This year’s NC State team has a simple question they need to ask themselves: are we willing to do what it takes to be champions?
Judging by the results during the Duke game, the answer would have seemed like it was “yes.” Ever since, not so much.
Compare and contrast: against Duke, NC State shot 50.8% from the field, went 4-8 from beyond the three point mark and when they were at the foul line with a chance to score, they knocked in twenty of twenty-three attempts. And during the game itself, every time the Blue Devils tried to assert themselves and take over the game, the Pack’s players put their foot down, stopped Blue Devil runs and proceeded to roll up their sleeves and get needed baskets time after time when they needed to keep Duke in their rear view mirror. Collectively, it was a solid effort that demonstrated what the 2012-2013 edition of NC State basketball was capable of: playing a solid game and beating perhaps any team in the country.
Ever since, a different team seems to be wearing Wolfpack uniforms: they shot a miserable 31.1% from the field against a lesser Maryland team, and from the free throw line, made only 58% of their attempts. Despite that bad performance, while leading by one with a chance to win if they could stop Maryland’s last-gasp attempt at the buzzer, two NC State players inexplicably tried to block Pe’Shon Howard’s errant jumper — leaving Maryland’s Alex Len unguarded beneath the rim. Len easily dropped the ball into the basket at the buzzer and NC State lost a game that it should have won despite itself.
That Maryland loss — road game or no road game — was one that can be blamed solely on a lack of mental discipline and consistency of effort. The last shot only typified the night: a breakdown in discipline had led time after time to easy Terrapin baskets, and when the Wolfpack had the ball, all too often it seemed like one or two of the NC State players on the floor weren’t too interested in making the Maryland defense work very hard. That in turn led to difficult and well-defended shots that missed their mark, and NC State found baskets hard to come by.
That trend of lax play continued in the next Wolfpack game back in Raleigh, this time against Clemson, another team that no basketball pundits would label a powerhouse on either end of the floor. Perhaps thinking it won the game by simply running out of the dressing room before tipoff, State turned in another subpar effort: 45% from the floor and slightly less than 61% from the free throw line. The Pack, lucky that night that it wasn’t playing a leading ACC foe, eeked out an ugly four point 66-62 win.
Last night’s second half against Wake Forest, however, was probably the worst twenty minutes of basketball for NC State this season. Leading by twelve after the first half of play, State somehow turned Wake Forest into the reincarnation of John Wooden’s UCLA teams of yore: the Demon Deacons thrashed the Pack 51-37 and won a seemingly unlikely victory against a ranked opponent.
Credit where it is due: Wake wanted to win more than NC State, and held on to hand the Pack yet another W-T-F loss. A closer look, however, shows the same problems: a decided lack of defensive intensity, poor shooting from the field and the free throw line and an inability to will itself back into the form it is capable of except when the team is in deep trouble and about to get blown out. With around four minutes left, State trailed by ten points yet had a chance to tie or win at the end. Which leads to a simple question: where was that effort with eight minutes to go? Where was it at the start of the second stanza of basketball?
And that leads to the question posed at the start: are NC State’s players willing to do what it takes to be champions?
Frankly, right now, it doesn’t look like it. It shows in the lack of defensive urgency. It shows in lapses of offensive effort, which makes the opponent’s job easier – most teams can defend 3-on-5 pretty well when two Wolfpack players decide to be spectators.
It most definitely shows from the charity stripe. While not everyone is going to be a free-throw sharpshooter, any player can will themselves into being a reliable scorer from the line. All it takes is the proper fundamentals and plenty of practice. Lots and lots of it.
Julius Hodge, one of my favorite Wolfpack players in the modern era, took himself from being a mediocre free throw artist to a very dependable scorer from the line during his time in Raleigh. He did it with dedication, hard work and then some more hard work. He made his free throw shot into a good one grooved into muscle memory that he could depend on when game pressure was at its greatest. When asked about it, Hodge uttered one of my favorite sentences ever to come out of a Wolfpack player’s mouth: “Champions are made when no one is watching.”
All due respect to Hodge, champions are also made in the heat of battle on the court, and to be a winner, you have to play every play like you want to win, in fact, like losing is an impossible outcome.
And that’s what NC State needs to show up with for every game, not just the Dukes, the Carolinas and the other top programs. It needs it night after night for EVERY opponent. If they choose not to, as they have in their last three games, they’ll forever be remembered by State fans as a team that didn’t have the heart to do what it took to be great.