When C.J. Leslie picked up Will Privette, the court-stormer who fell out of his wheelchair celebrating N.C. State’s win over Duke last Saturday, he was already tired. After all, playing the hero is not easy after 38 minutes of beating the top-ranked team in the land.
But that has turned out to be par for the course for Leslie, as well as his fellow Wolfpack starters this season. N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried has NBA-caliber talent up and down his starting lineup, and he utilizes all of it. The only problem? At times, it seems that’s his only play.
The Wolfpack starters and its one backup, T.J. Warren, is one of the most effective six-man rotations in college basketball, but at a certain point, conventional wisdom leads one to believe the ACC contender will eventually wear down. All six N.C. State players — Leslie, Warren, Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell, Scott Wood and freshman Rodney Purvis — average more than 25 minutes per game. That’s a sizeable workload.
Next down the bench? Backup freshman point guard Tyler Lewis, who, despite behind highly-touted out of high school, has played just about 10 minutes per game. And even that has been cut during conference play.
Take N.C. State’s last-second loss at Maryland Wednesday night, where Gottfried played just seven players the entire game. The seventh guy to see the floor was Jordan Vandenberg, a 5-minute-per-game center who finished 0-for-1 from the field.
Now, that’s not to say N.C. State’s loss to the Terps was due to fatigue or that it’s an issue that will rear its ugly head early in March. This roster is stocked with talent that could easily play professionally, perhaps more than any team not named Kentucky. But it’s certainly a concern, and could produce sporadic results throughout the next few months.
However, give this to N.C. State’s bench: At least it exists.
KEEP AN EYE ON…
Ben McLemore, Kansas: The Jayhawks advanced to the Final Four last season without this guy? Just imagine if Bill Self had another perimeter scorer on last season's team, one that lost to Kentucky in the title game, as the NCAA deemed McLemore ineligible. In his breakout freshman season, not only is he on the Wooden Award watch list, but he's slowly working his way up NBA Draft boards. Some have the 6-foot-5 scorer at No. 1 overall. He's averaging 16.4 points (50.3 percent shooting, 43.5 from 3-point range) and 5.4 rebounds per game. Though he's been dealt with a sprained ankle, don't forget about McLemore when it's time for The Dance.
John Groce, Illinois: What the hell is going on in Champaign? After suffering back-to-back embarrassingly ugly losses, Groce, the program's first-year coach, is left searching for the magic that helped the Illini to a 13-1 start and garner Coach of the Year talk. After winning three games versus top-25 opponents early on — tied for the highest mark of any program nationally — Groce's team has now dropped games to Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Groce called it unacceptable. Others have called it disappointing. Either way, he needs to get his star (Brandon Paul) and team back on the right track.
MoMo Jones, Iona: The country was first introduced to MoMo during the 2011 NCAA Tournament, when he helped Derrick Williams light up Duke en route to an Elite Eight appearance. Since then, he's done fairly well at Iona, and with Scott Machado now in the NBA, he's been forced to take on a greater load this season. He's been utilized on 29.4 percent of the Gaels' possessions and has returned strong numbers: 12 games of 20 points or more, including a 40-point explosion against Quinnipiac.
THE FIFTH WATCH
Syracuse at Louisville: Louisville's defensive efficiency is off the charts. Allowing just 79.8 points per opponent possession, the Cardinals would qualify as the best defensive team in the efficiency era (since 2003) if the season were to end today. That being said, Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams could be the top point guard in college basketball and is unlikely to succumb to Rick Pitino's high pressure. In a matchup of two of college basketball's best, expect eclectic guard Russ Smith to provide an edge. Pick: Louisville
Gonzaga at Butler: Butler's Brad Stevens is the wunderkind, and his coaching acumen will be put to the test against one of the guys on the Mt. Rushmore of Mid-Major Coaches: Mark Few. This could be Few's most talented team — Elias Harris, Kevin Olynyk and Kevin Pangos would start for most major programs — but it's not very sound defensively. With shooters all over the floor, expect Stevens, who is dealing with team defensive inadequacies himself, to put his Bulldogs in position to win. Pick: Butler
Missouri at Florida: Phil Pressey's 19-assist outing against UCLA set the single-game bar for pass-first point guards this season, but he struggled in his last outing — a disappointing loss to Ole Miss. Billy Donovan's team is much better than the Rebels, too. At No. 2 in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season, the Gators should prove to be too much for Pressey's up-and-down squad. Pick: Florida
Oklahoma State at Baylor: Neither team is ranked, but this Monday’s matchup will be worth watching to see two of college basketball's brightest point guards: Pierre Jackson (Baylor) and freshman Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State). With NBA talent all over the floor, both of these teams could go on a run in a wide-open — behind Kansas, that is — Big 12, and a win here would help. After a relatively rough stretch of games, expect the Cowboys' defense to frustrate the Bears. Pick: Oklahoma State
Kansas at Kansas State: McLemore's ankle will be a main storyline to watch, but either way, expect the multifaceted Jayhawks to eventually overwhelm Bruce Weber's surprising Wildcats. With perimeter players Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson creating pressure and center Jeff Withey (4.7 blocks per game, second-most nationally) protecting the paint, Kansas State should struggle to find points. The king of the Big 12 remains so for another week. Pick: Kansas
THIS IS WHY…
Nerlens Noel is being labeled the "default No. 1 pick."
The 6-foot-11 Kentucky center is athletic, long and has the defensive skills to see an NBA court immediately, but he's no Anthony Davis. Syracuse's Carter-Williams is torching opponents (he leads the country with 9.4 assists per game), but he's not considered to be a so-called sure thing like a Kyrie Irving. McLemore, Shabazz Muhammad, Cody Zeller, Anthony Bennett and Marcus Smart are all in the same boat. It's a trend that has beset the entire 2013 NBA Draft class — or, in this day and age of one-and-done, potential draft class — for not one prospect jumps out with his potential-production combination to signal to general managers, "I'm THE Guy."
Just ask ESPN's Chad Ford or any other draft pundit — or, if you're really inclined, any NBA GM — they'll all have you walking away unimpressed. The high-end talent just isn't there, or at least it doesn't jump out at you.
Consider this: On Ford's Big Board, the 11 top prospects are underclassmen, which should come as little surprise in 2013, but few of them are actually producing at an elite level and the ones that are putting up big numbers have had their pro potential picked apart. (The lone exception here might be McLemore, who has risen quickly up draft boards, has shown All-Star potential and is excelling versus collegiate competition.)
This is why NBA teams are not lining for this year's can't-miss prospect. Of course, any one of these young men — or others — could possibly develop into a big-time player, but it's going to take some serious scouting to pick one out of the pack. This talent-drain conundrum that is afflicting college basketball has many speculating that the teams with high draft picks will draft for need instead of the best-available talent. Because, at this point, who exactly would that be?
This is why, for college basketball fans at least, this season could be a bit more interesting: Which guy can earn the No. 1 spot on the court?
And this is why Nerlens Noel's bio blast being summed up with the word "default" does not signal a lost cause.