NC State closed out its non-conference schedule in less than spectacular fashion on Monday night, grinding out an ugly road win over UNC Greensboro to move to 10-3 on the season.
Because of the expanded ACC schedule, now at 18 games, the end of the OOC schedule no longer marks the halfway point of the season. But with the constant grind of the ACC starting Saturday – the Pack plays Pitt, at Notre Dame and Virginia in the first seven days alone – it's as good a time as any to take a step back and look at where the team as it heads into conference play.
Remember, this was a Pack team picked to finish 10th in the league and with question marks at basically every position on the court. With that in mind, it's hard to see the 10-3 start as anything but a success – albeit a mild one. It's a very different team than what was on the court last year, both in terms of personnel and play style.
Greatest Offensive Strength: Ball Security
The Pack under Mark Gottfried has always been good at taking care of the ball on offense, but they've taken it to a whole new level this year despite running out a freshman and sophomore at the point guard spot. The team is turning the ball over on around 15 percent of its possessions, and no one on the team has been particularly turnover prone. Even Barber and Warren, the only two Pack players averaging more than two turnovers a game, are leaned on so heavily on offense that their turnovers relative to their usage on offense is low. The Pack's ability to hang onto the ball has helped make the offense efficient despite problems in other areas.
Biggest Offensive Weakness: 3-point/FT Shooting
Last year's team, largely because of Scott Wood's 44 percent 3-point shooting, was 11th in the nation in 3-point percentage and while the Pack wasn't a prolific 3-point shooting team by any measure (just 20% of its points came from 3s) the efficiency kept teams honest. By contrast, this year's team is shooting just 30 percent from 3, ranking them in 296th nationally and turning the Pack into a team that has to score the vast majority of its points inside the arc. Add in its 64 percent shooting at the line (312th nationally), and the Pack can become a frighteningly one-dimensional offense at times.
Greatest Defensive Strength: Shot Challenging
The Pack's defense is average in most areas, but it's been very good at forcing misses. Some of this is luck – teams are shooting just 29 percent from 3-point range so far, a number that is likely to rise as conference play starts. But the Pack has also used its rotation of big men very well to create a defensive force in the paint that it hasn't had in the past. The Pack is blocking 13 percent of all shots, which would be its highest percentage in at least 10 years if it holds. BeeJay Anya is 8th in the league in blocks and he only plays about 10 minutes a game, while Vandenberg has also been among the best shot blockers on a per minute basis in the league.
Biggest Defensive Weakness: Defensive Rebounding
NC State has had issues securing defensive rebounds and a lot of it has been due to poor rotations defensively.
As a shotblocking team, NC State's big men are often leaving their men to defend the rim. When that happens, the wings and guards must rotate down to box out the opposing big man who is now left unguarded. State has been inconsistent in doing so and it's led to offensive rebounds for the opposition.
Most Consistent Player: T.J. Warren
Warren takes 35 percent of the Pack's shots when he's on the court and is still shooting almost 62 percent from inside the arc. That alone is almost unbelievable – maintaining that level of efficiency shooting the ball and also turning it over so little while carrying such a heavy offensive burden. Since the loss to NC Central, Warren has scored at least 21 points a game while also casually leading the Pack in rebounding. It's a performance that has made Warren one of, if not the leading candidate for ACC Player of the Year.
Least Consistent Player: Cat Barber
Barber has been everything you would expect out of a heralded freshman point guard – alternatively amazing and head-scratching. There are times when he appears to have complete command of the offense and his role in it, and then there are possessions that consist entirely of him dribbling around for 10-15 second before throwing up a low-percentage shot. Barber has to learn how to better play within the offense and avoid the sort of one-on-five basketball that has him currently mired in a 6-for-25 shooting slump.
Surprise Player: Lennard Freeman
It'd be easy, and certainly deserving, to slot Vandenberg in here – after four years of irrelevance he's emerged as a major part of the Pack's success both on offense and defense. But Freeman, a 17-year-old freshman for the first month of the season, has quietly been getting it done almost every night on the defensive and offensive glass. He's the Pack's best defensive rebounder, and second only to Warren on the offensive glass. He really, really needs to get better at the line but his emergence as the best of the three freshman bigs has been the real surprise of the early season.
Final Non-Conference Grade: B
The Pack has shown flashes of being an NCAA team, which is more than most thought coming into the year. Still, they had an inexcusable trip-up at home against NC Central and failed to finish off Missouri, leaving them with a very shaky resume at this point. With the ACC struggling out of conference as a whole, the Pack will probably need to finish over .500 in conference play for Gottfried to have a shot at three straight NCAA trips.