RALEIGH – North Carolina State basketball coach Mark Gottfried said the mood in the locker room wasn’t what you might expect.
After his Wolfpack defeated Pittsburg 78-61 Tuesday night for ACC win No. 1, the Pack didn’t dance or jump around in the locker room. In fact, according to Gottfried, the scene was quite the opposite. State (11-8, 1-5) was off to an 0-5 start in league play, but entered and left Pitt looking like a different team. The postgame scene wasn’t much of a celebration, however, considering State expected to play well.
“It was almost a ‘that’s how we’re supposed to play,’” Gottfried said. “We have to build on that.”
With Duke (14-5, 2-3) coming to town, the Wolfpack has an opportunity to get rolling in the right direction. The Blue Devils are reeling, coming out of three straight conference losses. NCSU has even more confidence knowing they defeated a much better Duke team last year in PNC Arena.
Gottfried called the game versus the Blue Devils “another great opportunity.”
Junior guard Cat Barber wouldn’t put as much emphasis on just one contest.
“Just business,” Barber said. “We work hard in practice all the time no matter if we’re winning or we’re losing.”
Truth be told, the NCSU team that went to Pitt and led by 25 at one point has a chance to knock off the Blue Devils again. Duke, like State, has depth problems. The teams are about even when it comes to depth, both squads only rotating about seven players. The one difference is Duke has more scholarship bodies on the bench that coach Mike Krzyzewski choses not to play. Gottfried, on the other hand, has a handful of talented players in street clothes.
The Blue Devils can cause matchup problems, sometimes running four guards on the floor. But, Gottfried is quick to point out, “they have to guard us too.”
In the backcourt, Duke has to find someone to contain Cat Barber. On the other end, the Pack has to deal with talented Duke freshman Brandon Ingram, who at 6-9, can play a variety of positions on the floor. The freshman from Kinston is averaging 16.6 points game. Sophomore Cody Martin should draw the assignment of containing Ingram, depending on who’s on the floor.
“I can see him on Ingram,” Gottfried said. “I can see at times him guarding Grayson Allen. We’ll see how the games unfold. We have some tough matchup issues with them. But we hope that we’re a tough matchup them, too. Especially with the way Malik (Abu) is playing inside.”
Abu scored 16 points and pulled down 10 rebounds against Pitt, his third consecutive double-double. The sophomore from Boston has been a monster in conference play, getting a confidence boost from his teammates.
“We told him to stop trying to settle for little jump shots,” Barber said. “He’s big and strong, can jump over anybody, go to the rim. He started doing that and he started getting double-doubles. I think he is playing really well.”
Gottfried has noticed that Abu is attacking the basket regardless of who is guarding him. That comes from his confidence growing the last few games.
“Every player I’ve had is different,” Gottfried said. “They kind of grow and mature at a different speed. You can speed them up sometimes and they’re going to mature at their own rate. He’s one of those guys, he’s in the middle of his sophomore year now and he’s starting to feel like he’s hard to defend.”
For most of the season, Barber has been hard to defend as well. Duke’s defense can be susceptible to players penetrating and kicking out, or causing problems in the open court, Barber’s forte. But he knows the Hall of Fame coach on the opposing bench will have something ready for him.
“Coach K always finds some type of ways to try to not let me penetrate,” Barber said. “Coach K always has some tricks up his sleeves to try and stop me.”
To his credit, even during this losing streak, Gottfried preached over and over that this is a good team. The Wolfpack showed that in flashes during league play, and finally put it together against the Panthers. The question now turns into if they have another great game in them to knock off the defending champs. North Carolina State might even be the favorite at home on Saturday. That might come as a shock to those outside the NCSU locker room, but not the players.
“I think we’re the favorite against anybody,” junior BeeJay Anya said. “And that’s that.”