Wolfpack’s battle for respect starts in ACC opener against Syracuse

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Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network
Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network

RALEIGH, N.C. Coming into the start of its Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) schedule of play, the NC State Wolfpack is currently on a seven-game winning streak and has received votes in both the AP and USA Today top-25 polls for the last two weeks.

Picked to assume the 10th spot in the conference preseason poll by the Blue Ribbon Panel and coaches alike, the Wolfpack begins league play holding an impressive 13-1 overall record and ready to face one of the ACC’s newest members, the 20th-ranked Syracuse Orange (11-2), at Reynolds Coliseum on Sunday.

Losing only one game in non-conference play wasn’t the start that many expected of the Wolfpack as it began its season with a new coaching staff led by Wes Moore.

Not that Moore and his coaches weren’t capable of turning the program around, the reason he was hired, but doing it so quickly has been surprising and impressive at the same time.

Then again, having one of the top-10 winningest coaches in NCAA Division I step in to a take the reins of a program he was an assistant with under iconic coach Kay Yow from 1993-1995 doesn’t make the team’s resurgence that much of a surprise after all.

With a deep a roster of experienced juniors and seniors who understand what ACC standards of play are like, Moore and the revamped Wolfpack have made a serious statement that they should not be overlooked for much longer.

From a statistical point of view, part of what has made NC State so successful so far this season has come about as a result of Moore’s ability to adjust his roster’s roles and direct his players to perform effectively, particularly coming out of the halftime break.

Through all of its games to date, the Wolfpack has outscored its opponents by 52 points (135-83) in the first four minutes of play in the second half which has enabled them to add to their leads the majority of the time, as they have only trailed in games for a combined nine minutes total all season.

Installing a four-out-one-in offense has also forced NC State to move the ball more often and consistently that has resulted in more points scored with more players involved.

The Wolfpack currently averages 19.1 assists per game, a mark which ranks them 10th in the country and third in the ACC in that category.

Add in the improved accuracy and finishing totals of senior center Markeisha Gatling, who Moore said from day one would be the focus of the offense, and the Wolfpack stands up there in the top half of the ACC in scoring.

Even while her returning teammates have improved their scoring by adding a basket each to their averages, Gatling’s improvement has been the most dramatic – scoring 6.5 more points per game this season than she did in 2012-13.

The Raleigh native (Athens Drive) currently holds the best shooting percentage in the country at 73.1 percent from the field, while her team’s 48-percent shooting performance ranks ninth in the country and fourth in the ACC.

Though Gatling has been the focus inside, other players such as senior forward Kody Burke and guard Myisha Goodwin-Coleman have helped to keep the scoring fire for NC State stoked.

Currently averaging 14 points per game, Burke has been able to provide the other half of an inside attack for the Wolfpack as well as helping to claim balls off the glass to outrebound teams in all but two games this season.

As the team’s two-guard and designated shooter beyond the arc, Goodwin-Coleman leads the team with 38 made three-point field goals which have been critical in the Wolfpack’s recent wins, and currently places her in third in three-point goals scored per game (2.7) in the conference.

At the point, redshirt junior Len’Nique Brown leads the team in assists (4.8 apg) and sits third in the ACC, and has helped to lead the example that freshman guard Miah Spencer (8.3 ppg, 2.5 apg, 3.7 rpg) is following to be the heir-apparent in the backcourt coming off the bench.

Fresh off winning the 2013 San Diego Surf ‘N Slam tournament trophy earlier in the week, the 33rd regular-season tournament title in program history, this team possesses the confidence it will need to try to knock off the Orange.

Playing against Syracuse for third time ever, and for the first time since the two programs met in Puerto Rico back on Nov. 28, 1996, the Wolfpack will be facing a different team than their predecessors did back then – one that is ranked in the top-25 and whose only two losses have come to top-25 teams.

Entering its inaugural ACC game, Syracuse steps into Reynolds boasting a similarly high-scoring offense as the Wolfpack, ranking just a spot higher in the conference (81.9 ppg), while hungry to improve upon a recent losing performance to 24th-ranked Arizona State.

Sure, an impressive non-conference record for the Wolfpack is to be applauded, but earning wins against teams in a league that boasts six top-25 programs will provide the true proof of how good this team is and how far it has come.

NC State’s battle for respect will be fought throughout conference play and it begins against the Orange on Sunday.