As anyone who’s ever attended NC State can tell you, this week is the least wonderous time of the year: it’s the heart of exams for the students, a time that means late nights studying, tense hours in the classroom for even the best prepared, and the final sprint to the finish of fall semester.
State’s basketball players are in the middle of that, just like all the other students are at the moment, but for the Pack’s cagers, they have exams after their fall finals are done: after the annual return to Reynolds Coliseum and a game against Detroit, they have a tough three game stretch that will test their basketball mettle.
First up is a road trip to Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville to face the Tennessee Volunteers (currently 6-2, RPI #114) and a game that the Pack would love to have a victory from to flesh out their season’s resume. The Vols are called one of the ten most underrated teams in the country by ESPN, but like the Pack, they are stitching their team together with a mix of new faces and old hands: Jeronne Maymon missed last season with a knee injury, Antonio Barton transferred from Memphis and three freshmen arrived, and while they are not yet formidable, they will be a challenge to a young Wolfpack team, especially one that features as many young players as this year’s addition. Win or loss, the dose of road medicine will probably pay dividends down the road in conference play, but you can be sure Mark Gottfried and his staff would love for it to pay off on December 18th.
After that, State returns to the friendly confines of the PNC Arena for a matchup with East Carolina, and this is a game that has danger written all over it…for the Wolfpack. East Carolina is currently 8-2, ranked 40th in the country in scoring, and are ranked #221 in RPI, but make no mistake — the Pirates went to Cameron Indoor Stadium and gave Duke all they wanted on November 19th before falling 83-74. While State’s fans hardly give ECU basketball a second thought regarding any rivalry, the Pirates and their fans would love to take home a win from the PNC Arena, and they will come ready to play, and you can bet too that their fans will show up in good numbers as well. No doubt the coaches are aware of this potential trap game, and will have their charges ready for what the Pirates bring, but the young Pack had better be ready or another unexpected in-state loss could easily happen on December 21st.
Finally, to round out the tough stretch of three games, the nationally ranked Missouri Tigers will pay a visit to Raleigh to present perhaps the most formidable challenge to the Pack since they played (and lost to) Cincinnati. Mizzou just upset the then-#17 UCLA Bruins, and are currently undefeated at 9-0. That victory at home got them into the Top 25 this week, and the SEC school will come to Raleigh expecting victory. The Wolfpack will have its hands full and will need its best effort of the pre-conference schedule — Mizzou has an OOC unbeaten streak currently standing at 79 games. In their win against UCLA, Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross each scored at least 20 points. Ross is a native of Cary, and you can bet he will want to come home and put on a show. Clarkson, their 6-5 point guard, is this week’s SEC player of the week following his 23-point, 5 rebound, 5 assist and 2 steals performance against UCLA, and will be a serious matchup for freshman player Cat Barber.
Speaking of Barber, he is quickly turning into the straw that stirs the Wolfpack’s drink and he is probably the one player that propelled the Wolfpack to a grinding victory against Long Beach State last weekend. While other players were getting the points and making the highlight reels, it was Barber’s defense that put sand in The Beach’s gears by slowing down Mike Caffey and not letting him completely take over the game. Mark Gottfried agrees, remarking post-game that is what kept Cat on the court than anything was his defense on Caffey. “n the halfcourt sets I thought Cat did a great job of defending him.” In all three of the Pack’s December “Exam Period” Barber will have to bring that defensive mind-set, as well as improving on it and his offensive skills at breaking down opposition defenses with the ball. So far, Barber has done well on his learning curve, and while there are undoubtedly some bumps in the road to come for him, the freshman point guard is quickly becoming a mainstay in the Wolfpack backcourt.
The other freshman – Freeman, Washington and Beejay Anya – will also have important roles to play, even if in some cases their minutes are limited. Mark Gottfried is already starting to narrow his rotation a bit as the season progresses, giving more to Freeman, but for guys like Kyle Washington, the minutes they get will be minutes that will have to have meaning if the Pack is to emerge from this tough stretch with wins in their pockets. Good play from the young forwards will be necessary to spell the starters, fill in if the top rotation players get in foul trouble, and to change the pace of the game when necessary. While a player like T.J. Warren is vital to the Pack’s hopes, he can’t play every minute of every game, especially if he is to be effective in close contests when the clock is melting and the Wolfpack absolutely, positively needs a bucket. The good news is that even that they are inexperienced and in many ways unpolished weapons, to a man they have solid skills. Freeman is especially playing well, but don’t be too surprised if Washington comes in and does some good things.
You may as well call Jordan Vandenberg a freshman in many ways when you get right down to it — the former pine-riding reserve has been thrust literally into a central role for the Wolfpack this season, and with it, a lot of the hopes and dreams of the team are on his 7-1″ frame as well. Vandy puts the Pack’s players in the right spots — for example, his presence on the floor allows T.J. Warren and Lennard Freeman to patrol the paint more freely, and on defense, the 245-odd pound Australian is not a player that many players can just blow by and lay in an easy bucket. Truthfully told, State will go as far as the Vandwagon will take them, and the self-effacing center seems to know it. He was almost apologetic at times looking at Mark Gottfried during the Long Beach State game after making a mistake or a silly foul He is playing hard, is effective and he seems to be taking his improvement very seriously.
Haha people acting like its the end of my career already … It’s okay though …
Who knows? With his size, effort and defensive skills, Vandy may end up in Europe next year, playing hoops for a living. That’s a long way from the end of the NC State bench a couple of years ago, and this year, and in the next two weeks, the Wolfpack really needs the big guy to come up…well, big. Right now, to say that he’s exceeded expectations would be an understatement of gigantic proportions, but as time goes by and the games get bigger, Vandy will need to step up his game even a little bit more. It looks like he’s capable of doing just that, and it would not at all be a surprise any more if he did. Without a doubt, he’s the most improved player in the ACC so far this year.
Beejay Anya, despite his conditioning issues, is a player with skills as well, and he is a guy that can steal minutes when it’s what’s needed. Not many players that are recruited to the D1 level from DeMatha aren’t good players, and NC State has a long and storied list of DeMatha alumni who’ve played vital roles for the team. That may be in Bejjay Anya’s future, but as he works and improves his college ball physique, he’ll be a spot player, but again, a spot player who’s not a terrific liability that has to be hidden and protected at all costs.
In the backcourt, it would also be helpful if Desmond Lee can continue his effective play, and it would be a stellar bonus if Raulston Turner could find his promised magical touch from beyond the three point arc. Tyler Lewis will also be needed, one for a change of pace from Barber, and two, to bring his experience to the game in times that its needed. Lewis can be a calming influence on a freshman-laden team, and he is money from the free throw line when he gets shots from the charity stripe. While Barber is certainly cementing his role as the Pack’s starting point guard, Lewis is still a valuable player and one from who good play is needed to win games.
All in all, this is a State team that has a chance here to prove itself and to ready itself for the rigors of ACC play that’s just around the corner as soon as the holidays are done. While it is too early to call them a great team yet, it is a team that is improving, is gaining experience and is a pleasure to watch they start to write the next chapter in Wolfpack basketball. For starters, they are a team, and they seem to enjoy and revel in each other’s successes. They play hard on defense too, and that has overcome their offensive shortcomings in some games this year. They may not be a VCU lockdown team when the other team has the ball, but compared to last year’s Wolfpack, these guys are a breath of fresh air.
With hard work and good luck, perhaps they’ll go into 2014 cresting on a wave of momentum and confidence that they picked up in their next four games. It’s going to be fun to watch.