Right to the end, to his final steps off the basketball court as N.C. State coach, Mark Gottfried was leaning on Dennis Smith.
They bet it all on each other, the coach and NBA-bound point guard, and they ended up losing. The coach lost his job. The player lost 10 of his final 11 college games, exiting with the lowest-scoring game of his college career, scoring seven points in a desultory 75-61 loss to Clemson.
But they did it together, start to finish, inseparable both in the anticipation that grew as long as a year ago, when Smith and Terry Henderson and Torin Dorn laid plans to come to the rescue, and in the disappointment that surrounded the season’s premature but inevitable end, on a Tuesday afternoon in Brooklyn in front of a few thousand people.
As soon as Smith made it through the handshake line, Gottfried was there to wrap his right arm around his waist. They shared a few words as they walked off the floor together. As they crossed the baseline, both exiting for the last time in these colors, Gottfried patted Smith on the head before they disappeared into the tunnel.
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“I’m thankful that he believed in me and I believed in him as well,” Smith said. “I’m glad I got to play for him.”
Early last season, the Wolfpack was in this same building dealing one of many losses to Ben Simmons and LSU, a mediocre team completely overshadowed by its one great player, and that one player not quite great enough to fix what ailed it. What a bitter irony it turned out to be that N.C. State suffered from the same malady in its next visit to the Barclays Center.
I had high hopes coming into the year. Everybody had high hopes. The fans believed in us and we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.
N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr.
With a passel of NBA scouts watching, Smith was stymied by Clemson’s defense, unable (or, as was too often the case throughout the season, unwilling) to attack the rim. At one point, he was trapped in front of the N.C. State bench by two Clemson players as the shot clock expired. At another, his attempt to drive was swatted away by Clemson’s Elijah Thomas, who finished the fast break at the other end.
Smith’s final game for the Wolfpack fizzled just as the season did, great expectations that came to nothing, 3-for-12 shooting and more turnovers (four) than assists (three) in N.C. State’s 11th double-digit loss of the season.
“I think he’s handled a tough situation about as well as you can handle (it),” Gottfried said. “Tons of expectations put on Dennis to be savior of the program.”
The same person also called Smith the “best guard in college basketball” before the season. Gottfried can’t have it both ways.
Maybe on a better, older team Smith would have been able to live up to that billing. His numbers were good. As predicted, he was the runaway ACC freshman of the year. In the memorable win at Duke, Smith was every bit as good as Gottfried said he would be, every bit as exciting, showing that one night an innate aggression with the ball that hinted at the real talent within.
But too many of those numbers were padded late in blowout losses. He never seemed to make his teammates better, and they needed all the help they could get. Maybe on a different team, a more veteran team, Smith would have had more of an impact that way. He ended up a really good player on a really bad team, instead of a great player on a really good team.
Gottfried needed it to be the latter. Last season was a struggle. Next season was always going to be a rebuilding year. He put all his chips on this one, with Smith coming in and Abdul-Malik Abu and Maverick Rowan coming back and Henderson and Dorn coming to the rescue, presumably. Then it all went sour, and suddenly Gottfried’s good first four years were washed out by the likelihood of three bad ones.
“I had high hopes coming into the year,” Smith said. “Everybody had high hopes. The fans believed in us and we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
Smith missed the last shot he took Tuesday. It was too late, then to help N.C. State anyway. It’s been too late for a while. He and Gottfried bet on themselves, and they lost it all, but they went out together.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock