To further validate itself after knocking Duke from the No. 1 ranking in the nation last Saturday, N.C. State can’t slip up at dangerous Maryland on Wednesday.
A loss to the 13-3 Terrapins would take away some of the luster of beating the Blue Devils, but would also cast a shadow of doubt over the Wolfpack as a team with a seemingly legitimate national agenda.
This is a very losable game for the Wolfpack because the Terrapins have the composition of a team that should give the nation’s 14th-ranked program problems. The Terps are deep, talented, athletic, possess the ability to get hot from the perimeter and have a terrific player in the post. They are also well coached by Mark Turgeon and are quite hungry coming off consecutive losses.
Then consider that Comcast Center can be an extremely difficult place for visiting teams and that this Wolfpack team wasn’t overwhelming in its ACC opener at Boston College, and bolting out of College Park with even a one-point victory will be a significant achievement. It also may require a heck of a performance, too.
If Saturday’s win over the Blue Devils is indeed a sign of the times for the ACC in 2013 as opposed to a flash-in-the-pan performance, Mark Gottfried’s team must be ready to claim a big road victory.
“We’ve got four starters that have been through this league,” Gottfried said Monday. “I think they’re very well aware of the fact that each game counts as one game. Saturday was fun, but it’s one win and that’s it. We have an 18-game (ACC) schedule and we have 18 opportunities. I think the fact that we’ve got some veteran players that have played, that should not be a factor for us.”
If the Wolfpack are the best team in the ACC, those veterans will turn in quality performances. Maryland has given N.C. State problems over the years, though Gottfried’s bunch beat the Terps in Raleigh last season.
N.C. State (14-2, 3-0 ACC) has an edge at the point and in the paint, provided 6-foot-9 junior C.J. Leslie battles with the same level of intensity he displayed against Duke in a 25-point, seven-rebound performance. The Wolfpack’s two freshmen in their slight six-man rotation also must perform, but don’t have to be great. Rodney Purvis, who starts at shooting guard, and athletic forward T.J. Warren, who has been the best player off the bench in the ACC so far, must avoiding hurting the Wolfpack.
That shouldn’t be a problem, however. Gottfried sees the blending of the newbies with the vets as a key development in his team. They can post numbers in bunches, but more important fit a literal need. They have never been square pegs being forced into round holes. They’ve fit perfectly since day one.
“I just think our biggest challenge this year was integrating some very talented young players into a veteran group that were used to playing together,” Gottfried said. “We needed to blend that, so I think we’re better in that regard, for sure.”
Purvis’ ability to handle the ball, get to the rim and defend on the perimeter has allowed 6-foot-7 senior sharpshooter Scott Wood (12.3 points, 45.2 percent on 3-pointers) to focus more on getting open and running off screens to get good looks from the perimeter.
Warren’s amazing efficiency (67.2 percent from the field) has quietly applied pressure on the often-aloof Leslie to consistently perform, which means regularly playing with a purpose. Averaging 12.6 points per game now, Warren led the team in scoring into December. His drop off isn’t a negative, though; it’s more reflective of better balance and Leslie’s cerebral ascent. Leslie goes into the Maryland game leading the team in scoring at 16.2 points per game and second in rebounds at 7.3.
Five Wolfpack players are scoring in double figures with Purvis sitting at 9.8 points per contest. An unselfish team that shares the ball well and leads the nation shooting at 52.1 percent is reflective of its leader, junior point guard Lorenzo Brown.
Brown (13 points. 7.1 assists) is the team’s most important player – even more than rebounding machine Richard Howell (12.9 points, 10.4 rebounds) – because he handles the ball so often and manages the team so well. And as long as Brown continues to improve at making teammates better without losing his scoring edge, the Wolfpack will get better and wins over Duke at home in early January will be just one of many highlights of the season.
N.C. State should pass the test at Maryland and could roll until visiting Duke on Feb. 7. That includes a visit from North Carolina during that stretch.
Saturday’s win over Duke wasn’t a fluke. The Wolfpack believe they’re the best team in the ACC right now, it’s hard to argue they aren’t. Now it’s a matter of going out and validating the belief they have in themselves.