January 18, 2023
What’s wrong with N.C. State?
The Wolfpack have lost back-to-back games for the first time in nearly three years
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Carrying a stat sheet littered with disappointments, Wes Moore walked into a makeshift press conference space in a hallway outside Carmichael Arena on Sunday and slumped down into a chair.
On that paper, North Carolina State’s mistakes were glaring: 29% shooting from the floor, 21.7% from 3-point range, 14 turnovers to 11 assists and just one Wolfpack player finishing with a positive plus-minus rating.
Defeated, having just suffered a 56-47 loss to rival UNC in which his N.C. State team led after the third quarter, Moore offered an opening statement.
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“Need to try to get some confidence and get a better rhythm offensively and shooting the ball,” said Moore, now in his 10th season leading the Wolfpack. “But again, proud of the defensive effort… Just got to keep grinding and try to figure it out offensively.”
This recent stretch by the Wolfpack marks the first time in three years that they’ve lost back-to-back games or three of any four games. In February 2020, N.C. State lost three home games to Louisville, Georgia Tech and Duke in a four-game span. But then they ripped off five wins in a row, which included an ACC Championship triumph over Florida State – the Wolfpack’s first of three consecutive conference crowns.
After road losses this past week to Florida State and UNC – and a loss on Jan. 5 at home to Boston College – N.C. State fell to No. 20 in the AP Top 25 Poll. Anymore slip-ups and the Wolfpack could find themselves out of the poll for the first time in 93 weeks, which is the fifth-longest active streak in the nation.
So, that begs the question: What, exactly, is wrong with N.C. State?
“Well, you know, 80% of our starting lineup walked out the door and I don’t know how much of our scoring,” Moore said. “It’s a new team. We don’t have the same kids… It’s a little more challenging year, for sure.”
Last season, the Wolfpack leaned on its veteran experience and overall cohesiveness. It was the second straight year that the starting lineup mostly looked like this: Raina Perez, Kai Crutchfield, Jakia Brown-Turner, Kayla Jones and Elissa Cunane.
Perez, Crutchfield and Jones were fifth-year players and Jones and Crutchfield had played with Cunane for four years. That kind of chemistry is something that can’t be coached or taught – it just has to build over time. It’s sort of what N.C. State’s rival North Carolina has this year: Deja Kelly, Kennedy Todd-Williams, Alyssa Ustby and Anya Poole have been playing together for going on three years now.
“Continuity is the greatest superpower that you can have as a college basketball program right now, on the men’s or women’s side,” said Duke coach Kara Lawson, whose team beat N.C. State in Raleigh on Dec. 29. “It’s having your players there together, not just having experience, but having continuity. It’s very valuable. (UNC) has that. They’ve been there from the beginning.”
N.C. State’s roster makeup is a bit different this season. There are five transfers on the team and then five players who have been in Raleigh since they were freshmen, recruited by Moore and his staff. The most veteran players are Brown-Turner, Jada Boyd and Camille Hobby – who have been with Moore for four seasons – but before this year, only Brown-Turner was a regular starter. And while the new transfers – from Saniya Rivers to Mimi Collins – are talented, they’re still learning Moore, his style, their new teammates and their tendencies.
River Baldwin, who transferred to N.C. State this past offseason, after three seasons at Florida State, explained some of the hurdles she’s faced, saying: “For three years, I’ve been a face-up post player, and when I get here, I go right to back-to-the-basket. I had to get used to the footwork. Defense is completely different. It’s just been a huge adjustment. And I really did struggle, just breaking that muscle memory.”
This is the give-and-take with the transfer portal: It’s great to be a team that can attract college basketball’s top talent, like Diamond Johnson, but bringing in transfers means sacrificing the development and chemistry-building of players already in-house. N.C. State didn’t bring in a single freshman recruit this year.
“That’s where the transfer portal kind of changes things,” Moore said. “You know, kids that have been in your program four or five years, they get it. They’ve been here, they’ve gone through the battles. Now, you got players coming from other programs, they don’t probably fully understand.”
Frankly, N.C. State could use some of the players it lost in the transfer portal, like Illinois’ Genesis Bryant, Boston College’s Dontavia Waggoner and Davidson’s Elle Sutphin. All three are averaging more points per game than any N.C. State player this season.
“You see a lot more parity right now as well. I think the portal contributes to that,” Moore said. “Someone’s not getting to play as much as they’d like, they go to another place. They might’ve gotten to play at the other place after their freshman year or whatever… but go ahead and leave and they’re ready to help somebody else.”
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That lack of chemistry can show up in stats like assist-turnover ratio, where N.C. State ranked 23rd a season ago and is now 63rd. The Wolfpack are also worse in 2-point, 3-point, effective and overall field goal percentage this year. Last season, they were third in the nation in points per play (0.94) and now they’re 44th (0.89). That’s still pretty good, but it’s not the elite numbers N.C. State was putting up a year ago.
When those four starters left N.C. State, at the end of last season, they left mighty big shoes to fill. But it seemed like the Wolfpack had natural replacements. Brown-Turner would retain her starting role, Johnson – fresh off winning ACC Sixth Player of the Year – would slide in as the starting point guard for Perez, Boyd and Hobby would finally get the chance to shine after three seasons of coming off the bench and Madison Hayes would step into Crutchfield’s role at two-guard.
Hayes has fit into her new role nicely, as she’s averaging more points per game in less minutes than Crutchfield did last season while also being tasked with guarding the opponent’s top perimeter player regularly. She held UNC’s Kelly to 2-of-13 shooting on Sunday.
But the rest of the Wolfpack haven’t stepped up in the same way.
Many folks expected Brown-Turner to make a leap this season as N.C. State’s most seasoned starter, but she’s actually taken a step back, statistically. In her fourth season with the Wolfpack, Brown-Turner is averaging less points and rebounds than she did a year ago, and she’s shooting worse from the floor (44% to 37%) and 3-point land (34% to 31%). She’s averaging 0.6 more turnovers per game too.
Johnson is another player that people expected more out of this year. While her numbers are fine and improved across the board, she’s not playing like the ACC Player of the Year candidate many thought she could be. The junior guard is averaging 13.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game, but it seems unlikely that she’ll reach the 50-45-90 shooting percentages she posted as a freshman phenom at Rutgers. It’s worth noting that Johnson did miss four games this season with an injury too.
The other thing is this group of N.C. State players just aren’t posing the same threat from behind the arc as last year’s team. Last season, the Wolfpack made about 7.3 deep shots per game at a 36.6% clip. This year’s team is connecting on just 4.6 3-pointers per game at a 35% clip. N.C. State’s 3-point rate of 25.7% ranks 247th in all of Division I women’s basketball.
N.C. State has also been outrebounded in each of its last three losses. Against UNC, Tar Heels’ forward Alyssa Ustby grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds.
“We can’t have that. We’ve got to stop that,” Hobby said of the battle on the glass. “Defensively, that’s our job. We fell short of that.”
“Rebounding is about this,” Moore said, pointing to his heart.
N.C. State’s next two games – its chances to bounce back from this recent run of poor play – are not easy. On Thursday, they host a surging Miami team that is eager to add to its batch of signature wins. The Canes have already beaten UNC and Virginia Tech this season. And then, on Sunday, the Wolfpack travel to Louisville, another team hungry to stack up victories after stumbling out of the poll earlier this season. Since losing to Middle Tennessee on Dec. 4, Louisville has won nine of its last 11 games.
So, if N.C. State cares at all about that AP Poll streak; its next two games are must-wins.
More importantly, if the Wolfpack want to host opening-weekend NCAA Tournament games for the second straight year, they need to start piling up victories to bolster their resume as the regular season winds down.