Kevin Keatts promised an energizing, up-tempo style from his first N.C. State basketball team this season.
The Wolfpack delivered in its PNC Arena debut Friday night, shooting 58.8 percent while routing Division II Mars Hill 109-66 in an exhibition game.
N.C. State scored 15 points in the game’s first four minutes and pushed its lead to 23-4 when Lennard Freeman sank a jumper with 14:16 to play.
“I can take a lot of good things out of this,” Keatts said.
The one-sided exhibition win was expected, of course. N.C. State’s nonconference schedule, packed with teams at the bottom of Division I like VMI, Bryant and S.C. State, mean plenty of lopsided wins will come before we really know how good the Wolfpack is in Keatts’ first season as their coach.
That said, here are some observations from N.C. State’s first public game against outside competition:
Allerik Freeman will get his points
Graduate transfer Allerik Freeman only averaged double figures in one of his three seasons at Baylor. But the Wolfpack will count on him to deliver points from everywhere this season.
In a team-best 32 minutes against Mars Hill, the 6-8 Freeman took 14 shots – two more than any of his teammates. He made six of them, including two 3-pointers, while scoring 18 points. He’ll need to improve his efficiency by the time N.C. State plays better competition when ACC play arrives.
Freeman hit 38 percent of his 3-pointers over the last two seasons at Baylor. He only made two of seven on Friday night for the Wolfpack. That’s one growth area that would allow him to get more points for his shots.
Keatts thought Freeman started slowly Friday night but decided to keep him playing once he found his stride.
“I wanted him to get in a rhythm,” Keatts said.
Defense needs to improve on the ball
The Wolfpack is spending plenty of time working on its defense during preseason practices. Conditioning is important because of the pressure defense being applied full court. Keatts was concerned with defensive breakdowns that plagued his team’s press in its closed scrimmage with Campbell last Saturday.
“We didn’t do a great job of communicating,” Keatts said.
Against Mars Hill he saw some improvements, particularly his team’s 53 deflections. The goal for each game is 40. The Wolfpack recorded 12 steals, and Mars Hill turned the ball over 26 times.
Still, the Lions found driving lanes to the basket far more than Keatts or his players wanted.
“Getting beat off the dribble,” N.C. State guard Markell Johnson said. “You’ve got to stay in front of guys.”
The team’s goal was to hold Mars Hill to 59 points or less. Because the Lions topped that total by seven points, the Wolfpack faces extra running between now and its first regular-season game on Friday against VMI.
Big man rotation minus Malik Abu
With 6-8 senior Abdul-Malik Abu sidelined with a strained knee ligament, N.C. State rotated 6-8 redshirt senior Lennard Freeman and 7-0 sophomore center Omer Yurtseven as the big men surrounded by a four-guard lineup.
Abu was on the bench in street clothes but was walking without crutches. Keatts said an update on his possible return should come within the next seven days.
Having missed last season with a leg injury of his own, Freeman started and played 19 minutes against Mars Hill. He made all three of his shots to score seven points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
He also had three steals and two blocks while not committing a turnover.
“It felt good being back out there for sure,” Freeman said.
Yurtseven played 16 minutes, tallying 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting with five rebounds. He blocked four shots but was also called for four fouls.
“I think both (Omer) and Lennard are doing a great job,” Keatts said. “They are both doing a great job on the boards. They are starting to score around the basket. Our guards are starting to have confidence in those guys that we can throw them the basketball.”
Youth in backcourt
Sophomore Markell Johnson and freshman Lavar Batts were N.C. State’s main ballhandlers against Mars Hill.
Johnson had a solid all-around game, hitting six of nine shots from the field, with a 3-pointer, to score 16 points in 28 minutes. He also had 12 assists and five steals.
This comes after his nine-assist performance in the scrimmage with Campbell. After playing 30 games as a freshman with three starts, he’s emerging as an important player for this year’s Wolfpack.
“He’s taking ownership,” Keatts said. “I’ve challenged him to be the leader at the point-guard position and he’s doing a really good job of it.”
Batts made just five of 12 shots, missing both of his 3-pointers, while scoring 16 points. He struggled from the free-throw line, making only six of 11.
Both guards had only two turnovers.