Scouting Report: North Carolina State
Hopefully, every Commodore in shorts and sneakers has grasped the utter worthlessness of that preseason No. 7 poll ranking. The lofty place in America's collegiate basketball pecking order wasn't earned. If Vanderbilt gets a No. 2 seed on Selection Sunday, it can then be said that the Dores are the seventh-best team in the United States, but coach Kevin Stallings's club has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get there. The loss to Cleveland State exposed the soft underbelly of this club, reminding Vandy fans and players (the coaching staff already knew…) that elite status won't be granted to the VU crew. The players have to earn it.
Vanderbilt students and alumni, being highly intelligent, will likely recall Joseph Campbell's The Power Of Myth, in which the mythologist and writer talked about his book of the same name with journalist Bill Moyers in a lengthy PBS series. One of the central points Campbell made in his extended discussion with Moyers is that ancient tribes, unlike America today, demanded that their adolescent youths paid a real physical price before conferring adult status upon them. Tying the act of suffering – some form of profound loss or jarring discomfort - to the transition from boyhood to manhood (or from girlhood to womanhood) creates healthy adults because it impresses upon them the fact that growing up is painful. Boys and girls grow into true adults when they acquire the increased sobriety which can only flow from a memorable encounter with deep pain. This is why adult status wasn't just granted by ancient tribes; it was connected to painful experiences and intentionally harsh rituals that forced a young mind to grapple with the weight of adulthood.
Vanderbilt's players have now felt the sting of a humiliating loss to Cleveland State. It could be the very mark of suffering which will wake up this team, enabling it to move from the basketball adolescence of a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament to the manhood of an Elite Eight appearance and a genuine shot at the Final Four in New Orleans. The Bucknell game provided an encouraging result. Now is the time to continue the momentum against a North Carolina State side with some efficient operators in the low post.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE AT-A-GLANCE
The 2011 season was coach Sydney Lowe's swan song with the Wolfpack. A dismal 15-16 record, including 5-11 in conference during a season when the vast majority of the ACC was weak, marked the final straw for the former NC State star point guard. The bottom-tier finish in the ACC led to Lowe's announced departure at the end of the season. Not returning from last season is leading scorer Tracy Smith, who averaged 14 points per game.
Mark Gottfried was introduced in April as the new coach of the Wolfpack, and he immediately worked to reshape the team as a hardworking, up-tempo squad. The results for the first three games of the season have been promising for Gottfried's group. After easy wins over UNC-Asheville and Morehead State to open the season, State was tested by a determined and hot-shooting Princeton team on Tuesday. The Wolfpack passed that test by enduring Princeton's slow pace and winning by two points on a straightaway jumper with four seconds left in regulation.
The Wolfpack has displayed offensive versatility in the few games it has played so far, exhibiting superior ball movement against a tight zone defense posed by Morehead State, the reigning Ohio Valley Conference champion. North Carolina State racked up 26 assists on 33 made baskets in the 91-61 victory. Against Princeton, the Wolfpack shot only 48 percent from the field in the two-point win, but collected 34 points in the paint and 14 fast break points. Defensively, the Wolfpack has shown tenacity unlike recent seasons, which can be attributed to a new work ethic instilled by coach Gottfried, according to the players.
Projected Starting Lineup
Center – DeShawn Painter – Junior, 6-9, 231 pounds; 2011-12 season averages: 14 points per game, 7 rebounds per game.
Painter has developed a strong inside presence in his three starts this season, and promises to post up with the intensity and decisiveness that one should expect from a big man. Painter will represent a change for Vanderbilt, which has not seen a particularly imposing or active pivot player in its first three opponents. Painter will be a load to handle for whomever he faces, and with big-name tests coming up for the Commodores against Louisville and Xavier, it's a good thing that VU will face a skilled low-post player against North Carolina State.
Power Forward – Richard Howell – Junior, 6-8, 250; 2011-12: 16.3 ppg, 10.7 rpg.
Howell dropped 15 pounds over the summer, and is much more athletic this season; he will miss the presence of shooting forward Scott Wood to feed him the rock from the perimeter, but he performed well without him in the Princeton game and is showing signs of rounding into a more self-sufficient player.
Point Guard – Alex Johnson – Graduate, 65-10, 176; 2011-12: 6.7 ppg, 3.3 assists per game
Johnson will likely get his first start of the season in the Vanderbilt game, although he is averaging 31 minutes per game. His start will change the starting lineup's complexion for the Wolfpack due to Wood's injury, although the anticipated lineup matches much of what Gottfried put on the floor in the Princeton game..
Shooting Guard– C.J. Williams – Senior, 6-5, 234; 2011-12: 12 ppg., 5 rpg.
Williams has seen a lot of playing time in these early-season games, but will likely be replaced in this contest by forward C.J. Leslie - who has been serving a three game suspension – when Leslie comes off the bench to test his legs. Leslie will be appearing in his first game after serving an NCAA penalty for receiving $410 in improper benefits.
Shooting Forward – Richard Howell – Junior, 6-8, 250; 2010-11: 16.3 ppg, 10.7 rpg.
Howell leads the Wolfpack in scoring this season. A whopping 81 percent of his shots are in the paint, where he is averaging a 61 percent shooting rate. This is a high-efficiency player who will be difficult to handle for the Dores, since Painter will already command attention on the low blocks.
Scott Brown rolled his ankle in the opening minutes against Princeton and is doubtful for the game, but if he does play, his 8 points per game and 58 percent 3-point shooting clip will certainly give the 6-6, 175-pound shooting forward a place on the floor. The game will mark the return of C.J. Leslie as mentioned, and the Wolfpack Nation is anxious to see how the 6-8, 209-pound sophomore forward has progressed since a freshman season that most regarded as sub-par.
Also likely to see significant time for the Wolfpack are 7-1 junior center Jordan Vandenberg, averaging 2.7 points and 4.0 rebounds per game in 16 minutes, and 6-8 203-pound freshman forward Tyler Harris, with 4.7 points per game in an average of 12 minutes per contest.
The Wolfpack is showing promise early in the season; playing a more difficult early-season out-of-conference schedule is something that Wolfpack fans have not seen in many years. Vanderbilt will need to bring its A-game to beat this team, which has shown tenacity and versatility so far this season.
Keys to the Game
1) Paint the lane anything but red. Mark Gottfried likes the color red. He coached the Alabama Crimson Tide and made a few visits to Memorial Gym over the years. Now he coaches the N.C. State Wolfpack, all dressed in red as well. Vanderbilt can't let the Pack paint the town – or the lane – red in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the very city where Vanderbilt played its most recent Sweet Sixteen game in 2007. The Dores need to establish ownership of the six feet near the rim by locking down Painter and Howell. Steve Tchiengang and Lance Goulbourne will have their work cut out for them.
2) Develop a tournament mentality. This is a neutral-site game being played at the IZOD Center, formerly (and still unofficially) known as the Meadowlands. Vanderbilt needs to view this and any other neutral-site game as a preview of the NCAA Tournament… not out of some expectation that a tourney bid will automatically fall into this team's lap, but in order to cultivate the right attitude in these strange-site showdowns. Vanderbilt needs to attack this game – and the Wolfpack – with relentless intensity, showing the toughness that needs to be present at all times in a season of such pronounced possibility.
DAVID MINTER is a freelance sportswriter who provided the North Carolina State portion of this scouting report.
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