North Carolina State is not a top-10 team right now. And Oklahoma State, the team that dismantled the Wolfpack Sunday, can compete for the Big 12 title if it plays the way it did against NCSU (no guarantee) throughout the season. Those are the two conclusions I reached after watching this matchup in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off championship.
Yes, the teams played indoors, but mentally, NC State was on a Puerto Rican beach sipping mango smoothies and building sand castles.
The Wolfpack was not in that gym. Mark Gottfried’s squad looked listless. The knock against C.J. Leslie throughout his career? He’s great when he wants to be, average if he’s not focused. And Leslie didn’t look focused. T.J. Warren (15 points) was the only NC State player who seemed to recognize the moment. But overall, the Pack didn’t bring it.
Now, I’m not going to call Oklahoma State the best team in the Big 12 (it will certainly crack the Top 25 Monday), but I think the Cowboys proved that they belong in the Big 12 title conversation after this performance. They stifled a North Carolina State team that was bigger, stronger, deeper and more experienced. Why? Well, Google "Marcus Smart."
Go with me on this one. At some point in the Jackson 5’s path to stardom, the group was recognized as Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. The group was good but the star was the key to the show. Everyone knew it. And that’s the situation Oklahoma State is in right now. If Smart is on his game, as he was Sunday night, the Cowboys can contend with any team in the country. But the freshman won’t play like that every night. He’ll need consistent help throughout the season. The ceiling, however, is very high for this Pokes squad with Smart on the roster. Very high.
Overview: Oklahoma State raised its stock in Puerto Rico. The Cowboys improved each game, an effort that concluded with Sunday’s 76-56 upset over No. 6 North Carolina State in the championship game. Smart (20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, four steals, four blocks and five turnovers) was brilliant. Le'Bryan Nash (13-for-13 from the free throw line) added 23 points and eight rebounds for an OSU squad that established an early double-digit lead against NC State and preserved it in the second half. Lethargic defense, foul trouble and limited contributions from its stars doomed the Wolfpack. Gottfried’s program wasn’t just outplayed. It was embarrassed.
Turning point: This game turned the day that Smart signed with Oklahoma State. The dynamic point guard not only changed this game, he changed the entire outlook of a program that won only 15 games in 2011-12. The Cowboys were down 7-5 in the first half when Smart connected on back-to-back 3-pointers and a jump shot to put Oklahoma State ahead by four points. He was unstoppable the rest of the first half (18 points before halftime). Smart was 7-for-11 from the field in the first, while the rest of the squad was 6-for-17 on its way to a 38-28 halftime advantage. The Cowboys took North Carolina State’s heart in the first half. Early in the second half, the Pack didn’t look like a squad that had much interest in competing.
Why Oklahoma State won: NC State didn’t have any answers for Smart. He was the difference-maker in the first half. He was aggressive and dominant. Smart attacked the basket and finished with ease. Oklahoma State’s relentlessness led to 24 free throws. The Cowboys made 20 of them. But their offense was only one component in this upset. NC State had more depth and brawn inside. But the Cowboys challenged the Pack at the rim. They took away the easy buckets against a team that struggled inside and outside.
Why NC State lost: These guys lost because they couldn’t/didn’t adjust defensively as Smart began to heat up in the first half. Gottfried employed a zone with some success in the second half, but it was too little, too late. Smart was the main guy who North Carolina State had to limit and it couldn’t stop him. But the Wolfpack also lost because its best players were ineffective. Leslie scored two points and fouled out with 17 minutes to play. Lorenzo Brown was 2-for-9 and finished with six points. That’s eight combined points for NC State’s top players. Richard Howell fouled out with six points. The Pack just didn’t have it on either end of the floor Sunday.
Star of the game: Smart did whatever he wanted to do against a veteran Wolfpack squad. Brown couldn’t handle him. A zone couldn’t stop him. If there were any questions beforehand, there shouldn’t be any now. The preseason hype was obviously legit. I know it’s early, but that was arguably the best first half of the 2012-13 season.
What it means for North Carolina State: Gottfried has to figure out what happened cerebrally more than anything. North Carolina State is definitely one of the most talented teams in the country, on paper. The Wolfpack’s run to the Sweet 16 in 2012 proved that it’s capable of competing with the best, but Sunday’s performance echoed a dangerous trend for a team that lacked energy in too many games a year ago. That’s what the Wolfpack has to address.
What it means for Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are a team that’s fully capable of playing with the best teams as long as Smart is on the floor. But teams will stack defenses against him and force other players to make plays. Nash did that in the second half Sunday, but Smart will need help throughout the season. If they continue to defend (NCSU shot 35.5 percent from the field), however, the Pokes may evolve into a team that’s not only good enough to get into the NCAA tournament but one that can make a run.
More observations: I have to co-sign what my colleague, Eamonn Brennan, wrote on Twitter: I love Warren’s game. Position? Scorer. He’s crucial for the Wolfpack. … Oklahoma State preserved its lead in the second half but I think the Cowboys would have surrendered it against more tenacious opponents. The Cowboys were greedy and took bad shots. That strategy could hurt them if they’re in a similar situation in the future. … I don’t think Smart is making Nash a better player as much as he’s allowing Nash to play to his strengths. The bottom line is that the duo is one of the best in the country. … Leslie drew a technical foul after picking up his fourth personal foul. That’s what sent him to the bench for good with just more than 17 minutes to play. He’s an important leader for the program. But he didn’t act like one in that moment. Who knows what might have happened with him on the floor in the second half?
What’s next: NC State will face UNC-Asheville on Friday, four days before its ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup at Michigan Nov. 27. Oklahoma State will play Portland State on Sunday and will take on Virginia Tech Dec. 1.