The Wolfpack completed the early, easy portion of their schedule with a 3-0 record. While that was expected, what comes as a bit of a surprise is the way they went about accomplishing those wins. Now, the schedule is about to take a step up in competition, as State gets ready to play two games in the Vegas Showdown and then the ACC-SEC challenge. That four-game stretch concludes with their first ACC game at Boston College, before being heavily favored in their next two contests.
One of the challenges that this edition of the Pack had to face was figuring out the rotation. That uncertainty led to a closer-than-expected 72-59 win over The Citadel to open the 2023-24 season. Easily, the best thing to come out of that game was the play of transfer Mohammed Diarra, who looked like he had both the size and the talent to be a starter at the highest level of college basketball.
Diarra finished with a double-double and his presence inside will help DJ Burns throughout the season. Those two will combine with Will Middlebrooks to give State a trio of big bodies to rotate among three spots. Hopefully, Ernest Ross will recover from an early injury which has limited his playing time to give State four post players. In the early going, freshman Dennis Parker Jr. has played both a wing and as a post player. Parker Jr. looks like the real deal, with a ton of athleticism and a real good idea how to play the game.
After a less-than-stellar opening game, there was some worry how the Pack would fare against Abilene Christian, which upset Oklahoma State in Stillwater in their previous game. But while the Wildcats scored 64 points like they did in their upset win, they allowed 25 more points to the Wolfpack, which ended with a 20-point victory. State ended up with 12 more points than they scored versus The Citadel. The Pack took a 10-point lead with a little over 12 minutes to play in the first half and the game was never in doubt after that.
Jayden Taylor and Casey Morsell each got untracked offensively in this game. Taylor finished with 22 points, bolstered by a perfect 9-9 from the free-throw line. Morsell, who had an ugly game in the opener, responded with 16 points. Burns and DJ Horne combined to shoot 12-20 from the floor, with Burns getting any shot he wanted. Diarra was the only scorer not to finish with at least 10 points, as he chimed in with nine points and 11 rebounds.
State’s third opponent, Charleston Southern, is one of the worst teams in college basketball, yet it was a one-point game with under nine minutes to play in the first half. But the Pack turned up the defensive pressure and it was a 19-point lead at the half, en route to an 87-53 win Friday night. State finished the night with 11 steals, which helped lead the way to 29 points off of turnovers. State again had four players with double-digit points, led by Horne with 18.
Burns was again toying with the opposition, getting buckets in multiple ways. Two scoring plays stood out. One was him cutting across the lane, ending with a foul on a shot flicked to the basket, one that hit nothing but net. The second was a pretty spin move, which resulted in a tomahawk jam. He finished with 16 points on 6-8 shooting from the floor in 25 minutes of play.
Coach Kevin Keatts has seemingly set on a starting five, with Burns, Diarra, Horne, Morsell and Taylor starting all three games. So far, eight players have seen the bulk of the minutes, with Michael O’Connell joining Middlebrooks and Parker Jr. as main reserves. As the year progresses, we might see Ross earn more minutes. There’s also talented transfer MJ Rice, who’s yet to see the floor. At 6’5, Rice would figure to see time at a wing position. Rice missed substantial time in the offseason for personal reasons and it’s unknown when and if he’ll start seeing time on the court. He was in street clothes on the bench for the Charleston Southern game.
Keatts has had guys picking up full court on defense and in the last game he broke out a couple of different zone presses. He was famous for his pressure defense before coming to State but hasn’t pressed as zealously since taking over in Raleigh. Still, his teams have done a good job in creating turnovers and that trend figures to continue this year, as he has more talented players this season.
The Pack currently ranks 50th in the Pomeroy Rankings and we’ll learn more about how good the team is after the upcoming four-game stretch. After Vanderbilt, State will face either Arizona St. or BYU in the Vegas Showdown. Both schools rank in the top 100 in the Pomeroy Rankings, with BYU currently at 17th overall.
My early impressions are that this is the best defensive team State has had in years, perhaps decades. The shooting is good enough that teams won’t be able to pack the paint against Burns. Morsell seems more comfortable putting the ball on the floor, which should lead to some easier buckets. If Diarra and O’Connell can continue their strong play once State gets into conference games, this could be a surprise team. If Parker Jr. continues to improve, this squad could challenge for a double bye.