Jordan Vandenberg has a self-deprecating humor you rarely see in college basketball. Perhaps it’s a product of four years spent mostly watching from the bench, but Vandenberg understands who he is and what he can do on the court better than any player on the NC State roster.
Before the season ever started, he stated that he hoped to be ‘a good role model and good role player’ – nothing more. But if Tuesday night was any indication, his size and veteran presence could make more important than just a role player to this young Wolfpack team.
"I didn't have any high expectations, I just came back." Vandenberg said. "I wasn't expecting to be a superstar. I played well."
And while T.J. Warren, who had the quietest 30-point game in history, remains the star of this team it was Vandenberg who got the loudest cheers of the night from the crowd. His seven-point, 10-rebound performance included a 360-dunk on an alley-oop that brought the crowd to its feet. But it also included plenty of moments that show just how valuable the seldom-used seven-footer could be in his final season.
"Jordan's presence down low... it was a big deal for us," Warren said. "I’m glad he's back."
Warren should be especially happy to see Vandenberg back on the court, because his return allowed Warren to shift back to small forward in the starting line-up. With a true center out there, Lennard Freeman was able to start at power forward as the Pack went big for the first time. The transition makes State better on the boards and on defense, but does take away some of its shooting ability on the offensive end (Ralston Turner became the odd man out on Tuesday night as part of the new line-up).
Head coach Mark Gottfried used two big men for the majority of the night, something that was rarely seen the first few games of the season with Vandenberg out.
"We've spent a lot of times these last four games with four guards in the game, which we can use at times... but [this] allows T.J. to move back to his natural position and play the small forward position, which he really is," Gottfried said. "We've had four games where we've been out of sync."
In addition to optimizing the Pack’s on-the-floor roster, Vandenberg simply fills a need that the Pack was sorely lacking – a veteran post presence. Three true freshmen, all in the process of learning where they fit on the team and how to play college basketball, was not an ideal set-up. But throw in Vandenberg, with four years of experience under his belt and a complete understanding of his role on the court and things look very different.
The seven-foot Aussie alters shots, crashes the boards and thanks to his offseason weight loss has even become a factor in the transition game. He will not always have nights like he had on Tuesday, but he also doesn't need to be a double-double threat to be valuable to his team. If he can simply play defense (without fouling) and help the Pack on the boards, it take a huge burden off the trio of freshmen and allows them more time to assimilate into the college game.
"He can bother shots, he can get some rebounds, and I thought there were a few times they threw the ball inside and just threw it back out," Gottfried added. "He bothered them with his size."
He can, in other words, be a perfect fit for this roster. After four years of sitting on the bench, watching All-ACC big men play in front of him, Vandenberg will get his chance.