Vandenberg, NC State out-dunk "Dunk City" in bounce-back win
NOV 26, 2013 10:59p ET
RALEIGH, N.C. -- After the way NC State (3-2) failed to stop penetration in a loss to NC Central last week, there was some question about how the Wolfpack would handle Florida Gulf Coast (4-2), best known to America as " Dunk City". But for one night anyway, Raleigh was Dunk City as the Wolfpack out-dunked the Eagles 7-1.
Florida Gulf Coast isn't the same team it was a year ago -- it has a new head coach, Joe Dooley, and lost some of its key pieces -- but it didn't really matter who NC State was playing. The Wolfpack just needed a win. And they got it, in impressive fashion (82-62).
1. Jordan Vandenberg's return down low helped key everything for NC State on both ends.
The redshirt senior has played sparingly throughout his NC State career. But he's seven feet tall, and when he's in shape, he's athletic for his size. He showed that in his first action of the season -- he missed the first four games with an ankle injury -- on Tuesday with seven points and ten rebounds in 21 minutes.
And he really showed his athleticism with an impressive dunk in the second half on an alley-oop in transition from freshman point guard Cat Barber. He had to catch it awkwardly in midair and reverse it, spin and dunk emphatically. It was a play that you might see a guard or a wing make, but not usually a seven-footer.
"I thought Cat would throw it a little bit higher and he didn't," Vandenberg said afterwards, grinning. "I don't know exactly what happened. I just know the ball went in the basket and I hurt my finger. It was fun. It's just fun to run the floor. As soon as I saw the ball behind me, I just took off running. It was like, ‘Come on, Cat!' so he threw it."
His head coach Mark Gottfried said in the offseason that if Vandenberg didn't slim down, he wasn't going to play for the Wolfpack this year. Period. And so Vandenberg dropped about 40 pounds, and he's seeing the dividends already.
"We'll see as we move forward, but I was really proud of him this summer," Gottfried said. "Last year, he just got kind of big and heavy. I was really proud of him this summer because he did a great job of getting his body in the best place it can be for him. That agility, and he's somewhat nimble now for a big player, he can move, it helps him a lot.
"Hopefully we can get some more games like he played tonight because I thought tonight he was the difference in the game early on."
And, impressive dunk aside, that's when Vandenberg did have the biggest impact is early in the game. He grabbed seemingly every rebound, and that's an area where NC State has struggled. And one reason "Dunk City" never really lived up to its billing was that the Eagles weren't really trying to get in the paint against Vandenberg, seeming somewhat deterred by his size.
Having both a rim-protector and a rebounder is huge for this NC State team.
He had a good first five minutes in NC State's first exhibition game this season before spraining his left ankle. Wearing a large brace on his left ankle, he's still doing almost everything off of his right foot, he said, and added that his left foot, "just exists". He said he's about "70-75 percent" and is still trying to get back some of his range of motion and get rid of some of the stiffness.
Health aside, it's huge for NC State to have some veteran leadership out there. Vandenberg still has a lot to prove, though, and he knows that. Just because he's older than most of his teammates -- okay, all of them -- doesn't mean that the have to listen to them.
"The first game is the most important because you can try to lead as much as you want but if you don't demonstrate on the floor what you can do, they ain't going to listen to you," Vandenberg said. "I think this game at least shows them ‘Hey, I can play basketball' so what I'm saying, you can take notice to, regardless of how much older I am than them."
And yes, he's capable of joking about his age. He knows it's his time to shine, and as he put it, there are no more "Rich (Howell's), DeShawn (Painter's), Tracy Smith's, or Dennis Horner's". All are NC State bigs that have come and gone since he's been there.
"If this goes out to the people, they'll be like, ‘Who the hell is Dennis Horner and Tracy Smith?' I've been here a long time," Vandenberg said. "There's no juniors on this team besides Ralston. A whole class left. Every class left. I'm just here and doing me."
2. A bigger starting lineup for NC State this game wasn't so much a result of what Gottfried saw against Central, or even simply having Vandenberg back, but it looked like a good fit.
NC State started Vandenberg and freshman forward Lennard Freeman down low, allowing sophomore scoring machine T.J. Warren to go back to his natural position at the three-spot. The other two starters were Desmond Lee and Barber. That sent Ralston Turner, a three, and sophomore point guard Tyler Lewis to the bench.
"I felt like it was time for Cat. I thought he's caught up in the time that he missed (with injuries). Defensively, he changes things for us at the point of our defense," Gottfried said.
Turner not starting, according to Gottfried, was more a function of his early foul trouble in recent games. He wanted Turner to be able to come off the bench and not worry about early fouls. Turner still picked up three in 24 minutes, but he didn't have two in the first five minutes, so that was an improvement.
Vandenberg's return lets Warren go back to the three instead of playing down low, and Warren is at his best there. He finished with a game-high 30 points on 13-of-18 shooting and added nine rebounds. "T.J. exploded today," Vandenberg said. "He's the main reason I can do what I do because everyone's worried about him, so they don't worry about a seven-footer running down the floor."
"We've spent a lot of time these last four games with four guards in the game, which we can use that at times and play T.J. as the forward, but it allows T.J. to move back to his natural position and play the small forward position." Gottfried said. "We just seemed to be much more cohesive. We settled down. We calmed down tonight. We were able to run the things we like to run better."
And NC State did plenty of running. The Wolfpack had 18 fastbreak points and 54 total points in the paint, getting back to what it does best. Florida Gulf Coast didn't throw much zone at NC State, and the Wolfpack will see plenty of that as the season goes on, but they also looked much more comfortable forcing their transition game on the Eagles than they did last week.
"I think we got out in transition more. I think when we do that, we're at our best," Barber said. "If we're slow-paced, let the defense get in their defense, then we've got to play off them. But once we get out and run like we know we can, it's hard for people to beat us."
3. Fouls are still a problem for the Wolfpack -- at least for now.
NC State has not been a great defensive team under Gottfried, but this group certainly has shown a commitment to want to improve. And they have the physical skills to be good defensively.
But fouls were a main reason NC State lost last week to NC Central, and it had to get better fast.
"I don't know that there's anything different we did (in practice), outside of emphasizing it in every drill -- hands up, hands off -- constantly. There's a fine line there because what you don't want your team to do is become very passive," Gottfried said. "You don't want to pull back so far that you're not very aggressive. That's not what you want, either. But we still have to learn how to defend without putting our hands on people and moving our feet."
Florida Gulf Coast attempted 23 free throws, which was more than 20 fewer than NC Central attempted in last week's game. But two of NC State's starters picked up four fouls, as did freshman big Kyle Washington off the bench (in just 15 minutes).
Still, though, the 21 fouls are an improvement over the 31 in the Central loss. It's going to be a process, but Gottfried says it will be a process for everyone, including the referees.
"I still think it's an adjustment for everybody, including (the officials). And I'm not criticizing the officials at all. We had three really good officials here tonight. But sometimes it's hard to figure out what's a foul and what isn't a foul," Gottfried said.
"Maybe that's because we've just gotten so used to playing physical and now we're trying to learn it together. We've just got to keep learning that as a group -- like our team, we have to keep learning -- how is the game going to be called? So we'll see how that works out."
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