Last Tuesday night, NC State was their own worst enemy against a mediocre Illinois team.
Seemingly unable to get out of their own way, State took a loss on the road in the ACC/B1G challenge against a team they’re sure to have far more success than once the Pack is back at full strength.
With that loss still fresh on their mind, the Wolfpack shouldn’t have required any extra motivation to take out their frustrations on Boston University.
Nevertheless, sitting courtside in PNC Arena Saturday afternoon were star rappers Wale and J. Cole, two of this Wolfpack team’s favorite artists.
Over the past few years, as NC State star freshman Dennis Smith has become a household name, his fellow Fayetteville native, J. Cole, has become a mentor and friend, serving as a sort of “big brother” for the young phenom still getting accustomed to the national spotlight.
The relationship began at a Fayetteville skating rink in late 2014, when J. Cole was back in his hometown and wanted to meet the town’s young rising star.
What ensued was a pickup basketball game at Honeycutt Elementary, where they gained respect for one another, and Cole received a personal introduction to Smith’s God-given athletic ability.
Still, on this particular play, he got an up-close look at Smith’s exceptional athleticism.
J. Cole took a pass at the top right of the key then swung the ball to his teammate on the right wing and made a textbook cut for the give-and-go.
That’s when J. Cole’s teammate made a crisp pass to him and he attempted to finish the play with a right-handed layup.
Too bad Smith was on the backline; he sprung up and swatted J. Cole’s shot off the middle of the backboard before it went sailing out of bounds.
J. Cole’s post layup-denial course of action?
A quick dap-up.
The feeling was mutual for Smith.
“He came out aggressive the first game and scored a good amount of his team’s buckets,” Smith said of the Grammy nominated artist. “Then I was like, ‘Wow, dude can hoop for real!’ It was more competitive than I expected, and that in itself was respectable.”
Earlier this year, J. Cole made appearances at NC State’s Dail Basketball Center, working out with Smith, who was in the rehab process after tearing the ACL in his left knee just six months earlier.
With stars sitting courtside as if it were a Lakers home game, and a typically raucous crowd of 16,000 State fans, Mark Gottfried’s team showed flashes of the elite level they achieve, but struggled at time while still trying to “solve the Rubik’s cube” of their fluid rotations, as Gottfried often puts it.
Admittedly, Boston University is one of the better and more pesky mid-major teams this season, boasting a roster with 10 returning players, including five seniors and five juniors.
The Terriers are also one of the few teams in the nation that employs a variety of different looks on both offense and defense, often switching their identity from possession to possession making for an extremely difficult matchup for even the best teams. Hence their two-point loss to UCONN just a few days before arriving in Raleigh.
Regardless, the Pack was able to pull of their sixth win of the season, most of which have come without the services of probable starters Maverick Rowan, one of just two returning starters who averaged 13 PPG for State last season, and 5-star, 7-footer Omer Yurtseven.
The Wolfpack staff has held Rowan out the past few weeks to ensure he’s completely healed from a concussion, while Yurtseven is serving a 9-game suspension handed down by the NCAA because he made $700,000 playing overseas prior to joining the Pack.
Led by sophomore transfer Torin Dorn – one of a few Pack transfers playing college basketball for the first time in over a year – the Wolfpack eventually utilized their superior athletic ability and talent to pull out to a second half lead, giving them the cushion needed to survive with a win.
Dorn finished the night with his second double-double of the season, scoring 22 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. He was one of the only State players to shoot well from the free-throw line, hitting 9 of 11 attempts.
Fellow transfer Terry Henderson, who suffered an injury in last season’s opener that forced him to sit out the entire season, continued to be a long-range weapon for the Pack, dropping a game-high 23 points and making 4 of his 10 three-pointers.
Smith, meanwhile, had a bit of an off-night by his standards, scoring 15 points on 4 of 12 shooting, to go along with three assists and two rebounds. He had averaged 21.6 points, 5.6 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game over the past five games.
Ultimately, as has been the case for the Pack and their short-handed rotation thus far, foul trouble was a big issue, partially causing State’s inability to put Boston away after running out to a 65-49 lead with just nine minutes to play.
Freshman big man Ted Kapita was only able to play 17 minutes in his first career start, after fouling out with 6 points and 5 rebounds. Henderson was able to play 36 minutes, but still fouled out. And Abdul-Malik Abu was only able to muster 5 points and 6 rebounds in 26 minutes, thanks to four fouls of his own.
Abu has had an open and down season thus far. The adjustment of playing more minutes with four guards on the court has been a difficult task, but Abu has shown plenty of times that he’s still one of the most explosive, and talented, forwards in the ACC.
Quickly becoming the word that causes the most fervor from NC State fans, defense has been the Pack’s Achilles Heel through eight games. Obviously, the fluid nature of their rotations, with multiple players unavailable every single game, has been the main scape goat, and deservedly so.
But, in the end, effort on the defensive end of the court is what currently ails NC State basketball.
Thankfully, more help is on the way, and Mark Gottfried will soon have a complete roster that promises to be his most talented, and deepest, team yet.
Where that talent leads them is anyone’s guess. But the sky is still the limit.