Wednesday afternoon, Abdul-Malik Abu was asking N.C. State's assistant coaches whether they thought head coach Kevin Keatts would allow him to play. Abu had missed the Wolfpack's first four games after tearing a ligament in his right knee over the summer, and he was ready to return.
But it wasn't up to him.
“It was definitely coach's decision,” Abu said. “I was waiting on the big honcho to let me loose.”
“I asked the trainer right before the game, 'How did he look in warmups”'” Keatts said. “I don't know if he was good or bad, but he said he was good, so I decided to play him tonight.”
Abu got the green light to play Wednesday against Arizona, and N.C. State needed him. With Lennard Freeman in early foul trouble against the massive Wildcats and Torin Dorn guarding 7-foot-1 center Deandre Ayrton, Abu came off the bench to contribute eight points and eight rebounds in the 90-84 upset. Omer Yurtseven was also invaluable, with 11 points and nine rebounds before fouling out.
Abu wasn't at full strength physically, wearing a massive brace on his right leg, or mentally at times – earning a stern reprimand from Keatts for taking a quick jump shot with the score tied at 71 and the game hanging in the balance – but his contributions were invaluable and N.C. State likely would not have beaten Arizona without the 6-foot-8 forward who averaged 11.8 points and 7.0 rebounds last season.
“Whatever ability I had,” Abu said, “I just wanted to help my team.”
Arizona's front line posed one challenge. The next for Abu will be recovering quickly, with a short turnaround before Thursday afternoon's game against Northern Iowa. He also faces the gantlet of three games in three days, which may put Keatts in the position of rationing Abu's minutes at some point.
For Abu and N.C. State, those are good problems to have.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock