Luke DeCock

Not as talented? That was always the challenge for NC State this year

NC State's Keatts discusses loss to Notre Dame

NC State coach Kevin Keatts after the Wolfpack lost 88-58 at Notre Dame on Wednesday, Jan.3, 2018.
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NC State coach Kevin Keatts after the Wolfpack lost 88-58 at Notre Dame on Wednesday, Jan.3, 2018.

As interesting as Kevin Keatts curious choice of words to describe his team earlier this week was his team’s immediate response to them. A day after Keatts said N.C. State was “not as talented as most teams in the ACC” the Wolfpack played like it in a listless 30-point loss to a Notre Dame team missing its two best players.

There’s nothing particularly earthshaking about Keatts’ description – he spent the summer scraping together enough grad transfers and late recruits just to field a team in the wake of the coaching change, let alone compete – but it seemed to countermand what he has been trying to do this season, which is field a team that may not be able to shoot very well but hustles and is fit and plays defense, none of which has a whole heck of a lot to do with talent.

And Keatts already proved that can work, at least once in a while, upsetting then-No. 2 Arizona in the Bahamas with hustle and defense in a game where point guard Markell Johnson played sparingly because of illness long before he was suspended, as he is now.

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If noting his team’s lack of talent was supposed to motivate his players to rise above that deficit, it backfired in South Bend, which makes Saturday night’s home game against Duke all the more compelling. N.C. State has been outplayed in its first two ACC games, both on the road to top-25 caliber teams, to no one’s surprise. The Wolfpack was never going to be able to consistently compete with the ACC’s upper two-thirds, especially away from home. But it was hoped – and proven in the Bahamas – that there is enough talent here to pull an upset here or there.

Backcourt skills

A home game against Duke, in front of a sellout crowd, would be one where the Wolfpack is expected to give its best effort. Less talented? Hey, there are 14 other teams in the ACC with less talent than Duke. N.C. State isn’t exactly alone in that respect.

Even given the low expectations Keatts didn’t really need to point out, the problem for the Wolfpack isn’t so much an overall lack of talent as it is a specific lack of skills in the backcourt, even before Johnson was suspended after being indicted on felony assault charges back home in Ohio.

Al Freeman has come in for deserved criticism for his brick-jacking ways – his shooting percentage of 34.6 percent is 72nd out of 74 qualifying ACC players, and only five players in the ACC have taken more shots – but to be fair to Freeman, who exactly is he going to pass to? Someone has to shoot the ball for this team.

Torin Dorn does so many things well, but outside shooting isn’t one of them. Johnson has the ability to make 3s, but he might not play for N.C. State again. Braxton Beverly can do it, but he’s been as erratic as one would expect from an undersized freshman now being asked to assume additional point-guard duties in Johnson’s absence. The unquestionably talented Omer Yurtseven, who’s capable of stepping out from the post and hitting jumpers both inside and outside the 3-point line, is a scratch-off lottery ticket. Sometimes, you win big. Other times, there’s nothing there.

3-point threat

Abdul-Malik Abu could play for any ACC team and Lennard Freeman is an invaluable glue guy and leader but the reality is you can only do so much inside in college basketball today, especially when defenses can collapse because there’s no outside threat. This is why N.C. State was so desperate to get Beverly eligible; not just because the Wolfpack needed the body but because they needed the 3-point threat.

All of which has been true since the summer and none of which should change what N.C. State has already shown it is capable of doing, if not on an every-single-night basis. Keatts doesn’t need to bemoan a lack of talent. That’s obvious. He’s shown this team can scrap and claw its way to a win over a better team when the cosmic tumblers click into place. That’s where his focus, and N.C. State’s focus, should be – and not just against Duke on Saturday.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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