With so many new parts on the roster, there was a curiosity factor to N.C. Sate before the season.
After a 7-1 start, with the annual game at Reynolds Coliseum on Wednesday night (vs. Western Carolina) up next, it has been the old parts that have made Kevin Keatts’ second team go.
Senior Torin Dorn leads N.C. State in scoring (16.6 points per game) and rebounding (7.6), while junior guard Markell Johnson has turned in his best performances in the Wolfpack’s toughest games.
Dorn, Johnson and guard Braxton Beverly are the only three players on the roster who played for the Wolfpack last season. Keatts has nine new players this season. He considers junior guard C.J. Bryce (13.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg) in a different category. Bryce practiced with the Wolfpack last season and spent his first two college seasons with Keatts at UNC Wilmington.
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“We’re still pretty excited about the new guys but the old guys, or the ones who have played for me before, have been playing their best basketball,” Keatts said.
Dorn has flourished as a nominal power forward in Keatts’ small-ball lineup. He had 14 points and 11 rebounds in the 79-75 loss at Wisconsin last Tuesday and has scored in double-figures every game this season.
Keatts said Dorn’s role has evolved and he has done more on the offensive end, with ball screens, while still rebounding at the “4” position.
“He has added to his game,” Keatts said. “He’s really another guard for us, a bigger guard, but we can switch with him on defense and he can rebound.”
Johnson, the team’s point guard and the ACC’s leader in assists last season, has started to find the right balance between scoring and sharing the ball.
Johnson had 19 points and seven assists in N.C. State’s 80-65 win over Vanderbilt this past Saturday. He had 21 points and five assists against Wisconsin. In N.C. State’s tight 78-74 win over Mercer on Nov. 24, Johnson had 16 points.
The scoring outburst came after he had been held to single digits in three of the previous four games.
“Markell’s growing as a point guard,” Keatts said. “He is learning how to control the game.”
N.C. State is at its best, Keatts said, when Johnson looks more for his own shot, especially in ball-screen sets.
“In order for us to become a better team, he has to have the right balance of getting everyone involved and being a little selfish with his shot,” Keatts said. “We can’t have him go through the game and have eight or nine assists but only seven or eight points.”
Since a relatively easy 5-0 start, with wins over teams No. 250 or worse in the KenPom rankings, N.C. State has had the 78-74 home win over Mercer, a 79-75 loss at Wisconsin and an 80-65 win over the Commodores.
Now N.C. State gets Western Carolina (2-7), who played a close game with Wake Forest on Nov. 27 and then took Furman (No. 25 in the AP poll) to double-overtime this past Saturday, at Reynolds.
On Saturday, N.C. State goes to Atlantic City to face another Power 5 opponent, Penn State, who already has a win over one ACC team (Virginia Tech). Then the Wolfpack closes out the six-game stretch with No. 8 Auburn at PNC Arena on Dec. 19.
“This is a big stretch for us, an unbelievable stretch,” Keatts said. “It has been a good chance to learn a lot about my team.”
He already knows he can count on his veteran players.