Markell Johnson Drives Inside

Junior guard Markell Johnson flies past UNC-CH guard Coby White. Johnson had 11 points and four steals during the 90-82 loss to UNC on Tuesday, Jan. 8 in PNC Arena.

The NC State men’s basketball team has played two ACC games, coming from behind to beat Miami before dropping its rivalry matchup with UNC-Chapel Hill Tuesday night.

The Pack is 13-2 overall, and is about to fully jump onto its ACC slate. Here are some takeaways from NC State’s first two conference games:

Don’t fret, Wolfpack fans

Losing to rivals in front of a rowdy home crowd is never fun, and the Pack experienced that Tuesday night. However, NC State is still putting together an incredibly strong season with a lot of big ACC games left to play. The Wolfpack is 13-2 with a top-10 win over Auburn, and both losses have come in close games to very good, ranked teams.

Kevin Keatts is in just his second year as head coach, and the fact that Tuesday’s loss wasn’t a foregone conclusion shows where this program has come. The loss to the Heels is a setback for this year’s Wolfpack squad, but doesn’t doom what has the potential to be a great season.

Big man depth could be an issue

The Wolfpack only has three active forwards listed on the roster, and at 6-foot-7, freshman Jericole Hellems isn’t a true big man. Graduate Wyatt Walker and redshirt sophomore DJ Funderburk are the Pack’s only real fives down low, and that lack of depth could come back to bite NC State.

Throughout the early parts of the season, the Wolfpack was actually very strong on the glass and had a top-10 rebounding margin in the country. However, Tuesday night, Carolina exposed the Pack on the boards. The Tar Heels out-rebounded the Wolfpack by 18, and against tough ACC competition this could be a problem for the rest of the season.

Walker and Funderburk both found themselves in foul trouble in the UNC game as well, and when that happens it’s going to be hard for the Pack to compete down low. While NC State does have some great rebounding guards, especially in redshirt senior Torin Dorn, having only two imposing forwards isn’t good.

The Wolfpack needs Markell Johnson

There may not be a player on NC State’s roster more vital to the Wolfpack’s success than junior guard Markell Johnson. When Johnson struggles, the Pack struggles. When Johnson is playing his best basketball, the Pack is at its best.

Tuesday night against UNC, Johnson struggled, and it showed. He played just seven minutes in the first half after picking up two early fouls as NC State came out of the gate slow. In the second half, he scored 11 points as the Pack got back into things, but struggled with some turnovers.

Against Miami, the Wolfpack was losing by eight at halftime before Johnson really turned it on. He finished the game with 20 points, and he scored 17 of those in the second half as NC State made a comeback to win its first ACC game of the year. When Johnson can play like that, the Pack is capable of beating anyone.