Luke DeCock

Another easy win for N.C. State, but the tough games are coming soon enough

N.C. State’s Blake Harris drives to the basket during Saturday’s 82-63 win over Maine.
N.C. State’s Blake Harris drives to the basket during Saturday’s 82-63 win over Maine.

Judgment is coming, and that right soon. N.C. State walked past another overmatched opponent Saturday – this time Maine, which plundered enough back-door cuts to keep the score to 82-63 – to move to 4-0 and at some point, the Wolfpack will be tested. Just not yet.

Without any disrespect toward St. Peter’s (Tuesday) or Mercer (next Saturday), it’s hard not to look ahead to Wisconsin and Vanderbilt as the first games that will give any indication of just how good this N.C. State team actually is.

So far, it’s hard to tell.

To the Wolfpack’s credit, it hasn’t slipped or stumbled in these four opening wins by a combined 167 points, which for a team that returns only three players from a season ago is no small accomplishment, not to mention N.C. State’s past habit of losing games it is supposed to win. On that front, so far, so good.

But that’s hardly the full picture, and it’s difficult to get a sense of the full picture under these circumstances. Maine’s Princeton offense was a new look for the Wolfpack, and that exposure may help N.C. State down the road, but in general these games have been too easy, the shots too open, the boards too easily dominated.

That’s no accident. With all the roster turnover this schedule was calibrated to give the maximum runway before the games that matter, spring training for a college basketball team, time to bond on and off the court. It’s easy to scoff at a steady run of confidence-builders when you’re not the one who desperately needs to build some confidence.

“It’s hard to tell right now,” N.C. State guard C.J. Bryce said. “We’re not really playing against our opponent right now. We’re trying to look at it as we’re playing against Duke, playing against Carolina, playing against the bigger schools, and not really playing down to our competition.”

Things will get tougher soon. The Wolfpack plays four games in the space of 22 days that will serve as a real and unerring barometer of this team’s ability: at Wisconsin, against Vanderbilt in Miami, against Penn State in Atlantic City and Auburn at home. (Western Carolina is mashed in the middle, a game more like those on the schedule so far.)

Auburn is in the top 10, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt are both knocking on the top 25 and Penn State is a middle-of-the-pack Power 5 team, or at least that’s how they look at the moment. N.C. State fits somewhere in that group; maybe not at the top of it, but on that spectrum. Where, exactly, it’s impossible to tell right now. But it will be a lot easier to have a sense of the Wolfpack’s ACC prospects in a month or two.

At the moment, these blowouts don’t say much more than the Wolfpack knows how to take care of business. If anything, the strangest part has been the lack of any bench to clear. Bryce and Torin Dorn, both starters, were still on the floor at the end of this one, with no one outside the Wolfpack’s 10-man rotation available.

N.C. State planned on two walk-ons, was down to one by the time practice started and lost the other before opening night. Combined with the departure of freshman Ian Steere after one game, and it’s pretty lonely on the end of the bench for injured freshman Manny Bates and transfer Sacha Killeya-Jones.

N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said he may add a walk-on or two via open tryouts at some point, but with everyone else healthy and Killeya-Jones available to practice, he has enough bodies so there’s no urgent need. And over the course of his career, he’s preferred to stick with players good enough to play in his rotation, still a prep-school coach at heart in part.

That, of course, deprives fans of their late-game cries for the walk-ons, some of whom have become famous names at N.C. State: Chris Corchiani Jr., Chase Cannon, Jevoni Robinson, Chris Brickhouse, Patrick Johnson and Staats Battle in recent years alone. Patrick Wallace even played his way into a scholarship at Charleston Southern from the end of the State bench. A decade on, Will Roach is better remembered than most of his scholarship teammates (but not, certainly, Julius Hodge).

N.C. State could have used any or all of them to close out these games, and there will probably be more like Saturday before ACC play starts. If that’s the biggest problem N.C. State has, the Wolfpack will be in good shape.

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