After a close loss to Wisconsin in November, N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said his team would learn from it and get better.
He was right. N.C. State won seven straight after a 79-75 loss to the Badgers on Nov. 27. The Wolfpack needs to repeat that history lesson after Tuesday’s disappointing loss at Wake Forest.
No. 17 N.C. State (14-3, 2-2 ACC) travels to Notre Dame on Saturday (2 p.m., WRAL) hoping to bounce back and get on the right side of .500 in league play.
If N.C. State plays like it did in the first 20 minutes of Tuesday’s 71-67 loss at Wake Forest, that will not happen.
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If the Wolfpack can replicate its effort from the final 20 minutes, then it will have a good shot at knocking off a banged-up Notre Dame (11-6, 1-3) team in South Bend, Ind.
The difference between the two halves? Defensive effort. N.C. State was too passive in the first half against the Demon Deacons. The Wolfpack didn’t make Wake work on offense. It was too easy for the Deacs to score and N.C. State went through a 12-minute stretch without forcing a turnover.
Against a team like Virginia that values the ball and doesn’t turn it over that’s to be expected. But N.C. State should have been able to turn the pressure up on a struggling Wake team.
Instead, N.C. State’s lax defensive effort gave Wake some early confidence. The Deacs shot 55.6 percent and scored 42 points in the first half.
Compare that to 32 percent and 29 points in the second half, when N.C. State erased what was once a 22-point deficit.
There’s a connection between N.C. State’s defense and its offense. When the defense is working, either in the press or halfcourt, it creates turnovers and easy baskets.
N.C. State’s identity, in Keatts’ second season, has been as a deep team that plays hard, even when down. N.C. State has trailed in the second half in all of its ACC games and by double-digits in three of the four games.
“I know my team is going to fight,” Keatts said. “Everybody knows we play hard and we won’t lay down.”
Markell Johnson’s status
Effort is essential because N.C. State does not have a decisive talent advantage over any ACC other team, even with junior guard Markell Johnson. And without Johnson, the most talented and athletic player on the roster, the margin of error is even smaller.
Johnson, who missed the Wake loss with a hip injury, might be out for this game as well. Keatts described the status of Johnson, the team’s second-leading scorer, as “day to day.”
What N.C State was able to get going in the second half against Wake was its defensive pressure. It started to make the Deacs work and even though the Wolfpack didn’t create many turnovers, it was able to speed the game up.
And that started to translate on the offensive end. N.C. State’s first-half effort, 29.7 percent shooting and 27 points, was often one pass and a shot, usually a 3-pointer.
N.C. State was 1 of 14 from the 3-point line in the first half, mostly against Wake’s zone.
“Our defense tends to struggle a little bit when the ball is not going in the hole,” Keatts said.
N.C. State started making more shots in the second half and the defense followed. The Deacs used more man defense in the second half and N.C. State started to attack the basket more. That helped.
N.C. State shot 44.4 percent and scored 40 points in the second half. Shot selection can explain some of the improvement in the second half.
N.C. State has been one of the better shooting teams in the country this season but that’s partially a product of the level of competition outside of the conference (the strength of schedule ranks No. 351 in the country, according to KenPom.com) and the other part is shot selection.
In all games, N.C. State is shooting 55.9 percent on 2-pointers (407-728) and 38.2 percent on 3-pointers (145 of 380). If you break that down by ACC play, the numbers (not surprisingly) go down.
In four league games, N.C. State is shooting 48.9 percent on 2s (87 of 178) and 29.9 percent on 3s (32 of 107).
To break those 3-point numbers down another step, guard Braxton Beverly is shooting 37.1 percent (13 of 35) in league play and the rest of the team is shooting 26.8 percent (19 of 72). Against Wake, Beverly was 3 of 10 from the 3-point line and the rest of the team was 3 of 19.
“I thought we took some ill-advised shots and didn’t put ourselves in the best position to win,” Keatts said.
Good shots start with good defense and the right effort.