State Now

NC State needs a fix for defensive problems

N.C. State’s Markell Johnson reacts after fouling out during their game against Illinois at State Farm Center on November 29, 2016 in Champaign, Illinois.
N.C. State’s Markell Johnson reacts after fouling out during their game against Illinois at State Farm Center on November 29, 2016 in Champaign, Illinois. Getty Images

You have to identify, and admit, the problem before you can fix it.

After Tuesday’s 88-74 road loss to Illinois in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, N.C. State took the first steps in fixing its problems on defense.

To wit, after the Illini shot 67.9 percent in the second half, sophomore guard Torin Dorn said: “We just have to play hard and keep guys in front of us and take it personal.”

And there was more from freshman forward Ted Kapita: “We need to play defense with pride and take it personal.”

In theory, giving up 112 points to Creighton on Nov. 20 should have sparked the same reaction from the Wolfpack. N.C. State has been playing basketball since 1910 and only once has it given up more points in a game than it did to Creighton.

Alas, it might have taken Tuesday’s effort to knock some sense into a Wolfpack team, albeit one missing two key parts, but not missing the necessary athleticism to at least be competitive on defense.

“We allowed them to penetrate and get easy shots,” Kapita said. “If we keep doing that, it’s going to be bad for our team.”

How bad? The same Illinois team shot 32.8 percent in a 72-61 loss to Florida State on Nov. 25. The same Illinois team scored 57 points in a loss to West Virginia on Nov. 24. The same Illinois team had 56 points in the second half against N.C. State.

As both Dorn and Kapita said, N.C. State (5-2) doesn’t take defense personally right now. It’s too willing to give up on plays and to allow uncontested shots.

There was no one on the replay screen when ESPN showed Leron Black’s jumper from the foul line at 10:22 to put the Illini up 61-53. He had all the time in the world to get his feet set and shoot the ball.

Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried does recognize the problem but isn’t necessarily worried.

“I don’t think there’s any question we can get it fixed,” Gottfried said.

That’s because the problem is easy to fix. Gottfried said his team plays “summer league” defense. N.C. State will guard the ball for two dribbles on the perimeter but then will try to go for a steal as the offensive player goes to the basket.

“We have to have discipline, stay solid and make people score over us,” Gottfried said. “All of that can be fixed. We just have to trust ourselves defensively.”

Defense has never been N.C. State’s strength in Gottfried’s tenure but even by recent standards, the start of the season has been rough. The team is giving up 78.8 points per game and 101 points per 100 possessions.

N.C. State needs to fix the problem sooner rather than later. Sophomore wing Maverick Rowan (concussion) missed his sixth straight game and freshman forward Omer Yurtseven is still two games away from being eligible.

Both Rowan and Yurtseven will help on offense, which wasn’t the problem on Tuesday, but neither is likely to light a spark on the defensive end.

That has to come from Kapita, who showed some fight at Illinois with 13 points and five rebounds despite being in foul trouble, and Dorn and forward Abdul-Malik Abu and guard Terry Henderson and guard Markell Johnson.

And, well, you get the point. So do the players.

“It will take a group effort,” Dorn said. “We have to guard as a team more.”

If not, as Kapita predicted, it will get bad, very bad.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio