by Neil Morris
After N.C. State’s 80-63 win over Cleveland State on December 8, Vikings head coach Gary Waters expressed admiration for the Wolfpack’s transition attack but went out of his way to question their ability to execute a half-court offense.
“They get it out and they push it up and they attack you,” Waters observed. “The thing is, I don’t know how they would do if you just keep them in a half-court game. I think that’s what’s going to happen to them throughout the season. People are going to try to shut that down. They’re as good as anybody I've seen in the country getting in transition because they've got so many good finishers.”
Following Saturday’s 84-68 thrashing of Western Michigan (8-5), Broncos gaffer Steve Hawkins spoke to the handful of media who hadn't already scurried off to make deadline. When asked what makes No. 23 N.C. State (10-2) such a difficult team to play, his two-word answer was both simple and revealing: “Their players.”
Hawkins spoke effusively about a Wolfpack squad that just handed his team their fifth loss of the season. Five N.C. State players finished with double-digit points, led by C.J. Leslie with 19 and Richard Howell with 18. Leslie’s game-high was rather surprising, as the junior forward was slow out of the gate and didn’t score his first point until the 2:33 mark of the opening half.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said he liked Leslie’s performance, to a point.
“I don’t want him to just flip the switch,” Gottfried said. “I want him to play that way all the time.”
Hawkins said he and his staff noticed Leslie’s proclivity to “coast” at times while reviewing Wolfpack game film. When asked what he thought triggered Leslie’s sudden turnaround during this game, Hawkins chuckled.
“You guys might be in a better position to answer that,” he said.
Howell scored 10 of his 14 first-half points during the opening six minutes. He twisted his ankle in the second half and appeared to favor the injury even after returning to the floor, perhaps keeping him from gathering the one additional rebound needed to notch his seventh double-double this season.
Indeed, Hawkins said that if he could take just one player out of all the teams his Broncos have faced this season—a list that includes No. 2 Michigan—it would be Richard Howell.
“I just like the way that kid plays,” Hawkins said. “He’s a beast.”
Still, N.C. State never led by double-digits over a first half that included seven ties and five lead changes. However, Leslie’s first basket gave the Wolfpack the lead for good, a margin expanded before halftime thanks to back-to-back dunks by Howell and T.J. Warren, who finished with 15 points off 7-9 shooting.
While Hawkins praised N.C. State’s formidable talent and attack, he also conspicuously noted that their half-court offense is a basic high-post scheme that is “not that sophisticated.” These observations from Waters and now Hawkins could be called sour grapes from vanquished foes, particularly since this Wolfpack offense currently leads the nation in field goal shooting. However, these critiques are also clearly part of the established scouting report on the Wolfpack, one Gottfried indirectly acknowledged during his own post-game presser.
“We just kind of get the ball to whoever’s open,” Gottfried admitted about his offense. “A lot of that’s not by design. It’s not where all of sudden we’re just calling Calvin’s number or play [for example]. Our team’s a pretty unselfish team, and we talk about the open man needs to have the ball.”
N.C. State returns to action at PNC Arena on Monday, December 31 against UNC-Greensboro (ESPNU). The original tip-off time of 1 p.m. has been changed to 5 p.m. to avoid conflict with the Wolfpack’s Music City Bowl game against Vanderbilt, which kicks off Monday at noon in Nashville, Tenn.