatts opted for more experienced players, perhaps with a lower ceiling but definitely with a higher floor.
And while last year’s squad was extremely thin up front, there are six players capable of playing the traditional center/power forward positions. Ebe Dowuona, who was forced into major minutes when Bates went down last year, is now third on the depth chart at center. Keatts has always preferred to play a relatively small lineup in the past, played his top two centers – D.J. Burns and Dusan Maharcic – on the floor at the same time some last night. Both Burns and Maharcic came to the club via the transfer portal. Burns is a load down low and also has a nice touch. The question is if he’ll be able to play major minutes due to conditioning. Maharcic is not as polished as Burns but teams won’t be able to ignore him the way they did Dowuona last season.
Jack Clark, another transfer, gets the start at power forward and will alternate between the “3” and the “4” in the offense. He’s a good size at 6’8 but is more of an outside player than one to camp out in the paint. Still, he is a good rebounder and this year’s team looks like it will be much better on the defensive boards than the last year’s squad.
When Clark plays power forward, Casey Morsell holds down the small forward spot. Morsell is an undersized forward and is probably better suited to be an off guard. But he competes, is probably the best defensive player on the team and will get his chance with some open threes.
Running things at the point is Jarkel Joiner, the last of the impact transfers. He’s very quick, is a pest defensively and does a nice job getting everyone involved in the offense. The other guard is Terquavion Smith, who came back to the program despite likely being a late-first-round selection in the NBA Draft following his freshman season last year. Smith can score from anywhere on the court and has great leaping ability. He’s back looking to improve on ball handling and getting his teammates involved in the action.
Picked in the preseason to finish 10th in the ACC, the Wolfpack just had too many weapons for the Governors to handle Monday night. Smith finished with 26 points, Joiner added 18 points and eight assists and Clark contributed 15 points. Burns came off the bench to add 10 points and nine rebounds in 18 minutes.
It’s one thing to beat up a team from the Atlantic Sun, it will be another thing to see how the transfers do once they start play in the ACC. Only Joiner came from a top conference, having played previously at Ole Miss. But along with their experience, these players give State production from all over the floor. Last year’s team didn’t have anyone who was a threat in the paint. They got points inside mostly from drives to the bucket from Seabron. This year, teams will have to contend with Burns and Mahorcic from inside, which should open things up both outside the arc and in the mid-range.
A lot of fans are restless with Keatts and think this could be his last season. Certainly, another showing like last year would probably mean the end of his tenure. But this might be one of his deepest teams and without a doubt it’s the one with the most frontcourt depth. When Keatts was hired, it was with the promise of a team that could press full court for the entire game. But he hasn’t had the horses to play that way. It’s possible this year’s team could finally be that squad. But we saw no press at all Monday night. It remains to be seen if that’s just how it will be or if it was merely a case of not needing it against an inferior squad.