NC State

Improved defense giving NC State a different identity

N.C. State's Kyle Washington (32), left, blocks the shot by Duke's Jahlil Okafor (15) during the second half of N.C. State's 87-75 victory over Duke at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. N.C. State's Abdul-Malik Abu (0) also pressures Okafor.
N.C. State's Kyle Washington (32), left, blocks the shot by Duke's Jahlil Okafor (15) during the second half of N.C. State's 87-75 victory over Duke at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. N.C. State's Abdul-Malik Abu (0) also pressures Okafor. ehyman@newsobserver.com

N.C. State’s identity under Mark Gottfried has always been on offense.

The Wolfpack made the NCAA tournament in each of Gottfried’s first three seasons because of what it could do with the basketball, not without it.

N.C. State (13-7, 4-3 ACC), which hosts No. 8 Notre Dame on Sunday night, is different this season.

The Wolfpack still won’t be confused for defense-first teams like Virginia or Clemson, but it has greatly improved its defensive ability.

To the point that defense might be the identity of this N.C. State team. Gottfried, who learned offensive principles as an assistant and prefers the final score to be in the 80s, cringes slightly when the defensive label is applied.

He’s also realistic about the strengths of this N.C. State team, which is more athletic than recent versions under Gottfried.

“Our defense has helped us win more games than our offense has,” Gottfried said Saturday.

To be sure, there have been games when the Wolfpack has struggled on defense – losses to West Virginia, Cincinnati and North Carolina stand out – but for the most part, when the Wolfpack is at its best, the driving force has been its defense.

This N.C. State team has allowed fewer points (64.2 per game) and held opponents to a lower shooting percentage (39.3) than any of Gottfried’s first three teams. The Wolfpack has also blocked more shots this season (5.9 per game, which ranks 10th in the country) than the previous three teams.

The Wolfpack players have mostly embraced the emphasis on defense since the start of the season and have refocused on it since a 76-60 home loss to Cincinnati on Dec. 30.

“We have to win with defense,” sophomore forward Kyle Washington said. “We have to get to the (NCAA) tournament with defense. We all know that.”

One area that plagued N.C. State the past two seasons, which compounded its defensive flaws, was rebounding. N.C. State wasn’t necessarily as bad as some of its defensive statistics suggested in 2012-13 or last season, but it just struggled to get rebounds.

This season, N.C. State has a plus-5.3 rebounding margin, up from minus-0.8 last season.

Getting defensive stops and getting rebounds will be important for the Wolfpack on Sunday against Notre Dame (18-2, 6-1). The Fighting Irish rank 10th in the county in scoring (81.9 points per game) and second in field goal percentage (52.6).

According to Ken Pomeroy’s tempo-free efficiency ratings, Mike Brey’s guard-heavy lineup is the best offense in the country.

“Offensively, they’re as good as anybody we’ve played this year,” Gottfried said.

Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant has been one of the best players in the ACC. The senior guard, who missed the second half of last season with an academic suspension, leads the ACC in assists (6.4) and ranks fourth in scoring (16.8 points per game).

The Irish collapsed last season after Grant’s suspension, finishing 6-12 in its first season in the ACC. Notre Dame has bounced back with Grant and the versatility of senior forward Pat Connaughton.

“(Grant) just changes the whole team,” Gottfried said. “He’s that good and around him everybody’s a little better.”

Notre Dame has made its “small ball” lineup work. At 6-foot-5, Connaughton usually has to defend a bigger forward. That’s where N.C. State’s offense can help its defense.

“We have to make sure we make them pay on the other side,” Washington said.

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