N.C. State has never had a player win the ACC’s freshman of the year award by himself.
Hawkeye Whitney shared the honor in 1977 with Duke’s Mike Gminski. The Wolfpack has had its share of outstanding freshmen since then (the award started in 1976) but none have won the league’s top prize for first-year players.
Wolfpack (15-14) point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has the numbers to change that but N.C. State’s struggles as a team might work against Smith’s candidacy.
Smith ranks near the top of the ACC in scoring, assists and steals but N.C. State enters Saturday’s home game with No. 18 Virginia (18-9, 8-7 ACC) with a 4-12 league record and in 14th place in the 15-team league.
Smith has two games left to make an impression on the ACC’s new 60-person voting panel (including the league coaches), which was implemented this season to consolidate the conference’s postseason awards. (The News & Observer has two voters on the panel).
Saturday’s game with Virginia is expected to be Smith’s last home game with N.C. State. A projected top 10 pick, the 6-2 guard from Fayetteville is expected to enter the NBA draft after the season.
It will also be one of the toughest tests for Smith. The Cavaliers rank No. 1 in the country in scoring defense, giving up just 55.8 points per game, and No. 19 in field goal percentage (39.8) defense.
Coach Tony Bennett’s team is especially difficult on opposing point guards. The Cavaliers double-team off of high ball-screens and put an emphasis on cutting off driving lanes to the basket. Smith struggled in losses to Louisville and Florida State with similar strategies.
Smith has been more productive than any other freshman in the league this season. His scoring average (18.9 points), assists (6.4 per game) and steals (2.0 per game) lead all ACC freshmen.
Smith’s 547 points are the most by a true freshman in school history. He is the only player in league history with two triple-doubles in conference play. Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson, in the 1989-90 season, is the only other freshman in league history to score 30 points in four games.
The numbers, on their own, might be enough for Smith to break Duke’s stranglehold on the league’s freshman of the year award.
Duke has produced the past three winners and four of the past five. The Blue Devils have another strong candidate this season in wing Jayson Tatum (16.6 points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game). Georgia Tech’s Josh Okogie, Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac and Boston College’s Ky Bowman can also make a case for the award.
Unlike the league’s player of the year award, team success has not been as much of a factor in the rookie vote. Virginia finished last in a nine-team league in 1999 when Chris Williams won the award. The Wahoos were 11th in a 12-team league in 2009 when Sylven Landesberg won it.
Duke, far from the juggernaut it is now under Mike Krzyzewski, finished last in a seven-team league in 1976 when Jim Sparnakel won the award in the first year it was recognized. The Blue Devils finished tied for last with Virginia the next year when Gminski shared the award with Whitney.
Four times – Sidney Lowe (1980), Chris Corchiani (1988), Damon Thornton (1997), Julius Hodge (2002) – N.C. State has had the runner-up in the freshman of the year vote.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
How N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. compares to other candidates for the ACC’s freshman of the year award:
Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State
Jayson Tatum, Duke
Josh Okogie, Georgia Tech
Ky Bowman, Boston College
Jonathan Isaac, Florida State