Wolfpack will be challenged in replicating success

Kiara Leslie gestures to a teammate during an NCAA Tournament game last March. AP Photo by Ben McKeown.
Kiara Leslie gestures to a teammate during an NCAA Tournament game last March. AP Photo by Ben McKeown.

There may not be a program in the ACC that has defied expectations as consistently as North Carolina State has under coach Wes Moore.

Last year’s Wolfpack team made the NCAA Tournament for the third time in Moore’s five seasons leading the program, and saw its first back-to-back appearance since 2006-2007. They made the Sweet 16 (also the first time since 2007) and finished with a 26-9 record, going 11-5 in conference for a fourth place tie with Duke.

This year’s squad will face significant challenges in replicating that success. They will rely heavily on young talent to fill some key losses on the roster, but Moore is cautiously optimistic.

With last year’s dynamic front-court duo of center Akela Maize and forward Chelsea Nelson now graduated and playing professionally overseas, NC State will be missing not only a combined 20.9 points per outing on offense, but the two anchors of a ferocious defense built on hammering the glass for rebounds. The duo averaged nearly 15 combined boards per game, and were largely responsible for the Wolfpack holding opponents to a stingy 57.2 points per game.

Replacing such integral talent is never easy, and Moore is looking to some new blood to step up in the form of junior Erika Cassell and freshmen Elissa Cunane and Jada Rice, who will play center.

Cassell made only one start last year, averaging 2.9 points and 4.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, but did show some flashes of what she might be capable of when given a more substantial role. She notched an 11-11 double-double on the road against Miami, and logged five games with double-digit boards.

As for Cunane and Rice, if their scouting reports and prospect rankings are accurate (they graded out at fifth and 12th at their positions respectively), both have the size and athleticism to contribute right away. Filling the power forward position will fall to senior DD Rogers and sophomore Kayla Jones – both of whom saw limited minutes last season off the bench (15.2 mpg, 2.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg combined). Esra McGoldrick, a freshman hailing from Christchurch, New Zeland, will also be in the mix.

“There are a lot of unknowns there,” Moore said. “:A lot of players (know) that their roles are going to change immensely, so we’ve got our challenges.”

Right now, he’s focusing on getting both the veterans who will assume larger roles and the incoming freshmen to execute the grind aspects of what made last year’s front court so formidable.

“We’ve got to do the little things like that if we’re going to be successful,” Moore said. “We’ve got to buy into it and make it a priority, and it’s not as much fun maybe as some of the other things. But if you’re going to be consistent, a consistent winner, you’re gonna have to defend and rebound.”

If Moore can get that buy-in effort he’s talking about, the Wolfpack’s young stable of post players may be up to the task.

Compounding Moore’s need to lean on untested talent, NC State suffered a tough blow to their season before it even began, losing veteran point guard Kaila Ealey (8.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.2 apg, and 1.5 steals) to a knee injury just weeks before practice opened. Trying to make up the difference in the back court will be difficult, but not necessarily impossible.

One bright spot is returning junior Aislinn Konig, who averaged 10.3 ppg last season on .365/.341/.591 shooting splits, and added 3.1 assists and 2.4 rebounds for good measure. Another is Kiara Leslie, good for 12.7 pints and 5.9 boards in 2017-18. Adding a possible spark will be former Charlotte guard Grace Hunter, who sat out last year as a transfer. Hunter averaged 17.2 points and 8.6 rebounds during her last active season, and should bring some much-needed production to the team.

The potential is there, but without a proven primary ball handler and offensive trigger, there may be struggles ahead.

Unpredictability is not typically something basketball coaches enjoy. Creatures of habit by nature, they prefer to know a situation down to the tiniest detail, and are happiest when things go as planned. Much of the Wolfpack’s season will hang on how well Moore molds his unknown quantities, and how much control he can exert over variables he doesn’t have a grasp on yet. So where does he see the season going?

“You know, I can’t really answer that,” he said. “I mean, we’ve just got to keep working hard every day. I don’t really set much store by projections or goals that much. I just want to make sure we’re getting better every day, and that we get as close as we can to our potential, our ceiling, and that we’re playing our best basketball in March.”

NC State opens the season at home against Belmont at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7.