The Wake Forest students chanted “overrated” at Dennis Smith Jr. after an early turnover Saturday, and for once, that chant actually made sense.
It’s not merely that N.C. State is so much less than the sum of its parts. (It is.) It’s also that these parts, so many of which were unknown variables before the season, turned out to be not very good, either. Or at least not as good as they thought they were. Or still think they are.
The Wolfpack has now lost five straight games since the historic win at Duke, and last place in the ACC is within reach. After losing at North Carolina by 51, at Louisville by 25 and at Florida State by 24, N.C. State lost at Wake Forest by 30, 88-58.
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Run off the court in the opening 10 minutes in Tallahassee on Wednesday, the Wolfpack was finished after the first possession Saturday, a Smith airball followed by an uncontested John Collins dunk at the other end. Collins had three of those on Wake Forest’s first three baskets, at which point the Wolfpack was “swimming uphill,” as coach Mark Gottfried put it afterward.
Clearly, expectations were too high for N.C. State, even if it’s fair to expect more than this from any team. Effort has been an issue from the start, but so is talent. It’s almost like the Wolfpack thinks it’s good enough to play without passion, to go through the motions and win, and remains stubbornly convinced of this fact despite a 3-10 record in the ACC.
“We’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of talented guys,” Smith said. “I really believe we can be a great team. I really do.”
That’s been the belief all along, but there’s precious little evidence to support it now.
Smith, while unquestionably an elite talent and NBA lottery pick, doesn’t have the game or the personality to put this team on his shoulders night in, night out. He’s just as likely to get the Wolfpack off to a horrible start by trying to do too much (at North Carolina) as he is to lift it to victory with a superlative performance (at Duke).
Omer Yurtseven will be good in five years, but he’s hopelessly overmatched now. Abdul-Malik Abu and Terry Henderson disappear for entire halves at a time. Maverick Rowan is still just a one-dimensional shooter. Torin Dorn’s playing time is mysteriously limited, since at times he appears to be the only one who really cares. BeeJay Anya, despite the caloric expenditure of a Division I athlete and a staff nutritionist, is once again too big to play at this level, two years after he worked his way into becoming a useful ACC player.
And on and on and on. The Wolfpack plays like it thinks it’s better than everyone else, which wouldn’t work even if it was, which it clearly is not. Plenty of fingers are being pointed at Gottfried, and rightfully so given his failure to make any significant changes after the unacceptable 51-point loss in Chapel Hill, but there’s more missing here than heart or pride.
Not only does the Wolfpack not have the inclination to play defense, it also doesn’t appear to have the ability. N.C. State is on pace to have one of the seven worst ACC defenses since 2001, along with Boston College (twice), Virginia Tech (twice) and Wake Forest (twice).
“We’ve got to become more solid – the fundamental things, defensively,” Gottfried said. “Some of that is just moving your feet, side to side. I’ve got to be able to contain a dribbler. I’ve got to not let a guy turn the corner one on one. Some of that is our transition. We’re trying to get back, and we’re not getting to guys quick enough. It’s a lot of different things.”
The Wolfpack will probably summon some pride Wednesday when the Tar Heels come to town, and maybe even conjure a repeat of the Duke miracle. But it’s clear now that was an aberration, an outlier instead of the long-awaited fulfillment of this team’s destiny. Twenty-point ACC losses are the baseline. Even this team’s best effort may not be enough against North Carolina.
The Wolfpack isn’t just underachieving. It’s also not nearly as good a team as it thinks it is.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock