NC State's Keatts: 'We found a way to win... because I thought our guys defended at the end'
The jump shots and the 3-pointers are the shiny objects. Don't let them distract you. We always knew Omer Yurtseven could do that. Even last year, when the N.C. State big man looked lost at times.
Focus on the rest of his game. With N.C. State clinging to life against Wake Forest midway through the second half, Yurtseven blocked one shot at the defensive end, then altered the next. That set the tone for the Wolfpack's defense down the stretch, indirectly but assuredly leading to the late 10-second violation N.C. State forced to essentially secure a 72-63 win, closing the game on an 11-0 run that was fueled in equal parts by the Wolfpack's defense and Wake Forest's terrible shot selection.
As Wake Forest fell to 0-3 in the Triangle, giving up late leads at North Carolina and N.C. State in infuriating fashion, N.C. State moved to 3-3 in the ACC, already only one win behind last season. No individual represents the change in fortunes as much as Yurtseven, who arrived as a potential lottery pick but looked lost and rudderless for almost all of his freshman season.
His decision to return for his sophomore year was never certain, especially given the possibility that the 7-footer from Turkey might simply be a better fit for the international game than the college game, his acknowledged skill set notwithstanding.
And yet Yurtseven has gone from perhaps the most frustrating N.C. State player on the court last year to the most inspiring this year, proof of the value of confidence and the power of a second chance.
“I feel like it's just character and the people you surround yourself with,” Yurtseven said. “Everybody has those days. Everybody's not invincible, mentally or physically. You've just got to have people around you that will push you through bad and good, basically.”
College basketball offers this sometimes, one of its gifts not often willingly given: the beauty of seeing a player – like any individual, in any endeavor – start to achieve his or her considerable potential. You see it here as much in any sport because of the opportunity for individual success in a team game, because rosters are small enough where one player can make a difference, because players arrive as teenagers and exit as men and women.
We are watching their most important developmental years, judging and evaluating them, and while there are never any guarantees, and some players actually regress, those that do flourish claim a special place in our hearts.
That's what Yurtseven has done this season. It was always there: The size, the mobility, the jump shot. As a freshman, he missed the opportunity to acclimate himself during the early season games he missed while the NCAA dithered over his eligibility; once he was cleared, the pace of the game was too quick for him, the North American officiating an utter mystery. He was thinking, all too visibly, on the court, instead of obeying instincts he no longer trusted. He was playing among teammates that clearly lacked any cohesion.
There was never any guarantee Yurtseven would be able to display the supernova scoring ability he had internationally. He might have arrived in an aura of anticipation and exited in a cloud of disappointment. No matter what happens now, we've seen him at his best. Whether he can do that on a night-to-night basis remains an unknown, but his potential does not. And he knows that, too.
“It's amazing to be honest, especially (to be part) of a win,” Yurtseven said. “It's an amazing feeling. You can't really tell how good it feels. You just have to live it.”
Yurtseven followed up his 29-point explosion against Clemson with a quieter six-point effort at Virginia, but the Cavaliers are not the kind of team to allow him the space to flourish. Wake Forest was, allowing him to roam into unguarded spaces and gather himself for lethal 2-point jump shots. He was 7-of-10 from inside the arc, and the majority were from outside the lane, on his way to 22 points and eight rebounds.
“He's getting better, and all of that comes with your teammates believing in you,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said. “They were looking for him. The last couple games, the way people have played ball screens, we've been able to get him some open shots and he's really made them pay for it. He's starting to believe in himself. He's starting to score around the basket.”
N.C. State used the same lineup for the final 6:17, with Yurtseven surrounded by four guards. Yurtseven made it work, neutralizing Wake Forest's size advantage and proving impossible to guard himself, all at once. He got the Wolfpack into position, and others – Torin Dorn and Markell Johnson at the end – took things the rest of the way.
Yurtseven is far from a finished product, but he has become everything N.C. State realistically hoped he would be – a human mirror of how one wasted season begat this new and promising and productive one, and even more than his team, suddenly a pleasure to watch.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock