Defense Propelling Pack's Success

NC State head coach Mark Gottfried had to be concerned with his team's perimeter defense after the Wolfpack's first two games of the ACC schedule.

State was 1-1 in league play and coming off a shocking home loss to Georgia Tech, a team that had struggled to shoot from the perimeter all season. Against the Wolfpack, the Yellow Jackets were on fire from the perimeter, and their top two playmakers, point guard Mfon Udofia and wing Glen Rice, led the way by shooting a combined 12-of-18 from the field and a blistering 6-of-9 from behind the 3-point line. Their play was the major factor in Tech's double-digit victory.

Even in State's win over Maryland the Terps received terrific play from star guard Terrell Stoglin (8-16 field goals, 6-12 3-point field goals) that pretty much kept them in the game.

Gottfried had seen enough. After the Tech loss he openly challenged his perimeter players to defend better... to accept the challenge and step up their play.

"When you look at our team right now, one area where we need to be greatly improved is on defense, especially from behind the line," Gottfried said on January 13th. "So that's a concern. Scott Wood, C.J. Williams and Lorenzo Brown have to be better than we've been on the perimeter.

He specifically challenged Williams, the senior wing who Gottfried had labeled his best perimeter defender, to pick it up.

"There's not a bigger C.J. Williams fan than me. I love this guy, he's played at a very high level," said Gottfried. "I've challenged him, it's time to cut to the chase. He has to be better defensively on the perimeter, period.

C.J. Williams held Travis McKie
to a season-low 2 points
on 1-of-5 shooting from the field.

"We've put him on their best scorer with the anticipation that you aren't going to shut guys out, but he has to step that part of his game up for our team to take a step. To become better, we have to have a perimeter, shutdown guy and we think it's him. So, I've challenged him in that regard."

Williams, and his teammates seemed to get the message. A day later the Wolfpack held Wake Forest to 40 points, and did it by completely stifling Wake's top perimeter threats, guard C.J. Harris and wing Travis McKie. The duo combined to hit just 4-of-17 shots, with Williams limiting McKie to 1-of-5 shooting from the field.

"I think their perimeter guys were averaging 46," said Gottfried after the win. "I think when you add up those guys today they scored 15. That was an emphasis."

The defensive effort continued in back-to-back wins over Boston College and Miami respectively. BC's perimeter duo of Lonnie Jackson and Matt Humphrey hit just 4-of-15 attempts from the field in the Pack's double-digit home win, and in Sunday's victory at Miami, State limited UM standout guards Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant to just 4-of-18 shooting. Grant, one of the ACC's top 3-point shooters, was 0-7 and a non-factor.

In the three wins, State held the opposition's top perimeter threats to a combined 12-of-50 shooting from the field... a putrid 24% shooting percentage.

Overall the defensive intensity has picked up, as State, which had been averaging just over six steals a game, has recorded 38 (12.7) in the three victories while limiting those teams to 38% shooting and 19% shooting from behind the 3-point line. State held Wake and Miami, both road victories, to a combined 4-of-40 shooting from 3. Ouch.

"We've taken away the three-point shot," Williams said after Tuesday's practice. "We want to make teams have to put the ball on the floor and then keep them in front."

"We've been trying to contain teams from hitting three-point shots," added Lorenzo Brown. "Coach wants us to keep our hands up and deny as much as we can."

"He is a handful to guard."

Williams has played a big role in the defensive success.

"C.J. is liking the role.. give me their best player, I want to guard him," Gottfried said. "For us to be a good team he has to be that guy. I think he's done very well with that.

Next up for the Wolfpack? Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston of North Carolina. All three are very good 3-point shooters and will test State's perimeter defense.

Barnes, in particular, has the Wolfpack's attention. He averaged 20.5 points and 8 rebounds in UNC's two wins over State last year, and at 6-foot-8 and 215 pounds the talented sophomore is averaging 17.4 points per game while shooting 43.6% from deep this season.

Gottfried has already said that Barnes will be defended by Williams, who at 6-foot-5 is shorter than Barnes but at 220 pounds he has the strength and athleticism to try and slow Barnes down.

"I think first with [Harrison Barnes] is the way he runs the floor," said Gottfried. "He runs the floor so well. You've got to get back and find him. They will shoot it quick, and he will shoot it quick. I think transition defense with him is the first priority. If you don't get back you are in trouble.

"He is going to score on you. He is going to shoot a three or take it to the rim. He is a very good rebounder. He is a very good one-on-one player. He is a handful to guard. It will be a challenge for us."

"He's got a lot of strength," Williams said of Barnes. "I just want to make him take tough shots. he's going to make some shots. You can't completely shut out such a good player like him, but you still have to make it difficult on him every play. You have to make him work for everything.

"We just want to disrupt him, get under his skin a little bit. Sometimes deny it, sometimes let him catch it, sometimes back off, sometimes play tight. You've just got to play mind games with him... give him a few different looks so he can't get comfortable."

Scott Wood has 9 blocks
in State's five ACC games...
sixth-best in the league.

The Tar Heels will be playing without starting shooting guard Dexter Strickland, but all that does is open the door for sophomore Reggie Bullock and freshman P.J. Hairston, two McDonald's All-Americans and prolific perimeter shooters, to receive more playing time. Bullock, who will start for Strickland, will be defended by Scott Wood, and the Wolfpack junior says that Bullock and Hairston are focal points.

"I think they are going to spread the floor a lot more," said Wood. "I think they give that team a whole new dimension they probably haven't had in the past. It's just one of those things where you've got to try and guard them and take away what they do best."

It's going to be hard for NC State to duplicate their recent defensive numbers on the road at North Carolina, a team blessed with much more firepower than Wake, BC, and Miami. However, the Wolfpack just has to go in and do whatever it takes to leave Chapel Hill with the victory.

"This is a big game for us," said Williams. "We need a statement game. I feel like this one can be one that we can go and make a statement that NC State basketball is back."

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