Thursday, March 13, 2008

N.C. STATE: THE SPACE BETWEEN

The big story in the ACC all year long seems to have been on Tobacco Road. But as compelling as another year of highly ranked rivalry between Duke and North Carolina can be, the big story seems to be coming from Raleigh where the word we hear often is “collapse.”

The Wolfpack was picked to finsh third, but ended the year with an eight-game losing streak and a 4-12 ACC record. That lands N.C. State in the not-so-coveted dead last spot tied with Boston College. Even Virginia, a different and much better team with Laurynas Mikalauskas in the line-up, got by the Wolfpack in the standings with a late season push.

But just how different was it from last year when the Pack finished the year with a 5-11 ACC record followed by an impressive run through the ACC tournament and the first two rounds of the NCAA? Now there are NCSU observers who know better than us, but we’ll try to look at a few of the relevant factors.

Last year the Wolfpack started out 11-3 compared to this year’s 10-4. This season they ended on an eight game skid, but they didn’t exactly set the conference on fire last year when they went 2-6 in the final weeks of the season losing to Maryland twice, Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

Really bad losses to East Carolina and New Orleans and a run through the ACC tournament's first three rounds are really all the separates the tale of these two seasons. Assuming of course, N.C. State can get it together starting today. Which, quite frankly, we aren’t all that optimistic about.

As Earth, Wind and Fire is wont to say: Reasons…There are reasons, and some were pointed out by Chip Alexander of the News&Observer earlier this week. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version with some TAH input:

1. We’ve (TAH) already written about the point guard problem. Last year State was simply a different, and much better team, with departed Engin Atsur on the floor. State’s top floor leader, Farnold Degand, injured his knee and was replaced by a freshman. Unless you’re Ty Lawson, Chris Paul or Raymond Felton, that’s just not gonna work out all that well.

2. N.C. State’s rebounding declined in spite of wide-body new edition freshman J.J. Hickson. Their total rebounds fell almost 15% from 1,157 last season to 1,007 this season. We don’t know why, we’re just pointing out the numbers.

3. Brandon Costner's also got hurt. He buggered it up in the Pan Am tryouts, sat out six weeks and never recaptured his 2006-2007form. At times last year, especially late in the season he was a tremendous force. The math simplified: Last year Costner played 1,239 minutes scoring 605 points (16.8 per game) while this year he only played 731 minutes and scored 256 points (8.8 points per game).

4. Sidney Lowe had some off court issues. Of course, he says they haven’t affected him. We surmise he has done everything he can to shut out these issues, but sometimes such things (especially when they have family ties) have an subtle impact in spite of one’s best efforts.

All of the conjecture aside, the Wolfpack is one ACC tournament away from getting near where they were last year. Remember, Lowe’s boys made it into the NCAA tournament in 2007 coming off a 5-11 regular season mark. Then they beat two so-so teams in Marist and Drexel before being tossed from the party by West Virginia (who had already beaten them at home early in the season.)

Their season that vaulted them to the #3 spot in the pre-season poles really was made up of four games – a regular season win at home against the Tar Heels, and and the tourney run that claimed Duke, Virginia and Virginia Tech as victims.

Simply put, the two teams aren’t that different and WolfPack Nation shouldn’t panic. Right now, they aren’t as good as they were last year and they probably won’t make a run to the ACC finals.

In addition, they were over-rated in the pre-season polls, and now, with the clear benefit of hindsight, their performance isn’t as bad as the bemoaning would lead outsiders to believe.

We don’t hold out much hope for a run in Charlotte to match last year’s in Tampa. In fact, Sid’s boys might be done as early as tonight after a date with upstart Miami.

Just the same don’t lose faith in Father Sid. Don’t lose your basketball religion. It’s Lowe’s mission to lead the Pack back to the promise land he knows so well.

They’re will be better days in Raleigh, and these days might not be as bad as they are being made out to be.

Simply put: The space between this squad and last year’s group is smaller than one might think.

Keep the faith.
(AP Photos/Gerry Broome)

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