I hate to love you, NC State basketball. But I do. I love the fact that by chance, something magical manages to work in your favor at times when it’s least expected, but I hate that the two-point, heart-breaking losses are unfortunately way too common.
I hate that we end up in the unluckiest of circumstances during every single game in some way, shape, or form.
Take Georgia Tech for example. The team had been shooting an ACC-worst 22% from the 3-point line in conference games. During the first half alone on Sunday night, they managed to make a season-high seven out of 13 attempts. The Yellow Jackets finished with 10 from beyond the arc. There are no more appropriate words to describe the phenomenon other than not at all shocking.
Over the years, I’ve watched you beat teams with more than a 15-point spread, and I’ve also watched you lose to the worst team in the entire ACC. With this season’s team, I’m not ready to give up. Watching you play against Virginia Tech, you looked like a team that could hang with a 2014-15’ Duke that went on to win the national title.
To anyone reading this – you’ve seen the same team that I’m watching because you’re a Wolfpack fan. Through it all, we don’t waver. I know it’s frustrating and maddening that you have to resort to assuming the worst, but don’t give up on this team yet.
To take it a step further, don’t give up on Mark Gottfried. Over the past five seasons, we’ve been lucky enough to see a NCAA tournament in four, progressing to the Sweet Sixteen in two of those. I think we all forget that simple fact sometimes when it seems as if a season is lost midway through January. We’ve watched as TJ Warren went from being the ACC Player of the Year to being a starting guard for the Phoenix Suns.
Through all of the ups and downs, we’ve seen Gottfried represent our program in a positive way. Say what you want about his coaching abilities, but I’d call the last five seasons an overall success. He cares about his players, and he wants to see them succeed. Do you know how many coaches go through the motions instead of investing the time and energy into their players that Gottfried does? Where was Gottfried at Ralston’s graduation? Right next to him. Where was Gottfried when TJ was drafted? Celebrating with him in the same room.
And yes, I’m fully aware that you fans are tired of hearing the young and injured excuses. Guess what? Gottfried is tired of giving them too. After his third straight loss on Sunday night, Gottfried took all the blame, saying that the loss was on him and that he has done a bad job. Isn’t that what you guys have been waiting for?
Gottfried said, “I’m tired of talking about being young. I’m tired of all that. That’s passed. Now you’ve got to play.”
Maverick Rowan’s concussion is no longer relevant. Omer Yurtseven has now had several games to figure out how to be an effective, offensively-minded forward. Ted Kapita has been cleared by the NCAA, and freshmen are more than halfway done with their first season of college basketball. It’s time for the team to rally as a unit.
Getting back to the basics is exactly what the team will attempt to do against Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, beginning with attempts to limit the top-scoring trio in the ACC by way of Jamel Artis (22.4 ppg), Michael Young (20.9 ppg), and Cameron Johnson (11.8 ppg).
Are you thinking that it’s pointless at this point with a 1-4 conference record? Think again. Do you not realize how much individual talent lies sitting on that bench?
Dennis Smith Jr. posted a career-high 31-points against Georgia Tech, despite the loss. He’s leading the entire league in both assists and steals and rests in the top-five for points per game. Him and his two teammates, Terry Henderson (14.8 ppg) and Torin Dorn (12.4 ppg), are sitting only two spots behind Pitt’s talented backcourt when it comes to the ability to score the ball.
Both Abdul-Malik Abu (11.4 ppg) and Maverick Rowan (10.9 ppg) are averaging double-digit figures per game as well, bringing the total to five players who have the ability to consistently and effectively make buckets at any given time.
Want to talk about the bench? Two 4-star freshmen sit waiting to be utilized in whatever way they can be most useful at any minute. In his debut, forward Ted Kapita came off the bench to score 17 points against St. Francis. Behind Smith, an athletic guard who possesses the ability to shoot the 3 lies in Markell Johnson. His athleticism becomes apparent every time he touches the ball in the form of crisp passes, clean 3-point shooting, and smooth drives into the lane for buckets.
Don’t tell me that this season is over.
So what’s the issue, then? The glaringly obvious problem highlighted by the lack of defense that Gottfried isn’t particularly known for with his style of play. Currently, the Pack sits in dead last in the entire ACC, allowing an average of 76.4 points per game against opponents.
Gottfried said it best when he mentioned that you should be able to win a game by scoring 76 points, especially with Smith scoring more than 30 and Rowan adding another 17. Instead, the Yellow Jackets put up 10 more points on the scoreboard than the Wolfpack under first-year head coach Josh Pastner.
Henderson described the effort as “nonchalant”, and I couldn’t agree more. The team looked as if they had no energy collectively. Gottfried echoed his senior guard.
“We better make a decision real quick whether we’re going to guard anybody and we getter get tougher,” Gottfried said. “I watched basket go one, after another, after another, after another right at the rim. Now, I don’t want my team to play dirty, I’m not into that at all, but at some point, I might have to put you on your back. I’m talking about being aggressive instead of watching guys get layup after layup after layup; wide-open 3 after wide-open 3 after wide-open 3.”
I know this team is capable of doing it. Every single game, I watch as Terry and the other seniors encourage the younger guys in the middle of a play. I watch the bench jump up in unison after an Abu dunk or a 3-pointer that’s right on the money. It’s not an issue of pride or having too many prima donnas on the team. It’s an issue of deciding to execute as one.
There can’t be gaps in the defense, and there can’t be off nights as a whole. Not everyone is going to be perfect each day, but this team has enough depth to cover a single player’s slack at any given time. Protect the lane, get rebounds, make free throws. Back to the basics.
Instead of giving up on this season and this team, let’s get behind them. Stop calling for Gottfried to be fired, and stop being hard on the players who devote more than 90% of their time to being a college athlete – something that you’ve never experienced. Even though it’s disheartening and easy to point fingers, imagine how they feel on their end.
Henderson said, “If everybody puts their heads in the tank and gives in, then that’s not going to help anyone. If we stay positive and want to get better as a team, we can definitely turn this game around. It’s never too late, but we’ve got to do it as a team.”
I don’t know what the rest of the season holds, but I do know this – each game, I go to watch just as excited as the night before. After all, it is NC State that we’re talking about. This is what we bargained for.