It didn’t feel like the opening of the ACC season to N.C. State, not with an unfamiliar opponent on a Saturday afternoon, and certainly not the way the Wolfpack played. Which is a shame, considering how much was on the line in the ACC.
Expansion really changed the ACC. Instead of a two-team league with a mad scramble for third, it’s a three-team league with a mad scramble for fourth. And in a year when so many of the would-be contenders have disappointed, Pittsburgh and N.C. State both put themselves in position to stake a claim as Best of the Rest.
After Saturday, only Pittsburgh can legitimately make that argument at this point, coming back from 15 down to win its ACC debut easily, 74-62 over N.C. State, which fizzled in the second half due to its own complacency.
“It really did feel like a nonconference game,” said N.C. State star T.J. Warren, a nonfactor in the second half. “Our mindset has to change. This is the most important time of the season and we need to come out and play more physical.”
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The result? A metaphorical punch in the mouth. Up 34-26 at the half and dominating at both ends of the court, N.C. State (10-4) turned sloppy on offense and passive on defense as Pittsburgh (13-1) got to the rim with impunity and feasted on turnover after turnover.
The Panthers announced their arrival in the ACC with authority against a charter member ill-prepared to welcome them.
“They were pretty much the tougher team,” N.C. State forward Ralston Turner said. “There’s no other way around it.”
“Disappointing day,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said.
The two teams couldn’t be any more different in style, temperament and personality – slow-and-steady-wins-the-race Pittsburgh and helter-skelter N.C. State – but they have the same goal, which is to climb the social ladder and challenge the Big Three of Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina. (It will only get tougher next season when Louisville replaces Maryland.)
The race for fourth (for third? for second?) is wide open this season because the other teams expected to be in the mix are battling to out-underacheive each other. Saturday’s upset of Duke was impressive but Notre Dame's long-term prospects remain uncertain after losing its best player, Jerian Grant.
Virginia, expected to contend for the title, would be the most disappointing team in any conference that didn’t also include Boston College.
Clemson and Florida State have exceeded low expectations, but they’re not far beyond an indistinguishable mess of mediocrity in the middle – Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, Wake Forest – that is at least ahead of two potentially historically bad teams in BC and Virginia Tech.
All of that made Saturday’s game particularly pivotal even with 17 ACC games still to play, and the loss all the more damaging for N.C. State, which did so much over the season’s opening two months to open eyes and put itself in position to overachieve in conference play. Instead, the Wolfpack is already behind the curve.
“We have a team, for the first 13 games, that cheers for each other, has enthusiasm, great energy,” Gottfried said. “The first 15 minutes of the first half, we had that. We came out for the second half and looked stunned.”
Just as disconcertingly, the Wolfpack has blown double-digit leads in two of its past three games and nearly did in the third, losing at home to Missouri and hanging on to defeat UNC Greensboro at the Greensboro Coliseum, site of this year’s ACC tournament.
Another new arrival, Notre Dame, is up next on Tuesday in South Bend, Ind. These opponents may be unfamiliar, but N.C. State better realize ACC play is under way before it’s too late.