Still searching for an identity, Wolfpack looks inward to beat Robert Morris

Three players post double-doubles as NC State turns to its big men inside to avoid a second straight embarrassing loss

NC State basketball coach Kevin Keatts calls a play during a game earlier this season. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — At a time of the college basketball season in which most teams have begun to figure out who they are and how they should be playing, NC State is still struggling to find an identity.

That’s not entirely coach Kevin Keatts’ fault.

His Wolfpack was coming along nicely with eight wins in its first 10 games before starting point guard Markell Johnson was subtracted from the lineup because of an indefinite suspension and starting forward Abdul-Malik Abu was added back in now that his once-injured right knee is nearly back to full strength.

It’s a shakeup that has forced the team to begin searching for an alternative identity.

Tuesday, the process took a step in the right direction as State bounced back from a loss to UNC Greensboro and a balky first half to pull away for an 81-69 victory against Robert Morris at PNC Arena.

“What’s happening with us right now is that we’re playing guys that have never played together, at least this year,” Keatts said. “For six or seven games, (Torin Dorn) has been our four man. Now we’ve had to move him over the small forward position and put Malik there and our timing, our chemistry is not very good.

“Everybody bumps up a position. TD now has to be the three man, Al (Freeman) goes to the two, we’ve got the two point guards and we’re a little bigger inside. It’s going to take us a little time just to adjust to what’s going on.”

Time isn’t exactly on the Wolfpack’s side with only one more tuneup remaining, Friday against Jacksonville, before the start of the ACC schedule at Clemson on Dec. 30.

But at least it may have hit on a strength it can exploit as the season goes on.

The light began to flicker after a first half in which State went 2 for 10 from beyond the 3-point arc and trailed 39-36 to an opponent picked to finish seventh in the Northeast Conference.

Instead of firing up more shots from the perimeter — where guards Allerik Freeman and Braxton Beverly went a combined 2 for 18 from the floor — the Wolfpack began looking inward to keep from suffering a second straight embarrassing loss.

Inward, meaning inside the paint, where big men Abu, Omer Yurtseven and Lennard Freeman did maximum damage while helping their team outscore the Colonials by a 45-30 margin over the final 20 minutes.

“Our bigs shoot an incredibly high percentage from the floor,” Dorn said. “We just decided that we needed to get it inside and play inside-out and that would help get our offense rolling, especially without one of our guards.”

Abu scored a season-high 15 points to go along with seven rebounds while Yurtseven, inserted into the starting lineup for only the second time this season, responded with 12 points and 10 rebounds in just 16 foul-plagued minutes.

He was one of three State players to record double-doubles in the game. Lennard Freeman added 11 points and 12 rebounds off the bench while Dorn, back at his natural small forward spot, had a team-leading 17 points and 10 boards.

“I was very happy with our post guys,” Keatts said. “Right now that’s the strength of our team. Those guys are playing really good basketball.”

Now the task is to get their smaller teammates in the backcourt to raise their game to a similar level.

Beverly, who has played 77 of a possible 80 minutes in Johnson’s absence, struggled with both his shooting and his floor game Tuesday, recording four assists to go with an uncharacteristic three turnovers. Freeman had an even more difficult time, though he did pick up four of his team’s seven steals.

The one bright spot in the backcourt was the play of freshman Lavar Batts.

Benched for the entire UNCG game, Batts clearly got the message his coach was sending, playing under control for 22 productive minutes while contributing nine points, two assists and a steal without turning the ball over.

“He’s had a couple of really good practices,” Keatts said of the 6-foot-2 rookie from Concord. “Every minute he played tonight he’s earned and hopefully he’ll continue to get better.”

That’s a goal the entire team will be striving to achieve with the conference season rapidly approaching. Despite the struggles of the past two games, Lennard Freeman is confident his team will be ready once the bell rings and the games begin to take on more meaning.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Freeman said. “We’re still finding our way. But we’re going to get better every day now that we’ve found a style of play we can play at.”