If there’s ever been a year we’ve needed a fresh basketball season – and soon – this is it.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
Atsur is gone, leaving us without a tested point guard, much less a proven one. The freshman Gonzalez is hurt while the sophomore Johnson isn’t eligible until December; until then, it’s up to the red shirt sophomore Degand. Basically, we have to replace a four-year starting point guard on a team that last season was for the most part not very good and all too often just downright terrible.
Sure, we manhandled Virginia Tech twice and executed a near-flawless performance in the unforgettable win over Carolina, but we still finished the regular season just slightly above abysmal at 5-11. We finished ninth in scoring offense and tenth in scoring defense, ninth in three-point field goal percentage and eleventh in three-point field goal percentage defense, eleventh in offensive rebounding and eighth in defensive rebounding, and dead last in turnover margin. Without even looking at the stats, too often we just downright seemed bad; we were vastly unprepared against Duke and Virginia, just flat out let the game get away from us against Boston College, and woefully lacked poise in a late match up against Maryland.
So let’s all just calm down. There’s no good reason to get overly excited or confident about this season. Right?
Forget that. Check your cautious optimism at the door: we’re going to be really good this season.
We might have been lethargic and overmatched for much of the regular season last year, but there was marked improvement across the board by March. That team at the end was, without question, a good team. And without making light of the task of replacing Atsur – we can only hope that finding a point guard isn’t as hard as finding a quarterback – we’re putting an improved version of that good team on the floor this season.
Last year’s tournament team will always be remembered most for its unyielding heart and unflinching intensity, but the statistics really drive home the fact that a better team was on the floor in March while giving us a brief glimpse of what we can expect this season.
Over four consecutive days, against four NCAA tournament teams, we shot an average of 56%, seven percentage points above our season average of 49%. Against Duke, we shot 61% from the field and 40% behind the arc; Virginia, 53% and 42%; Virginia Tech, 53% and 46%; and Carolina, 55% and 43%.
During that run, Costner racked up 90 points on 52% shooting; Grant, 59 on 53%; Fells, 51 on 58%; and McCauley, 47 on a scorching 67%. Off the bench, the fearless Horner chipped in a much-needed nine against Virginia Tech and eight against Carolina to lessen the impact of the early foul trouble that both Costner and McCauley got into those games.
On defense, we held Virginia to 40% and Virginia Tech to 42% from the field; only Carolina, at 58%, bettered us in field goal percentage. And after finishing the regular season near the bottom of the standings in total rebounding, only Virginia Tech out-rebounded us, 33-28.
And this wasn’t a fluke weekend where a few guys found their rhythm during a March run, rather an invariable precursor of where we were headed. State had become a well-coached, well-prepared, hard-fighting team capable of making noise on the nation’s premier stage, the ACC tournament.
Now that same team is poised this season to do more than just make some noise.
Costner (16.8 points per game), Grant (14.7), and McCauley (14.4) were not only our top three scorers last season, but they are also three of the top 10 returning scorers in the ACC this season. Costner is second in returning rebounding (7.3 per game), while McCauley is fourth (6.9).
By all indications, if Degand, and eventually Johnson and/or Gonzalez, can transition seamlessly into the point, then how can you not be excited about what this team will do?
Grant plays his more natural position on the wing, where he creates scoring opportunities by attacking the basket, while Fells provides a strong compliment with his range. The addition of the freshmen Hickson and Smith not only relieves both Costner and McCauley of tiring minutes (34 each last season), but this dynamic provides for Costner to play further out, creating a nightmarish mismatch for many opposing coaches.
Meanwhile, Lowe has shown a proven, intriguing knack for quickly identifying mismatches and exploiting them to create scoring opportunities. Evidenced by the comments players have been making since March, it’s apparent this team has bought wholeheartedly into their coach and his philosophy. They listened and improved, and by March they had also proved they could win.
But enough about last year; last year was our feel good story – Lowe’s first team made a lot us believe again. But no one will be surprised by our success this season. And to be honest, feel good stories usually end in nothing more than moral victories. Last year we needed that moral victory; after over a decade of discontent and underachieving, followed by a humbling coaching search, many of us needed that win over Carolina and that remarkable March run to help us heal.
Personally, a feel good story doesn’t make me feel good anymore – let someone else be Cinderella. I’m ready to hang a banner. And that’s exactly what this team is capable of doing.
So yeah, I’m pretty excited.