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A conference season will have its ebbs and flows. Eventually, a basketball team will settle into what is its true identity and the habits of a team will become its traits,
North Carolina State is four games into Atlantic Coast Conference play and following its puzzling 71-67 road loss to Wake Forest on Tuesday the Wolfpack can best be described as a team that could zig or zag on any given day.
The deep bench the Wolfpack possesses — often nine or 10 players see action — lends itself to high totals in bench scoring and the dearth of size on N.C. State’s wing-heavy team means there is often a wide dispersal when it comes to rebounding totals for individual players. The Pack does not have someone like former power forward Richard Howell on its squad but there are several guys who can collect between three and seven boards per contest.
The Wolfpack is 2-2 in its four ACC games so far — road games at Miami (87-82 win) and Wake Forest sandwiched around a pair of home contests against North Carolina (90-82 loss) and Pittsburgh (86-80 win). There is another identity that Kevin Keatts’ second team at N.C. State is starting to take on, and it is not one that is conducive to success.
In each State’s four conference games the Pack has gotten off to a slow start. There was enough time and firepower to rally against Miami and Pittsburgh but N.C. State came up short in its other two league contests.
It was at its worst Tuesday. The Wolfpack led early but Wake Forest could not stop making shots inside and draining free throws while N.C. State was frigid from behind the 3-point line. The Demon Deacons, who have lost home games to Gardner-Webb and Houston Baptist this season, led the Pack by as many as 22 points before withstanding a furious rally to win its first league game.
“We played on the back of our heels in the first half, and we didn’t make shots,” Keatts said. “What happens with this team right now, because we’re obviously a young team in terms of playing together, is that our defense tends to struggle a little bit when the ball is not going in the hole and we clearly didn’t shoot the ball well before the half.”
N.C. State made only one of 14 3-point tries in the first half against Wake Forest. The Wolfpack shot 29.7 percent (11 of 37) from the floor overall prior to intermission.
“We just didn’t make shots,” Keatts said. “There’s no reason behind it. We had some open looks, they just didn’t go down for us.”
The Wolfpack play a fast-paced style that does give the team a chance to rally quickly, and the team did just that against Wake Forest.
A 22-point deficit was eliminated over a span of nine minutes. The game was tied at 58 with slightly more than seven minutes remaining in the contest. As North Carolina did against N.C. State a week earlier, the Demon Deacons never allowed the Pack to take a lead. State was within one point with 90 seconds remaining but when the pivotal play needed to be made, the Pack could not conjure up something to pull out a win.
One of the bigger problems with trailing early is the energy typically expended on creating separation in the game is instead being used to close gaps. It takes a bundle of energy to rally but often there is little reserve left in the tank once it is time to take the final steps needed to pick up the win.
“We picked it up in the second half, but we just happened to fall short,” C.J. Bryce said after N.C. State lost at Wake Forest for the sixth time in seven seasons. “There may have been a little fatigue because we fought back so hard from that deficit but we fell short. We’ll get back to work tomorrow and do a lot better next game.”
The next week will not be easy for N.C. State. The Wake Forest contest was the first of a three-game road trip. It was also supposed to be the easiest of the three.
With trips to Notre Dame and Louisville upcoming, followed by a three-game homestand that includes matchups versus two top-10 teams (No. 4 Virginia and No. 9 Virginia Tech), the early game woes are an issue that has to be sorted.
It struggling in the first half becomes an identity for N.C. State, it is hard to envision the Pack matching or exceeding the success of last season, when Keatts guided his team to the NCAA Tournament.
“Our intent isn’t to get behind, but I know my team is going to fight,” Keatts said. “At the end of the day, we can’t continue to dig holes and get behind it. We have to do a better job as a staff of getting ready to play when we come out of the locker room.”