There are two ways to look at the N.C. State men’s basketball season, regardless of the results of the handful of games yet to play.
The rosy view is that the Wolfpack already has overachieved, and is a group to be reckoned with as the ACC Tournament approaches.
As you may recall, N.C. State entered the season as a team replacing a pair of All-ACC players (Richard Howell, Lorenzo Brown), a third-team pick (C.J. Leslie), and the ACC’s best 3-point shooter (Scott Wood). Howell led the league last year in rebounding, Brown in assists. That fourth-place ACC squad – considered a disappointment after being picked to finish atop the league – was still gifted and formidable.
In all, the program lost players who accounted for about 90 percent of its starts in 2013, among them its top four scorers, top four in assists, top three rebounders, top three shooters from long range, and its leader in steals.
No player who started the majority of N.C. State’s 2013 games returned this season.
This is known as significant turnover, and not of the ballhandling variety.
The single returning regular was forward T.J. Warren, whose .622 field goal percentage paced the ACC and was just shy of Kevin Thompson’s single-season school record (.624 set in 1992). But Warren had never been the focus of opposing defenses, nor been in top shape.
Otherwise only infrequently-used Tyler Lewis and even less frequently used Jordan Vandenberg were back.
So it was quite reasonable to project the Wolfpack would finish 10th in the ACC this season, as the media did last October. That’s now probably the worst the Pack can do, with a very real chance they’ll finish with a breakeven league record, ahead of at least six other teams in the standings and possibly more.
Mark Gottfried and staff quickly formulated a squad of jucos, freshmen, and leftovers into a creditable unit that won 9 of its first 11 games. Five of N.C. State’s 11 losses have been by four points or less, or in overtime.
Warren has not only stepped up as a team leader, but since the season began has paced the ACC in scoring. His career-high 36 points against UNC in an 85-84 loss — a game in which he carried his team through the end of regulation and overtime despite playing with four fouls – raised his scoring average to 23.8 points.
That places Warren among the top handful of scorers in Division I and on course to become the first N.C. State player since center Todd Fuller in 1996 (20.9) to lead the ACC in scoring.
Media voters love point-producers in doling out league awards. That bodes well for Warren: Half of the 60 ACC players of the year led the conference in scoring, most recently Virginia Tech’s Erick Green in 2013. The guard averaged 24.0 points, a shade better than Warren.
“I love our future, I like it,” coach Mark Gottfried said after his team lost to UNC. “We’ve had a couple of near-misses here that have just been gut-wrenching – this one, up at Syracuse. You’re right there.”
Here’s where the less rosy view of N.C. State’s season comes in.
Being right there isn’t the same as winning. In fact, repeatedly being on the threshold of success and failing is itself a characteristic.
N.C. State has lost to the four ranked opponents it played. It’s lost all five meetings with the ACC’s top teams – Duke, North Carolina twice, Syracuse, and Virginia.
The Pack dropped close games when it made a fatal miscalculation, and it’s been blown out on its homecourt by Pitt and Virginia, appearing to throw in the strategic towel long before the final buzzer sounded.
Following the gut-wrenching home loss to UNC, no one asked Gottfried about the late decisions and execution that proved costly against the Tar Heels, echoing endings at Syracuse and Wake Forest.
Presumably everyone in PNC Arena knew that UNC’s Marcus Paige, who had scored 33 points to that juncture, was the preferred option for his team, trailing by a point with one final possession.
Paige was on fire, virtually matching Warren blow for blow in the game’s crucial moments. Fleet, an adept ballhandler and penetrator, a 40-percent 3-point shooter, the sophomore guard was the sole multi-faceted offensive threat on the floor for the visitors.
So the smart move, the strategic imperative, was to keep Paige separated from the ball or to limit his freedom of movement as much as possible.
Deny a pass sure to be directed his way. Double-team Paige if he touched the ball. Force him to go laterally. Make him or freshman ballhandler Nate Britt eat some or most of the final 7.7 seconds left in which to go the length of the court.
Force someone else to beat you.
But, as in a last-gasp loss at Wake Forest, the Pack instead allowed the ball to be advanced into the frontcourt largely unimpeded, where a rival point guard drove for the go-ahead layup with the game on the line.
After the Wake loss on Codi Miller-McIntyre’s score, Gottfried struck much the same theme as he did after being bested by Roy Williams’ squad.
“I thought our guys played with a lot of courage,” the coach said. “They competed, and we put ourselves in a position to win. We just needed to make one more defensive play.”
Or to play with greater intelligence.
The near-miss at Syracuse was stunningly illustrative.
Nursing a narrow lead with time running out, the ball was inbounded to the corner against cloying defensive pressure. That is not recommended. The player now stuck in the corner, options drastically narrowed, could have held the ball and waited to be fouled. Instead he tried forcing a pass out of a trap. Steal, fast break, layup. Game to the Orange 56-55.
Yes, the Wolfpack is a bit more competitive than expected. Yes, like many other ACC teams, its coach can lament the squad’s youth. But twice in an 11-day span in February, when it had a chance to take down Syracuse and UNC, the Pack faltered in familiar ways.
Unfortunately how you finish also defines who you are.