Wolfpack fully loaded for showdown with Memphis

Brett Friedlander

Memphis will be without two of its best players when it takes on NC State in Brooklyn on Thursday.

It’s a situation with which the Wolfpack is only too familiar, having been similarly shorthanded for its only real test of the young basketball season to date.

State lost that opening night game 82-81 in overtime to ACC rival Georgia Tech with point guard Markell Johnson and big man D.J. Funderburk relegated to the bench rather than on the floor, leaving coach Kevin Keatts to speculate what might have been had his full roster been available.

“When you look back six games ago and not having those guys,” Keatts said, “you wonder what the outcome could have been had they played.”

Keatts still doesn’t have all his players available. Backups Danny Dixon and A.J. Taylor have each missed the past few games with injuries. But even without them, the third-year coach is much more confident in the team he’ll put on the floor against the 16th-ranked Tigers

“We’ve got healthy guys now,” Keatts said. “It’s not the team I envisioned at the beginning of the season. I thought we would 10, maybe 11 guys that play the way we want to play.

“Right now we’re playing with eight scholarship guys and those guys are playing the bulk of the minutes. If you add Danny Dixon to it, that would make nine that are able to play. But I am happy to have D.J. and also Markell back, because those guys bring so much value to our team.”

Johnson missed the Tech game with an ankle injury while Funderburk was serving the first of what turned out to be a two-game suspension.

Although Johnson still hasn’t found his rhythm with his perimeter shot, he leads the ACC in assists and showed signs of settling in while scoring 12 points in each of his past two games -- against Alcorn State and Little Rock.

Funderburk, meanwhile, wasted little time assimilating into the lineup, coming off the bench behind freshman Manny Bates to contribute 11.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 74 percent from the floor.

The two have become part of a balanced eight-man rotation in which everyone is averaging at least 7.3 points and 20 minutes per game.

After reeling off five straight wins against lesser competition, senior wing C.J. Bryce is looking forward to seeing how the Wolfpack competes against a quality opponent that still has plenty of firepower even without suspended star James Wiseman and injured guard Luther Quinones.

"I feel like this team is in a really good groove right now,” Bryce, State’s leading scorer and rebounder, said. “We're getting our guys back going and comfortable playing with each other. I think that Memphis will be a great test for us. I'm looking forward to playing against them."

“Memphis, a very good team, They have James Wiseman sitting out, but they’re still a good team. For us to go against them is good for us.”

If there's one thing the Wolfpack has going for it -- other than the fact that it will be close to full strength and the Tigers won't be -- it's that it has a winning history in early season neutral site games under Keatts.

In 2017, State upset then-No. 2 Arizona 90-84 in the Bahamas. Last year it beat Vanderbilt in Miami before coming back a few weeks later to take out Penn State in Atlantic City, N.J.

Keatts beilieves those experiences will help his veteran team this time around, even though their history in two ACC tournaments at Barclay's Center isn't quite as positive.

“We do have guys who have played in these type of games so we got the opportunity to see where we at," Keatts said. "We've got a lot to take in. We've got to get better in a lot of areas. ...

"This is one of the games that we were excited to have because we knew coming into a tremendous job recruiting class. And they're good I know a lot of people say they aren't good without James Wiseman. It doesn't matter. They got really good players. So we're excited about it. It's a great opportunity to get a chance to see how much we've grown and where we need to get better.”