There are few teams in the league this year that have been more surprising than the NC State Wolfpack. Under amazing pressure, Herb Sendek has taken a team with just one returning player over 6-8 and quieted the critics calling for his job. After starting the year with a string of wins over their customary, embarrassingly lame early season schedule, the Pack dropped games to Ohio State and UMass. All signs pointed to a repeat of last year when NC State started 8-3 and then limped their way home to 13-16 record.
But recent wins over ranked Syracuse and Virginia, and a gutty performance in a loss to Maryland, have the Pack looking their strongest in Sendek's six year tenure. That this resurgence should come immediately after losing seniors Damon Thornton and Kenny Inge as well as junior head case Damien Wilkens, should come as a surprise to nobody. Thornton and Inge managed to inject Rodman-like emotional stability into the Wolfpack for the last 4 years (or in Thornton's case, 5 years). Wilken's departure means that Sendek no longer has to worry about dealing with Damien's father Gerald and his uncle Dominique, two former NBA stars who were the only guys in the country last year that felt Damien had a reasonable shot at the league. This decision came after a full season where Damien displayed the kind of offensive consistency that demanded DNA testing.
What all this addition by subtraction left Sendek was a team with precious little experience in the frontcourt but an experienced and talented backcourt. The Pack is getting major great play out of their freshman class and are now playing the kind of tough defense Sendek has always emphasized. NC State is holding their opponents to just 40% from the field and 28.4% from the three point line. Along the way, they're forcing an impressive 18 turnovers a game. They're still the same NC State everyone's grown accustomed to over the last few years which means you may see 4 Clay Henry commercials for Subway before they hit their first three pointer. But the difference between last year and this year is the number of easy baskets the Pack will get in transition.
At 5-10, 160 lbs., point guard Archie Miller is a couple of hairy feet shy of a job as a Hobbit extra. He's also a one healthy leg shy of a major role in the Wolfpack backcourt. Last year Miller missed a chunk of the season due to a stress fracture in his left leg. This year, he started feeling pain again and the NC State coaching staff have gone to lengths to limit his time on the court - both in games and in practice.
When healthy, Miller is one of the best shooters in the league. At one point last year, he was hitting on more than 60% of his three point attempts. But the numerous injuries over the course of his career have finally taken their toll on Miller and this season he has not been as consistent a threat as he previously had been. He's now shooting hitting on just 34% of his three point attempts - including just 4 baskets in his last 16 attempts.
That has a significant impact on Miller's offense because he rarely attempts anything inside the three point line. That's not to say that Miller has not been helpful to the Pack on the offensive end of the floor. He's leading the league with a 3.7/1 assist-to-turnover ratio, built mainly on the strength of a conservative approach that limits his turnovers to just one a game. Unfortunately for the Pack, Miller is still just 5-10 and eventually he has to make it to the other end of the floor. He can be effective gambling for steals, but his diminutive stature allows opposing point guards to shoot over him.
One player that doesn't have difficulties defending anyone is Wolfpack shooting guard Anthony Grundy. Although listed at 6-3, Gundy has an Elton Brand type wingspan that allows him to play much bigger. That reach, along with Grundy's exceptional quickness, results in a bunch of steals. He's also an exceptional rebounder from the two guard position and is second on the team in offensive rebounds.
Grundy, like Miller, is also struggling with the long ball, but he's been very tough when he takes the ball to the basket. He's a very good ballhandler and can play the point guard if Sendek wants to go with a bigger lineup. He'll score a lot of points in transition if the Wolfpack is able to force turnovers.
Miller is likely to start the game on the bench with Sendek turning to Cliff Crawford at the point. The 6-3 junior played well against the Devils in last year's game at State but has always been turnover prone when facing the Devils. Crawford is exceptionally quick and will provide a challenge for Duhon when the Pack has the ball. Even more so than Miller and Grundy, Crawford is struggling from the three point line. He's hitting on under 27% of his shots and hasn't hit a shot in his last 5 games. That's not overly significant though as he plays to his strength, which is getting the ball to the basket.
Nearly lost in the backcourt picture is 6-3 sophomore Scooter Sherrill, McDonalds High School All-American who has not panned out like Wolfpack fans expected. Sherrill may play about 10 minutes against Duke like he did against Syracuse and Maryland, or he may stay on the bench the entire game like he did against Virginia. Like the other Wolfpack guards, Sherrill is better at slashing to the hoop than he is from the outside. In fact, he's even worse from the three point line than Crawford. Sherrill was expected to see a lot of action when he signed with the Pack but his offensive inconsistency and difficulty playing the type of defense Sendek expects has limited his time on the floor.
Up front, the Wolfies rely on a wave of inexperienced but talented freshmen and sophomores, led by 6-6 newcomer Julius Hodge. He's been dubbed State's "best recruit since David Thompson" a title that's hauntingly familiar to those who recall the Damien Wilkens hype. The difference though is that Hodge appears to have game. Averaging double figures and playing well in all facets of the game, Hodge is an early favorite for ACC Rookie of the Year. He's really stepped up his play in conference play where he's averaging almost 16 ppg. Hodge has the potential to become an NBA player (something the Pack hasn't produced much in recent years) but before that he'll need to find the Wolfpack weight room and add some weight to his Starvin' Marvin 180 lb. frame.
On the court, Hodge has a quick first step which is helped by the fact that he's a very good three point shooter, forcing defenders to defend him closely. Dahntay Jones, who will have to avoid the foul troubles that have plagued him in recent games, will most likely draw the defensive assignment on Hodge. That matchup may be one of the keys to the game as Hodge puts pressure on the defense that results in a lot of open looks for his teammates. Defensively, Hodge can be effective, but stronger players may be able to take advantage of him in the paint.
The most experienced of the Wolfpack frontcourt players is 6-8 Marcus Melvin. With the Pack, "most experienced" means 11 minutes a game in 25 contests last year. The book on Melvin is that he's a surprisingly good three point shooter (38%) with a reasonable handle in the open court. Around the hoop he has a variety of quick moves that compensate for his modest leaping ability.
Rounding out the big men is freshman Josh Powell. At 6-9, 210 lbs., Powell is better suited for the power forward slot than facing opposing ACC centers. He'll be giving up somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 lbs. (or half of your average Nate Newton stash) when he faces off against Carlos Boozer which will make it tough to defend the Duke center. However, Powell showed good defensive skill against Florida State's Nigel Dixon, often backing off the enormous Dixon so that he could use his long arms to block shots. Obviously Boozer has considerably more low post moves than Dixon, but Powell may be able to bother him in the paint.
Offensively, Powell's been very effective down low, but has very limited range. He's turnover prone and can be bothered by stronger defenders. For Duke, that means Boozer will have to try to balance being physical against committing fouls. Like Dahntay Jones, Boozer's time on the court has been limited in the last few games due to foul troubles and, as even casual observers have heard by now, Duke's interior play drops off considerably when Boozer is out of the game.
The Pack has solid depth up front, although a knee injury to promising freshman Levi Watkins has thinned the ranks some. That left Sendek with two other freshmen - 6-10 Jordan Collins and 6-7 Illian Evtimov. The latter is a legacy in the ACC as his older brother Vasco spent a few seasons tormenting Tar Heel fans with the frustrating combination of great size and the belief that he was a slick passing point guard. Vasco is undoubtedly out there somewhere racking up turnovers for some European team.
Meanwhile, little brother Illian comes into college less heralded (Vasco was a Top 10 recruit) and more effective. He's yet to show the versatility that he did as a high school player when he shot 42% from the three and was able to pound down low. Additionally, he's been struggling with quicker players on the defensive end and in playing help defense. It appears that he'll eventually be a very solid ACC player, but like many of the Wolfpack frontcourt, this season will be a growing experience.
Collins is the biggest player on the NC State team, weighing in at 240 lbs. He's very raw offensively and see limited minutes, but his big body makes him a valuable option for Sendek to use against Boozer.
Much has been made about the new Blue Devil attitude, from both the players and the coaching staff. The intensity against Georgia Tech was exactly what longtime Duke observers would expect from a team coming off a surprising loss. But the challenge now for Duke is to maintain that intensity without running the risk of burning out like a pack of Deadheads in a VW microbus.
The other challenge for Duke is to play the next game, not play the whole season. Normally, a game against the Wolfpack preceding a matchup with Maryland looming just down the road would be a recipe for complacency. Nobody provided a better example of that than the Cameron Crazies with their chant of "We Want Maryland" during the waning moments of the Georgia Tech game. In an odd way, that message may have set the stage for exactly what the team needed to hear. Krzyzewski's reaction, and the message he sent to the students, left little doubt about the next step for the team.
Still, it's questionable if Duke would have overlooked a Wolfpack team that is playing very good basketball right now. The Pack traditionally plays Duke very tough in Raleigh and last year stormed back from a 19 point second half deficit to make Duke work hard for an 84-78 victory. Sendek's offensive philosophy of spreading the floor, working the shot clock, and driving the ball to the basket is very effective against the overplaying man defense that Duke always employs. If the Wolfpack shoot the ball well it makes them very difficult for Duke to defend.
That's a big "if" when you're talking about this year's state team. Outside of Hodge and Melvin, the team has no reliable outside shooters. As a team they are hitting on just 32% of their three point attempts with no player hitting over 40%. Those struggles from the outside mean that Duke's defense can be very aggressive with their defensive rotation.
The defensive rotation against Georgia Tech was the best it has been all season. Krzyzewski rotated Jason Williams and Chris Duhon on Yellow Jacket point guard Tony Akins in an effort to keep both defenders fresh. The results were evident, as Akins was totally shutdown until the game was well out of reach. That's not to say that Akins wasn't able to penetrate, but on the rare occasions he did Dunleavy, Jones, or Boozer met him. It was vintage Duke defense and Sunday night will require a similar effort against a State team that will likely look to drive to the basket to draw fouls against Duke's interior players.
When Duke has the ball State will go with the tough man defense that Sendek prefers. Look for Grundy, one of the top defenders in the league, to matchup with Williams and Crawford to defend Duhon. Both Duke guards made major adjustments to their offense against Georgia Tech. Duhon was much more aggressive driving and distributing the ball than he had been in recent games. His total of 7 assists could easily have reached double figures as he had several passes to Carlos Boozer who was fouled in the act of shooting.
Unlike Duhon, Jason Williams didn't need to get any more aggressive on offense. For the majority of the season, Williams had been penetrating the lane and taking the ball right to the basket, rarely dishing the ball off to Boozer as he did last year. Some of that's attributable to Williams' efforts to carry the team, but much of it is the result of opposing defenses clogging the lane when Williams drives. Against Tech, Williams kicked the ball out to shooters on several early forays into the lane. The result was that the Tech defenders had to respect Duke's outside shooters and suddenly it was easier to get the ball to Boozer inside or to finish drives at the basket.
As great as the Duke guards are, the Wolfpack's best matchups may be in the backcourt. That's because up both Dunleavy and Boozer present difficult defensive assignments for the Pack. Boozer is considerably bigger and more experienced than any of the Wolfpack big men. They'll start the game with Powell defending Boozer which leaves Melvin matched up on Dunleavy. Look for Dunleavy to capitalize on that matchup as Melvin does not often have to defend perimeter players.
The final piece of Duke's offense is Dahntay Jones who is coming off one of his best games in a Duke uniform. Jones has been struggling all year as for the first time in his life defenders are slumping off from him to help on other players. That's been an effective defense on a guy who has been struggling with his long-range jumper. In the first half of the Tech game, Jones tried several times to drive the ball into his man and spin off him to get to the basket. It's a move that has been unsuccessful for him most of the season. But in the second half of that game, Jones began dribbling directly into the lane and then pulling up for several mid-range jumpers. Duke's going to look to take advantage of the way that teams are defending Jones. Look for more dribble penetration and more movement without the ball to get him looks near the basket.
Sunday night presents an interesting matchup with lots of questions. Can Duke continue to perform at the level they did against Georgia Tech? How much of that was the result of Tech being overmatched? Will they be able to sustain that type of intensity if they don't overwhelm an opponent? It's difficult to tell just how good State may be. Their big wins so far this year have been over a Syracuse team without their head coach and a Virginia team that appears to be not quite as good as their early season may have indicated. But on the other side of that, there was the way they took Maryland completely out of their offense in the second half of that close loss. Sunday night goes a long way towards answering those questions for both teams.