NC State hosts the Abilene Christian Wildcats Friday at 7:00 p.m. inside PNC Arena as the Wolfpack look to go 2-0 on the season.
Is Abilene Christian Sneaky Good?
NC State preps for their first real test of the season despite the flashy name next to the school. After a disappointing 2022-2023 season, the Wildcats seem poised to rewrite the ship after an impressive 64-59 road win over Oklahoma State. Even more eye-opening is that the Wildcats were up on the Cowboys by as many as 18 points. The offense looks ready for a bounce-back season after returning three of the Cats top four scorers. A veteran squad led by senior guard Immanuel Allen, senior forward Airion Simmons, and junior guard Ali Abdou Dibba. Allen had an off night and failed to score, but the Wildcats were too much as Abdou Dibba led the team in scoring with 15 and Simmons contributed with an 11-point 11 rebound double-double. Abilene Christian likes to use its entire lineup as nine different players saw ten or more minutes in the win over the Cowboys.
Simmons is all of 6'5" 264 pounds and likes to plays physical down low. With a nice eye for teammates around him, don't sleep on his passing abilities. Simmons has seen his assist average go up every year during his collegiate career and had four in their win. A battle between Simmons and senior center DJ Burns looks to be the thrilling matchup of the night.
While they like to play fast, the Wildcats do manage to cough up the ball more often than not. In their last outing, the Wildcats had 15 turnovers, and their main ball handlers, Allen and junior guard Kavion McClain, combined for five turnovers with no steals. Allen, who was the Wildcats leading scorer a season ago, surprisingly played backup to McClain in their first game. Picked to finish sixth in the Western Athletic, could the Wildcats be a sneaky underdog in their conference? After this outing, it's possible.
An area of concern that NC State will have to focus its attack on is the defense. While the offense can hit you in the mouth with numbers, the defense is lackluster. Last season, the Wildcats allowed the opponents to shoot 47.6 percent from the floor, tenth-highest in the country. NC State will need to expose this with their backcourt if they want to pull out a win.
Can the Backcourt Bounce-Back?
While senior guard DJ Horne and junior guard Jayden Taylor struggled, senior guard Michael O'Connell stole the show and the hearts of Wolfpack fans. Could we see O'Connell get plugged into the starting role after his performance? It's definitely possible as head coach Kevin Keatts has switched up his rotation a time or two in seasons past. If O'Connell continues to play like he did in game one, Keatts won't have a choice but to start the Stanford transfer.
It is difficult to take anything that happens in game one of the season with anything more than a grain of salt. The two guards struggled, but nobody is denying their capability to be able to show what they've got as the season progresses. If Horne and Taylor are to bounce back, a matchup like this with a not-so-great defense is a step in the right direction. These matchups bode well for Keatts' backcourt. Both teams like to play fast and downhill, but the Pack is one of the best in this category. Look for both teams to get out in transition in this contest. Abilene Christian plays a similar style of basketball as State, force turnovers, and play fast. NC State was first in the ACC and 15th in the country with a plus-3.8 turnover margin last season. Taylor and Horne only allowed two turnovers combined, both of which came from Taylor and will look to continue this trend in this matchup.
Two teams with similar play styles look like it has the making of an exciting back-and-forth contest. Both teams head into this one 1-0, but only one can come out on top. Whoever comes out with a win will be talking about this game when March is around the corner and they need a win to circle back to.