After stepping up in quality of opposition the previous four games, the Wolfpack returned to the early-season tomato cans and defeated Maryland-Eastern Shore, 93-61, Wednesday night at the annual Heritage Game at Reynolds Coliseum.
It was quite a day for State sports, as the football team got a verbal commitment from a four-star linebacker, the university unveiled a statue of David Thompson outside of Reynolds, linebacker Peyton Wilson was announced as the Butkus Award winner during halftime of the game and the big win for the hoops team.
As far as the 2023-24 basketball team, the biggest news of the day was the debut of M.J. Rice, the former 5-star recruit who transferred into the program after a year at Kansas. Rice missed time due to an undisclosed personal issue and had been playing catch-up ever since. Earlier in the day, coach Kevin Keatts asked Rice if he was ready to play. Rice told Keatts yes and more importantly showed that on the court.
In 10 minutes off the bench, Rice scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting. He knocked down a 3-pointer but his most impressive play was grabbing a rebound, driving the length of the court and throwing down a vicious slam.
Rice gives the team not only another scoring threat but another dimension. At 6’5, he’s not a typical guard or forward. And this is no string bean, either. Rice is listed at 215 pounds and he might weigh more than that. But he’s not fat by any means – he’s just built like a tank.
State plays one more game against lower-level competition before taking on Tennessee, currently ranked #17 in the nation. Rice can use that game against Ut-Martin to further get in game shape.
It will be curious to see how Keatts deploys Rice going forward. The starting lineup features three guards in DJ Horne, Casey Morsell and Jaden Taylor, with all three playing well. Additionally, Morsell and Taylor are very good defenders. There could be times where Rice plays in a power forward role but State has received very strong production from Mo Diarra and rookie Dennis Parker Jr. up front, so it’s not like there are a ton of minutes available at that slot, either.
At this point, it’s a good problem to have.
The Pack went 2-2 in the four games prior to the drubbing of Maryland-Eastern Shore. These four contests were played against better competition and State saw questionable officiating in three of the games and also had to deal with a very limited Diarra, who suffered an ankle injury and barely played in the first three games of this stretch.
They split two games in the Vegas Showdown, beating both Vanderbilt and the officials in the first game before getting beat by BYU in the championship game. Everything that could go wrong did versus BYU. The Cougars are a good offensive team and they had an outstanding shooting night, aided by some lackluster defense by the Wolfpack. It had little impact on the outcome but the officiating here was poor, too.
State drew Ole Miss in the inaugural ACC-SEC challenge and in their first true road game of the season, got blown out by 20. The Rebels had a 7’5 center who gave DJ Burns fits. A focal point of the team’s offense, Burns managed just 5 points and 0 assists in 27 minutes. With Burns ineffective and Diarra hobbled, Ben Middlebrooks stepped up with 13 points and 12 rebounds in 22 minutes, displaying a toughness that will serve the team well going forward.
The final game of the stretch was the ACC opener against Boston College on the road. It’s always a tough road trip to Chestnut Hill and the Eagles had their own 7-footer for Burns and company to contend with in Quinten Post. State did a great job limiting Post in the first half but the big man helped BC tie the game in the second half to force overtime.
Diarra, back at full strength, hit a 3-pointer to give the Pack an early lead in the extra period and they emerged with an 84-78 win. State had a good night shooting, as it shot 8-18 from behind the arc and converted 18-21 from the line. Meanwhile, the Eagles connected on just 28.6% of 3-pointers and a dismal 14-26 from the charity stripe.
The Wolfpack had four players score in double digits, led by Horne with 21 and Burns with 17. Diarra came off the bench to add 8 points, 18 rebounds and 2 blocked shots.
With the team now at full strength, State should be able to match up with any team in the country. Featuring depth, multiple scorers and the ability to play at a fast pace, the Pack will be a matchup problem for most teams they face.