Abdul-Malik Abu will be the first person to admit the past four games were not the toughest on N.C. State’s schedule.
Still, after a fourth straight blowout, a 99-71 win over Rider on Wednesday night, the Wolfpack (11-2) is starting to look more like the team it was supposed to be and not the one that struggled out of the gates. This just in time for the start of ACC play on Saturday (4:30 p.m., Fox Sports Carolinas) at Miami (10-2).
So while the competition will pick up, the Wolfpack has already picked up its intensity. Instead of close calls, N.C. State has figured out how to dominate its opponents. Maybe beating Rider by 28 doesn’t seem like much but N.C. State started the season with a two-point home win over Georgia Southern and started December with a four-point home win over Boston University.
“I feel like if we played this team in Week 2, it would have been a close game,” Abu said after the Rider win.
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To Abu’s point, N.C. State won its first seven games by an average margin of 9.7 points. Three of the wins (Georgia Southern, Boston University and Loyola, Ill.) were by four points or less and a fourth, at home with Tennessee State, went into overtime. The Wolfpack has won the past four games by an average of 28.5 points.
Well, some of it has to do with the level of competition but a big part of it is N.C. State’s improvement on defense. The Wolfpack couldn’t figure out basic defensive sets to start the season. Defending something as simple as a pick-and-roll was an adventure.
“Young guys get better,” is how Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried put it. After holding Rider to 25 points in the first half in Wednesday’s win, Gottfried gave specific examples of how his team, with four new players in the starting lineup, has made strides on defense.
They’ve gotten better on dribble penetration and reading screens, he said. They’ve also stopped taking lazy chances at steals after the dribbler has gone by. And there’s a biggie to any team’s defense.
We’re communicating a little bit better.
“We’re communicating a little bit better,” Gottfried said.
The consistency of the lineup has helped on that front, too. Forwards Omer Yurtseven and Ted Kapita are eligible and locked in. Yurtseven made his first start on Wednesday and figures to remain a fixture in the middle. Kapita had 11 rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench and was a source of energy and defense.
Sophomore wing Maverick Rowan is starting to get closer to 100 percent and has more stamina after missing seven games with a concussion. While Yurtseven and Rowan aren’t great defenders, just having some consistency to the lineup has helped the Wolfpack with communication.
There’s little doubt the offense has gotten a boost, too, with a healthy Rowan and an eligible Yurtseven, who had to sit out the first nine games due to an NCAA amateurism issue.
Since Yurtseven’s debut against Appalachian State on Dec. 15, N.C. State has averaged 96 points per game, up from 79.5 in the first nine games. Freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has upped his game with Yurtseven and Rowan back in the lineup.
Smith had 16 assists against Rider and has averaged 9.2 with Yurtseven in the lineup. He has also made 65 percent (13 of 20) of his 3-pointers the past four games.
The question now for N.C. State is will the confidence and improvement translate against better competition. The Wolfpack lost its only two nonconference games against teams in the top 50 of the RPI (No. 3 Creighton and No. 34 Illinois).
N.C. State’s first three ACC opponents are Miami (No. 72), Virginia Tech (55) and North Carolina (13).
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
N.C. State at Miami
When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: BankUnited Center, Coral Gables, Fla.
TV: RSN, 101.5-WRAL