NC State wants to play inside-out, but the physical play by the Wake Forest post players, combined with the veteran experience of senior point guard Ishmael Smith, proved too difficult for the Wolfpack to overcome in their 67-59 loss Sunday.
NC State looked at its ACC season opener in Winston-Salem as a litmus test to see where the program stood in the early going of the season. The Wolfpack's 8-2 resume includes a pair of losses to much taller Northwestern and Wake Forest, which is cause for concern going forward. Standing up to taller and more physical teams could be a theme throughout the rest of the season, since many future ACC opponents feature tall frontcourts.
NC State starts 6-foot-9 senior Dennis Horner at power forward and 6-8 junior Tracy Smith at center, but both players are likely an inch shorter than their listed heights. The duo struggled at times against Wake Forest, with Smith eventually fouling out with 11 points and 10 rebounds in just 23 minutes, and Horner going 2 of 8 from the field for eight points. Freshmen reserves DeShawn Painter, Richard Howell and Jordan Vandenberg, couldn't pick up the slack, but learned some valuable lessons in the process.
If Smith and Horner struggle or aren't on the floor, the Wolfpack's offensive rhythm takes a serious hit.
"They were a little quicker than we were, and a little more aggressive, especially early," NC State coach Sidney Lowe said. "We missed a couple of opportunities where we had layups, and we didn't convert. I thought there size really affected us inside. I thought we were looking for shot-blockers, and pump-faked a couple of times where nobody was there."
The five NC State post players went 7 for 27 from the field - with starters Horner and Smith combining to go 7 of 20 - for 19 points, 20 rebounds, three blocks and 14 fouls.
Wake Forest is known for its deep contingent of post players - 7-0 center Chas McFarland, 6-9 power forward Al-Farouq Aminu, 6-10 center Tony Woods, and 6-10 center/power forward David Weaver - all rotating throughout the game. The quartet combined 33 points, 27 rebounds, six blocks and eight fouls, in out-playing NC State's post players.
"Let me tell you something, their bigs were hitting us, they were hitting us," Lowe said. "Whether we were big or small, they were hitting us. They were hitting our guards and hitting our big men. We didn't hit them. It was very frustrating [to not respond]."
NC State travels to Arizona for a 10:30 p.m. game Wednesday, but won't have the services of Smith, who was suspended by Lowe for his comments about ACC officials following the loss to Wake Forest. The Wolfpack will try to win without Smith's 17.6 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game.
Arizona won't have the imposing size that Wake Forest possesses. The youthful Wildcats start 6-8, 235-pound freshman Derrick Williams at center, and if his ankle is healthy, 6-7, 215-pound junior Jamelle Horne at power forward. The top big guy off the bench is 6-10, 255-pound freshman center Kyryl Natyazhko.
The next test for NC State against taller teams will likely come in ACC action, though Florida on Jan. 3 features six players that are 6-8 or taller.
NC State will play at Florida State no Jan. 12, followed by home games against Clemson and Duke. The Seminoles start 7-1 Solomon Alabi, 6-8 Ryan Reid and 6-9 Chris Singleton in the frontcourt. Duke also has three starting players 6-8 or taller, and Clemson will likely start 6-7 Trevor Booker and 6-8 Jerai Grant inside, who are both good shot-blockers. The ACC slate also includes two meetings with North Carolina, one road game at Georgia Tech and a second meeting with Wake Forest.
Lowe said he learned from the Wake Forest loss that his young team has a long way to go before ACC action resumes Jan. 6 against Virginia at the RBC Center.
"The first thing we have to do is increase our intensity, increase our knowledge," Lowe said. "We didn't play smart [vs. Wake Forest]. I thought they did some things against us, like switching the ball screen, and we didn't take advantage of that inside with [6-foot Ish] Smith guarding a four or five inside. We didn't really post him up strong."
The five NC State freshmen played their first ACC game against Wake Forest, and Lowe said they'll all learn from the experience. Painter in particular, could have his progress sped up with increased playing time against Arizona with Smith suspended.
"The biggest thing we have to adjust to is understanding how it is going to be played physically," Lowe said.