N.C. State went into the college basketball season expecting more from forward Abdul-Malik Abu.
The sophomore big man delivered with 17 points in the opener and double digits in each of the first five games. The 6-8, 240-pound forward had his best game in an 83-72 win over LSU on Nov. 24 with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
But the past two games have been a struggle for Abu, the kind N.C. State, with a short rotation, can’t afford.
The Wolfpack (4-3) hosts Bucknell (3-4) on Saturday (noon, Fox Sports Carolinas) and coach Mark Gottfried is hoping to get Abu back on track.
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“He’s not playing nearly as well as he can and I have to help him,” Gottfried said after Tuesday’s 66-59 home loss to Michigan. “I’ve got to find a way to get him playing at a high level.”
You play better, play more. It’s real simple. He’s got to play better.
NC State coach Mark Gottfried on Abdul-Malik Abu
Gottfried has tried to motivate Abu with some tough love, calling him a “sweetheart” earlier in the season, and by benching him.
Abu has only averaged 13.5 minutes in the past two games. He was 1 for 4 for two points and three rebounds in 14 minutes in an 87-79 win over Winthrop on Nov. 27. He played 13 minutes against Michigan and finished 0 for 6 from the floor and with two points and one rebound.
Michigan, which had a smaller lineup and no real post presence, was able to outscore N.C. State 28 to 18 in the paint.
Asked about Abu’s dwindling minutes, Gottfried said: “My answer usually is: you play better, play more. It’s real simple. He’s got to play better.”
With a soft touch and outstanding athletic ability (he has a 41-inch vertical leap), Abu is capable of doing more than he has the past two games.
As a freshman, Abu got better as the season progressed, peaking with 13 points and 12 rebounds in N.C. State’s Round of 32 upset of No. 1 seed Villanova in the NCAA tournament.
He averaged 6.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last season. With the exit of guards Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner, the team’s top two scoring options last season, Abu was being counted on to make a statistical jump and be the primary complement to point guard Cat Barber this season.
Abu has had good moments this season. While N.C. State, as a team, struggled am 85-68 season-opening loss to William & Mary on Nov. 13, Abu had 17 points, six rebounds and four assists in 30 minutes.
He had 14 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in a 79-56 win over IUPUI on Nov. 18. But he was slowed by foul trouble in a loss to Arizona State and followed up the 15-and-12 effort against LSU with four points in the past two games.
N.C. State’s forwards, as a group, have been slow to pick up the slack. Sophomore wing Caleb Martin has emerged as the second scorer (16.1 points per game) to Barber (20.3). Freshman wing Maverick Rowan is third on the team with 13.1 points per game. Abu is fourth on the team with a 10.6 scoring average.
In Tuesday’s loss to Michigan, Barber and Martin were the only two N.C. State player in double figures. Abu and forward Lennard Freeman, the starting frontcourt, combined for two points.
“We have to work with those guys and develop them better,” Gottfried said. “Right now, we’re not getting nearly enough offensive production from our interior players. We have to have more balance.”
Bucknell has leaned on forward Zach Thomas (14.3 ppg, 6.3 rebounds per game) and Nana Foulland (12.1 ppg and 7.4 rpg) this season. But the Bison can be exploited in the middle. Wake Forest forward Devin Thomas had 18 points and 12 rebounds in a 90-82 road win for the Demon Deacons on Nov. 15.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio