College Basketball Nation: Lorenzo Brown

Mark Gottfried picked an inopportune time to reload.

His North Carolina State squad lost the bulk of its key pieces from last season. C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown entered the draft. Richard Howell exhausted his eligibility. And former McDonald’s All-American Rodney Purvis transferred to Connecticut.

The Wolfpack signed a 2013 recruiting class that’s ranked 13th in the country. That will help. But Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt will join the ACC next season. That won’t help.

And it won’t ease his plight, especially with the best team in America standing in the Wolfpack’s way.

Gottfried believes that Duke should be the No. 1 team in the country entering next season. Not only does he believe it, he “can’t imagine” any other team holding that slot.

Hmmmmm.

Per David Morrison of the Greensboro News & Record, who attended NC State’s annual summer news conference on Tuesday:
With freshman Jabari Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood added to the mix, Gottfried feels as if Duke could have the second and third picks of next year's NBA Draft playing on its perimeter.

"There's a lot of attention around Jabari Parker, but wait until you see Rodney Hood," Gottfried said. "He's that good. They're loaded."

Hood, who injured his Achilles tendon during the Team USA World University Games tryout camp, should be full-speed by the fall.

Plus the Blue Devils bring back starters Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, reintroduce Andre Dawkins and bring in freshmen Semi Ojeleye and Matt Jones on the wings.

That's quite a stacked perimeter.

"We'll all have a great time trying to get ready for that," Gottfried said bemusedly.

That's why, when handicapping the league at the beginning of July, Gottfried's eyes are straying to Durham.

"I can't imagine anybody else being picked No. 1 in the country than Duke," Gottfried said.

Now, Gottfried’s praise is valid. Duke will be legit next season.

Parker was the biggest thing in the 2013 class before Andrew Wiggins reclassified. And Hood, if healthy, could be a high-level NBA prospect, too.

But has Gottfried ever been to the state of Kentucky? There are a few teams there that might have a case for No. 1. This guy, John Calipari, signed six McDonald’s All-Americans. In one class.

The Wildcats should be OK, right?

Oh and there is this Louisville squad, too. Some coach named Rick Pitino led that team to the national championship a few months ago, and his program retained multiple key contributors. The Cardinals should be solid, too.

And Kansas has Wiggins. So there’s that. Michigan State, Arizona, Syracuse and Florida will also be in the mix.

Perhaps Gottfried simply, uh, misspoke.

Paige's improved play propels UNC

February, 23, 2013
2/23/13
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams didn’t have to tell point guard Marcus Paige that he needed to play a whole lot better Saturday than the previous time the Tar Heels faced NC State.

Paige knew.

And he did.

The freshman, who looked lost and performed like it when the Tar Heels got whipped by the Wolfpack last month in Raleigh, rallied his team with an inspired, confident, 14-point, eight-assist effort during UNC’s 76-65 victory at the Smith Center.

NC State coach Mark Gottfried called Paige’s shots down the stretch Saturday “timely.”

And they were. But not just for that game -- also for the future of a Tar Heels team that finally seems to be putting its pieces together cohesively after switching to a smaller lineup four games ago.

“It’s just confidence and experience -- he has those now," senior guard Dexter Strickland said. “For [Paige] to be able to step up and hit those shots now, that’s huge for us, and where we are as a team.”

Where they are now, at 19-8 overall and 9-5 in the ACC, is third place in the league standings -- a half-game ahead of Virginia (which plays Sunday) and a full game ahead of the Wolfpack (19-8, 8-6). That’s important because only the top four teams earn a first-day bye in the ACC tournament.

And where they are now is looking calmer and more capable, going 3-1 since 6-foot-5 wing P.J. Hairston was inserted into the starting lineup, in place of 6-9 forward Desmond Hubert. The switch has made the Tar Heels faster, put another scorer on the floor, and opened more lanes for both Paige and Strickland to get to the basket.

“I think we’re starting to click more a little bit," Paige said.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bullock
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesNorth Carolina's Reggie Bullock impressed with his shooting ability Thursday.
A big part of that click is Paige, who went 2-for-11 with four assists and three turnovers during the Tar Heels' 91-83 loss last month at NC State. During that game, the freshman got outclassed by Wolfpack point guard Lorenzo Brown, who pushed a strong transition game -- and pushed past Paige on a regular basis. And the Tar Heels, Paige said, "got a little bit embarrassed," falling behind by as many as 28 points.

“That was the first time I played against a really big-time player, and he got the best of me in that matchup," Paige said. “[But] I couldn’t let him have a big night this time, because he kind of makes their whole offense go. I just wanted to try to contain him and make things as difficult for him as I could. And it ended up working out.”

Brown, still not quite 100 percent after an ankle sprain that sidelined him for two games earlier this month, finished with 12 points and 12 assists Saturday. But this time around, Paige was the aggressor -- especially when it mattered most.

After NC State used a 13-2 run early in the second half to turn a 10-point deficit into a 43-42 lead, Williams used his pull-'em-all approach, and inserted Paige, Luke Davis, J.P. Tokoto, Jackson Simmons and Hubert to give his more-used players a few minutes to ponder their lack of focus. Paige hit a 3-pointer -- a key shot considering Wolfpack wing Scott Wood countered with back-to-back 3s to extend his team’s run to 19-5.

But it was a few minutes later, with State still leading 55-52, when Paige really made his presence felt.

During what would become an 18-2 breakaway, and with the regulars back on the floor, he buried a 3-pointer to give the Tar Heels a 57-55 lead. After two Leslie McDonald free throws and a Reggie Bullock 3, he drove past Wood for a three-point play. And after another Bullock 3-pointer, Paige buried two free throws to give his team a comfy 70-57 cushion with less than four minutes left.

“I just think you’ve got to be able to step up and make big shots in times like that," Paige said. “And if defenses are going to leave you open, they’re challenging you to make shots like that. So to step up and make shots like that, that was big for me.”

And his team.

Bullock, who finished with a game-high 22 points and a career-high-tying 13 rebounds, also was big for UNC. As was the fact that NC State star forward C.J. Leslie finished with as many turnovers as points (6), and that the Tar Heels scored 24 points off turnovers (the Wolfpack had 16 for the game).

But Paige’s obvious growth since the previous time he faced NC State on Jan. 26 pulled it all together. It kept the rival Wolfpack from sweeping the Tar Heels for the first time since 2002-03. And it propelled the Tar Heels to their third consecutive victory.

He needed to improve. He knew it. And he did.

“My freshman is a tough little nut," Williams said. “And he’s getting better and better.”

NC State at UNC: What to watch

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
4:38
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It’s been well documented that North Carolina coach Roy Williams hates to lose to NC State. But it’s the way the Tar Heels lost to their just-up-Interstate-40 rival last month that could make Saturday’s rematch even more heated.

“There’s no question I hate to lose against anybody, but especially somebody that just -- they had us by 28,’’ Williams said. “Last game, everybody said ‘It was a great comeback. But I don’t care about that, they had us by 28.”

Indeed, the Wolfpack led by as many as the aforementioned 28 points on Jan. 26 before UNC made a late push to close to within five; State's win snapped a 13-game skid against the Tar Heels.

Saturday at the Smith Center, State will by trying for its first regular-season sweep of UNC since the 2002-03 season something Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried reminded his team about via dry-erase board earlier this week.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsCoach Roy Williams is 19-2 in his career against NC State -- including 9-0 at the Smith Center.
“It was a long time ago,” State point guard Lorenzo Brown told The News & Observer. “Hopefully we can do it again on Saturday.”

With roughly two weeks to go in the regular season, there will be plenty on the line in this one, from momentum to seeding ramifications (State, UNC and Virginia are all knotted in third place at 8-5 in the conference standings, and only the top four seeds earn a first-day bye in the ACC tournament).

And, of course, there's pride.

“It’s a big-time rivalry within the state of North Carolina,’’ said UNC wing Reggie Bullock, who grew up in Kinston, N.C. “We lost to them to first time, so we definitely have to get our face back, and get out there and play harder.”

A few things to watch during the game, which tips off Saturday at the Smith Center at 4 p.m. ET:

BIGGER VS. SMALLER

NC State has gone bigger with its lineup, inserting 6-foot-8 freshman T.J. Warren to play alongside 6-8 Richard Howell and 6-9 C.J. Leslie in a move that has improved the Wolfpack’s rebounding. Gottfried said Friday he plans to stay with that frontline.

UNC, meanwhile, has gone smaller with its opening five, inserting 6-5 P.J. Hairston instead of 6-9 Desmond Hubert; the four-guard lineup has given the Tar Heels more scoring and confidence, and Williams said he'll stay with his newest first five, as well.

“We’ll still go with that same lineup tomorrow, but I really foresee the fact that we’ll play two big guys together a bit more,” Williams said Friday.

“... If they have two big inside players who take the ball to the basket against big guys, they’re really going to take the ball to the basket against little guys. So it really is something we’re concerned about.”

Williams said UNC will start out with Hairston defending Leslie, 6-9 James Michael McAdoo on Howell and 6-7 Bullock on Warren.

UNC may also have the option of inserting 6-9 wide-body reserve Joel James, who missed the last three games because of a concussion. James practiced Thursday and Friday, Williams said, “so we’ll just have to see after practice today whether he has his conditioning back enough to play in the game. He was out for 10 days or something like that, so it’s going to take him a little while.”

LORENZO BROWN

[+] EnlargeLorenzo Brown
Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY SportsLorenzo Brown had a double-double with 20 points and 11 assists in NC State's first meeting with the Tar Heels this season.
Williams called Brown, NC State’s starting point guard, “a load,’’ and he certainly was last month, when he ran seemingly unchecked through UNC’s defense and finished with 20 points and 11 assists.

Gottfried said earlier this week that Brown is back to about 90 percent after missing two games because of a sprained left ankle; the junior has averaged 13 points and 6.6 points in the three games since he returned.

Williams said he thinks State is a better team because of the adversity it faced, playing without its star ball handler.

“Yeah, they lost a couple or something like that [actually, the two games when Brown was sidelined], but they bounced back, they played better, gave Lorenzo a little break there, and it looks to me like he’s back to 100 percent,’’ Williams said. "It gave them a little more depth, because they brought [freshman point guard] Tyler Lewis in and got more confidence in him, and I think T.J. just gives them another scoring option -- and a scoring option from anywhere on the court.”

MCADOO

UNC's sophomore forward ended up with with 13 points and 11 rebounds during the Tar Heels' loss at State, but played only 25 minutes after picking up two quick fouls. He’ll have to play both smart and aggressively against Howell, who leads the ACC in rebounding (10.9 per game) and is averaging a double-double (13 points).

In addition, the Tar Heels would like to see McAdoo's offensive numbers look more like the ones he recorded at Georgia Tech on Tuesday (20 points) than his previous three games (an average of 8.0).


DURHAM, N.C. -- The last time Duke played NC State -- an eight-point loss in Raleigh last month that snapped a 15-game Blue Devils winning streak and pushed them out of the top spot in the national polls -- it was still searching for an offensive identity without senior forward Ryan Kelly.

Looks like the fourth-ranked Blue Devils have found it.

Using a bevy of pretty 3-pointers, No. 4 Duke ripped off a big lead to open Thursday's rematch at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Using some patience and emotion and a whole bunch of free throws, it withstood a Wolfpack rally down the stretch and won 98-85.

“We’d love to have Ryan back, but we’ve learned how to play with this group,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I’m not saying we’re a great team -- but we’re a good team now, with this group.”

They were a group with a lot of question marks mere weeks ago, when the 6-foot-11 Kelly -- a key component of the attack, what with the way he could draw defenses away from the lane with his 3-pointers -- was sidelined with an injured right foot.

The Blue Devils looked befuddled in their first game without him, allowing State to score (and score, and score) in transition on Jan. 12, while Duke struggled to hit 3s.

And they looked downright bad two games later, when they went to Miami on Jan. 23 and got embarrassed by 27 points.

With its fourth consecutive victory on Thursday, though, Duke (20-2, 7-2 ACC) showed that all of its talented pieces have re-formed a cohesive unit.

There were guards Seth Curry and Quinn Cook, accounting for eight of Duke’s 10 first-half 3-pointers to build a 21-point cushion at the break.

[+] EnlargeMason Plumlee
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsAnother 30-point performance from Mason Plumlee spurred Duke to its fourth win in a row.
There was forward Mason Plumlee, recording his second 30-or-more-point game in three outings -- including two technical free throws with 3 minutes, 41 seconds left, when State’s Richard Howell earned a flagrant foul on an elbow and fouled out.

And there were Alex Murphy (four points, highlight-worthy two-handed dunk), Tyler Thornton (six assists in 18 minutes), Amile Jefferson (four points, five rebounds), and Rasheed Sulaimon (11 points) contributing and doing their parts -- key because the Devils were down to eight healthy scholarship players (forward Josh Hairston was sidelined with an infection).

“When Ryan goes down, a lot of guys started keying on Mason and Seth, so that gives all of us the opportunity to be more aggressive,” Cook said. “We have to step up. And I think everybody is answering the call.”

State, playing its second game without starting point guard Lorenzo Brown, made it interesting in the second half, shooting a net-burning 65.5 percent and cutting the once-22-point lead to as little as eight on a Scott Wood 3-pointer with 68 seconds left.

But with Howell (23 points, nine rebounds) and C.J. Leslie (16 points, six rebounds) benched by five fouls, the Wolfpack ran out of firepower, and time. Duke make sure of it.

“For two teams that have key players out, what a performance by both teams,” Krzyzewski said. “That was ACC basketball tonight. I thought both teams played their hearts out. I don’t know if we can play any harder or better in the first half. [But] they’re so talented, especially on the offensive end, they’re never out of a game, they’re good.

"They’re just really good.”

But so, again, is Duke, which is competing not for the chance at revenge, Krzyzewski said, but for the opportunity to improve.

Looks like it has.

“For sure,” Plumlee said. “And when [Ryan] gets back, we’ll just get better. Because we’ll have more guys with experience; it won’t be a thing like, ‘How do people respond when he gets back?’ Because me and Seth have played with him, and the young guys have played with him. We’re going to be a better team because of this.”

Four observations from Tuesday night

January, 30, 2013
1/30/13
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Here are a few observations from a thrilling night of college basketball on Tuesday:

1. Nerlens Noel ... that’s all -- It didn’t make sense until the end of Kentucky's 87-74 victory at No. 16 Ole Miss. The Rebels had completely blown the first half after starting 3-for-20 against a UK team that was affected by early foul trouble. The quick whistles (22 fouls called in the first 15 minutes of the matchup) didn’t help the flow of a sloppy half. But the biggest factor in the Rebs’ offensive lapse was Nerlens Noel.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Nerlens Noel
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisKentucky's Nerlens Noel blocked 12 Ole Miss shots and changed several more.
Yes, Marshall Henderson (5-for-19, 21 points) took a bunch of ridiculous shots against the Wildcats. But you could see the Rebels’ trepidation as they considered attacking the paint. Noel (12 blocks) was there. And he was altering shots. And he was making the Rebs think twice about approaching the rim. There was a stretch in the second half in which Kentucky kicked off a 17-0 run that made you think, “Wow, maybe the Wildcats will be OK.”

They followed that stretch by relaxing on D as Ole Miss scored 16 unanswered points of its own. And then, Noel put a lid on the rim. You could see Ole Miss’ fear again as the freshman swatted shots even though he had four fouls. There were very promising moments for Kentucky in this game, including Kyle Wiltjer (5-for-12 from the 3-point line, career-high 26 points) doing what we expected Henderson to do. But it was Noel who controlled the game. He had a monumental presence in a crucial win for the Wildcats.

2. Deshaun Thomas is special -- Wisconsin did a great job of containing the Buckeyes in the first half of No. 11 Ohio State’s 58-49 win over the Badgers. Wisconsin led by two at halftime after minimizing the OSU offense and controlling the pace of the game. But Thomas was the true difference-maker in the second half. If you want to know what happened in this game ... what changed ... what turned the matchup in Ohio State’s favor ... well, Thomas did what he does. There was a five-minute stretch in the second half in which he was unstoppable. He’s made to score. I don’t know what position he plays and please don’t ask me where he fits in at the next level. And yes, he has a bunch of weaknesses. But he’s kept an Ohio State team that doesn’t have an inside threat, possesses few offensive alternatives and manages a short bench in the Big Ten title conversation. His 25-point effort (10 during a 15-0 run in the second half that changed the night for both teams) was another example of his potential to carry the Buckeyes to places that few players in his position could.

3. NC State is not the same without Lorenzo Brown -- I have to give No. 19 NC State some credit in its 58-55 loss at Virginia. The Wolfpack lost starting point guard Lorenzo Brown to an ankle injury in the first half. And it was a road game at a place where they’d lost their previous two matchups. Without Brown, NCSU was not the same fluid team that scores in bunches, excels in transition and punishes teams inside. But they kept up with a Virginia team that possesses a defense that’s ranked 13th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. At the end of the game, however, it was easy to see how much NC State needs Brown. After Jontel Evans hit a pair of free throws, the Pack had 23 seconds to close the three-point gap. I have no idea what Mark Gottfried had in mind during that stretch. C.J. Leslie missed a few layups and then Scott Wood shot a 3-pointer that didn’t even hit the rim in the final seconds. The Wolfpack looked so uncomfortable without its floor leader. They’re 0-3 on the road in the ACC. Meanwhile, Virginia is 5-2 in the ACC. Amazing that the Cavs are ACC contenders even though they’ve lost three games to the mediocre this year, including one to 2-17 Old Dominion.

4. It’s a new day in the MVC -- The Indiana State-Wichita State matchup was off the radar. It was buried by the buildup to Kentucky-Ole Miss and Wisconsin-Ohio State. But it might have been the most important conference game of the night. And who gave the Sycamores a chance? They hadn’t won at the imposing Koch Arena in nearly a decade and the Shockers had won 19 in a row at home. Even Creighton couldn’t win in Wichita this year. But Indiana State scored a huge 68-55 upset that changed the Missouri Valley title race, as Manny Arop led all players with 17 points. The Sycamores attacked Carl Hall (four fouls, two points). And they overcome 15 turnovers with a 53.3 percent mark from the field and a strict defense (WSU shot 16-for-59 overall). The Valley is not a two-team race between Creighton and Wichita State anymore. Indiana State -- a team that has also defeated Ole Miss and Miami this season -- is a legit contender now.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Beating North Carolina, NC State coach Mark Gottfried knows, doesn’t guarantee his team anything. It could still win big. Lose late. The Wolfpack already have done both; and anything in this long, strange ACC season can still happen.

"But for tonight, this one night, it does give us a step in the right direction," the second-year Wolfpack coach said after his 18th-ranked team topped the Tar Heels, 91-83.

For all of State’s accomplishments this season -- a top-10 preseason ranking, a 10-game winning streak, an upset over No. 1 Duke -- there’s something extra significant to this particular victory.

Since the late 1980s or so, NC State has served as an oft-forgotten stepbrother to Duke and UNC in the Triangle, an "other guy" status that made Wolfpack fans seethe but foes simply shrug.

But by beating the Tar Heels for the first time since 2007 (snapping a 13-game losing streak), and topping both of their Tobacco Road rivals for the first time since 2002-03, the Pack not only tossed another monkey off their back, but perhaps their hat back into the ring.

"We feel like this is a chance to make history right now, a step forward," said senior Richard Howell, who had never beaten the Tar Heels until Saturday. “It’s been one-sided a lot between Duke and UNC and NC State, and now we’re part of the change.”

After a midweek loss at Wake Forest led to a clear-the-air Wolfpack team meeting, there was a mingled sense of revelry and relief at PNC Arena after the victory.

[+] EnlargeRichard Howell,
AP Photo/Ted RichardsonSenior Richard Howell had 16 points and 14 boards in his first win over North Carolina.

State -- with its balanced offense and exuberant crowd -- dominated from the outset, using its bigger frontcourt of Howell and C.J. Leslie to get UNC forward James Michael McAdoo into foul trouble early (two in the first two minutes) and its junior point guard, Lorenzo Brown, to discombobulate Tar Heels freshman Marcus Paige often.

Playing what Gottfried called "our most fundamentally sound defense of the season" in the first 20 minutes, State outscored UNC 20-0 on fast-break points by halftime (thus beating the Tar Heels at their own usual game), and it led by as many as 28 points with 13 minutes, 22 seconds left -- because it refused to stop pushing.

"Our message at halftime was: We did not want our players to become passive," Gottfried said. "We wanted to attack them, and run and run and run."

It looked, for a while, as if it could be a 40-point slap-down; at one point, frustrated UNC had third-stringers Jackson Simmons and Luke Davis on the court at the same time.

But the Tar Heels, who had won three straight after starting the ACC season 0-2, finally chipped back with a barrage of outside shots. Sophomore P.J. Hairston’s 3-pointer, followed by McAdoo’s follow dunk, cut State’s lead to as little as 85-80 with 28 seconds left.

But senior guard Scott Wood -- yet another player in the Wolfpack’s arsenal -- made two free throws to push the cushion back to seven points.

It wasn’t easy down the stretch. But it was a win.

"It was a butt-kicking is what it was," said UNC coach Roy Williams, whose team is still trying to find an identity after losing four of last season's starters to the NBA draft.

"I’m not big into moral victories," he added, referring to his team’s rally. " ... NC State was more prepared, had a greater since of urgency, worked harder."

Indeed, in the end, the Wolfpack dominated almost every category of the game: points in the paint (44-34), fast-break points (39-19), rebounding (36-29), assists (22-21), shooting (49.2 percent)

Hairston led the Tar Heels with 19 points, but three Wolfpack players finished with double-doubles: Howell (16 points, 14 rebounds), Leslie (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Brown (20 points, 11 assists). Freshman T.J. Warren also chipped in 19 points, and Wood finished with 12.

Asked about the next step in his team’s progression, Howell said it was to keep improving its defense, win more ACC games than last year.

Added Wood: "We have to keep moving on, and when you get them down 28, you try to get them down 48. We’ve just got to continue to get better; we can't be satisfied."

That is, after enjoying this win. For a night, at least. Finally.

After all, it has been a long time coming.

"I don’t know about its cultural significance, but I just know that our program has lost a lot of games to North Carolina," Gottfried said. "And they’ve been great, give them credit. They are good, and have been good; we’re trying to get good. We’re trying to climb up the mountain, and at some point, you’ve got to turn it a little bit. And this is a start."


RALEIGH, N.C. -- Perhaps it was fitting that No. 18 NC State’s all-red uniforms Saturday made it difficult to read the names on the back of the jerseys. Because its 91-83 victory over North Carolina was a team effort.

In building a lead as large as 28 points, the Wolfpack’s big(ger) guys pulverized the Tar Heels from the inside, their shooters dominated from the outside -- and perhaps most telling, State outscored UNC 39-19 on transition points, beating the Tar Heels at what is usually their own game.

Of course there was a rally -- what else would you expect from this rivalry? -- as UNC cut it to single digits in the final minute.

But the defeat snapped a 13-game losing streak to UNC and marked only the second time the Tar Heels have lost to the Wolfpack since Roy Williams returned to Chapel Hill as head coach before the 2003-04 season.

Turning point(s): Trailing 22-10 early, UNC chipped back with an 8-0 run during a stretch in which the Wolfpack inexplicably settled for jump shots rather than feeding their big men (who had big mismatches on the Tar Heels, what with 6-foot-7 reserve Jackson Simmons in the game and James Michael McAdoo playing with two fouls).

But after a timeout, NC State solved that problem in short order, pushing and pounding to a 20-2 run that began with a wide-open 3-pointer from Rodney Purvis and included a monster jam from C.J. Leslie over Simmons. The Wolfpack sped so hard that they beat UNC down the court again and again and again, as Purvis threw down a dunk and T.J. Warren made two more transition buckets before Williams ended the breakaway -- temporarily -- with a timeout.

State led 45-26 at halftime and by as many as 28 points in the second half.

UNC made a 22-7 run of its own -- cutting it to 70-61 on back-to-back 3-pointers from P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock, and two free throws from Marcus Paige.

But a bucket from Leslie inside, followed by a four-point play from Scott Wood, pushed NC State’s cushion back to 15 with about 4½ minutes left. It was enough to survive the Tar Heels’ last-minute push (when a Hairston 3 and McAdoo putback cut the lead to as little as five).

Key player(s): Choose a member of the Pack: Warren finished with 19 points; Howell had 16 points and 14 rebounds; Leslie recorded 17 points and 10 rebounds; Lorenzo Brown had 20 points and 11 assists; and Wood finished with 12 points.

McAdoo posted a double-double for UNC: 13 points, 11 rebounds. Hairston led the Tar Heels with 19.

Noteworthy number: State had outscored UNC 20-0 on transition buckets by halftime.

What’s next: NC State plays at Virginia on Tuesday, while UNC plays at Boston College the same night.
North Carolina senior Dexter Strickland raised some eyebrows (and more than a few NC State fans’ hackles) last October when, asked about the Wolfpack being picked by both the coaches and media to win the league, he responded with some early bulletin board material.
"They talk those guys up every single year and we beat them every single year," Strickland told Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com. "They are the least of our worries. Beat us one year and then they can talk smack. Until then, you can't put them in the mix."

Back then, it seemed like a rather audacious thing to say, considering the Wolfpack were returning four of five starters while the Tar Heels had lost four-fifths of their starting group. And as little as two weeks ago, the statements seemed even more dubious, as the Wolfpack faithful stormed the court after toppling top-ranked Duke to win their 10th straight game while the struggling Tar Heels took the floor in Tallahassee, desperate not to fall to 0-3 in the ACC.

But a funny thing has happened over the past 15 days.

UNC, long fallen out of the top 25, has won three in a row.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsUNC's Dexter Strickland, left, P.J. Hairston and coach Roy Williams are upbeat heading into Saturday's clash with rival NC State.
No. 18 NC State has lost two of three -- including a mid-week shocker at Wake Forest.

All of a sudden, Strickland’s words seem a bit prophetic: State (15-4, 4-2 ACC) does need to beat rival UNC to stay in the league’s top early mix -- something it hasn’t managed in 13 tries, dating back to 2007. A win by the Tar Heels (13-5, 3-2), meanwhile, would not only keep it near the top of the conference cluster, but bolster the confidence and learning curve of a team still trying to figure out and reach its potential.

“I probably wish he hadn’t done it,” Williams said about Strickland’s preseason comments, “but do you think it’s going to make North Carolina-North Carolina State any bigger [of a] game? I think it has zero effect on the game. … I think it just gives people something to talk about.”

And what's a rivalry without a little talk?

According to ESPN Stats & Information, this will mark only the sixth time since the AP poll began in 1948-49 that an unranked North Carolina team will play a ranked NC State squad.

ESPN’s Jay Bilas offered up his preview of the game earlier Friday. But here are a few more things to watch during Saturday's 7 p.m. ET tipoff at PNC Arena:

THE POINT GUARDS

Asked earlier this month which ballhandler he was looking most forward to playing against, UNC freshman Marcus Paige was quick to mention NC State’s Lorenzo Brown, pointing to the 6-foot-5 junior as the best point guard in the league.

And Brown -- who likely will also be guarded by Strickland, too -- has been impressive, leading the league in assists (6.9 per game), while also averaging 12.8 points.

“Lorenzo Brown’s playing about as well as any point guard around,’’ Williams said, adding that Brown is shooting the ball better, making better decisions, and playing better defense than even last season, when he was pretty darn good.

Paige (6.7 ppg, 4.4 apg), meanwhile, has grown more and more comfortable in his starting role, but he hasn’t yet faced an atmosphere quite like the one coming at PNC Arena. He said he was looking forward to it.

“Marcus is a great player, he was a five-star recruit coming out of high school so he’s played against some big-time talent. I know he’s ready to play in a game like this,’’ UNC junior wing Reggie Bullock said.

STATE’S FIREPOWER

Williams has often said that the toughest teams to prepare for are the ones with a balanced offense. And NC State, which boasts the third best shooting percentage in the nation and five players averaging double figures, certainly has that.

Along with Brown, “Richard Howell is a man on the backboards,’’ Williams said. “C.J. [Leslie] just dominates some games, [Scott] Wood can shoot the dickens out of it, Rodney Purvis gives another element of speed on the break and then T.J. Warren off the bench is shooting over 62 percent.

“It’s really something that they have six guys that are effective offensively.”

And really quite a challenge to guard.

“If we want to win this game, we’ve got to play defense for 40 minutes,’’ said Bullock, adding that the better defensive team will probably come out on top.

BULLOCK

A North Carolina native who grew up around (and has now played multiple games in) the rivalry, Bullock knows what to expect: hungry fans, a raucous atmosphere, a hard-nosed game.

His goal as a team leader: to help prepare the younger guys for what’s to come, and push everyone to play consistently Saturday.

“NC State, they’re a great team, they’ve got great players,’’ Bullock said. “And I know they’re going to come out tomorrow ready to play even hungrier than they played in the Wake Forest game. We’ve just got to be ready.”

Bullock’s defense was key last season to helping hold Wood to 6-for-23 shooting over three games. But Bullock's offense will also be key this time around; he’s averaging 17.2 ppg in ACC play.

Weekend Watch: UNC-NC State preview

January, 25, 2013
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Outlook: The painfully young Tar Heels started ACC play 0-2, and the world began to fall off its axis in Chapel Hill. NC State started ACC play 3-0, and parade routes were being planned. Fortunes turn quickly in conference play, and they can and will again before this is all done.

The Tar Heels have one of the youngest rosters in the country, ranking 308th in experience. North Carolina has a nontraditional team for baby blue, as it is primarily a perimeter team. Usually, the North Carolina attack starts and ends with big guys who run, get the ball in the post, wear you down and foul you out. The North Carolina primary break and secondary break were feared, and even though you knew they were coming, you couldn’t stop them.

This season, North Carolina’s big men are young and unpolished. Frankly, none of them are completely ready yet. James Michael McAdoo is having a normal progression for an outstanding player, but he is not where we expected him to be, whether those expectations were fair or not. McAdoo is productive but not efficient and has been up and down, as has North Carolina’s team. Carolina’s strength is still transition, but its running game is not as powerful as it was last season (how could it be, with four first-round picks gone?), and the Heels get to the offensive glass for second shots.

On the other bench, NC State has been excellent at times but has had a few slip-ups. This is an elite offensive team, with four players averaging 12 points per game or more. The Wolfpack are dynamic in transition and score off makes, misses, turnovers, free throws, you name it. This team is fast and runs. Rodney Purvis is a speed merchant, and Lorenzo Brown is as fast with the ball as most any point guard in the country. Scott Wood runs to the 3-point line, and Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie run to the rim and drag the defense with them, putting tremendous pressure on opposing big men to run the floor. T.J. Warren is also terrific in transition and really takes off the other way at conversion.

In the half court, NC State runs nine or 10 sets out of the UCLA high-post offense and keeps things very simple. With so many options to score, why complicate things? Mark Gottfried is smart not to.

The key for NC State to get to the next level is to defend and to do it consistently. Against Wake Forest, the Pack didn’t guard and just tried to outscore the Deacons. The most important player is Leslie, who, when he guards people, inspires everyone to defend better.

Carolina’s best: Reggie Bullock. The junior guard has been the Heels’ best and most consistent player. Bullock is averaging 14.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 2.6 made 3-point field goals per game. He has shot 46 percent from 3-point range and has been Carolina’s most efficient player. Bullock is the key voice and leader of the team. Over the past two games, Bullock is averaging 20.5 points and is shooting better than 50 percent.

[+] EnlargeNorth Carolina State
AP Photo/Evan PikeC.J. Leslie has been doing it all for the Wolfpack this season, averaging 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds.
State’s best: Leslie. The 6-foot-9 skilled forward is great in isolations on the elbow and the baseline. He is averaging 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 56 percent from the floor. Leslie can explode for a big night or can settle for less. He had only six points against Clemson and played just 18 minutes against Wake Forest due to fouls. But against Duke, Leslie was magnificent, scoring 25 points on just 16 shots and saving a fan from court-storming peril after the game.

Carolina’s X factor: McAdoo. The sophomore is talented and working hard to figure it out, and he will. When he does, this will be one truly outstanding player. McAdoo is averaging 14.7 points and 8.3 rebounds -- you must be good when those numbers are criticized. McAdoo needs space to operate, shooting only 45 percent from the field, and does not do as well when crowded and played with physicality. North Carolina needs McAdoo to have a good game to win in a tough environment.

State’s X factor: Brown. The junior point guard is dynamic and tough to stay in front of in the open floor. Brown averages 12.8 points and 6.9 assists per game along with 2.1 steals. Brown will be a difficult matchup for Marcus Paige and Dexter Strickland. Strickland would do the best job on him, but he is not fully himself after his knee surgery last year.

Carolina’s toughest: Roy Williams. The Naismith Hall of Famer has had to inject a lot of energy into this young team, and he has stayed patient and coached his tail off. Williams went through this same thing in 2010, and the rewards were pretty darn good. One thing is for sure: Williams will not quit on this group. His dancing in the locker room with the team after UNLV and Florida State may look funny to some, but it’s not. It’s great to see a guy who has done it all enjoying the small steps and victories of those who haven’t been there before. That’s pretty darn cool.

State’s toughest: Howell. Simply put, Howell is a man among boys, and North Carolina doesn’t have anyone who can match up with him. Howell is averaging 12.6 points on 59 percent shooting and 10.9 rebounds a game. Over the past five games, Howell is averaging 14.2 rebounds per game, including 18 against Duke and 16 against Wake Forest. Howell cleans the glass and allows his teammates to leak out and get in transition.

Key stats: Offensive rebounding and transition points. Carolina thrives off second shots, averaging 15.5 offensive rebounds per game that lead to 15.1 points, and NC State needs to hit the glass to finish defensive possessions before taking off to the other end. Both teams like to run and get easy baskets, but to keep NC State out of transition, North Carolina has to run good half-court offense and take good shots. A quick shot or a turnover will be a dunk on the other end.

Who wins: North Carolina is making strides and getting better, but winning on NC State’s home floor, especially after the Wolfpack lost at Wake Forest, may be asking too much of this young group. NC State should win this one, 79-70.

Conference Power Rankings: ACC

January, 11, 2013
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Can we just call places 3 through 6 a tie? After the first week of ACC play, it’s harder than ever to judge the middle of the league pack. But here are this week’s ACC Power Rankings, based on myriad factors, including how teams have performed lately and the foes they've faced:

1. Duke. Still undefeated, still No. 1 after victories over Wake Forest and Clemson. But the Blue Devils will be tested Saturday not only by an NC State team that has won nine in a row, but by playing without senior forward Ryan Kelly, who is out indefinitely with an injured right foot.

2. NC State. The Wolfpack was picked to win the ACC during the preseason by both media and coaches, and Saturday’s home game against the Blue Devils will show if it has what it takes to make that push. Lorenzo Brown, with 21 points against Georgia Tech, was the latest to lead his team in scoring. Who’s next?

3. Miami. The Hurricanes have never started 2-0 in the ACC -- until now. Senior forward Kenny Kadji had 18 points to help break his team’s 10-game losing streak to UNC on Thursday night, and sixth-year senior Julian Gamble (14 points against the Tar Heels) has been filling in admirably for the injured Reggie Johnson.

4. Maryland. Dez Wells had a bad shooting night, Alex Len at times got pushed around, and the Terps saw their 13-game winning streak snapped via a 12-point comeback by Florida State. Whether they bounce back at Miami this weekend could be a good indication of whether they’re a top-tier ACC team.

5. Florida State. Junior forward Okaro White has come up big during the Seminoles’ 2-0 ACC start, averaging 17.5 points and 8 rebounds. And so has his team. "We sat down, the juniors and seniors, with the young guys and told them we have to stop talking, and we have to show them how hard you have to play,’’ White told Tallahassee.com.

6. Virginia. Beat North Carolina, only to lose to Wake Forest? It might be that sort of topsy-turvy season for the Cavs, who should get more and more of a boost as senior guard Jontel Evans, who returned from injury last weekend, gets more and more back in sync with the offense.

7. North Carolina. Coach Roy Williams said his team was stressed in the locker room after losing to Miami on Thursday night. And for good reason: This marks only the fourth time UNC has ever started 0-2 in the ACC, and things won’t get any easier at Florida State on Saturday.

8. Boston College. The Eagles have now won six of their past seven games, and gave NC State a scare in their only loss since Dec. 4. Sophomore Lonnie Jackson has posted double digit points for three consecutive games, including a season-high 22 at Virginia Tech.

9. Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets had a six-game winning streak broken by the start of ACC play. Tech is shooting just 35.2 percent during its 0-2 conference start.

10. Wake Forest. Despite shooting just 26 percent after halftime and failing to score a field goal for the final 10 minutes, the Deacs survived Virginia’s comeback attempt. “We stayed with it,” Wake Forest forward Travis McKie told The Times-News. “I think early in the season we would’ve put our head down and had a pity party. But we stayed with it and continued to fight hard.” Wake has now won five of seven games.

11. Clemson. The Tigers scored only 10 points, on just 12 percent shooting, in the first half at Duke on Wednesday. Yikes. Devin Booker has posted two double-doubles in Clemson’s 0-2 ACC start.

12. Virginia Tech. Already-undermanned Tech was down to six scholarship players during its midweek loss to BC, thanks to illness and injury. Erick Green continues to lead the nation in scoring, but the Hokies have now lost four in a row, and are 0-2 in ACC play.

Behind Brown, NC State avoids deja vu

December, 19, 2012
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RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina State point guard Lorenzo Brown admits there may have been a flashback or two, with about 5 1/2 minutes left Tuesday night, when Stanford cut the Wolfpack’s once-17-point lead to seven.

“In the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘I don’t want this to happen again. I don’t want to lose to them two years in a row,’” he said.

So the junior helped make sure they didn’t. Brown scored 18 of his 24 points in the second half at PNC Arena -- including four points during the closeout stretch -- to lead the Wolfpack to its fourth consecutive win (88-79), and perhaps help dull the memories of State’s double-digit West Coast meltdown a year ago.

It was, by far, Brown’s most aggressive game of the year -- a good sign for a 25th-ranked team that finally seems to be putting its talented pieces together after it started the season in the top 10, but slid down the rankings after losses to Oklahoma State and at Michigan.

“I just took it upon myself,” said Brown, who shot 9-for-15, and also had 5 assists, 4 turnovers and a steal. “I know our team needed some quick buckets. They [the Cardinal] were coming down and shooting all types of 3s. So I took it upon myself to make good shots.”

Indeed, State led by as much as 69-52 with 9:19 left, on a jumper from Brown. But the Cardinal (which got 23 points from forward Dwight Powell) countered with a 12-2 run to cut it to 71-64 -- just enough to harken back to last season, when Stanford used a late 16-1 run to overtake the Wolfpack on the West Coast.

This time around, however, NCSU senior big man Richard Howell countered with a layup, followed by a jumper from forward C.J. Leslie and another layup by Brown.

That, along with sharpshooter Scott Wood’s bevy of lane-opening 3-pointers in the first half, was an example of NC State’s veterans coming together to do what they do best, all at the right time.

And the same time.

“They’ve been in games like this,” Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried of his lineup, which returns four starters from last March’s Sweet 16 team. “Throughout their careers, they’ve been in some wars like this. And we expect them to be good in wars like this.”

And now they have been, twice in the past four games with victories against two power-conference opponents in Connecticut (69-65) and Stanford.

“I’m excited,” Gottfried said. “I think it is another win against a team that is going to win a lot of games this year.”

Plus it’s a confidence boost for Brown, who didn’t even start playing point guard full time until last season. (Not that you’d know it by the way he used his size advantage, length and court vision.)

“He reminds me of a guy who used to play back in my time … Sleepy Floyd,” said Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, whose team’s winning streak was snapped at three. “ … He’s a terrific player. He has great size, he can really shoot the basketball, he can play the 1, and he creates all sorts of problems for you because he can post you up, because he’s a 6-5 point guard. He can shoot overtop of smaller guards. He handles the ball well to get to places on the floor that are difficult.

“He’s a very talented guard, and based on what I’ve seen today, he’s one of the best guards in the country.”

Brown -- who was also 7-for-8 with 16 points against Norfolk State last Saturday -- said his squad is also still capable of being one of the best teams in the country, if it can continue to build off wins like Tuesday and learn from the memories of bad games in the past.

“Once Scott’s hitting 3s like that, it opens it up for everybody else,” Brown said. “Then you’ve got Rodney [Purvis], who’s faster than anybody I’ve seen. You can’t do much about about C.J. and Richard, so we can be ‘dangerous’ -- that’s the right word.”


RALEIGH, N.C. -- A year ago, NC State lost at Stanford in particularly painful fashion, as the Cardinal used a late 16-1 comeback run to prevail.

Tuesday at PNC Arena, No. 25 NC State made sure that didn’t happen again. Using a flurry of 3-pointers from sharpshooter Scott Wood early, some timely buckets from point guard Lorenzo Brown late, and another solid game from senior big man Richard Howell throughout, the Wolfpack won their fourth consecutive game while halting Stanford’s winning streak at three with an 88-79 victory.

Turning point: Leading by as many as 17 points in the second half, the Wolfpack (8-2) found themselves ahead by only seven with under six minutes left -- roughly the same margin, and time remaining before the meltdown a year ago. But with 5:02 left, Howell drove through the lane to give his team a nine-point cushion. Teammate T.J. Warren made a block on the other end, and C.J. Leslie (out with leg cramps down the stretch the last time these two teams met) buried a baseline jumper to give the Pack a 75-64 cushion.

Key players: It was hard to pick just one for the Wolfpack, as Wood scored 15 of his 17 points before halftime, Brown scored 18 of his 24 points in the second half, Howell recorded his fourth straight double-double and Leslie finished with 16 points. … Dwight Powell led the Cardinal (7-4) with 23 points.

Key stats: State had a season-high eight blocks in the first half alone, and recorded 11 for the game.

Up next: NC State plays St. Bonaventure at home on Saturday. Stanford plays at Northwestern on Friday.

Stalwart Howell keys NC State bounce back

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
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NEW YORK -- Richard Howell was dazed after C.J. Leslie inadvertently popped him with a flailing arm off a first-half rebound.

The senior forward came out of the game at the dead ball, staggered back to the bench, sat down and was given a full workup by the North Carolina State athletic training staff.

They tested his balance, eyesight and strength to see if he had suffered a concussion.

He didn’t. Howell said he was scared for a moment, since he had suffered a concussion against Maryland as a sophomore.

The tingling and the numbing in his upper body had him nervous. But it started to subside and all he had was a stinger in his shoulder. He told Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried that he could play in the second half.

[+] EnlargeNC State's Richard Howell
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsRichard Howell had 13 points and 10 rebounds against Connecticut, mainly in the second half.
Good decision.

If Howell continues to play the way he did in the second half against Connecticut on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic, the Wolfpack have a shot to live up to their expectations.

Howell had a double-double -- in the second half -- with 11 of his 13 points and all of his 10 boards coming in the final 20 minutes of NC State’s much-needed 69-65 victory over the Huskies at Madison Square Garden.

“He’s our blue-collar guy, our most consistent guy except for when he gets in foul trouble," said NC State assistant coach Bobby Lutz. “He gives us great energy. He’s undersized, but he’s relentless and has great enthusiasm and productivity."

Guard Lorenzo Brown, wing Leslie and sharpshooter Scott Wood were NC State’s headline names heading into the season, along with freshman Rodney Purvis. Howell tended to be overlooked.

But if the Wolfpack are to be ACC champs as predicted, Howell must be the anchor of this team. NC State hadn’t played well yet, losing badly to Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico, nearly dropping a game to UNC-Asheville and then losing respectably at Michigan last week.

The Huskies didn’t defend the Wolfpack well but still knocked NC State back a number of times. That is, until Howell became a beast on the boards.

“He’s a monster," said Wood. “What can I say? He’s the best rebounder out there. He’s a great player for us. He works so hard in practice, and if he keeps doing what he’s been doing, we’re going to be a dangerous team."

If Howell doesn’t play in the second half, the Huskies might have won this game, with Enosch Wolf playing well enough inside to cause NC State fits. Had NC State lost this game, there would have been ample second-guessing about the true potential of this squad.

“Whatever coach wants me to do to be a difference-maker, I’ll do it," said Howell. “This was huge for us. It’s definitely a step closer to what we want to be. We lost to Oklahoma State, Michigan and didn’t beat UNC-Asheville by what we should have. We learned from it and progressed."

Duke is the class of the ACC. North Carolina is young, inexperienced and a bit of an unknown right now. NC State is in line with Miami, Maryland and suddenly surging Virginia Tech in a wide-open ACC race come January.

NC State still has oodles of talent but will succeed only if Howell is a constant presence in the paint. The flash plays by Leslie and Purvis, the 3-pointers by Wood or the drives by Brown (although he still turns the ball over too much) are all necessary. But none of it is as important as Howell patrolling the paint.

Reaching the Sweet 16 last season was a surprise. But if the Wolfpack are going to replicate that run, they must defend the drive, shore up on 3s and control the backboard more effectively. Gottfried said before the game that he was still figuring this club out as the veterans adapt to the heralded newcomers. Howell showed his teammates his toughness Tuesday by playing through pain and discomfort. NC State is a work in progress, which puts even more emphasis on such a valued talent.

Rapid Reaction: NC State 69, UConn 65

December, 5, 2012
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NEW YORK -- Quick thoughts from North Carolina State's 69-65 victory over Connecticut in Tuesday's second game of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden:

What it means: NC State picked up its best win of the season, and perhaps quieted its critics some, in sending UConn to its second loss.

The Wolfpack (5-2), ranked No. 6 to start the season and picked to win the ACC, had lost two of their previous three -- to Oklahoma State (by 20) in the final of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, and at No. 3 Michigan (by seven).

UConn (6-2) is playing better than expected and battled to the very end in this game. The Huskies, despite not being eligible for the postseason, are going to give a lot of teams trouble.

The turning point: UConn came out hot, thanks to Shabazz Napier, who scored the team’s first 10 points. The Huskies led by 11, 20-9, with eight minutes and change gone by. But NC State responded with an 8-0 run from that point. The Wolfpack led 32-31 at halftime, thanks to Lorenzo Brown’s floater at the first-half buzzer.

The game remained tight in the second half. With the score tied at 53 and less than six minutes left, NC State went on a 6-0 spurt, capped by a C.J. Leslie slam dunk on the break. UConn stayed within striking distance -- Ryan Boatright’s 3-pointer with just less than two minutes remaining cut it to 61-58. But the Huskies couldn’t get stops when they needed them down the stretch.

Player of the game: UConn had no answer for NC State’s twin towers, Leslie and Richard Howell.

Howell scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half and had 10 rebounds -- seven of them on the offensive glass. Leslie had 16 points and 13 boards. Those two are a handful.

Napier finished with a game-high 19 for UConn but scored only four points in the second half. Boatright added 18 points.

Key stat: NC State had 11 offensive rebounds in the second half and scored 16 second-chance points with them. That was the difference in the game.

What’s next: NC State will host Cleveland State on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET -- a game that will be played at the old Reynolds Coliseum, as opposed to PNC Arena. UConn hosts Harvard on Friday night at 7 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion.

North Carolina State is not a top-10 team right now. And Oklahoma State, the team that dismantled the Wolfpack Sunday, can compete for the Big 12 title if it plays the way it did against NCSU (no guarantee) throughout the season. Those are the two conclusions I reached after watching this matchup in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off championship.

Yes, the teams played indoors, but mentally, NC State was on a Puerto Rican beach sipping mango smoothies and building sand castles.

The Wolfpack was not in that gym. Mark Gottfried’s squad looked listless. The knock against C.J. Leslie throughout his career? He’s great when he wants to be, average if he’s not focused. And Leslie didn’t look focused. T.J. Warren (15 points) was the only NC State player who seemed to recognize the moment. But overall, the Pack didn’t bring it.

Now, I’m not going to call Oklahoma State the best team in the Big 12 (it will certainly crack the Top 25 Monday), but I think the Cowboys proved that they belong in the Big 12 title conversation after this performance. They stifled a North Carolina State team that was bigger, stronger, deeper and more experienced. Why? Well, Google "Marcus Smart."

Go with me on this one. At some point in the Jackson 5’s path to stardom, the group was recognized as Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. The group was good but the star was the key to the show. Everyone knew it. And that’s the situation Oklahoma State is in right now. If Smart is on his game, as he was Sunday night, the Cowboys can contend with any team in the country. But the freshman won’t play like that every night. He’ll need consistent help throughout the season. The ceiling, however, is very high for this Pokes squad with Smart on the roster. Very high.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
AP Photo/Ricardo ArduengoNC State had no answer for Marcus Smart as the freshman scored 20 points with seven rebounds and seven assists in the Cowboys' win.
Overview: Oklahoma State raised its stock in Puerto Rico. The Cowboys improved each game, an effort that concluded with Sunday’s 76-56 upset over No. 6 North Carolina State in the championship game. Smart (20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, four steals, four blocks and five turnovers) was brilliant. Le'Bryan Nash (13-for-13 from the free throw line) added 23 points and eight rebounds for an OSU squad that established an early double-digit lead against NC State and preserved it in the second half. Lethargic defense, foul trouble and limited contributions from its stars doomed the Wolfpack. Gottfried’s program wasn’t just outplayed. It was embarrassed.

Turning point: This game turned the day that Smart signed with Oklahoma State. The dynamic point guard not only changed this game, he changed the entire outlook of a program that won only 15 games in 2011-12. The Cowboys were down 7-5 in the first half when Smart connected on back-to-back 3-pointers and a jump shot to put Oklahoma State ahead by four points. He was unstoppable the rest of the first half (18 points before halftime). Smart was 7-for-11 from the field in the first, while the rest of the squad was 6-for-17 on its way to a 38-28 halftime advantage. The Cowboys took North Carolina State’s heart in the first half. Early in the second half, the Pack didn’t look like a squad that had much interest in competing.

Why Oklahoma State won: NC State didn’t have any answers for Smart. He was the difference-maker in the first half. He was aggressive and dominant. Smart attacked the basket and finished with ease. Oklahoma State’s relentlessness led to 24 free throws. The Cowboys made 20 of them. But their offense was only one component in this upset. NC State had more depth and brawn inside. But the Cowboys challenged the Pack at the rim. They took away the easy buckets against a team that struggled inside and outside.

Why NC State lost: These guys lost because they couldn’t/didn’t adjust defensively as Smart began to heat up in the first half. Gottfried employed a zone with some success in the second half, but it was too little, too late. Smart was the main guy who North Carolina State had to limit and it couldn’t stop him. But the Wolfpack also lost because its best players were ineffective. Leslie scored two points and fouled out with 17 minutes to play. Lorenzo Brown was 2-for-9 and finished with six points. That’s eight combined points for NC State’s top players. Richard Howell fouled out with six points. The Pack just didn’t have it on either end of the floor Sunday.

Star of the game: Smart did whatever he wanted to do against a veteran Wolfpack squad. Brown couldn’t handle him. A zone couldn’t stop him. If there were any questions beforehand, there shouldn’t be any now. The preseason hype was obviously legit. I know it’s early, but that was arguably the best first half of the 2012-13 season.

What it means for North Carolina State: Gottfried has to figure out what happened cerebrally more than anything. North Carolina State is definitely one of the most talented teams in the country, on paper. The Wolfpack’s run to the Sweet 16 in 2012 proved that it’s capable of competing with the best, but Sunday’s performance echoed a dangerous trend for a team that lacked energy in too many games a year ago. That’s what the Wolfpack has to address.

What it means for Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are a team that’s fully capable of playing with the best teams as long as Smart is on the floor. But teams will stack defenses against him and force other players to make plays. Nash did that in the second half Sunday, but Smart will need help throughout the season. If they continue to defend (NCSU shot 35.5 percent from the field), however, the Pokes may evolve into a team that’s not only good enough to get into the NCAA tournament but one that can make a run.

More observations: I have to co-sign what my colleague, Eamonn Brennan, wrote on Twitter: I love Warren’s game. Position? Scorer. He’s crucial for the Wolfpack. … Oklahoma State preserved its lead in the second half but I think the Cowboys would have surrendered it against more tenacious opponents. The Cowboys were greedy and took bad shots. That strategy could hurt them if they’re in a similar situation in the future. … I don’t think Smart is making Nash a better player as much as he’s allowing Nash to play to his strengths. The bottom line is that the duo is one of the best in the country. … Leslie drew a technical foul after picking up his fourth personal foul. That’s what sent him to the bench for good with just more than 17 minutes to play. He’s an important leader for the program. But he didn’t act like one in that moment. Who knows what might have happened with him on the floor in the second half?

What’s next: NC State will face UNC-Asheville on Friday, four days before its ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup at Michigan Nov. 27. Oklahoma State will play Portland State on Sunday and will take on Virginia Tech Dec. 1.

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