Back when I wrote the first NC State preview of the season — Jan. 15, which feels like months ago instead of weeks — I noted that Wake Forest’s win over Virginia “[got] things right back on track” in the context of the team’s season. At that juncture, the Deacs were No. 45 in NET. Now, after everything that has transpired, both highs and lows, Wake Forest is No. 33. Funny how that happens.
What hasn’t changed is my outlook on a game like this. It’s not the prime opportunity that waited ahead, similar to last time, when North Carolina was on the horizon. The Wolfpack are not Duke. But it is absolutely a loss that can crush you. Wake Forest’s story thus far has been a lack of home losses and bad losses. Losing to NC State Saturday afternoon would be both in my opinion.
It’s becoming crunch time for nearly every team, but especially Wake Forest. More so, it’s time for revenge. It’s an in-state battle. It’s the Wolfpack. It’s another step in the Deacs’ process. Time to go.
Teams: Wake Forest (15-7, 7-4 ACC), NC State (15-8, 7-5 ACC)
Date: Saturday Feb. 10
Location: LJVM Coliseum; Winston-Salem, NC
Broadcast: ACC Network; Wes Durham and Dan Bonner
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.
Less than a month ago, NC State battled back from a 10-point halftime deficit to stun Wake Forest at PNC Arena. Guard DJ Horne led with 21 points, while forward Ben Middlebrooks tallied 12 second-half points. In the closing 20 minutes, the Deacs’ shooting percentage dipped by 20%. The Wolfpack scored 18 of the final 25 points.
Wake Forest leads NC State in both KenPom and NET (25 to 80 KP; 33 to 80 NET). Per KenPom, the Wolfpack have relatively balanced success, posting a No. 60 defensive rating and a 101 on the offensive end. NC State rarely turns the ball over, doing so on just 13.5% of possessions, good for eighth in the nation.
The Wolfpack are below-average shooting both twos and threes — worse from their first meeting with Wake Forest — while their free-throw percentage has risen above the mean. In conference play, NC State’s two-point percentage has dipped to 46.3, while three-pointers are down to 31.4, coming in at No. 14 and 13 in the ACC respectively.
When players reach two fouls in the first half, they stay on the court just 10% of the time, well below NCAA average. The Pack also have one of the lower bench minute counts in the country.
Best Win: 76-60 victory over Virginia (Jan. 6, Home)
Troubling Loss: 77-65 defeat against Syracuse (Jan. 27, Away)
NC State’s lineup is eight players deep, with four players averaging over 25 minutes in conference play. Leading the way for the Wolfpack are key players DJ Horne, DJ Burns and Casey Morsell.
G DJ Horne
Horne, a grad transfer from Arizona State/Illinois State, leads the Wolfpack in points per game with 16.1, while averaging 31.9 minutes. He’s an incredible three-point threat — over half of his shot attempts are from behind the arc — and he’s making them at a 42.6% clip.
Horne is stingy on defense, forcing 32 steals, and is averaging just 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 Michael O’Connell
The last time Wake Forest played NC State, O-Connell wasn’t a starter, but he’s been inserted into the first five for the Wolfpack’s past three games. He’s averaging over 25 minutes in conference play, but isn’t much of a scorer. When he does choose to shoot, O’Connell makes his attempts at a solid rate — 49% for twos, 33% for threes in ACC games.
G Casey Morsell
After two years with Tony Bennett in Charlottesville, this is Morsell’s second season with the Wolfpack. He plays the most minutes for NC State, averaging 32.4 per contest, and that has risen to 34.8 in conference play. Morsell barely shoots over 40% from the field, and isn’t especially prolific from three-point range either. Regardless, he averages 12 points per game.
G Jayden Taylor
Taylor has started every game in his first season with the Wolfpack. He is averaging 28.9 minutes per game to go with 11.4 points. Though shooting under 40% from the field, Taylor has hit 32% of his second-most 100 three-point attempts on the team.
F DJ Burns
Listed at 6’9”, 275 lbs, Burns is a force under the basket, scoring 11.8 points per game in 25.1 minutes. The Winthrop transfer — in his second season with NC State — is averaging 50.6% from the field and has not made any of his four attempts from deep. His free-throw percentage is 57.4%, which could make him a choice to send to the line when needed.
Burns is second on the team with 99 rebounds, but also leads in turnovers and fouls. He is a good ball distributor, dishing out 61 assists.
The Depth Pieces
F Ben Middlebrooks
Middlebrooks has played every game for the Wolfpack this season, filling in the minutes left behind by Burns down low. He’s hit 50% of his field goals, averaging just over five points per game.
F Mohamed Diarra
Diarra is averaging 14.4 minutes per game, but that has climbed up to over 17 against the ACC. He leads the team in rebounds, also checking in at 6’10”.
G Dennis Parker Jr.
Parker, a freshman, averages a shade under 18 minutes per game while starting 12 out of the Wolfpack’s 23 contests — he has not started the past four. Parker is not a frequent shooter, recording just over four per appearance, but is making them at a 45.7% clip. Included is a solid three-point average at 31.6%.
Parker is a poor free-throw shooter at 55.6%, and doesn’t add much in terms of assists. But, his rebounding is impressive, especially on the offensive end.
Essex’s Take/Keys to The Game
It’s clear this is not the big ticket game ahead. Duke and Virginia are both days away. But that doesn’t diminish this matchup in the slightest. Losing to NC State Saturday could have a similar impact to the Deacs as the Pack’s loss to Pitt did Wednesday — move them further out of the conversation. Just when Wake Forest has worked its way back into tournament discourse, the last thing it wants to do is give folks a reason to discount the team.
I very much don’t envision that happening. This is revenge, plain and simple. For Wake Forest’s sake, one would hope this team is starving to win against State and continue the run. This is just one step in the process, but it’d have to feel good for them to make it, and in doing so, take down the Wolfpack.
This is how I envision the Deacs leaving the Joel with a win.
Stay out of foul trouble
In Wake Forest’s January loss to NC State, four Deacs had four or more fouls — and yes, I understand that some of that comes with end-of-game free throws and the technical debacle. But that doesn’t change the fact that Efton Reid played just 22 minutes and eight in the second half due to foul trouble. Hunter Sallis only played 28 total, nine in the first half.
To defend against Burns and Middlebrooks, Wake Forest needs Reid to play his full minutes. The Deacs need him on the offensive end, too. Ditto for Sallis. You must have his talent on both ends of the floor. Wake Forest can’t be playing catch up in the game, or trying to survive with players sitting on two fouls. The Deacs need a full team effort. They must take control from start to finish with their best guys.
Ball movement is king, especially for Wake
Wake Forest is always at its best when dictating its offense through ball movement. When the passing gets going, the shots open up. Conversely, when the movement dies, so usually do the Deacs. That’s where the turnovers happen.
With Wake Forest’s talent across the court, “hero ball” is wholly unnecessary. That’s often where the team has gotten into serious trouble, and one would want to avoid another 16 turnover game against the Wolfpack.
Move the ball. Win. That tends to be the formula for Wake Forest.
To blitz or not blitz, that is the question
Up until the victory over Syracuse, Wake Forest has primarily defended high-set picks with drop coverage. As Christian Odjakjian pointed out on the Boots on the Ground Pod, that drop can often be quite deep, opening up the mid-range and floaters for opponents. That’s where DJ Horne got hot in the January game, as did North Carolina’s RJ Davis.
The past two games have seen Wake Forest shift to some blitzing and hedging though, meaning that Efton Reid (it’s him usually) is anticipating the pick and battling above it to meet the ball-handler. This stunts the offense and forces them to find a kick-out. If they do, it tends to mean an open shot. But, Wake Forest has also been successful at causing chaos in those situations by doubling on the blitz.
I’m highly intrigued to see if the blitz, or even a hedge, comes out against NC State, especially on Horne. I think, even if used in spurts to throw things off, it could provide a nice bit of adjustment and force him to change his game, as opposed to what he did in the second half against Wake a few weeks ago.
I’m pro blitz. Whether Wake goes to it or not is another thing.
Control the emotions, control the game
In Wake’s last contest with the Wolfpack, things sure got chippy near the end. I expect it to be a hotly-contested game again. Don’t feed into the opportunities to make a mistake, make an ill-advised foul or play outside of your game. Instead, feed off the crowd and soar.
As for the game itself, the cold streak will eventually come. It tends to do so in the second half. Controlling the game means handling those tough times on offense, regrouping and making up for it during that stretch with elevated defense. Wake Forest has a very strong defense. It can suffocate an opponent when played at a high level. If the Deacs find a time when scoring becomes harder than usual, it will be up to their defense to carry them over the finish line.
Success can, and will need to, come from both ends of the court.
A home Wake Forest team is a different beast. The Deacs are a perfect 12-0 in the Joel this season, and certainly want to make it 13. Combine that with the crowd, the intensity of a rivalry game, the desire for revenge and the context of this game for the season, and I expect Wake Forest to come out hot.
The key is making sure that foot remains on the gas pedal. Never let up. If you trail, never back down and claw back fast. In my opinion, Wake Forest is playing better basketball right now. The team is in its home gym. It will be hungry.
That doesn’t mean a given win. It will certainly be a battle. But it’s one the Deacs can take. And, if they play their brand of good, hard, responsible basketball, it is one they can take quickly. 40 minutes, nothing less. Take it.
Wake Forest wins 76-67