State's Dennis Smith: 'There's no part of me that thinks I'm not ready for anything'
These were anxious moments, and not merely because N.C. State was trailing Georgia Southern early in the second half. The game was being played, but half the fans in attendance weren't paying any attention. They kept swiveling their heads toward the tunnel behind the Wolfpack bench, looking for Dennis Smith Jr.
Smith had left the court after taking what looked like a knee to the left thigh, limping straight toward the locker room. Between this and the score, this was nothing like anything Smith had envisioned for his long-awaited N.C. State debut. It was, for a while, all too eerily an echo of last year's opener against William & Mary, when the Wolfpack was upset at home and lost Terry Henderson for the entire season in the process.
Then there was a murmur, and then scattered applause, and then an unexpected ovation as Smith came trotting back down the tunnel to the court.
Smith, at least, survived, even if Friday wasn't the dominant debut he or anyone expected. His numbers were modest – 11 points and five assists, on 3-for-11 shooting – his overall impact less than that of Henderson or Torin Dorn. It was a reminder that Smith, for all his talent, despite the semester he spent on the N.C. State bench, is still just a freshman, will still have to make an adjustment to college basketball now, and again when ACC play begins.
So, for that matter, will the Wolfpack, which struggled to contain Georgia Southern's guard tandem of Tookie Brown (26 points) and Ike Smith (20 points) and was at times outhustled and overpowered before hanging on for an 81-79 win.
N.C. State did not make Smith available to the media after the game, but N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried was pleased with how Smith handled the wide array of defenses Georgia Southern used against him, from zones to switching man-to-mans to traps.
“They threw everything but the kitchen sink at him. That's good. That's how you get better,” Gottfriied said. “I thought he did a nice job. The more the game went on, I thought he settled in there. One thing I talked to Dennis about, teams are going to do a lot of different things against us and against him. They've got their hands full and they know it. He's getting ready to know he's going to see it all. He saw a lot tonight, by the way, everything they did.
There was a palpable sense of anticipation surrounding not only Smith's debut Friday but this new-look Wolfpack team, even with Omer Yurtseven serving the first of the nine games he'll inexplicably have to sit out after somehow running afoul of the NCAA back home in Turkey. You have to go back to fall 2012 to find an N.C. State basketball season that was greeted with this much anticipation, back when C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell and Scott Wood were expected to build on an unexpected trip to the Sweet Sixteen the season before.
As Wolfpack fans know, that season, Gottfried's second at the school, fizzled badly. Plagued by chemistry issues, the Wolfpack failed to contend for the ACC title before falling to Temple in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Wolfpack has fared better when expected to do less, as it did in Gottfried's first season or 2015, when the Wolfpack lost T.J. Warren but rode Trevor Lacey, Ralston Turner and Cat Barber to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, upsetting Villanova along the way.
N.C. State basketball is historically better at proving others wrong than it is at proving itself right.
The focus Friday, unavoidably, was on Smith, and his personal highlight was a no-look, over-the-shoulder pass to Abdul-Malik Abu for a dunk late in the first half. Those were also the Wolfpack's last points for more than three minutes, evidence that there's still a lot of work to be done. While the Wolfpack struggled with foul trouble and Georgia Southern's more physical, more experienced group, Smith at times tried to do too much and at times seemed to defer to Henderson and Dorn.
“I thought he just needed to settle down, just relax a little bit,” Gottfried said. “He's such a great player and he's such a great competitor. Just trust the offense, which I thought he did as the game went on. And that's a good learning experience for him. As good as I think he is and as good as he is, he's a freshman and that's his first college basketball game against a veteran team.”
In the final two minutes, Smith drove to draw a foul, then with 35 seconds to go beat his man and got to the rim to make it 77-71, crucial points as Georgia Southern hit a pair of late 3-pointers, including one at the buzzer. If the numbers weren't there for Smith, the full experience of what college basketball is going to be like for him was.
“We know what he's capable of, we know how special he is,” Abu said. “They threw out a zone at him in his first college game ever. He had to find ways to get going. That's nothing. That's just his debut. We play again Sunday, just got to keep going.”
There will be better nights ahead, for Smith and the Wolfpack. If this wasn't the kind of beginning Smith might have wanted, every story has to start somewhere, and no one knows how it will end.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock