The weight of the expectations under which N.C. State has labored all season has never been so heavy. Has there ever been a team with 24 wins that seemed so unhappy about it, so unfulfilled? It’s a grim bunch that exited of the ACC tournament Saturday.
Richard Howell, his right leg wrapped in ice in a corner of the locker room, wasn’t talking. C.J. Leslie, so loquacious in Atlanta last year, has retreated into silence. Scott Wood just seems uncharacteristically miserable.
Maybe it was just the disappointment of having to play on Thursday when the Wolfpack appeared all but assured of a crucial first-round bye, but N.C. State is in a funk right now. Wins over Virginia Tech and Virginia didn’t seem to break the Wolfpack out of it, and Saturday’s 81-71 loss to Miami certainly won’t.
When N.C. State went on its run last year, it was clearly having fun, and not even the circumstances of the loss to North Carolina in the ACC semifinals could change that. This group looks like it can’t wait for all this to be over. And if the Wolfpack plays like it did Saturday, falling behind by 19 in the first half, letting Miami’s Durand Scott run wild, it will all be over soon.
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One year ago, N.C. State erupted into unbridled joy when the Wolfpack made it into the NCAA tournament – enhanced, perhaps, by CBS’ cruelty in making N.C. State wait to be revealed in the 68th and final spot in the bracket – but the party never really stopped. It gathered steam in Columbus and moved on to St. Louis and what began late in the regular season just kept on carrying through until the end.
If N.C. State can recapture that attitude, that joy, it’s a team far more likely to have success in the NCAA tournament than the ACC tournament. That seven-man rotation makes it tough to win three games in three days, let alone four in four, and especially with Howell clearly hampered by the thigh bruise he suffered Friday night.
That lack of depth might have caught up with the Wolfpack on Saturday. N.C. State made only two of its first 10 shots, went 14-for-25 from the free-throw line and had only six fast-break points – all signs of tired legs.
The NCAA tournament, with its game-off-game format is a better fit for thinner teams like N.C. State, so N.C. State should probably be more concerned with the mental side of things than the physical side.
Maybe the bar was just set too high for this team. Maybe trying, and failing, to clear it has left a taste too sour to wash away. Either way, this weekend goes down as another missed opportunity for the Wolfpack. They have only one left.
“We have the players to do it,” N.C. State guard Lorenzo Brown said. “We have the coaches to do it. I think if we put our minds to it, we can do it.”
This group that began the season amid so much promise is running out of shots at redemption. The next loss will be the last for Howell and Wood and most likely Leslie and Brown as well. If they’ve been playing all season like they have everything to lose, they have nothing to lose now.
They might as well try to enjoy this, as long as it lasts. The more they enjoy it, the longer it probably will.