GREENSBORO, N.C. — To understand North Carolina State’s basketball team is to recognize the Wolfpack’s range in this ACC tournament: It covers the entire spectrum of expectations.
The fifth-seeded Wolfpack could have gone down Thursday to 12th-seeded Virginia Tech, or they could end up cutting the nets down Sunday afternoon with an ACC title to boot — they are that mercurial.
Really, the Wolfpack was much of that in their 80-63 victory Thursday in the opening round of the 60th ACC Tournament. They were on offensively, often putting together highlight-reel stretches that were followed by mind lapses on defense. In the case of junior C.J. Leslie, focus was an issue on the defensive end.
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And Leslie, more than anyone else on the roster, is why NC State remains so complex, especially when it comes to prognosticating the team’s immediate and long-term future. In actuality, the Wolfpack didn’t need a dialed-in Leslie to beat the last-place Hokies. He could have remained in Raleigh and Mark Gottfried’s team still would have been double-digit points better.
But Leslie played, and at times he did some nice things on offense. He finished with a respectable 15 points and seven rebounds. but the rock on this day was once again Richard Howell.
The 6-foot-9 senior forward was typically workman-like, finishing with 22 points and 12 rebounds. He was quicker to the ball than Virginia Tech’s bigs and went up with brute strength and a blend of his increasingly fine-tuned skill set. Howell isn’t a bull in the china shop, as some observers inaccurately describe him. He’s more graceful than that.
And he’s not about individual stuff, either. Howell’s will and desire should be the team’s every-day theme, instead of Leslie’s mesmerizing proclivity to jar the team off track at any time. He didn’t do that on Thursday. N.C. State was more Howell than Leslie — and that’s a good thing.
“I thought Richard was as he always is for us, Mr. Reliable, Mr. Dependable,” Gottfried said. “He’s there every night, he gets rebounds. He scored at will in the first half and continued in the second half. He’s the same every day. He’s a big key for what we were able to do today.”
The Wolfpack (23-9) wore red t-shirts during warmups that read “Rise To The Occasion” across the chests. Senior wing Scott Wood had no clue what it meant, while revealing the players first learned of the shirts not long before tip-off.
Howell wasn’t sure about the shirts, either, but he liked them.
“We do feel like we have to rise to the occasion,” he said of the shirts. “We feel like we have a long road ahead of us playing tomorrow, and then playing Saturday and Sunday. We want to get that done.”
Getting to Sunday is a long-term deal for the Wolfpack, but it’s doable, especially if the team resembles more the approach of Howell than Leslie.
That means improved defense, as well. The Hokies shot 41.7 percent from the floor, and that’s with the nation’s leading scorer, Erick Green, going just 5 of 19 for 15 points. The other Hokies got plenty of uncharacteristically good looks.
Howell said the ‘Pack needs to be sharper on defense Friday against Virginia in the quarterfinals, if they are to have any chance of winning this tournament.
“I feel like we were sharp but we definitely weren’t sharp enough,” he said. “We definitely had a few defensive lapses. It’s something that we can definitely fix, and hopefully by tomorrow correct it.”
Balance is also key for N. State.
Wood and freshman forward T.J. Warren each chipped in 13 points and point guard Lorenzo Brown handed out 12 assists. NC State dominated the glass by 15 boards — clearly a trickle-down effect from Howell.
To advance Friday, a Howell-led Wolfpack will have a much better chance than a Leslie-led Wolfpack. NC State might be a tad easier to predict, too.