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Game Preview: Wake Forest vs NC State

Both the Demon Deacons and Wolfpack are 4-1 in the ACC

Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

As much as you don’t want to put too much weight on one game, Wake Forest really needed to defeat Virginia on Saturday, not because losing would kill the season, but because it would get things right back on track. Now, the Deacs have their highest NET rating, No. 45, since March 9, 2021. One can start to feel even better about the future of Wake Forest with resume-building ACC wins away from home. The prime opportunities won’t come until North Carolina next week and Duke in February, but NC State is a good chance to get that trend started and maintain momentum.

Game Info

Teams: Wake Forest (12-4, 4-1 ACC), NC State (12-4, 4-1 ACC)

Date: Tuesday Jan. 16

Time: 7pm

Location: PNC Arena; Raleigh, NC

Broadcast: ACC Network

History

In each of Steve Forbes’ first three seasons at Wake Forest, either the Demon Deacons or Wolfpack have swept the teams’ annual two meetings. In his first year, it was NC State, then it was the Deacons in 2021-22. This past season, DJ Burns led NC State over Wake by two in a heartbreaker, and Damari Monsanto’s injury was part of a 16-point away loss.

Evan Harris/Deacons Daily

Simply put, should this trend of back-and-forth sweeps persist, it’s Wake Forest’s year to take down NC State twice.

The Metrics

Wake Forest leads NC State in both KenPom and NET (37 to 71 KP; 45 to 74 NET). Per KenPom, the Wolfpack have balanced success, posting offensive and defensive ratings both well within the top 100. NC State rarely turns the ball over, doing so on just 13% of possessions, good for fourth in the nation.

The Wolfpack are average shooting both twos and threes, while their free-throw percentage is below the mean. In conference play, NC State’s two-point percentage has dipped to 44.3, while three-pointers are down to 31.7, coming in at No. 14 and 12 in the ACC respectively.

When players reach two fouls in the first half, they stay on the court just 8% of the time, well below NCAA average. The Pack also have one of the lower bench minute counts in the country.

Opponents tend to be successful against NC State from behind the arc.

The Games

Q1: 0-4

Q2: 2-0

Q3: 2-0

Q4: 8-0

Best Win: 76-60 victory over Virginia (Jan. 6, Home)

Troubling Loss: None, but to choose one…72-52 defeat against Ole Miss (Nov. 28, Away)

The Lineup

At this point in the season, NC State’s lineup is nine players deep, with a majority of the minutes going to eight. Four players average over 25 minutes, but there is heavy crossover at one guard spot and with the bigs. Leading the way for the Wolfpack are key players DJ Horne, DJ Burns and Casey Morsell.

A note: of NC State’s nine consistent players, eight did not originally begin their college careers with the Wolfpack.

The Starters

G DJ Horne

Horne, a grad transfer from Arizona State/Illinois State, leads the Wolfpack in minutes and points per game, averaging 31.1 and 14.7 respectively. He’s an incredible three-point threat — over half of his shot attempts are from behind the arc — making them at a 43.7% clip.

Horne is stingy on defense, forcing 24 steals, and is averaging less than a turnover per game on the offensive end. For his height, 6’2”, he’s an impressive rebounder. Horne also boasts the third-most assists on the team.

G Casey Morsell

After two years with Tony Bennett in Charlottesville, this is Morsell’s second season with the Wolfpack. He plays the second-most minutes for NC State, averaging 30.9 per contest, and that has risen to 33 in conference play. Morsell barely shoots over 40% from the field, and isn’t especially prolific from three-point range either. Regardless, he averages 11.5 points per game, but that number has dipped against ACC opponents.

G Jayden Taylor

Another transfer for head coach Kevin Keatts, from Butler, the junior has started every game in his first season with the Wolfpack. Taylor is averaging 28 minutes per game, to go with 12 points. Though shooting under 40% from the field, Taylor has hit 34% of his second-most 70 three-point attempts.

G Dennis Parker Jr.

Parker, a freshman, averages a shade under 20 minutes per game while starting nine out of the Wolfpack’s 16 contests. He has started four out of five conference games. Parker is not a frequent shooter, recording 5.5 per appearance, but is making them at a 49% clip. Included is a solid three-point average that has rocketed up to 44% in ACC play.

Parker is a poor free-throw shooter at 58.6%, and doesn’t add much in terms of assists. But, his rebounding is impressive, leading the team in offensive boards.

F DJ Burns

Listed at 6’9”, 275 lbs, Burns is a force under the basket, scoring 12.6 points per game in 27 minutes. The Winthrop transfer — in his second season with NC State — is averaging 53% from the field and has not made any of his three attempts from deep. His free-throw percentage is 61.8%, which could make him a choice to send to the line when needed.

Burns is tied with Parker for a team-high 71 rebounds, but also leads in turnovers and fouls. He is a good ball distributor, dishing out 45 assists.

The Depth Pieces

G Michael O’Connell

O’Connell is yet another transfer, from Stanford, matching Parker at just under 20 minutes per game. He doesn’t shoot often, but makes them at a respectable rate. He’s an impressive rebounder for a guard, and leads the team in assists.

F Ben Middlebrooks

Middlebrooks made the intra-ACC transition from Clemson to NC State this past offseason. He’s played in every game for the Wolfpack, starting two, and averages 14 minutes. Middlebrooks has made over half of his 53 shots, and is a solid rebounder at 6’10”.

F Mohamed Diarra

Diarra is averaging 13 minutes per game, but that has climbed up to over 16 against the ACC. He leads the team in rebounds, also checking in at 6’10”.

G MJ Rice

In his first season with the Wolfpack, Rice has played in nine games, averaging 8.8 minutes. He makes nearly 50% of his shots, and is a quality three-point shooter.

Essex’s Take/Keys to the Game

A deviation from my “Never Too High, Never Too Low” mantra, my note for Wake Forest on Tuesday is “Take It.” As of right now, which is way too early to be worried about such things, Wake Forest is a bubble team. Over the remainder of the season, that can change either way, though I do think the Deacs will work themselves into good standing by Selection Sunday.

The perfect way to get started in the right direction is to win the “right” games, as Steve Forbes often puts it. An away matchup with NC State is certainly one of them. By the end of the season, it very well could be a Quad 1, and an important resume booster.

In prime matchups like these, Wake Forest must “take” the win. The Deacs must want it more, crave a victory and fight like they need it, because they do.

Each and every win is another step to the dance, and if Wake keeps stacking them, being invited to the party won’t be a big concern.

Here’s how I envision the Deacs taking a victory home from Raleigh Tuesday evening.

Be physical at the five

As previously mentioned, DJ Burns is an absolute force down low, especially when attacking a player who can’t handle his size. Wake Forest fans know that all too well — in the second half of the home loss to the Pack in 2023, Burns took Matthew Marsh to task, finishing the game with 31 points on 26 shots. Three weeks later against the Deacs, Burns scored 21.

This will be a big-time matchup for Efton Reid. It’s the kind of game that Steve Forbes recruited Reid for. In conference play, Reid has recorded a block on 7.6% of the opponent’s possessions, good for second in the league. He has taken on Lynn Kidd, Quinten Post, Norchad Omier and Jordan Minor, and won. He’ll have to do that again Tuesday, and not allow Burns to bully him down low.

And, attack Burns early on the other end

In ACC action, Burns is averaging 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes. One would think, in order to beat Wake Forest, the Wolfpack are going to need as much time from Burns as possible. So, why not take it at him early and attempt to drive up the foul count? Kevin Keatts has proved that, when a player reaches two fouls in the first, they very seldom continue.

Also, as seen below, working Burns on the outside in the pick game often takes him out of the equation:

Attacking Burns could show what type of openings the Deacons will have in the paint, as well as get the grad out of the game for extended stretches.

Get up and out fast

NC State’s average defensive possession length is 18.1 seconds, one of the longest in college basketball. For the most part, that seems to be where the comfort zone is for the Wolfpack.

The fast break was where North Carolina found success against NC State a week ago, scoring nearly 27% of its points. Moving quickly out of defensive sets was also how the Heels found a high amount of their looks on the other end.

Wake Forest can sometimes hit bumps in the road when it gets “sped up,” but if it is the team initiating the fast pace, as opposed to NC State forcing it upon them, that could bode well. That is especially true when you have a trio of guards — Boopie Miller, Cam Hildreth and Hunter Sallis — who are all threats driving to the hoop.

Prediction

If Wake Forest can effectively handle DJ Burns, I am of the belief that it will win the defensive side of the game. When you pair that with the Deacons’ offense, an understandable level of confidence can be expected.

But there are absolutely ways Wake Forest can lose. The first is the turnovers. Wake Forest recorded 20 in its loss to Florida State last week and 17 Saturday against Virginia. It’s hard to win many games giving the ball up that much, though the Deacs were able to do it once.

Secondly, this will likely be the first high-octane away environment Wake Forest plays in this ACC season. It’s a Tobacco Road battle. It’s going to be loud. The NC State students are usually quite engaged in the game, especially when the Wolfpack are good. I expect that to continue Tuesday.

If Wake Forest can win on offense and defense, as I expect them to, protecting the ball on offense and taking the crowd out of the game would help push things over the top. This is a game that, in my mind, the Deacs can win by a pretty large margin if they play good basketball.

Wake Forest wins 77-64