My funny Valentine. - USA TODAY Sports
I see a trend developing.
N. C. State is not a good defensive basketball team, but taking a look at the points per possession (PPP) the Pack have allowed in each game surprised me. I fully expected nearly every opponent to have tallied their highest PPP output of the season against the Pack, but instead I found that there have been flashes of good defense, most notably in conference games against Maryland and Duke, and the Pack have held opponents under their season PPP average in 11 of 19 games. Obviously, a good defensive basketball team would hold opponents below their averages nearly every night, and a great defensive team would not only do that, but also generally hold opponents well below their averages, let's say at least 0.10 under, and that is something the Pack have managed just five times overall and once in ACC play.
After N. C. State's collapse in Winston-Salem, popular sentiment was to blame the officiating for Wake Forest's upset win. Personally, I do not believe that the officials are to blame in the sense that there is some sort of conspiracy at work against the Wolfpack, but there certainly seems to be a correlation between how tightly the game is officiated and how well the Wolfpack "D" up. For the most part, the more the Pack foul, the more PPP they allow. Last night's game was the most extreme example.
The Demon Deacons average a pedestrian one point per possession but reached rare Bzdelik-era heights of efficiency against the Wolfpack with 1.15 PPP. (Apparently that missing "e" in coach B's name stands for efficiency, or at least it did last night). The 1.15 PPP is easily Wake's highest total in six conference games and ranks as its second best performance of the season (the Deacs managed 1.2 PPP against lowly Furman). State has been whistled for just 15.2 fouls per game this season, 314th fewest among 347 division one teams (so put that in your conspiracy pipe and smoke it). Even after last night's debacle, the Pack average just 15.5 fouls per conference game, which is tied for 10th fewest in league play. But, last night the whistle-happy crew of Ed Corbett, Les Jones, and Ted Valentine found State guilty of fouling a season-high 23 times.
Not to AMP up the conspiracy folk, but none of last night's crew normally calls a lot of fouls. Only Jones even shows up in StatSheet's foul per game rankings, and he is 103rd. Corbett and Valentine are among the least overly-officious officials. You could expect that crew to call about 34 fouls; last night they blew the whistle 44 times. But that does not necessarily mean that Swoff put in a call to the crew and urged them to take the Pack down a peg before they play his beloved Heels. Watching the game, it appeared the Pack failed to get in that stance that Gottfried is always harping on while also being slow to rotate after switches. Sometimes they closed out too hard against non-shooters, allowing drives for easy buckets as help came late or not at all. Communication was lacking. Balls took funny bounces. Add it all up and you have a lot of reaching by out of position players.
The Pack, thin on the bench thanks to the defections of DeShawn Painter, Tyler Harris, and TwitterBitch (the Artist Formerly Known as MegaHorse), are definitely forced to break out their alternate matador uniforms when foul trouble crops up. State was shackled with foul trouble against Oklahoma State, with Richard Howell and Calvin Leslie both getting disqualified and T. J. Warren whistled four times. The Pack tallied 21 total fouls, their second highest total of the season, and allowed the Cowboys to score 1.12 points per possession. That's State's fourth worst total of the year, OK State's fifth best performance, and 0.08 more PPP than the Cowboys average overall.
The near-disaster in Chestnut Hill saw the Pack commit 20 fouls, with Rodney Purvis DQ'd and Scott Wood saddled with four offenses. Boston College put up 1.11 PPP, the second highest total it has managed against league foes and 0.06 more than it averages per game for the season.
There are outliers. Despite only being whistled for 13 fouls, the Pack allowed UNC-Asheville to score 1.08 PPP, 0.07 above the Fightin' Biedenbachs' norm, but that performance can be explained away by being hungover from the Puerto Rico trip and the disappointing beatdown at the hands of the Cowboys. More difficult to explain is the 1.18 PPP put up by the offensively-challenged Stanford Cardinal, the second best total of the season for the Johnny Dawkins' squad that averages 1.01 PPP and the second worst performance of the season for the Pack defense. There were only 12 fouls whistled on the Pack, and no Pack player picked up more than three personals. Either State didn't bother to get close enough to foul anybody or sometimes a team just gets WTF hot.
And sometimes they don't. Though it has come against one of the weakest schedules in college basketball, Maryland averages a respectable 1.07 PPP. Against N. C. State, the Terps managed just 0.80 PPP. It was by far the Pack's best defensive performance of the season and, not surprisingly, coincided with the team's lowest foul output; the Pack was called for just nine personal fouls. State held Duke's ridiculously efficient offense to 1.07 PPP, well under its 1.13 average. The Pack was whistled just 13 times and no player picked up more than three personals.
N. C. State is not quite as atrocious on defense as I first thought, but they do not bring the same effort defensively to every contest. It's not just the quality of opponent that explains the Pack's 0.80 effort against Maryland and their season-worst 1.25 effort at Michigan (a game that saw them whistled for a higher than average 18 fouls). As Seth Greenberg tweeted, "The difference between good and great is defending every night. NCSU must commit to getting stops." N. C. State is a good team, but it will not be a great team unless it can not only defend every night, but do so without fouling. Nineteen games into an uneven season, it is becoming increasingly harder to believe that this team will take that next step.