Mark Gottfried didn’t break any clipboards Wednesday night, breaking a one-game streak, but there was plenty of foot stomping and eye rolling and head grabbing and general exasperation from the N.C. State coach as his team missed free throw after free throw and struggled to put away IUPUI.
All told, the Wolfpack missed 16 free throws and provoked a roughly equal number of Gottfried stomps before posting a 79-56 win, which while worrisome is the least of Gottfried’s concerns at this moment. His team was already struggling to adjust to life without Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner when Terry Henderson sprained his ankle in the season-opening loss to William & Mary.
That left the Wolfpack with only eight rotation players, two of them freshmen who were planning to play high school basketball this season – one of whom, Shaun Kirk, has had his limited playing time carefully rationed so far – and no backup point guard. Given those circumstances, Gottfried knew his team would stumble a time or two in the early going, but the timing and manner of the William & Mary loss was still surprising.
“We got carved up like a side of fries,” Gottfried said. “We got a little better on Sunday and we got a little better today.”
The key for the Wolfpack was getting back on track quickly, which N.C. State has done with wins over the Jaguars and the Jaguars – South Alabama and IUPUI – free throws aside.
“Just one of those nights,” Wolfpack forward Abdul Malik-Abu said. “We’re actually a good free-throw shooting team in practice. We have to do it when the lights come on.”
That’s how it’s going to go for the next month or two for the Wolfpack, and other than Henderson’s injury, it’s not entirely unexpected. The same can be said of how its ACC neighbors elsewhere in the Triangle have started the season.
In Chapel Hill on Wednesday, the Tar Heels eventually took care of a solid Wofford team that went to the NCAA tournament last year. But against both Fairfield on Sunday and Wofford, it took the Tar Heels some time to find their footing and distance themselves.
There’s always some finding their way for the Tar Heels at this time of year, but North Carolina misses Marcus Paige maybe even a little more than even they expected. Not necessarily in scoring, where Nate Britt and Joel Berry have done a commendable job picking up the slack even with Justin Jackson off to a slow start, but in terms of distribution and defense and poise. In those areas, Paige’s return can’t come soon enough.
Duke had the day to recover from Tuesday night’s disappointing loss to Kentucky in Chicago, a game that exposed all of the Blue Devils’ flaws, from Grayson Allen’s inability to get to the basket to Derryck Thornton’s inexperience at point guard to Brandon Ingram’s lack of physical strength, not that any of these were ever hidden. They just didn’t matter against Siena or Bryant. They mattered very much against Kentucky.
These are all issues that will resolve themselves over time for Duke. The only question is when. Upcoming games against Virginia Commonwealth, Indiana and Utah will offer a useful barometer of Duke’s ongoing development by Christmas. The Blue Devils were always going to be a work in progress, and despite their lofty ranking to begin the season, now they officially are.
The same can be said of N.C. State, which knew there would be a period of adjustment to begin the season but still hopes to become more of a finished product by the time ACC play begins.
“That’s who we are,” Gottfried said. “There’s going to be a lot of room for growth, a lot of room for improvement.”
The Wolfpack had plenty to learn about itself even before Henderson was injured, and even more now. Just like North Carolina without Paige, just like Duke going forward.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock