We are right in the midst of what has been, so far, a painful football season, but basketball season starts in 17 days with an exhibition against Mount Olive at PNC arena. There are a lot of new faces on the Wolfpack roster, and there is an optimism surrounding the program after last season's 23-11 finish, and a birth in the elusive big dance. Gone are Terquavion Smith and Jarkel Joiner from the backcourt, and Greg Gantt, Ebe Dowuona, Dusan Mahorcic, and Jack Clark from the frontcourt. That is a lot of production to replace.
I'm going to take an in depth look at all the new faces and returning players, and I'm going to break it down into two parts. In this post, I will be talking about the big guys.
The good news is that D.J. Burns is back! He is coming off of an incredible first season with the Wolfpack where he averaged 12.5 points and 4.8 rebounds a game. He also had 51 assists. D.J. might just be the best back to the basket post player in college basketball. When he posts up, he is hard to stop, and he has incredible touch for a big man. He shot 56 % from the floor in his first year in a power 5 conference. He is always a scoring threat, but he is also a really good passer. If opposing teams try to double down on him, he is very good at finding the open man. That is the reason that most teams didn't try to double team him, which left D.J. one on one with his unfortunate defender. He backed defenders down and simply powered his way to the basket, or spun around them with his surprisingly good footwork. He has worked very hard on his conditioning , so I would expect his minutes to increase this year. Burns does have room for improvement in several facets, the main one being staying out of foul trouble. He had to sit quite a bit last year, which took away a very big element of the Wolfpack offense. He also needs to improve from the charity strip, where he only shot 61%, but it's going to be exciting to see what D.J. can do this season. I have a feeling that we won't be disappointed.
Ernest Ross is the other returning post player. The important thing for Ross is that he needs to continue to improve, and I think he will. Ross didn't score a ton of points, but he is strong on the boards, especially the offensive glass. He is very athletic and plays with a lot of energy at both ends of the court. He is quick cutting to the basket, which gives him the opportunity to score points if someone can get him the ball. He also shot 50% from the field, but most of his points came close to the basket. He can play a significant role this season for the Wolfpack, and I think his minutes will increase from the 11 minutes a game he averaged a year ago. Ernest needs to play with a little more discipline, and he needs to work on his shot to extend his range. He attempted 20 3 pointers last year, and he only made 4, so I don't think we will see him attempt very many. He is also foul prone, and he needs to take better care of the basketball. He got called for a lot of illegal screens last year, so he needs to work on getting set better. He will play the 4 position most of the time, and the 4 slot screens a lot in coach Kevin Keatts system.
The New Guys
Ben Middlebrooks should sound familiar to Wolfpack fans, as he was a Clemson Tiger last year. He was a 4 star recruit out of high school, and he has some power. At 6-10, he is a solid presence down low, which I think will give the Wolfpack a very capable stand in for D. J. Burns when he needs a breather, or is in foul trouble. Middlebrooks has a solid frame, and I don't think many guys can push him around. He averaged 11 minutes a game and he shot 48 % from the floor last season , but he was pretty good from the charity stripe at 77%. He is a good rebounder and he doesn't turn it over much. He doesn't have a lot of range as he took six 3 pointers and didn't make any of them. I think he is going to be solid in the post at the 5 position, but he can also play the 4. He is going to be an important addition for the Wolfpack.
The other new face in the frontcourt is Mohamed Diarra who is a transfer from Missouri. He is 6-10, but he is very athletic and he can handle the basketball. One on one he can beat his man to the basket and finish strong. He is capable of knocking down shots from beyond the arc, and he averaged 3.3 rebounds per game while only averaging 12 minutes a game. He will be a very active 4 who can score. He shot 40% from the field and only 55% from the free throw line, and those numbers need to be better. From what I have heard, he has worked as hard as anyone in practices and has improved his game. He can also play the 5 position and can create a match up problem for the opposing team. I think that his play is going to be crucial this season.
Overall, I think the Wolfpack is in a really good situation down low. After Mahorcic went down last season, it forced coach Keatts to use lineups and combinations that he wouldn't have otherwise. Keatts is very big on switching on defense, and with Diarra playing the 4, it will allow the Wolfpack to switch 1-4 without creating huge mismatches. Keatts will have many more options and combinations down low, and it's possible that we will see multiple combinations on the court. It also gives Keatts more ability to play the combination that will work best depending on the opponent. I believe that this is the best group of frontcourt guys Keatts has had since he has been at N.C. State. I also expect we will see M.J. Rice play the 4 at times, but I will have more about him in my next installment when I preview the guards and wings. It should be an exciting year for the Wolfpack basketball program!