Wolfpack Takes Another Step Forward

Brett Friedlander

The NC State basketball team isn't as good as it's going to be this season, but it's better than it was six games ago.

And that's good enough for coach Kevin Keatts as his Wolfpack prepares to shift gears and head into a more difficult portion of its early season schedule.

"I feel like we've gotten better," Keatts said Saturday after his team finished off a 74-58 victory against Little Rock at PNC Arena in its final tuneup for a four-game stretch that includes games against Memphis in Brooklyn on Thursday, at home against Wisconsin in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, at UNC Greensboro and at Auburn.

"I think each step of the way, each game we've gotten a little better in a lot of areas. We're starting to get out in transition better, we're sharing the ball more, I think defensively we've become more of a solid team. So I am happy where we're at."

The Wolfpack (5-1, 0-1 ACC) took care of business early, jumping out to a double-digit lead in the first six minutes and getting meaningful contributions from all eight of its available scholarship players.

With the exception of an eight-minute stretch in the second half when point guard Markell Johnson was on the bench with four fouls, State fought all the way to the end. 

Almost literally, as Devon Daniels got into an altercation with Little Rock's Markquis Nowell that required intervention from officials with 1.2 seconds remaining.

Here are some of the top takeaways from State's latest victory:

 ◼ The extracirricular activities at the end of the game may have been the product of Nowell's frustration over the defensive job the Wolfpack did against him. 

The 5-foot-7 guard came into the game as the Sun Belt Conference's leading scorer at 20.2 points per game. But State shut him out in the first half and limited him to just 3 of 11 shooting with three turnovers.

"Coach made that an emphasis," senior wing C.J. Bryce said. "We want to stop guys from getting their average against us. We knew coming in (Nowell) was a big scorer. We wanted to stop his points in transition and take away his threes. ... I think we did a really good job of limiting his touches."

The work on Nowell was the highlight of an overall defensive effort that forced Little Rock into shooting 37.3 percent from the floor (22 of 59, 4 of 18 on 3-pointers) with 18 turnovers.

◼ It was already documented by the season opening loss to Georgia Tech, a game Johnson missed with an ankle injury, that State is a much better team offensively with its senior point guard on the court.

The aforementioned eight-minute stretch in which Johnson was on the bench Saturday only emphasized that point.

Little Rock outscored the Wolfpack 15-12 from the 16:41 mark of the second half through Johnson's return with 8:44 remaining. It's not that State was terrible with Bryce and Braxton Beverly taking over the ballhanding duties. It's just that it wasn't nearly as fluid or fast on the offensive end.

Despite the lull, the extended stretch without Johnson may end up being beneficial in the long run for the Wolfpack because of the work it gave other players in roles unfamilar to their own. That's an important consideration right now with a bench shortened by injuries to reserves Danny Dixon and A.J. Taylor.

"it was good for us," Keatts said. "We've got to play without different pieces. We're only playing eight guys, so at any time anybody can get into a little foul trouble. Today it was Markell. We've certainly got to be able to play without one of our key guys. It was good. Braxton can play some point. Also if I need to I can play C.J. Bryce at that position."

 ◼ Speaking of Bryce, the redshirt senior who came with Keatts to State from UNC Wilmington continues to solidify his standing as the team's best all-around player and leader. He hit his first five shots to help the Wolfpack get off to that fast start and finished as his team's leading scorer for the fourth time in six games. 

In addition to his 18 points on 7 of 11 shooting, Bryce tied for the team lead with six rebounds, with two assists and two steals. It was the kind of stat line reminiscent of those regularly turned in a year ago by former team leader Torin Dorn. 

"Shoutout to my man Torin Dorn," Bryce said when asked about the comparison. "Torin Dorn was a great rebounder for us, I'm a great playmaker for us. I think us as a team, we're doing a really good job of picking up that slack."

Bryce even made a 3-pointer against the Trojans, only his third of the year on just eight attempts.

"I'm going to have to take more of those going down the stretch with guys playing off of me," he said. "That's something I'm willing to do and I'm working on."

◼ While Bryce contributed a familiar performance, sophomore forward Jericole Hellems did something Saturday that he hadn't done all season to this point.

He got an assist.

Not just one, but six -- setting a new career high and drawing some playful sarcasm from Keatts.

"I walked in (to the postgame locker room) and I said Jericole had a career-high in assists," the coach said. "I told the team that he had two assists and everybody was happy. He actually had six, but that just tells you he doesn't pass the ball. But it was good for him."

Hellems also had seven points, six rebounds and four steals after being challenged by Keats to 'be a better player."

"I don't need him to pass the ball," Keatts added. "I need him to rebound the basketball at that position and I thought he did that."

 ◼ While Keatts was happy with Hellems' rebounding, he wasn't thrilled with he rebounding as a whole.

State lost the battle of the glass 37-33 and was outscored 12-7 on second chance points as Little Rock amassed 12 offensive rebounds.

"We're a pretty good offensive rebounding team," Keatts said. "Where we're weak at right now, we've got to do a better job of rebounding defensively. We don't get as many breaks because we're not doing a great job of blocking back and guys are coming over our backs."