The Wolfpack have started their conference action 1-0 for the first time since 1989 after handing the Duke Blue Devils their first loss of the season with an 84-76 win. Although Duke entered the contest ranked 19 teams ahead of North Carolina State as the nation’s top school, the Wolfpack win cannot be considered an upset.
The 14-2 Wolfpack have been disrespected in the rankings ever since they were embarrassed by the Oklahoma State Cowboys early in the season. Being ranked 20th in the AP poll entering the Duke game was far too low for a team that has been on fire as of late, extending its win streak to 10 games with the Blue Devils victory.
The Cowboys loss has been the best thing to ever happen to North Carolina State as the preseason expectations inflated the team’s ego. The blowout loss was a humbling experience for a veteran roster, who have been re-focused and appeared determined to live up to expectations after beginning the year with an overload of cockiness.
The team’s anchor and heart has been Richard Howell, and he showed exactly why with his performance against the Blue Devils. Howell recorded 16 points and 18 rebounds in the win. The senior has by far been the Wolfpack’s best player, and its most consistent with nine double-doubles and averages of 12.9 points and 10.3 rebounds, while shooting 62.3% from the field. Howell is a relentless rebounding machine who doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit.
C.J. Leslie is playing at the level that many consider him to be among the nation’s top players. Against Duke, he looked unstoppable in the paint with his ability to blow by defenders and attack the rim. Mason Plumlee could not stay in front of Leslie down low as the 6-foot-9 forward proved to be too much in the paint. Duke’s Amile Jefferson fouled out as he couldn’t contain Leslie once he got post position. The Wolfpack’s leading scorer will use the next two months to make a case as to why he’s the ACC’s best player. Plumlee has officially been put on notice after Leslie recorded 25 points, six rebounds and two blocks in the victory.
The team’s frontcourt is complimented by strong perimeter play that’s led by Lorenzo Brown. The conference’s leader in assist and steals continues to be the ACC’s miniature version of Rajon Rondo. He can do a little bit of everything on the court and when he’s on his game, nobody is better at impacting a game from the point guard position than Brown is. His double-double performance of 12 points, 13 assists and four rebounds against the Blue Devils is just the latest example of the conference’s inability to slow down the 6-foot-5 guard.
Scott Wood continues to be one of the nation’s best shooters while being underrated, given the talent he displays. He’s averaging 90.2% from the foul line and 43.3% from three-point range. When the Wolfpack need a big bucket, the ball will always be in Wood’s hands; and when the game is on the line, he’s the ultimate closer at the free throw line. The senior went 3-for-3 from downtown and 5-for-5 from the charity strip to finish with 14 points.
The pieces of the puzzle that will decide how far North Carolina State goes in March are their two impressive freshmen, T.J. Warren and Rodney Purvis. Both can play multiple positions that helps allow the Wolfpack’s four core players remain on the court. Warren is the conference’s best freshman at this point in the season, and is in a three-man rotation in the frontcourt along with Howell and Leslie. Purvis can play with Brown in the backcourt, or slide over and become the lead guard when the point guard needs a break. If the two can continue to improve on their first 16 games of the year, the Wolfpack’s chances of extending the season into April greatly increases.
For the most part, North Carolina State uses a six-man rotation featuring six quality players that all provide challenges on the offensive end. When you have six players that average or are close to averaging double-figures, saying the team is loaded with firepower is almost an understatement.
The frontcourt is loaded with hustle and heart while the perimeter has scorers that can rain down offense in a hurry.
Last season’s national champion used a six-man rotation that saw great success. By beating Duke, the Wolfpack showed why their roster had many believing at the beginning of the season they could have similar success.