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ACC Preview #2 - NC State

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Duke
 Feb 28, 2023; Durham, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack forward DJ Burns Jr. (30) looks to pass as he is pressured by Duke Blue Devils center Dereck Lively (1) and center Kyle Filipowski (30) pressure during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils won 71-67. 
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

You know the old joke about you can't tell the players without a scorecard? It’s beyond that in college basketball.

With the new transfer rule, it’s almost impossible to know a team’s roster. Well, you can know who’s on it, but knowing what they can do? That’s another story all together (there is a business here for someone who just scouts, quantifies and runs analytics on every single player in the portal. AI should make it possible soon).

In ACC Preview #1, we talked about UNC losing seven players to transfer. It’s nearly as bad in Raleigh: eight players won’t be back for coach Kevin Keatts and as far as we know, only two graduated or are out of eligibility.

Those would be (we think) Chase Graham and Jarkel Joiner. Terquavion Smith left for professional basketball so that leaves five transfers: big men Ebenezer Dowouna, Isaiah Miranda and Dusan Mahorcic are all gone as are forwards Jack Clark and Greg Gantt.

We will see Dowouna and Clark again: Dowouna is off to Georgia Tech while Clark chose Clemson.

For his part, Mahorcic chose Duquesne and Gantt will finish up at UNC-Asheville. Finally, Miranda, who redshirted last year, will transfer to Oklahoma State after deciding against the NBA. That really sums up where we are today: you sit out a year and then your options are to make a lateral transfer or go to the NBA? Based on what?

But we digress.

Those are some heavy losses to be sure, especially Smith. He was a hot NBA prospect as a freshman but went undrafted after his sophomore year. Philadelphia signed him and he’s on a two-way contract, which must be a bit of a comedown. He was a tremendous threat at NC State.

Joiner proved dangerous too, and if you shut one down, the other was going to hurt you.

Dowouna proved to be an effective inside defender, but he's replaceable. Mahorcic was a starter prior to his knee injury but he was already replaced when Burns emerged. Miranda has promise but big deal. State did fine while he redshirted and the Pack will do fine without him too.

Clark was useful but he missed 11 games with injuries. Gantt, who also dealt with injuries while at State, never quite lived up to expectations/hopes.

The backcourt is the biggest loss obviously. Those guys averaged 17.9 (Smith) and 17.0 (Joiner) respectively and both were explosive scorers.

Kevin Keatts brings back six players - DJ Burns, Ernest Ross, Casey Morsell, Breon Pass, LJ Thomas and Jordan Snell.

Burns became a fan favorite last season. When Mahorcic went out with a knee injury in early December, Burns stepped in and became a star, and even a bit of a cult figure. At 6-9 and 275 and with a Falstaffian sort of aura, Burns was surprisingly effective. The Winthrop transfer put up 12.5 ppg and a shade under five boards. He’s almost certainly the most popular player on the team and he’s a load on the court. He has limited athleticism, but not smarts: he had seven assists in an upset win over Miami.

The guy knows how to play and how to use his body to get easy shots He’s a ton of fun, no joke intended. No wonder State fans love him. It’s safe to say he’s one of the more popular players around the ACC right now too.

Casey Morsell was not the same guy we saw at Virginia. No offense to Tony Bennett, because his system obviously works, but on offense, you’re conserving your energy for defense and on defense you’re engaged in the basketball equivalent of hand-to-hand combat and forcing the opponent to work their asses off deep into the shot clock to get into their legs. It works, at times brilliantly, but at UVA, we had no idea how athletic Morsell actually is.

Turns out he’s a pretty good athlete. He’ll be a major factor.

Pass wasn't really a rotation player last season. He was 11th at State in minutes played (7.6) and had minimal statistical contributions. State doesn’t really have a typical point guard outside of Pass. Jury’s out but he’ll have a chance to step up.

Ernest Ross is still thin, but he had his moments, notably in NC State’s upset of Miami. Ross scored 17 points, including a huge shot with :33 left in overtime, and grabbed nine boards too.

Ross is still really thin - 6-9 and 205 isn’t going to work well around the basket - but coach Kevin Keatts turned to him for major minutes in January and February before cutting them back late. Still, he’s experienced and obviously has had his moments.

Thomas got some minutes - 9.3 as a freshman - and he’s a decent athlete. With Clark and Gantt gone, he could grab some of those minutes, assuming he’s ready. Side note: we can’t remember a year in the Triangle when all three teams had such deep backcourts. NC State, UNC and Duke are all loaded.

Snell is a walk-on but this is worth noting: he’s a cousin of Steph and Seth Curry, both of whom were late bloomers. And Steph, you may recall, wanted to walk-on for Duke. We wouldn’t necessarily expect Snell to explode, but the family has a history you can’t ignore.

The transfers are guard heavy: Raleigh native DJ Horne returns home after playing first for Illinois State and then Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State. The 6-1 grad student averaged 12.5 ppg for ASU over the last two seasons. He’s not a brilliant three point shooter, but he has hit 37.9 percent over his career. He’s a talented and diverse offensive talent, and will help to free Burns up inside.

The 6-4 Jayden Taylor comes over from Butler, where he had a really good two-year run. He dominated the offense - Taylor took almost 25 percent of the shots - and averaged 12.9 ppg in the Big East. He's also good at drawing fouls and is said to be a rugged defender, which will appeal to Keatts.

Like Taylor, MJ Rice is an NC native, from Henderson, hometown of former Blue Devil David Henderson and former Tar Heel Isaiah Hicks. We say from Henderson, but Keatts is quoted here as saying he’s from Durham. Well either way, he’s one of us.

The 6-5 Rice went out to Kansas as a freshman and bailed after not playing too much. He was highly regarded in high school and Kansas had a raft of talented players ahead of him. He also struggled with back spasms. He should get minutes so let’s see what he does with his opportunity.

Mohamed Diarra, a native of France, was the #1 JUCO prospect two years ago but left Mizzou after a single season. He’s talented if Keatts can figure out how to use him. Dennis Gates didn’t do that well at Mizzou, but full props for him for tweeting that “maybe the portal be with you!” when Diarra departed.

Ben Middlebrook comes over from Clemson, where he had some flashes. He’s not a great player, but at 6-10 and 245, he’s big and he’s strong. And keep in mind that Clemson is doing a brilliant job of developing talent.

Kam Woods transfers in from NC A&T. The 6-2 guard is transferring up and you never know for sure how that will work out, but he could be useful. Woods was A&T’s best player last year, averaging 17.3 ppg and 34.9 mpg. He didn’t shoot all that well but the Aggies were 13-19 and he was the focus of the opposing defenses so that’s understandable. He also led the team in assists (3.3) and nearly in steals (1.7). He’s a question mark now but could emerge as a really good player.

Finally, there’s Michael O’ Connor from Stanford. He played starter minutes on a bad team, but only averaged 5.2 ppg. A 6-2 guard, he’s likely to be back in the pack, if you’ll pardon the pun, but could still be valuable, particularly if he’s a useful defender. We honestly have no idea what to expect from him.

Keatts brings in just one freshman, but he’s impressive: Dennis Parker, Jr., out of Richmond, looks like a winner in every sense. He helped John Marshall win three state titles and keep in mind that Virginia missed one year due to Covid restrictions. In those three seasons, John Marshall went 74-6 and in the last 37 games, went 37-0.

And he’s a superb student, finishing with a 5.0 GPA and fourth in his class. His parents are very serious about school. When they moved to Richmond, it was partly to help him grow as a basketball player, but also because John Marshall doesn't fool around when it comes to academics. And they don’t either, as they actually went to the school and sat in class to get a better understanding of what to expect for their son.

Parker is solid offensively but defense is what’s likely to get him minutes as a freshman. Well, that and that he’s just a winner.

So where does the Pack stand? Clearly there is promise, but there are also a lot of ifs this season for NC State.

If Horne, Taylor and Rice do well, State has (counting Morsell) four solid guards, possibly more. Keatts has always liked tough, physical guards and he’s never had a problem with a small lineup.

Burns, Ross, Diarra and Middlebrooks should provide adequate post play. At 275, Burns is effective, but that’s a lot of weight to haul around. If the others can back him up a bit, so much the better. Burns played well but he also only played 22.5 mpg, and part of that has to be his weight. He either needs to lose some or needs some help. Keatts has options there.

We’ll see how State sorts out the forwards. Keatts has never had a problem going with a three-guard lineup.

And if his defense is as good as advertised, Parker may be the biggest winner on the team. We’d give him a shot just to see what he could do.

The thing about a guy like that is that you could never gauge his impact solely from TV. He could be a really important player for State, somewhat like Justin Robinson was for Duke a few years ago. The guy barely played until the end of his senior year but he had an immense impact on his teammates, largely because of his character.

Clearly there’s a lot to for Keatts and his team to work out, but Parker and some of the transfers could have a huge impact. Horne, Rice and Diarra could have major roles immediately. Keatts is a defense-first coach and he has a lot to work with here.

If he can smooth out the rough edges, NC State could have a big year.