The three losses that we just had are something we need to learn from. Obviously, nobody likes to lose. Although it's a big deal and a lot of people talk about it, there's nobody who hates losing more than the people who are actually in the gym every day, spending hours practicing and working on different aspects of the game. So nobody can feel the hurt and the losses more than the players and the coaches.
Obviously, we've got to bounce back. I think we're getting everybody in better physical condition, and that's going to help some.
Rebounding has been a problem all year long. How can the team improve in that aspect?
It's a mindset. We just can't allow other people to just crash the boards on us and use that as a big weapon against us. We play good defense in the halfcourt set for about 25-30 seconds and they throw up a bad shot, and we should get the rebound and go on. Instead, they get the rebound and they score, and that helps them get emotional and get more confident, and they think that they own the tempo of the game. That's something we've got to turn around; we've been struggling with that all year long. We've got to fix it, because the teams are only going to get better and bigger.
How excited is the team to play Duke after beating them the last two years at the RBC Center?
Everybody knows how good Duke is; it doesn't matter if they have people who are hurt or people who didn't come back from the previous year. They have Coach K and he's a great coach. I give Duke a lot of respect; I can't wait to play them. Obviously, we beat them here last year and we've got to come in ready. We just had three losses and they're undefeated, so we've got to bounce back and get a winning mentality again.
Everyone is predicting a down year for Duke, yet they're still undefeated. How do they continue to keep it together, year after year?
There was no doubt in my mind that they were going to be good, despite the fact that they had two entries into the NBA. Coach K always finds a way to have a good team, no matter what players he has on the court. Duke is always going to be good. We've just got to find a way to win, and we've got to be ready to play hard and play together.
Last year State only took 12 three-pointers in beating Duke. Is the best way to attack them to spread the floor and go to the basket?
This is correct. Duke does a lot of denying and this is the way they've been guarding us the last couple of years, ever since we have had this system, ever since I have been here. We just take what the defense gives us. Duke doesn't give us too many threes; they give us opportunities to drive, so we've got to use that to our advantage. I think last year we did a great job of that.
Even though we didn't score a lot of threes, we played really, really hard, probably the hardest game we played all year long, and it showed. Duke played hard, too, and that night, the better team won.
Duke is saying you guys are more dangerous now because of the losing streak. Do you sense that?
Yes, definitely. The practices' intensity has been a lot higher than it has been before. There's a little sense of urgency among the players; we know that our backs are against the wall and we need to stick together and come around, because three in a row is a lot of losses. We can't afford to have any more.
Does the sense of urgency extend to saying, "We need to win a certain amount of games in this next four-game stretch"?
Right now, I don't think anybody on the team is focused on the big picture. I certainly haven't thought about it, and I haven't heard players talk about Georgia Tech or the following week when we go on the road.
The one thing that has been consistent is that we've been focusing on Duke. Duke is our mindset right now. We have to beat Duke; once we beat Duke, then we'll move on forward.
It seems like last year's win over Duke let the team know how good it could be. Is that accurate?
Last year when we beat Duke, we were under the radar for a while. We had beaten good teams and we didn't get any recognition. I think beating Duke was the statement.
This year, we're in the spotlight a lot and we haven't produced as well as we've been expected to. I think that beating Duke would just reinstate that, even though we have some losses, we're still a very good basketball team.
Have the bigger players you've matched up with been able to exploit your knee problems rebounding-wise?
I think that rebounding is not a one-person thing; it's a team commitment. You can be boxing out and not get the rebound, but if you do a good job boxing out and your man doesn't get the rebound, then you can do your share.
As far as mismatches, it goes both ways. I'm smaller than most guys, and if I'm guarding them and they're guarding me, they can take advantage of that and I can take advantage of that, too. It's which team can take the better advantage … Because they think they have a mismatch, if we play good team defense that helps out, they can have a real hard time scoring. The same can be done if they're playing defense. It just depends on how the coach wants to focus his defense and on which player he's going to emphasize.
Does playing Duke just once this year change the dynamic of the game?
I love playing Duke and I love going to Cameron Indoor Stadium, so I wish we played them more than once. But it's certainly something that we have to embrace because there's new teams in the ACC, and Miami showed they're a good basketball team, not just a good football team. If that means we've got to play Duke once despite our playing them twice [in the past], then we'll play them once.
We play them at home this year, and this is the biggest game of the year for us right now.
Have you watched film on Duke's game with Princeton?
I'm sure Coach K did that on purpose, to get his guys ready for us. Princeton has a similar offense to ours, so that probably gave Duke a little overview of how we play. It might be a good thing for them, it might be a bad thing for them, but either way, it's going to come down to NC State and Duke tomorrow. And the team that is going to play the hardest is going to win. I don't think it's going to come down to Xs and Os; it's going to come down to who wants is the most.
Is it possible for an entire team to go into a slump from the free-throw line?
We've been very good at the free-throw line in the last couple of years. I think that this year we have not been as good, and the numbers show it. That has cost us some games. If you make your free throws, especially in the last couple of minutes of the game, where people want to foul you because they want to get back in the game … But if you make your free throws consistently and you have that kind of confidence, then there's just not a way for other teams to come back in a game. People did that to us last year and they just kept digging bigger holes for themselves. This year, we haven't been able to show that yet and we haven't been doing it. Even though we shoot a lot of free throws in practice, I think we need to start making them in games for us to be a good team.
Is it possible that the team is taking free throws for granted because of the recent success the team has had from the line?
I think people thought it was going to be easy. Maybe we thought that because we were so good last year and we set such a record, all we had to do was show up on the foul line and they were automatically going to go in. There's a whole process of concentration and mindset when you're on the free-throw line, and we just have to do a better job of that, because it's going to cost us another game if we don't pay attention to it.
Do you have late-game free-throw scenarios in practice?
We shoot a lot of free throws every day. We have goals. After practice is over, everybody has got to make a certain amount of free throws. After some drills or segments in practice, Coach will pick a player to shoot free throws, and if he doesn't make both of them, we may have to do a little run. Things like that. Coach hasn't changed anything with free throws; he's not emphasizing them more than last year, we just haven't produced as well.
Can you talk about the way Daniel Ewing and J.J. Redick are playing?
They're playing great. They're both great shooters and they complement each other really well. All along they've been good players, but I think that this year J.J. Redick is shooting lights-out. And if anybody was doubting that he was going to come back to his shooting form from his slump last year, well, they shouldn't do that, because a shooter's a shooter. Obviously, he's doing it now. Daniel Ewing, same thing. It doesn't matter whether it's Redick or Ewing, when they come off those screens, if you're not ready, it's up and in. We've got to be very, very vigilant in the way that we play them.
Is the key to the game to slow down Ewing and Redick?
I think there's a lot of keys to beating Duke, but certainly one of the keys is we can't let those two guys get going, because if you do, they can just score 50 points – just those two. And we can't let that happen.
I think that defense is going to be very important to us, but at the same time, we need to control the rebounds and play harder than they do. And Duke is known for playing hard.
What area does the team need to improve most to get things turned around?
I think that the one common thing in all three games would definitely be the rebounding. It probably shows in each and every single game that we lost; if it didn't show in other games, it's because we won and we were playing inferior opponents. But it's shown lately, and we definitely have to change that if we want to have a successful year.
How has the team handled the injuries in terms of confidence and morale?
It's never good to lose games, but as long as you take something positive from it and learn from it, it can help down the stretch. We've just got to learn from those three losses and not let that happen again late in the season when it comes down to a win or a tournament.
And I think that us facing adversity so early in the year can cause us some losses, but can also be good for us. Not having Julius at 100 percent, having Tony Bethel dealing with some sickness, the whole team got hit by the flu a week ago … I think that type of adversity and playing on the road was good for us. And we can only get better as a team if we [learn from] that adversity.
What have you seen in practices the last few days that encourages you?
We've approached it the way we've approached tem every year: one game at a time. They're the only team that matters right now. This is how we dealt with Miami and West Virginia – it's just unfortunate we didn't win those games and we didn't do the little things we should have. I think that the determining factor tomorrow is going to be who is playing the hardest, and we've got to control the boards.
How do you feel the team is performing on the defensive end?
Defensively, we're not as good as we have been the past couple of years. We've got to get better at it. We've got to get better at stopping penetration, because that can create a lot of opportunities for big men to score, for rebounding. It just becomes a big scramble, so we need to stop guys' penetration, do a better job of blocking out.
We're playing hard; we've just got to play a little harder and do those little things, and I think that it can have a big, big change in the way the outcomes can be.