Unbeaten NC State emerging as one of nation's top teams this season

Despite graduating key seniors, No. 10 NC State is off to a 10-0 start, with players like guard Kiara Leslie (14.6 PPG, 9.2 RPG) leading the way. Ray Richardson

Since coach Wes Moore arrived at NC State in 2013-14, things typically go like this: The Wolfpack are underestimated in the ACC preseason rankings. Then they end up finishing better than predicted.

"We use it as motivation to keep fighting," NC State senior guard Kiara Leslie said, "and prepare to do what people aren't expecting us to do."

This season, though, Moore jokes of the prognosticators, "Maybe they overcompensated the other way."

The Wolfpack lost leading scorer Chelsea Nelson and fellow post player Akela Maize to graduation, plus point guard Kaila Ealey to a knee injury just before the season. Still, NC State was picked to finish fourth in the ACC behind defending national champion Notre Dame, 2018 Final Four participant Louisville and Syracuse.

So far, the Wolfpack are fitting the bill as one of the ACC's best teams. They're 10-0 for the first time since the program's 1997-98 Final Four season, and they're ranked No. 10.

"I don't know if people appreciated Chelsea and Akela as much as they should have," Moore said. "We definitely miss those two and have a long way to go. The ranking's nice, but we've got to keep getting better. We still have a whole lot of warts that need to be removed."

Then Moore chuckled, seeming to realize he sounded a little too Debbie Downer for a team that hasn't lost.

"I'm really proud of the way this group's competed and given us a chance to get off to a good start," he added. "But we know we have lots of things we have to clean up if we're going to compete at the level we'd like to compete at."

This is Moore's sixth season at NC State, where he is 122-52 overall and 51-29 in the ACC. It's his 30th season overall in college basketball. Last year, the Wolfpack were picked to finish 10th in the ACC, understandable since they'd lost four seniors from the season before. But they finished 26-9 overall and tied for fourth at 11-5 in the ACC. They fell to eventual ACC tournament champion Louisville 64-59 in the league semifinals, and then to eventual national runner-up Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.

Leslie scored her career high of 27 points in the loss to the Bulldogs, and returned this season with a couple of objectives: become an even more consistent scorer, and help make up for the loss of about 15 rebounds a game combined from Nelson and Maize. She has done that, averaging 14.6 PPG and a team-high 9.2 rebounds.

Leslie, from Holly Springs, North Carolina, spent her first two seasons at Maryland, was injured, and then transferred to NC State. Another transfer, guard Grace Hunter (15.4 PPG), is the Wolfpack's leading scorer this season. She spent her first two years at Charlotte but came back to her hometown of Raleigh.

Leslie was already committed to Maryland by the time Moore and his staff got established at NC State. Then a year later, with other commitments in hand, the Wolfpack didn't think they had a spot for Hunter. But Moore is happy that both of them ended up at NC State.

"Kiara has worked really hard to be a more well-rounded player," Moore said. "Coming out of high school, people thought she was a great athlete, but maybe didn't have the perimeter skills and the range on her shot. She's put a lot of time into that by herself.

"Grace wanted to be in a Power 5 conference, and the other thing was she is very close to her family and wanted to be able to be around them a little more and them to be able to see her play easier."

The story of junior guard Aislinn Konig is different: She's from the other side of the continent: British Columbia. Her father coached her club team and wanted to make sure the players got a lot of exposure for recruiting purposes. The team played multiple East Coast tournaments, including in Atlanta, where the NC State coaches first saw Konig.

Surrey, British Columbia, is 3,031 miles from Raleigh. Was it hard for her to go so far away for college?

"No, not really because my family travels a lot, so I'm used to being away from home," Konig said. "I'm a very adventurous person who wants to experience new things and try out the unknown. So I actually was looking to be farther away from home than being close."

Konig was recruited as a point guard, but played a lot of two guard last season as Ealey spent more time at the point. With Ealey's injury, Konig (12.5 PPG) is back primarily at the point.

"Ace is a great point guard; her assists to turnovers (45 to 14) are really good, and she can shoot the ball well with a lot of range," Moore said. "But she is a different type player than Kaila Ealey. Kaila would get us going with her defensive effort and also the transition and pushing the ball. We would love to have both of them to be able to complement each other. But it's where we are. We put in a lot more plays that are designed to get the point guard shots than we ran in the past."

With all this talk of guards, we should also address the Wolfpack's post game. Elissa Cunane, a 6-foot-5 freshman center, is averaging 13.2 PPG and is the ACC rookie of the week after her 23-point performance in the Wolfpack's victory over Georgetown on Saturday.

"Elissa's still a freshman, and it's a big jump from high school to the ACC," Moore said. "It's going to take time, and I'm sometimes not the most patient person in the world. But we really have high hopes for her."

Cunane comes off the bench, while senior DD Rogers and junior Erika Cassell, both forwards, start due to their greater experience. Rogers had a 20-rebound game at Georgetown.

The Wolfpack have three more nonconference games -- including a trip to Chattanooga, where Moore coached for 15 seasons -- before starting the ACC season hosting one of their primary rivals, Duke, on Jan. 3. The Canadian Konig knew a little about ACC rivalries before she arrived, then quickly developed that knowledge and a reverence for the late NC State coach Kay Yow.

"You walk on the floor every day, and she's the first name you see," Konig said of playing on Kay Yow Court. "There is so much rich history of winning here, that you can feel it; it's palpable. You walk on the floor, and you know what's been done here before. And you want to create history of your own."