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The (Tobacco) Road To The Final Four: Dennis Smith Jr.’s Star Power

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NC State’s Dennis Smith Jr. is one of the best college basketball players in the country, and he’s just getting started. Meanwhile, Louisville finally snapped its losing streak against Kentucky.


It’s going to be a fun season in Raleigh.

Mark Gottfried’s NC State squad is enjoying a nice start to the year behind the play of star point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who leads ACC freshmen with 18.9 points and 5.5 assists per game. Not bad for someone who is coming off of a torn ACL in his right knee that wiped out his senior season of high school. Smith leads the Wolfpack in scoring and minutes per game and has been one of the biggest reasons why Gottfried’s squad is off to a 10-2 start.

And DSJ is seemingly just warming up.

The Fayetteville, N.C., native is fifth in the ACC in scoring and fourth in assists per game, managing to surpass the preseason ACC rookie of the year expectations. Even in an age where athletes are able to often come back stronger from a devastating injury, Smith’s performance thus far has been remarkable. It’s scary to think about how good he can become by the end of the season—and beyond.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for his seamless transition was graduating high school early in order to enroll this past January. Not only was Smith able to rehab with the team’s doctors and medical staff, but he was able to study almost a full season of the college game up close—watching practices, viewing games from the bench, dissecting film, bonding with his future teammates, etc. Plus, being around a season of conference play allowed him to see how rigorous the ACC slate is for a player new to the conference.

Because of that early prep and the confidence he had in his young budding star, it’s no wonder that Gottfried essentially handed the keys to the team over to Smith when preseason practice began. He leads the team in minutes played, and his shot has improved over the course of the season, culminating with strong efforts in recent wins over Appalachian State, Fairfield and McNeese State this past Thursday night. In his latest effort, he scored 23 points in only 20 minutes, making nine of his 12 field goal attempts (including a 4-5 effort from downtown). His free-throw percentage is near 80 percent, which is big for someone who should get plenty of opportunities for easy points because he likes taking it to the rim. And he has his three-point percentage up to 38.5 percent.

 

The ‘Pack have their issues on defense, but it’s a team that can compete with a lot of top squads because DSJ leads an explosive and balanced offense. The ‘Pack fell in their toughest games, setbacks to Creighton and Illinois, but they seem poised to be a top half ACC team in ’16-17 if they can improve even a little bit defending on the perimeter.

While Duke and North Carolina may always be at the forefront of the state’s basketball programs, Smith is the type of player that can make the Wolfpack a real threat to the Blue Devils and Tar Heels. However, there is a chance that Smith could follow the rout of J.J. Hickson in 2008 and enter the NBA Draft after just one season in Raleigh. After all, at the school’s media day, Gottfried said that Smith was the best guard in the country.

So far, Gottfried is looking like a prophet.

Around the ACC

…Miami transfer Rashad Muhammad will be able to finish school in Coral Gables and is eligible to play immediately. Following a three-game suspension to start the season, the guard had been eligible to play in the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando late last month. However, Miami announced before the event that it had dismissed Muhammad for “a failure to meet team expectations.” The San Jose State transfer, who is the brother of the NBA’s Shabazz Muhammad, arrived in Miami two offseasons ago and averaged 13.9 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in his sophomore season with the Spartans. Last season, he sat out the entire year because of NCAA rules prohibiting transfers from playing immediately unless meeting a hardship waiver claim or being a graduate transfer. So he has never appeared in a regular-season game for the Hurricanes, although he saw seven minutes of action in the team’s exhibition win over Barry this past preseason.

…I mentioned last week that Florida State is not yet playing the type of defense that we have seen under previous Leonard Hamilton outfits. But freshman Trent Forrest can possibly emerge as a factor at that end of the court if he sees significant minutes. Over his last four games, he is averaging 9.8 points. The 6-5 four-star recruit is athletic and versatile, so his minutes will only increase if his scoring stays consistent. And with more minutes comes the chance to make a difference on defense.

…Wake Forest nearly won at Xavier last Saturday, dropping a four-point decision to the Musketeers. Danny Manning’s squad still may be a year away, but the play of the Demon Deacons just underscores how tough this league is this season. How many NCAA tournament bids will this conference end up with in March?

…Virginia’s defense is outstanding. The Cavaliers have held five opponents to just 41 points or less, as Tony Bennett’s squad is 9-1. That brand of ball may not be easy on the eyes of many college hoops fans, but I certainly find it to be a good watch when I’m tuned into a Hoos game.

…Despite suffering tough back-to-back losses to Villanova and Purdue, Notre Dame was in control for most of both matchups before not being able to close out late in the second halves. Still, Mike Brey’s squad is talented enough to reach the second weekend of the NCAA’s.

…There’s not much else that needs to be written about Duke’s Grayson Allen. The preseason first-team All-American tripped a player for the third time in a college game on Wednesday night when the Blue Devils faced Elon, and the school put out a release on Thursday morning stating that it was suspending Allen indefinitely for his actions. It needed to happen, and I would argue that it should have happened after the second instance. Allen’s immature actions are even more visible because he’s arguably the face of the sport right now, playing for a program that has won five national titles in the last 25 years. The hope is that he comes back a more mature player—and, most importantly, a more mature individual.

…The Louisville-Kentucky game this past Wednesday night at the KFC Yum! Center lived up to the hype, as point guard Quentin Snider played 37 minutes and led the home Cardinals to a victory behind a 22-point, 6-assist, 5-rebound, 2-steal effort in a 73-70 win. The Louisville native, who has watched so many of these Louisville-UK rivalry games, scored in a variety of ways—aggressively attacking and finishing at the rim, connecting on pull-up jumpers, working off of screens and connecting on a couple of threes. Just a few days after a classic UNC-UK game in Las Vegas, Louisville-UK continued our holiday hoops party.

Finally, here is the ACC moment of the week:

See you next week! I hope everyone is having a great holiday season!

MORE: The Seth Davis Show: Steve Kerr

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