N.C. State started the college basketball season with two goals - to play hard and show progress.
A 20-point home loss to Virginia Tech on Wednesday was a step back in both categories, but N.C. State athletic director Lee Fowler and coach Sidney Lowe both feel the Wolfpack is on target for its preseason goals despite a five-game ACC losing streak and its position in last place of the conference standings.
"We're disappointed to be 2-8," Fowler said Friday. "We want to be 8-2, but we're encouraged by how this group is playing and the group of players we're adding next season."
Fowler, who hired Lowe in April 2006 after a lengthy search process, added that Lowe will be the Wolfpack's coach next season.
"He's our coach, and he deserves a chance," Fowler said. "He knows he has to turn it around and play at the top of the league."
Lowe hopes to get the Wolfpack (14-11, 2-8) out of the ACC basement and push North Carolina (13-11, 2-7) down, with today's game in Chapel Hill.
Lowe, 65-57 in his fourth season with the Pack, said Friday the ACC position wasn't totally unexpected after losing the top three scorers from the 2008-09 season and the top recruit to prep school, but he was mostly pleased with the team's improved effort.
"We knew it was going to be tough," Lowe said. "This is a tough conference.
"We have accomplished the 'playing hard' part. We have to put the other things together."
State's offense, last in the ACC with an average of 69.4 points per game, has not improved as much as Lowe would like. State's 88-74 win over ACC-leading Duke on Jan. 20 showed what the Wolfpack is capable of, Lowe said, but it also demonstrated what the team has failed to duplicate since.
State shot 58.2 percent against the Blue Devils and got double-figure scoring from five players. The Pack hasn't shot that well, or had that type of balance, in the five games since, which have all been losses.
The Wolfpack's shooting woes hit a season low with a 20-of-70 (28.6 percent) effort against Virginia Tech. In 10 ACC games, State is 228-of-587 (38 percent), which is 10 points below its average in 15 nonconference games.
"If we just shoot the ball just a little bit better, it's a totally different game," Lowe said. "I'm not saying we have to shoot it great, just a little bit better, it would have been a different year so far."
Poor shooting has only been part of the Wolfpack's problems. Getting consistent production from someone other than forward Tracy Smith, the team's leading scorer at 17.4 points per game, has been a problem. Junior point guard Javi Gonzalez started the season well, taking control of the team and providing a consistent source of perimeter scoring, but his production - and playing time - have fluctuated in ACC play.
Gonzalez, who averages 9.9 points per game, played 17 minutes in Wednesday's loss, the third time against an ACC opponent he has played fewer than 20 minutes. He scored two points against the Hokies - his fifth ACC game with fewer than seven points - but he also has a 19-point outing against UNC, 18 against Wake Forest and 15 against Duke.
"I don't know if it's confidence or concentration," Lowe said. "At times, he's playing around with the ball too much. When he's going straight [to the basket], he's different."
Injuries have limited the contributions of senior guard Farnold Degand and freshman forward Richard Howell. Degand missed one ACC game with a thigh bruise and was visibly slowed in Wednesday's loss.
Howell cut his leg running onto the court for warmups on Wednesday. He could only play three minutes against the Hokies. When those two are healthy, State is a different, and more complete, team.
The Wolfpack needs to win four of its final six ACC games to match last season's 6-10 conference record and three more wins to exceed last season's overall win total.
That would be measurable progress Lowe could point to as he welcomes a recruiting class that includes highly rated guards Ryan Harrow and Lorenzo Brown.
A win today, though, which would be State's first at Chapel Hill against Roy Williams, could help ease the current problems.
"There's no question it could be a game that could start something good," Lowe said.
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