Alarmingly, Kevin Keatts could see his team’s defense wasn’t up to his standards in practice this week.
The Wolfpack’s crew of players sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules, ,guys like guards C.J. Bryce, Devon Daniels and Blake Harris, took it to the nine scholarship players.
So it was no surprise to the N.C. State coach when the Wolfpack struggled all Wednesday night to stay in front of Virginia Tech’s players in an 85-75 ACC basketball loss at Cassell Coliseum.
“We didn’t play well defensively in practice the last couple of days,” Keatts said. “Our scout team with the guys we’ve got sitting out did a great job simulating Virginia Tech but they beat us off the dribble. We didn’t handle it well and I think it carried over to the game.”
Those aren’t words Keatts will ever like saying about his team. On this night, he said them because they were true.
It wasn’t that Virginia Tech shot the ball well really at all. It was that all the Hokies shots were within five feet of the rim and they were rarely challenged.
Virginia Tech made just 3 of 10 3-pointers. But the Hokies shot 63.5 percent by hitting 30 of 42 2-point shots (71.4 percent).
“The main thing is just defense,” N.C. State guard Markell Johnson said. “We’ve got to get stops. Get stops and get out and go. That’s it.”
That’s a simple plan that went awry at Virginia Tech, ending the three-game winning streak in ACC play the Wolfpack (16-8, 6-5 ACC) had pieced together so impressively.
Junior guard Justin Robinson shredded the Wolfpack, driving into the lane time after time while scoring 32 points. He should have been closer to 40 but he made just 8 of 14 free throws.
N.C. State’s big men -- center Omer Yurtseven and forwards Lennard Freeman and Abdul-Malik Abu -- were saddled with foul trouble. They combined for 11.
Poor defensive play on the perimeter led to that as the big men were the last line of defense against the Hokies’ free drives to the rim.
“Guard the ball,” Johnson said when asked how the guards can help the interior players out. “That’s it.”
Again, so simple.
“Our guards didn’t do a great job guarding the basketball,” Keatts said.
For all the Wolfpack has accomplished this season in Keatts’ first as its head coach, it has been susceptible to allowing teams to get easy shots. In ACC play, N.C. State’s opponents have made 56.7 percent of their 2-point shots. That’s No. 15 in the 15-team ACC.
The Wolfpack has countered that by forcing its ACC foes to turn the ball over on 18.7 percent of their possessions. That’s fifth best in the league.
Virginia Tech never felt uncomfortable when it had the ball. The Hokies only turned it over 11 times as N.C. State recorded just four steals. The Wolfpack has only had fewer than six steals three times in ACC play and has lost all three games.
“That’s not our defense,” Keatts said of his team’s play at Virginia Tech. “We didn’t do a good job with it.”
The tone for the night went against N.C. State in the early minutes when Yurtseven had two fouls prior to the first official timeout. He had already scored eight points but had to go to the bench for 10 minutes.
When Virginia Tech scored 12 points in a row to open a 35-23 lead, Keatts put Yurtseven back in and he picked up his third foul. He played just eight minutes in the first half.
“It changes your team,” Keatts said.
Yurtseven didn’t believe he should have had that many fouls.
“It was frustrating,” Yurtseven said. “I just don’t like how refs can affect and impact a game so much. I’ll accept the third one. But the first and second ones? I don’t think they were the right calls. But you’ve got to go with it.”
Now N.C. State has to shore up its defense with North Carolina coming to PNC Arena for a 2 p.m. game on Saturday. It’s not like the Wolfpack were in lockdown mode in the first game, a 95-91 N.C. State overtime win at the Smith Center on Jan. 27.
But, that day, the Wolfpack had six steals as the Tar Heels turned the ball over 14 times. That was enough for N.C. State to get a huge win.
To repeat the feat on Saturday, the defense needs to be far better than it was at Virginia Tech.