Most NC State fans were cautiously optimistic about the football team and then a sub-par offensive line and a disappointing running game led to some early losses. But now back-to-back wins against Clemson and Miami the past two weeks have turned the season around and the team sits at 6-3, with the possibility of a better-than-average bowl game on the table. And with that as our backdrop, the basketball season kicks off tonight against the Citadel.
Gone is last year’s dynamic starting backcourt of Jarkel Joiner and Terquavion Smith. They’ve been replaced by a bunch of transfers and one potential impact freshman and it will be up to coach Kevin Keatts to find the correct starting lineup among a squad with 8-10 potential starters. The only two players guaranteed starting spots are holdovers DJ Burns and Casey Morsell. After that, Keatts can go in a bunch of different ways.
In previous years at State, Keatts has gone with a guard-heavy lineup, so let’s start with the backcourt. The roster features a bunch of combo guards, with transfer Michael O’Connell and Breon Pass as the two true point guards. O’Connell was thought to have the inside track to start the season leading the team but after five turnovers in the exhibition game against Mt. Olive, that no longer seems written in stone. Pass seems more likely to be a reserve, so if Keatts opted to bring O’Connell off the bench, he’d likely start a combo guard at the point.
Transfers DJ Horne and Jayden Taylor both figure to see lots of minutes this year and they could be the starting backcourt sooner rather than later. The 6’4 Taylor is supposed to be a defensive stopper and lineups with both Morsell and Taylor should be better defensively than what we’ve seen recently from State. LJ Thomas has displayed some offensive ability in his brief time on the floor last year, including going 9-19 from behind the arc.
The two wild cards are freshman Dennis Parker Jr. and transfer MJ Rice. The 6’6 Parker played very well in the exhibition game and figures to earn more playing time once he adapts to the college level. Rice was a 5-star recruit who picked Kansas over State but saw little time in his freshman season and left for the Pack. He would likely be in line for big minutes early but he spent a lot of time away from the team for personal reasons and only recently re-joined the club. He has a big uphill battle for playing time but has the tools to make the climb.
The 6’3 Morsell is guard-sized but typically drew a forward defensively. Few doubt his defensive chops but it will be curious to see what he does offensively. When he first came to State, his offensive game was in shambles. Last year he became a reliable 3-point shooter and he comes into this season hoping to score more often by putting the ball on the floor and creating his own offense.
Keatts will have a nice four-man rotation to play in the post and they’re all talented enough that we should see two of them in the lineup at the same time more often than in the recent past. The star is Burns, who gave the Pack an interior force that they haven’t had in seemingly forever. In addition to his size, Burns also has a good handle, which allowed him to back down opponents on a regular basis. He also is a good passer, although sometimes he tries to make the incredible pass when a simple one will suffice. The biggest issue with Burns was stamina, as his size necessitated more breaks that his talent otherwise would have suggested. But he’s noticeably thinner this year.
Two transfers bring some needed size to the team. Ben Middlebrooks comes from Clemson and he played very well against the Pack last season. Middlebrooks is supposed to have good range on his shot but he’s also rugged enough that many feel he’ll be the team’s leading rebounder. French-born Mohammed Diarra made the jump from junior college to Missouri last year and came on at the end of the season for the Tigers. He’s been one of the stars of the preseason, with Keatts praising him for how hard he plays.
The highly athletic Ernest Ross rounds out the big-man quartet. The 6’9 Ross can jump out of the gym and is a solid rebounder. The issue is that his in-game aptitude hasn’t quite caught up with his athletic ability. At times it seems like he can see the play that needs to be made but stumbles in the execution. It’s the type of thing that can turn at any moment, when the game slows down enough for Ross to do it all. The junior will have to hope the light bulb stays on this season, or he’ll be the fourth option in this four-man unit.
Keatts came to State from UNC Wilmington, where he employed a full-court press with abandon and gave more-talented teams fits. He’s frequently pressed with his Pack teams but nowhere to the degree he did in his previous stop. Keatts has the depth and athleticism to press more than he has ever done previously in Raleigh. But will he do it?
It’s not hard to imagine a unit with Parker or Rice at the power forward slot and an aggressive press. If Diarra or Ross played center in that alignment, it might be the team that switches one thru five. But my guess is that we’ll see two bigs on the floor more often than one that presses with all five men for 94 feet.
State was picked to finish seventh in the ACC in the preseason media poll. Duke is the clear favorite, with Miami and UNC being next in line. After that is a big middle class with an almost interchangeable fourth thru ninth group of schools. The order of finish in this group will be determined by health and which coach can get the most out of his squad.
Last year, the Pack had a comfort level on offense, knowing that either Joiner or Smith – and sometimes both – would provide plenty of points. This year’s squad doesn’t have that elite scorer. But it should be a more-balanced attack. It’s up to Keatts to find the style the team should play and the individual players who should be in the game at any point. It may take a while to find the right mix and this should be a squad that no team wants to face come February.