Terquavion Smith was an NC State hero, but even heroes need friends
NC State exited its first NCAA Tournament since 2018 in the first round on Friday afternoon, falling to Creighton 72-63 in Denver.
Terquavion Smith was magnificent in defeat, scoring a game-high 32 points and almost single-handedly keeping the Wolfpack in the game until the final minutes. Smith’s first, and perhaps last, NCAA Tournament game also saw the All-ACC star go the full David Thompson, in the city where Thompson launched his star studded pro career, no less. With just under 5 minutes to play and NC State trailing by 5, Smith roasted Creighton’s 7-1 star center Ryan Kalkbrenner on a left handed crossover dribble and soared in the sky to flush through contact, cutting Creighton’s lead to 3.
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— The Field of 68 (@TheFieldOf68) March 17, 2023
Smith would cut the Blue Jays lead to 3 twice more, as well, but NC State could get no closer, and the game fell out of reach when Baylor Scheierman buried a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 6 with just over 2 minutes remaining.
Scheierman’s 3 was a reminder of just what Smith and NC State were up against on Friday: a complete team, not a one-man wrecking crew. While Smith took 27 of NC State’s 64 shots and scored 32 of the Pack’s 63 points, Creighton won because it received big performances from its star and his supporting cast. Kalkbrenner, an All-Big East stud, poured in 31 points, but the Blue Jays had 4 starters in double figures, and both Scheierman and Ryan Nembhard made huge baskets down the stretch.
NC State? No such luck, as only Jarkel Joiner (13 points on an inefficient 18 shots) joined Smith in double figures. Big man DJ Burns Jr., one of the best transfer stories in the ACC this season, was overwhelmed by the mobility and full game of Kalkbrenner, and he picked up 4 fouls as the Blue Jays constantly ran actions to pull him away from the basket. Burns finished with 2 points and just 4 rebounds, which is 1 more rebound than Kalkbrenner had blocked shots (3).
Upset NC State fans will spend a few days ripping Kevin Keatts, who still hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in 6 seasons and cost NC State a triple late with an ill-timed timeout. But the truth is Keatts likely maxed out this roster, winning 23 games and returning the Pack to the NCAA Tournament after a last-place ACC finish a season ago.
Joiner was the lone high profile portal pickup, and as good as he was all year — his fade from relevance on the biggest stage in the sport on Friday was crushing because beyond Joiner, Smith had little consistent help. Without Burns and Joiner to ease the pressure, this NC State team succumbed to the same sad story as last season’s — even a brilliant violin soloist can’t produce a winning symphony.
Entering the summer, Smith was projected to be a first-round NBA Draft pick. What about now?
What’s the outlook for a slippery guard who requires high-volume looks to be a high-volume scorer and is skinnier and 4-5 inches shorter than Tayshaun Prince, the last NBA star who was a walking bucket but a wafer, when he left Kentucky? Smith’s athleticism and bounce are off the charts, which compensates for the fact he’ll likely only measure 6-3 at the NBA Combine. But is that enough to get him in the lottery? And if he isn’t in the lottery, can he get there by spending 1 more season in college working on his jump shot? In the end, a return for Smith seems unlikely. There’s just too much guaranteed money, even outside the lottery.
If Friday was, as expected, Smith’s NC State goodbye, it was a sensational one. Most great college basketball players lose their last game. David Thompson did, too. Only a few go out on their own terms, playing their own way, nearly willing their team to a win, the way Smith did on Friday afternoon.
The lack of help Smith received Friday? That’s the thornier question for Keatts and the program long-term. What now?
Joiner is gone as well, having used a COVID season to join State this season. Burns should return, but his limitations in Power 6 hoops were on full display Friday. He’s a fan-favorite, but he’s either a mismatch problem or a mismatch problem, and it depends on the opponent whether that’s good or bad.
Injuries saddled some expected contributors in 2022-23, but none of the missing players have NBA upside. Keatts, then, will need to go back to the drawing board without his shot-making security blanket. While Keatts rightly coached himself off the hot seat this year, the cupboard is light as 2023-24 beckons, and if Keatts can’t use the portal as effectively this offseason as he did last summer, he could find himself right back on the hot seat again next March.
That’s not the consistency NC State fans hope for, which makes squandering a 32-point NCAA Tournament outburst from a program legend all the more painful.
They may have created the famous mantra, but it’s now been a while — almost a decade, in fact, since NC State survived and advanced in March.
Smith was heroic enough to do that Friday. But even heroes need friends.
Now Smith is likely gone, and once again, NC State is searching for a new hero, and a supporting cast with answers.