It lasted less than seven minutes, a mere fraction of the game, but having both Cat Barber and Tyler Lewis on the floor may not only have saved a win for N.C. State, but also offered a preview of what may be the Wolfpack’s best lineup going forward.
With both point guards on the floor, N.C. State outscored Florida State 12-8 on Wednesday, the same margin of victory as the 74-70 win. It was an unusual look for the Wolfpack, which has used either Barber or Lewis at the point guard position, but a surprisingly effective one.
As N.C. State travels to North Carolina for Saturday’s 1 p.m. start, having not won in Chapel Hill in more than a decade, it may be an option worth further exploration, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried acknowledged after Wednesday’s win.
“I like it,” Gottfried said.
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There is no shortage of caveats to what happened Wednesday night: T.J. Warren and Ralston Turner were in foul trouble; BeeJay Anya was hurt; Florida State was playing predominantly zone and is so generally big that small opposing lineups can give the Seminoles trouble; N.C. State was playing a lot of zone, which isn’t its primary defense.
It was also perfectly obvious that the combination of Barber’s driving ability and Lewis’ passing ability – for 3:49 of the first half and a critical stretch of 2:49 in the second half – gave the Wolfpack options it hadn’t seen before, both before and after Warren picked up his fourth foul.
“We just need to keep both of those guys’ confidence high,” Warren said. “They know my sweet spots, Cat’s understanding my sweet spots as the season goes on. It’s fun playing with both of those guys in the open floor because Tyler always has his head up and Cat is fast and going to find you just as much as Tyler does.”
It has taken the Wolfpack a while to get to this point for several reasons, most notably Lewis’ increasing effectiveness over the past few games. He dished out seven assists Wednesday – including a pinpoint pass to Warren on the baseline for an in-your-face dunk-and-foul and a lob to Jordan Vandenberg for a dunk with six minutes to play, a critical basket at a critical time.
“We’ve also played a little more zone, which has helped him some, and that’s been good for us, too, but Tyler has done a lot of good things for us,” Gottfried said.
Over the past three games, all N.C. State wins, Lewis has 13 assists and only one turnover – and in only 54 minutes of action. Lewis has to play at that level for this to work, because a lot about the Barber-Lewis lineup isn’t ideal for the Wolfpack.
Barber prefers to have the ball in his hands, because it allows him to dictate when he uses his speed as a weapon, while Lewis’ deficiencies on defense make it difficult for the Wolfpack to play man-to-man when he’s in the game. Having Barber and Lewis and Desmond Lee in the game, meanwhile, forces Warren to play in the post, instead of facing the basket where he’s a more effective and comfortable scoring threat.
Still, just as it took North Carolina awhile last season to figure out that its best option wasn’t deciding among Marcus Paige, Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston but rather putting them all on the floor together, it may have taken N.C. State awhile this season to figure out that its best chance to win may come with Barber and Lewis, not Barber or Lewis.