The NC State basketball team had to reinvent itself last February when leading scorer Devon Daniels was lost to a torn ACL.
This time, misfortune didn’t wait as long to visit the Wolfpack.
The season-altering event happened on just the third possession of State’s opener against Bucknell when star center Manny Bates made contact with an opposing player while chasing down a long rebound.
Although the collision didn’t appear to be serious, it was bad enough to dislocate Bates’ right shoulder, an injury that will force coach Kevin Keatts’ team to play the rest of its schedule without the only experienced big man on its roster.
“As my statement said, my heart is broken,” Keatts said after the Wolfpack’s first full game without the 6-foot-11 redshirt junior, a 77-74 win against Colgate on Saturday.
“You’re talking about one of the nicest kids you’re ever going to meet, one of the hardest-working guys that we’ve ever had in our program (and) a self-made guy. He’s developed into a very good basketball player.”
This isn’t the first time Bates has been sidelined by a shoulder ailment. He missed both his senior year of high school and his first season at State with injuries that required surgery.
His latest malady ended a potential All-ACC season literally before it even started.
Bates has led the ACC in blocked shots in each of the past two years and was poised to become the first player since Duke’s Shelden Williams in 2004-06 to lead the league three straight seasons. His 147 career blocks are fourth on State’s all-time list and are just three away from third place.
In addition to his shot-blocking prowess, Bates has vastly improved his rebounding and offensive skills. His 61.1% field goal accuracy last season set a single-season school record, and he averaged 9.8 points per game.
Without him, Keatts may eventually have to switch to a smaller lineup. Until then, he’s decided to give untested second-year freshmen Ebenezer Dowuona and Jaylon Gibson an opportunity to play major minutes in hopes they’ll grow into their newly expanded roles by the time the ACC season hits its stride in January.
True freshman Ernest Ross, who is more of a stretch four, may also see some action in the low post if the need arises.
“We’re still trying to figure things out, especially with Manny going out,” said guard Casey Morsell, a transfer from Virginia who has made an immediate impact in his first two games with the Wolfpack. “With guys having to step up and play, we’re constantly trying to adjust and see what works.”
While the sample size is still small, Keatts has been encouraged with the way Dowuona has responded to the challenge.
The 6-foot-11, 225-pound native of Ghana set career highs with 10 rebounds and two blocks in the season-opening win against Bucknell before running into foul trouble in the Colgate game. He still managed to contribute four rebounds and four points, all on free throws, in 25 minutes.
“I thought he was tremendous. More importantly, he didn’t hurt us,” Keatts said. “He got out there, he was solid. He made his free throws. He’s a young man who’s kind of been thrown into the fire, and what we’re asking him to do is just be solid right now. As he continues to get better, he’ll help us as we go along.”
The 6-foot-10, 220-pound Gibson also showed positive signs against Colgate with four points on 2-of-3 shooting from the field and three rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench.
But because both he and Dowuona are still in such an early stage of their development, Keatts is counting on others to increase their production to help fill the void created by Bates’ injury.
So far, Dereon Seabron has answered that call.
A versatile 6-foot-7 wing who can play every position from point guard to power forward, Seabron posted double-doubles in both games to earn this season’s first ACC Player of the Week award.
His work on the glass, where he’s pulled down a team-leading 22 rebounds, has been especially important.
“He’s tough. He’s going to make defenders uncomfortable,” Morsell said of Seabron. “Then on the offensive end, he’s so good at getting in the paint, putting a lot of pressure on the defense and creating a lot of opportunities for his teammates. He’s versatile and he’s aggressive, and that’s what we need from him.”
Seabron’s emergence as a leading contributor for the Wolfpack began last season after Daniels went down.
He improved his averages by four points and two rebounds to 9.4 and 5.6 over the final five games of the regular season, all wins, to join teammate Jericole Hellems and others in helping State salvage a winning record and earn an NIT bid.
It’s going to take even more of a team effort to overcome this latest, even greater, bout with adversity.
“We’ve got a lot of guys on our team,” Keatts said. “As they become comfortable with their teammates and the chemistry, I think you’ll see some better players.”