N.C. State has one game left to play before it hits the ACC portion of its basketball schedule.
Normally this time of year, teams use their final nonconference game to fine-tune their play before the games become more important.
But that’s not the case for the Wolfpack and its first-year head coach, Kevin Keatts.
The confluence of injury recovery and suspension has left Keatts and his staff adjusting to a different group.
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Tuesday night’s 81-69 win featured a solid frontcourt performance, with N.C. State’s Omer Yurtseven (12 points, 10 rebounds), Torin Dorn (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Lennard Freeman (11 points, 12 rebounds) all recording double-doubles.
“That is the best part of our team right now,” Keatts said.
That’s different than the six games N.C. State played while 6-8 forward Abdul-Malik Abu was out with a sprained knee ligament. When the Wolfpack had only Freeman and Yurtseven as true interior players, 6-5 Torin Dorn had to play the power forward position.
Now that Abu is back, Dorn slides down to the small forward position.
At the same time, N.C. State is dealing with starting point guard Markell Johnson’s absence. Tuesday night’s game with Robert Morris is the second he’s missed due to a suspension for a violation of the school’s student-athlete code of conduct.
Keatts said he didn’t know when Johnson will return and had no other comment about his status.
Johnson’s removal from the lineup means freshman Braxton Beverly had to play 37 minutes Tuesday night at point guard. This is the same Beverly who didn’t play in N.C. State’s first two games of the season back in November before the NCAA approved his appeal to play this season following his transfer from Ohio State.
“What’s happening with us right now is we’re playing guys who have never played together, at least this year,” Keatts said. “Our timing and our chemistry is not very good. It’s going to take us a little bit of time to adjust to what is going on.”
The time between now and ACC play is drawing to a close.
N.C. State (9-3) faces Jacksonville on Friday night at PNC Arena and, after that, the Wolfpack plays 18 consecutive games against ACC teams to close the regular season. The first two conference tests will be at Clemson on Dec. 30 and at Notre Dame on Jan. 3.
Between now and then, N.C. State has to discover what it has with the players currently available.
Unlike Saturday, when he missed his first game due to the suspension, Johnson wasn’t on N.C. State’s bench during the game against Robert Morris. So nothing points to him making a quick return from whatever has led to this suspension.
That leaves Beverly and Lavar Batts to handle the point guard duties. Though in uniform for Saturday’s 81-76 loss to UNC Greensboro, Batts didn’t play in what Keatts would only call a “coach’s decision.”
Batts returned to the playing rotation against Robert Morris, giving the Wolfpack help at point guard in his 22 minutes of play. He scored nine points and had two assists with no turnovers.
“I thought he ran the team, and I thought he valued the basketball,” Keatts said.
Beverly’s production dropped, perhaps under the weight of all those minutes on the court. He made just 1 of 8 shots and missed six of his 3-pointers.
At shooting guard, Keatts has senior Allerik Freeman, who struggled with 1-of-10 shooting against Robert Morris. Another senior shooting guard, Sam Hunt, missed his only two shots in nine minutes of play.
So it fell on N.C. State’s bigger players to bail the team out. After a disappointing loss to UNC Greensboro, the Wolfpack trailed Robert Morris 39-36 at halftime.
Dorn said he had no explanation for why, coming off an embarrassing loss, the Wolfpack weren’t the better team early against Robert Morris.
“We definitely can’t have that,” Dorn said. “We definitely have to start fast because we play fast. We definitely have to shore that up before we get into ACC play or get into the meat of our schedule.”
The Wolfpack played better half-court defense in the second half, as the Colonials his just 10 of 40 shots (25 percent).
Communication breakdowns on defense were cited as a major reason for the Wolfpack’s loss to UNCG. The half-court defense looked better in the second half to stifle Robert Morris.
It will have to be even better on Dec. 30 at Clemson and for the next two months from there. That goes for the rest of N.C. State’s play.
At this point, expecting N.C. State to be a cohesive unit when league play starts at Clemson is probably too much to ask given all the roster twists and turns.
But the Wolfpack is going to have to come together quickly because when ACC play arrives, it will be unforgiving.