Distractions didn’t cost N.C. State on Saturday night at Duke, unless trying to stop Zion Williamson qualifies as one.
It has been a busy few days off the court for N.C. State’s basketball program — with a player suspended and another seemingly no longer on the team — but Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts wasn’t chalking up any of Saturday’s 94-78 loss at Duke to the off-court problems.
Since Wednesday night’s home win over Syracuse, N.C. State has created all of the wrong kind of news. Reserve guard Eric Lockett was arrested on Thursday for assault on a female and was suspended by Keatts.
Forward Sacha Killeya-Jones, who is sitting out the season as a transfer from Kentucky, has been dismissed from the program for the time being, if not permanently.
“I don’t think (the distractions) bothered them at all,” Keatts said. “I thought our guys were focused. I thought we had a really good game plan and when you look at (R.J.) Barrett and Williamson, they were really, really good today.”
Williamson, as Keatts said, was “as good advertised,” with a game-high 32 points. He got to the basket at will in the first half while Duke was building up a 16-point margin.
Barrett had an under-the-radar triple-double (if there is such a thing) with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
As has been the pattern, N.C. State fought and cut into the lead and hung around, but against a team as talented as Duke, that’s not enough.
“I thought we did some really good things,” Keatts said. “I thought we lost to a better team on their home floor, that was a little bit tougher than us today.”
Any trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium is a measuring-stick game for the Wolfpack. Saturday’s result, as much as it fought the final score was never in doubt, showed that State has a long way to go to reach the top of the ACC.
The solace for the Wolfpack is there isn’t another team in the ACC in Duke’s stratosphere. Virginia and North Carolina will certainly finish within earshot in the conference standings but this Duke team is different than its other recent versions which relied on “one-and-done” stars.
N.C. State beat last year’s mostly unmemorable iteration of Duke in Raleigh and even beat the Blue Devils here in 2017 in the only redeemable moment of Dennis Smith’s ill-fated tenure.
It helps that this Duke team has identifiable parts with an actual point guard in Tre Jones and a useful big man in Marques Bolden (nine points, eight rebounds, four steals). But the truth is, Williamson is a unicorn.
“We didn’t have an answer for him,” Keatts said. “I thought he was, obviously, the best player on the floor, when he was on there.”
That last part of Keatts’ quote is the key part because with 12:39 left in the second half, Williamson picked up his fourth foul.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski took his star out and left him on the bench for longer than 6 minutes. N.C. State had a chance to put a dent in Duke.
“We needed to score a lot more while he was out,” said guard Markell Johnson, who had 16 points and 10 assists for the Wolfpack.
State was down 64-53 when Williamson went to the bench but was only able to whittle three points off of Duke’s lead by the time he checked back in at 6:17.
Williamson came in and scored on Duke’s first offensive possession. The only thing left from there was the shouting. Even the Crazies can’t scream loud enough to cause more of a distraction than Williamson.