When Casey Morsell played basketball at Virginia, practices would often start with a drill where he and fellow guard Kihei Clark would pick each other up full court and pressure each other bringing the ball up the floor.
Saturday afternoon, Morsell is looking forward to doing that in an actual game.
“Those guys are still family,” said Morsell, who transferred to North Carolina State after last season. “I’m looking forward to just competing against them. And they’re looking forward to competing against me.”
Morsell, a guard from Fort Washington, Md., left UVa seeking a more wide-open style of offense, an approach he found with Kevin Keatts and the Wolfpack, who host the Cavaliers (11-7, 5-3 ACC) on Saturday at PNC Arena.
Morsell, who had just four double-digit point games in his 53 contests at Virginia, scored in double figures in four of his first seven games with the Wolfpack (9-10, 2-6), including putting up 22 in a win over Colgate. But he missed a pair of games in early December after suffering an ankle injury, then rushed back to play in the team’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against nationally ranked Purdue.
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“Me coming back early kind of slowed the recovery process,” said Morsell. “It took me a little bit to get my rhythm back and get back in the flow of things.”
He had scored all of 18 points in his first six league contests with North Carolina State before going for 11 in Wednesday night’s home loss to Virginia Tech.
“Casey Morsell, before his ankle injury, was one of our better players,” said Keatts. “We need him. We need him to play. We need him to get better. With our rotation now, everyone has got to contribute in a big way.”
It didn’t take Morsell long to get comfortable with his new teammates this offseason. One of the few challenges came in adjusting to the Wolfpack’s more vociferous approach to the game. Trash talk, Morsell said, is a part of the program at N.C. State., but in his first few weeks, he was “the quiet one.”
“Not too many guys in general at UVa talk on the court,” said Morsell. “This team definitely talks a lot more, a lot more trash, a lot more aggressive. They’ll get up in you and make it known that it’s going to be a tough night. That’s what we practice here.”
Led by Dereon Seabron, Terquavion Smith and Jerico Hellems, North Carolina State, with that wide-open style of play Morsell was drawn to, has been good offensively, ranking sixth in the ACC in scoring, putting up 75.2 points per game. That sets up in intriguing clash of styles with UVa, which gives up a league low 58.8 points per game and aims to play low-possession, slower paced games.
What Morsell said needs to improve for the Wolfpack, which sits in next-to-last place in the ACC standings at 2-6 in league play and is one of only four conference teams with an overall losing record, coincidentally, are the things that Morsell believes have made Virginia so successful under coach Tony Bennett — defensive focus and an attention to the finer points of the game.
“I always say in the locker room, it’s focusing on details,” said Morsell. “That was one of the main things I took away from UVa. It’s so detail oriented. They coach all the small details that make such a difference. I think that’s what gives them the edge in a lot of close games. I’ve kind of brought that here and I try to emphasize how significant those little things are in terms of winning.”
Virginia, coming off a 66-61 road win at Pittsburgh, is 4-0 this season in ACC games decided by five points or fewer.
Seeking a berth in its eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament, the Cavaliers are in the midst of a stretch of ostensibly winnable games. After North Carolina State, they host Louisville, play at Notre Dame and host Boston College.
But after that, the schedule takes a daunting turn and includes home-and-homes with Duke and Miami and a game against Florida State at John Paul Jones Arena. Five of Virginia’s final eight games come against the top three teams in the current ACC standings.
“We just have to keep seeking quality and lasting longer,” said Bennett. “We’re not perfect but I think guys are improving.”