We will be taking you around the conference this season with some great ACC blogs to preview the matchups. Tonight, the NC State Wolfpack come to Littlejohn and Riddick & Reynolds has us covered (We returned the favor on his site here)…
Us: NC State broke a three-game losing streak by hanging on against the Hurricanes in a 72-70 win. How are the Wolfpack playing coming into their matchup with the Tigers?
Riddick & Reynolds: Still shaky, but improving. It's clear that Ryan Harrow has taken command of the point guard position, and Lowe's found a solid frontcourt tandem when pairing Richard Howell with Tracy Smith. They played more inspired defense for 30 minutes against Miami and rebounded the ball well. There are still warts, however, and blowing a 17-point second-half lead against Miami at home is not confidence inspiring. If Reggie Johnson catches that ball under the basket cleanly and goes up with it strong, there's a good chance he makes the bucket, maybe even with a foul-shot to win it. Hanging on at the end is all that separates this team's fanbase from cautiously renewed optimism versus calling for a midseason firing, in my opinion.
Us: One of the ACC's best players in Wolfpack forward Tracy Smith was out for a no. of games this season - how much of an impact did that make on NC State before conference play?
R&R: A tremendous amount. As poorly as State played in the Wisconsin game, I doubt we win even with Tracy in the lineup. The other three marquee games--Georgetown, Syracuse and Arizona--were all well within reach. Not having Tracy as an offensive threat and a leader on the court showed, as the scoreless stretches that ultimately sank the Pack in those games in all likelihood wouldn't have occurred. You can tell this team plays much more crisply on offense when the ball touches Smith's hands.
Us: Is Smith back to his old self coming into Clemson? Who are some other players that Tiger fans need to watch out for?
R&R: He's getting there. He's still not as explosive off that knee as he was before the injury, but we've seen him add a bit of a midrange game this year (which we expected after Lowe's comments before the season about moving him to the four to prepare him for the NBA). I'm not quite sure if it nets out evenly, but he's beginning to get back to that dominant interior offensive player that's nearly impossible to stop.
As for other players to look out for, CJ Williams has stepped up and taken a more active role, especially on the defensive end. He hit the fade-away three at the end of the half against Miami that ultimately proved to be the difference in the score. Also keep an eye on both CJ Leslie and Lorenzo Brown. Leslie has been somewhat erratic lately and Brown has disappeared quite a bit since league play began. Either one of those two could break out for a big game.
Us: We are getting pretty deep into conference play now - what are your impressions of Clemson so far under Brownell?
R&R: I like what I see, and it's expected. He always had UNC-Wilmington playing sound basketball and had that great run his first year as head coach where they were beaten at the buzzer by the three from Juan Dixon, one of the great game-winning shots in college basketball history, in my opinion. He's one of the rare guys you see promoted from assistant coach to head coach at a school that enjoys success. That never seems like a strategy that works, and yet it did at UNC-W. He was solid at Wright State, as well, so I'm not shocked he's doing well in his first year at Clemson. He'll continue to make that team better and have them in the NCAAs regularly, I think. He looks like Erik Cole from the NHL Hurricanes, too, so he's got that going for him...
Us: What are the keys to NC State coming out of Littlejohn with a win?
R&R: Just play consistent, fundamentally strong basketball on BOTH ends of the court, not just offensively. I think there's more than enough talent to outscore teams in this league jumbled up in middle of the standings like us, but can they close the deal? That's the question. There can't be any droughts or mental lapses, and the coaching staff must keep their finger on the pulse of the game and play to what works and what doesn't. I've seen too often a baffling substitution kill the flow of the team at a critical time, and that's cost us.