Mark Gottfried finally reached his boiling point on Sunday.
A 51-point loss to North Carolina didn’t trigger an angry postgame reaction from the sixth-year N.C. State (12-6, 1-4 ACC) coach, neither did a confounding road loss at Boston College.
But after his team dropped an 86-76 home game to Georgia Tech, Gottfried showed a different emotion than the previous losses, or even close wins, earlier in the season.
N.C. State’s indifferent defensive effort, after allowing the ACC’s worst 3-point shooting team to go 10-of-16 from beyond the arc, brought out a different side of Gottfried, who is known for his positivity.
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“I don’t want to paint the picture that I walk in there every night, even after a loss, it’s Pollyanna inside my locker room,” Gottfried said. “I think it’s time they understand, they need to understand. I can coddle them, I can baby them, but they have to take ownership.”
The cumulative effect of the past eight days caught up to Gottfried on Sunday. He was surprisingly subdued after a 107-56 loss at UNC on Jan. 8. He then surprisingly claimed the team made progress in a 74-66 loss at Boston College on Wednesday. The Eagles had lost 19 of their previous 20 ACC games.
That trademark positivity was notably absent on Sunday. The Yellow Jackets (11-6, 3-2) entered the game last in the ACC in made 3-pointers (61) and 3-point percentage (32.4). They equaled their season-high at the half, and then senior forward Quinton Stephens (22 points), who equaled his ACC total of made 3s in this game, hit two in a key stretch to open the second half.
The only other two times Georgia Tech hit the 80-point mark this season were at home against Sam Houston State and Tulane in late November.
“It’s embarrassing,” Gottfried said of his team’s defensive performance.
The problems on defense aren’t new, though. Twice this season the Wolfpack has given up 100 points. Creighton scored 112 points on Nov. 20, the second-most allowed by any N.C. State team in program history. UNC had 107 in Chapel Hill on Jan. 8. You have to go back to the 1992-93 season, the worst of Les Robinson’s tenure, to find the last time an N.C. State team allowed 100 points twice in the same season.
There have been other dismal defensive performances, notably at Illinois on Nov. 29 (an 88-74 loss) and at Miami (an 81-63 loss) on Dec. 31.
There isn’t a mystery to N.C. State’s defensive problems: It simply doesn’t contest enough shots. If that point was crystallized for Gottfried before, he hadn’t publicly made it.
A sequence at the end of the first half, when Stephens and Josh Okogie (27 points), each made uncontested 3s in the final minute, was the perfect snapshot of the ineptitude.
“I don’t want to take anything away from them, because they made shots today, but I would venture out of the 16 they took — and they made 10 — I’d bet on 12 or 13 of them, they could have tested the wind,” Gottfried said. “I mean they had that much time to get them off.”
So it’s the third week of January, and N.C. State’s season is in full crisis mode. Georgia Tech and Boston College were picked to finish last in the ACC. The Jackets, winners over UNC and N.C. State, lost by 53 to Duke.
If N.C. State can’t beat Boston College or Georgia Tech, where does it go from here?
“This group right here, they better figure it out fast,” Gottfried said. “We’ve got to decide if we want to play some defense. I can talk about it for 2 hours every day at practice, at some point, they better make a decision. Right now, we struggle to guard anybody.”
If N.C. State can figure out a way to play some defense, it has enough talent on offense to win some games. Freshman guard Dennis Smith Jr. had a season-best 31 points and six assists against the Jackets. Sophomore wing Maverick Rowan added 17.
The Wolfpack even showed some resilience in the final moments cutting what was a 14-point deficit down to six in the last minute.
“We have to start earlier, from the beginning, and try to give everything we got from the jump and not wait until we’re down and have to try and catch back up,” senior forward BeeJay Anya said.
Gottfried, ever the optimist, wasn’t ready to write off the season after the disastrous eight-day stretch.
“I still think this team is good and can be good,” Gottfried said. “I really do. I’m not just saying that. But at some point, if we’re going to give up 86 points, it’s going to be tough, it’s going to be hard, it doesn’t matter who we play. They gotta make more of a commitment to guard somebody. It’s just that simple, in my opinion.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio