N.C. State is still trying to fine-tune its defense or iron out the problems or work out the kinks.
Pick your own analogy after a 79-77 home win over Loyola-Chicago on Saturday afternoon in another tight, early-season game.
Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried already had one ready.
“We got one guy wearing a blue sock and one guy wearing a green sock,” Gottfried said. “We got two guys trying guard, and we’re not on the same page. We’ve got to get on the same page.”
Blue sock, green sock, red sock who knows, but N.C. State (5-1) edged out the Ramblers (5-2) with a powerful scoring effort from guards Dennis Smith Jr. (30 points), Torin Dorn (20) and Terry Henderson (19).
Better known as “The Rescue Squad” last year while they watched and waited on the bench, Smith, Dorn and Henderson scored all but 10 of N.C. State’s points.
Smith also added seven assists and six rebounds and played all 40 minutes. N.C. State again played without sophomore wing Maverick Rowan (concussion) and forward BeeJay Anya was poked in the eye after seven minutes of action in the first half and didn’t play the rest of the way.
All of the lineup changes, freshman forward Ted Kapita did return after missing the three games at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands because of a student visa issue, have had an effect on the Wolfpack.
“We’re trying to figure out who we are,” Gottfried said.
But, still, Gottfried said, “We just need to be fundamentally better” on defense.
The Ramblers went 10-of-17 from the 3-point line and led by as many as 11 in the first half.
“First half, we let way too much stuff slide,” Smith said of N.C. State’s defense.
Loyola, like Creighton and Montana did in the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, exploited N.C. State’s man defense with the pick-and-roll.
The Ramblers were able to get to the rim and were able to find shooters behind the 3-point line for open looks.
N.C. State’s perimeter defenders keep losing the dribbler and then there’s confusion on either how to switch or come around the screen.
“We have to talk more,” Henderson said.
Gottfried said the solution was fairly simple.
“This isn’t brain surgery here,” Gottfried said. “Sometimes we’re over-thinking, we’re over-analyzing every defensive situation.”
N.C. State did find enough defense to crawl ahead 44-43 at the half, and then the teams went back and forth in the second half.
Junior forward Abdul-Malik Abu only scored six points in 27 minutes but did tip in a miss by guard Markell Johnson with 3:29 left to break a 71-71 tie. And it was Abu’s flush, off a pick-and-roll with Smith, that gave the Wolfpack a 77-73 advantage with 1:36 to play.
N.C. State needed every bit of the offense to offset the sharp-shooting Ramblers. Junior guard Aundre Jackson came off the bench and scored 20 points while junior guard Ben Richardson added 14.
Johnson’s defense in the second half actually saved the Wolfpack. Johnson had a steal from guard Clayton Custer at 1:22 and then another from Milton Doyle with 2.5 seconds left to protect the late, slim lead.
“We can be really good defensively for spurts,” Gottfried said. “We’ve got to be better defensively for longer periods.”
Early, first-half defense has been a particular struggle as it was in the opener, an 81-79 win over Georgia Southern, all three games in St. Thomas and again on Saturday.
Smith, who finished with three steals, said N.C. State needs to start with more energy on defense.
“Against really good teams, we won’t be able to come out with slow starts,” Smith said.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio