New Starting Lineup Working for NC StatePosted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 9th, 2013
Although it’s still very early, NC State is showing signs that this may not be quite the down year many were predicting. After a lackluster 2-2 start to the season, head coach Mark Gottfried made some major lineup changes that are starting to pay big dividends during a four-game winning streak. The most obvious change is the return of seven-foot center Jordan Vandenberg, who missed the first four games due to an injured ankle, but he’s not the only newcomer to the starting lineup. Although all five opening game starters are now healthy, three of those players are coming off the bench.
Without Vandenberg in the lineup, the Wolfpack had to use all three freshmen bigs to man the post. When their highly regarded recruiting class was formed, BeeJay Anya, from famed DeMatha Catholic High School in Maryland, was NC State’s highest rated post recruit. Kyle Washington from Brewster Academy in New Hampshire was the next highest, with the third post player of the class, Lennard Freeman from Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy, less celebrated than the other two. Ironically the three freshman bigs are performing in the exact opposite order when compared to expectations. Anya, who was listed at 275 pounds for his senior year of high school, inexplicably reported to Raleigh over the summer at 337 pounds and is currently listed at a hefty 325. He simply cannot play effectively at that weight. Out of necessity, Anya played about 10 minutes per game in the team’s first five contests, but only a total of three minutes in the last three.
Meanwhile, Washington started the first three games but has since been replaced in the lineup by the energetic Freeman. At 6’8” and 245 lbs, Freeman is more physically ready to compete in the post as a freshman than the thinner Washington. He is holding his own, averaging seven points and five rebounds per game, and understands his role is to hustle, keep balls alive, and convert at the rim when opportunities are available (17-of-24 from the field). Vandenberg has been solid in his return. In the best shape of his career after dropping his weight from 286 pounds last year to a trimmer 240, the fifth-year senior is much more agile at both ends of the court. In his four games, he’s averaging 8.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and 3.0 BPG. Basically he has replaced 6’5” wing Ralston Turner in the starting lineup, and the switch to a bigger Wolfpack frontcourt has worked in a couple of ways.
First of all, Vandenberg has given the defense a much-needed rim protector. In the first four games without him in the lineup, opponents made 49 percent of their two-point attempts but that number has dropped to 39 percent in the four games since his return. Secondly, the move has allowed sophomore star T.J. Warren to move to the perimeter where he has been devastating. While he was already posting respectable numbers — 19.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 52 percent shooting in the first four games — Warren has been on a production tear since the move. With Vandenburg and Freeman beside him in the starting lineup, the 6’8” Warren has averaged 26.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG and is shooting 55 percent from the field. It also bears mentioning that Warren is another Pack player who got in great shape during the offseason, dropping some weight and improving his quickness and durability.
The last lineup change was also made after four games, with freshman Anthony “Cat” Barber taking over for sophomore Tyler Lewis at point guard. Barber’s minutes have remained about the same all year, playing alongside Lewis quite often in the early games, but his role has changed. With Lewis now only playing backup minutes behind the freshman, the dynamic Barber is the primary ballhandler whenever he’s on the court. He seems to be handling the adjustment well, with 20 assists and 11 turnovers coming as a starter. His scoring has remained about the same (50 points in the last four games after 54 in the first four), but Barber also seems to be connecting well with Warren, who has a great knack for finding openings and being ready to receive a pass to immediately score. With Barber’s ability to penetrate the lane, those plays are going to be available early and often.
It must be said that NC State has only played one top-100 team so far, losing a competitive 68-57 game at Cincinnati on November 12. However, two tougher games are coming soon as the Wolfpack completes its December non-conference schedule. On December 18, the Pack will travel to Knoxville to play Tennessee, and currently unbeaten Missouri will visit NC State in Raleigh on December 28. Those two games will provide more of an indication of how good this young Wolfpack team can really be, but unlike at this point last season, Mark Gottfried’s team appears to be headed in the right direction.