N.C. State handed out long, wispy red-and-white balloons to the fans in each end zone of PNC Arena to distract Georgia Tech at the foul line.
By the time the Yellow Jackets had built a double-digit lead in the final 2 minutes of Sunday’s game, frustrated Wolfpack fans had started popping the balloons.
After its third straight ACC loss, and fourth in five games, the air is almost as quickly being let out of N.C. State’s season. The Wolfpack (12-6, 1-4 ACC) hosts Pittsburgh on Tuesday night (7 p.m., ESPNU) in what amounts to a must-win situation for a team that began the season with hopes for a return to the NCAA tournament and more.
“The sky is the limit for us,” senior guard Terry Henderson said in October. “We have a chance at a great year.”
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There are still 13 ACC games left, plus the conference tournament, but after following up a 51-point loss to North Carolina with losses to Boston College and Georgia Tech — the two teams picked to finish at the bottom of the ACC — time is quickly running out on the Wolfpack.
Sixth-year coach Mark Gottfried pinpointed his team’s biggest problem, defense, after the 86-76 loss to the Jackets on Sunday.
A look at what has gone wrong for the Wolfpack at the start of ACC play:
The “struggle” is real
After Georgia Tech shot 62.5 percent from the 3-point line (10-of-16), nearly double its season average, Gottfried didn’t mince words about his team’s defensive effort.
“Right now, we struggle to guard anybody,” Gottfried said.
Defense has been a season-long problem for the Wolfpack going back to an early loss to Creighton and close wins over Loyola (Ill.) and Boston University, but it was exposed for all to see on Sunday. The Jackets, as Gottfried pointed out, had too many easy looks.
For the game, Georgia Tech attempted 63 shots (and made 31), but you can break those shots down to ones that were contested (there was a defender within an arm’s length of the shooter) and those that weren’t. The Jackets made 18 of 27 uncontested shots but only 11 of 36 contested shots.
Fourteen of Tech’s 16 3-pointers could be qualified as uncontested, and the Jackets made nine of those. They had three uncontested 3s in the final 45 seconds of the first half and made two of them. N.C. State had a 41-36 lead before the costly lapse at the end of the half.
“That’s why we’re losing right now,” senior forward BeeJay Anya said. “We are making a lot of mental errors and a lot of errors that we shouldn’t be making.”
N.C. State has allowed ACC opponents to make 47.3 percent of their shots and score 85.2 points per league game, which is last in the ACC.
When N.C. State holds the opposition to 45 percent or less, it has a 10-0 record this season. That’s not a particularly taxing threshold, either. Six ACC teams hold their opposition under 40 percent for the season.
“We better make a decision, at some point, whether we’re going to guard anybody,” Gottfried said. “Real simple.”
There’s not a lack of talent on N.C. State’s roster, but there is a noticeable lack of experience and even some game rust.
Gottfried has mentioned the team’s youth before, even though he dismissed that as an excuse on Sunday by this point in the season.
But the Wolfpack relies on a freshman point guard, Dennis Smith Jr., and starts another freshman, forward Omer Yurtseven. Guard Markell Johnson and forward Ted Kapita are two other freshmen in the regular rotation.
Smith, who leads the ACC in assists (6.2 per game) and ranks fifth in scoring (19.5 points per game) has been quick to assimilate, as expected, but he did miss his entire senior season of high school with a major knee injury. As good as Smith has been, he’s projected to be one of the top picks in the NBA draft, there are times when Smith’s lack of game experience shows.
Henderson, second on the team with 14.8 points per game, is a senior but has missed the past two seasons. He sat out the 2014-15 season after transferring from West Virginia and then got hurt 7 minutes into the 2015-16 season and missed 32 games.
Henderson, the team’s best 3-point shooter (44-of-114), has some good games (22 points vs. Virginia Tech, 28 vs. Creighton) and then not-so good games (eight points at Miami, four at UNC). He needs to be more consistent for N.C. State to climb out of its 1-4 ACC hole.
Sophomore guard Torin Dorn sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules. He has cooled off since a hot start (12.4 points per game) to the season and there are times when he looks like someone who has played only a handful of ACC games.
On top of the inexperience, and the Wolfpack ranks No. 313 (out of 351 teams) in Ken Pomeroy’s experience metric, there’s the problem of continuity.
Yurtseven missed nine games with an NCAA issue, Kapita missed three games with a visa issue and sophomore Maverick Rowan missed seven games with a concussion.
Gottfried said he was done with excuses after the Georgia Tech loss, but there are excuses and then there are explanations. Continuity issues will manifest more clearly on the defensive end, where communication and game experience is the only answer, before they do on the offensive end.
It’s not the only offense
Last, but not least, there’s the offense. Gottfried prefers to run the UCLA high-post offense popularized by John Wooden. Gottfried likes to repeat an old Wooden line about the scheme: “It’s not the only offense, it’s just the best.”
But the late UCLA legend’s last national title was in 1975, and the game has changed in the past 40 years. The UCLA offense is contingent on motion and quick cuts and less on screens.
With the right personnel, it can still work. It certainly did earlier in Gottfried’s tenure, but with this personnel, it has been a difficult fit.
Smith, with the ball in his hands the majority of the time, has found his shots, as has Rowan. But it has been more difficult for Henderson, Dorn, Yurtseven and junior forward Abdul-Malik Abu to find and consistently take advantage of their scoring opportunities.
The lack of screens on the perimeter have, at times, led to more contested passes and turnovers. Boston College and UNC, in particular, made hay on poor passes to the wing.
Gottfried has tweaked the offense in the past to get more ball screens for the point guard, notably last season for Cat Barber, the ACC’s leading scorer, and in 2014-15 for both Barber and Trevor Lacey.
Gottfried might need to tweak it again, or emphasize certain aspects, to get the post scoring going for Abu and Yurtseven.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
Pittsburgh at N.C. State
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh