When we last checked in on the basketball team, they were 3-0, having beaten three cupcakes. They had one more easy game scheduled before heading to the Bahamas to participate in the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they would play three games in three days against competition significantly better than they had faced all year.
Their fourth game of the season came against in-school rival Elon. From the Ken Pom ratings, Elon was the worst team they’ve faced this year. But, much like with Campbell and FIU, Elon gave the Pack a different look, as they were a team that plays primarily in a zone. And whether it was a case of struggling against that zone, or merely looking forward to their trip to the Bahamas, State did not have an easy go of it, as they finished with a closer-than-it-sounds 74-63 win.
It didn’t seem like the way you’d prefer things to play out, especially with their first game in the tournament coming against defending national champion and No. 3 in the polls Kansas. But maybe because it was a noon game – which is never an ideal time to play – or perhaps because State is better than everyone thought heading into the season, this game looked like a tilt between two evenly matched teams.
The Pack held its own early, which is always a good thing when playing against a heavy favorite, as you don’t want to get blown out right away. In fact, if it wasn’t for a remarkable half shooting 3-pointers, State probably would have had the lead. Instead, they found themselves down by nine at the half. But they came out strong after intermission. And with Kansas no longer hitting every shot from behind the arc, the Pack made it a game. At the under four-minute timeout, it was just a two-point Jayhawks lead.
Finally, Kansas looked like the better team in the last few minutes. It might have been a case of State getting tired or perhaps it was the team folding because it was the first time they had to try to close out a non-cupcake squad this season. Either way, the Pack put up a much-better fight than anyone expected. After the game, Kansas coach Bill Self was very complimentary towards State, calling their guards the quickest backcourt that they’ll have to face all year.
State dropped to the loser’s bracket and its second game of the tournament came against Dayton, the preseason favorite in their conference and a squad that suffered a one-point loss to Wisconsin in their opening contest. This game was a start in the 4 o’clock hour on Thanksgiving and the Flyers had an impressive beginning, as they built a 10-point lead midway thru the first half. And unlike with Kansas, it wasn’t because long-distance shots were going in at an unsustainable rate. Rather, Dayton was consistently getting to the hoop for layups.
State tightened up its defense and took a four-point lead into halftime.
Dayton came back to take the lead early in the second half but from that point on, it was all Wolfpack. State went on a 17-0 run and was never challenged again. Jarkel Joiner had a great game, finishing with 27 points, including 11-13 from the free-throw line. Terquavion Smith had a poor night shooting the ball and also played with four fouls for a big chunk of the second half. But he led the team with six assists. Jack Clark had 10 points and nine rebounds.
That set up the final game of the tournament against Butler, the squad that former State player Manny Bates transferred to following the 2021-22 season. At the time, it seemed like a death knell for State and coach Kevin Keatts. Instead, Keatts did a great job of his own in the transfer portal, brining in four players, including Clark and Joiner.
The other two transfers were centers picked to replace Bates. The Pack brought in Dusan Marhorcic from Utah and D.J. Burns from Wingate. And those two outplayed Bates, helping State to a 76-61 win, giving them a fifth-place finish in the tournament and a 2-1 record in the Bahamas.
Mahorcic had 13 points and six rebounds while Burns came off the bench to add 14 points and three boards in 16 minutes. Bates finished with eight points and nine rebounds.
The Pack had a balanced scoring attack, with five players in double digits, led by Joiner with 15.
It was an easy victory for State but not in the way that you would anticipate. They out-rebounded the taller Butler squad and came away with the win despite a poor shooting night from the players the Kansas coach praised after the first game in the tournament. Joiner, Smith and Casey Morsell combined to go 10-30 and there probably won’t be another game all year where State wins by double digits in a game where their three shooters combine to hit just 33% of their shots.
Instead, they won because of the strong post play from Burns and Mahorcic, the fact that they turned 14 turnovers into 21 points and also shot 13-16 from the line.
After playing four games against teams with virtually no hope of making the NCAA tournament at the end of the year, it was nice to see three games against tournament-quality teams. The fact that State played so well in the Bahamas is a strong indication that they’re better than the pundits thought at the beginning of the season, when they were picked to finish 10th in the ACC.
They’ve moved up 31 spots in the Ken Pom rankings and now sit at 50 overall, the sixth-best team in the ACC. My totally biased point of view is that they’re still significantly better than their ranking here. It’s my belief that they’re a legitimate top-30 team. Another computer model – the Jeff Sagarin ratings – has the Pack at 33 overall and the fourth-best team in their conference.
Finally, while this space is usually reserved for basketball, it should absolutely be noted that the Wolfpack football team went into Chapel Hill on Friday and beat No. 18 North Carolina in double overtime, 30-27. This football season started with the highest expectations since Lou Holtz coached the squad in the mid-1970s. But things came crashing down when preseason Player of the Year QB Devin Leary suffered a season-ending injury.
The win over the Evil Empire came with a freshman QB making his first start. Ben Finley, the younger brother of former State and NFL QB Ryan Finley, is the fourth different QB to start a game for the Pack this season. He started the year on the scout team and finished it by leading the squad to a road win over their biggest rival.
The season won’t end with a New Years Six Bowl Game but State should be in a respectable bowl game and can finish with a 9-win season if they emerge victorious in their final game. Dave Doeren has done a tremendous job building the football program in Raleigh. And now with news that the ACC is doing away with divisions for the 2023 season, State has its first legitimate chance to appear in the ACC Championship game. The two divisions have been a cruel joke, with the Atlantic being stacked with Clemson, State, Wake, Florida State and Louisville and the Coastal being the one where everyone gets a chance to advance to the title game. Starting next year, the two-best teams will play in the championship.
But as successful as Doeren has been, there were plenty of fans calling for his job after the dismal results in the injury-plagued 2019 season, when a team coming off back-to-back 9-win seasons went just 4-8. That offseason, Doeren overhauled his coaching staff, bringing in Tim Beck to be his offensive coordinator along with elevating recently hired Tony Gibson to run the defense solo after being a co-coordinator in his first season in Raleigh. They’ve gone 25-11 since that time. They were cheated out of a bowl game – and a potential 10-win season – last year when UCLA waited until the very last minute to cancel due to Covid problems in their program. It was especially aggravating because UCLA insisted there was no reason to worry about the game being played until the last minute. The chicken shit move on their part left no time to reschedule an opponent.
Meanwhile, you can draw comparisons to the situations faced by Doeren and Keatts.
Many were predicting that Keatts was a dead man walking after his team a season ago finished last in the ACC and then watched Bates transfer out. But Keatts re-did his coaching staff, bringing in former Wolfpack player Levi Watkins after a stint at Ole Miss. Watkins was joined by former UMKC head coach Kareem Richardson and Joel Justus, whose previous two stops had been Arizona State and Kentucky. Watkins was key in bringing in Joiner from the transfer portal.
Keatts already has two 4-star recruits signed to join the team next year. With the team’s 6-1 start to the 2022-23 season and a renewed sense of optimism around the program – to say nothing of the two-year extension given Keatts to “reward” him for navigating the recruiting mess left by former coach Mark Gottfried – it’s certainly possible that Keatts can bring stability and success to the basketball program, much like Doeren has done for football.