RALEIGH — There have been times this basketball season when N.C. State had the look of an NCAA tournament team.
On other occasions, the Wolfpack has had the appearance of an NCAA bubble team.
But for the first time in 27 games, State looked exactly like NIT material on Saturday against two-point underdog Florida State in the RBC Center.
A lifeless 76-62 loss left coach Mark Gottfried and his players thoroughly beaten but even more bewildered.
What happened could have been a hangover from Thursday's crushing loss at Duke, or the result of spent legs, or the upshot of late-season pressure, or Florida State's sometimes suffocating half-court defense.
It could have been a combination of those factors, or maybe something entirely off the speculation-radar sweep.
Gottfried didn't know.
The scariest possibility for everyone in the Wolfpack camp is that the performance was an accurate reflection of what and where Gottfried's first team is - not ready for prime time in the quickly approaching postseason.
N.C. State's record (18-9, 7-5 ACC) is impressive enough, but there's not much meat on those 18 bones, and the best opportunity to bag something of substance slipped away in stunning fashion with the 78-73 loss at Duke.
In that regard, the arrival of the 20th-ranked Seminoles (19-7, 10-2) was a case of unfortunate schedule timing for the Wolfpack. But now the same can be said about Tuesday's visit from UNC.
Gottfried said he doesn't know for sure that any of the three high-profile games are must wins in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee. Either way, though, it probably would be of no good to pile pressure on the players two or three days before a game against UNC. Gottfried made sure to keep his eyes on the target Saturday.
"We started slow and sluggish but I didn't like the way we responded," he said. "We have to find a way to regenerate some energy. We had it (at Duke) but didn't have it today ... We just accepted our fate. Florida State ended up having a great day offensively because of that. This team has not done that this year."
Scott Wood has missed nine of 10 shots after missing six of seven at Duke.
The players didn't look for excuses, but didn't really have any answers, either.
Even the ejections of former Wolfpack stars Tom Gugliotta and Chris Corchiani from the stands by official Karl Hess with 6:40 couldn't shake the team out of its funk.
The team certainly didn't make much noise, much less a big bang.
"We're better than that," Gottfried said. "Every team has to go through a process of growing up and getting better. Mentally, we weren't there."
And if something doesn't change, the Wolfpack won't be there when the NCAA tournament begins. Gottfried certainly didn't dance around that reality.
"If you want to play in the greatest show on earth, you better toughen up and man up," he said. "Teams that get to play in (the NCAA) are mentally tough enough to withstand most things and fight their way through."
Fighting-through time officially arrived for the Pack.