Last week was… something. It started with promise and ended with complete disaster. Moral victories suck and they don’t change the fact that you scored less points than the other team. But leaving the arena on Tuesday night, after taking Virginia to the final possession of overtime, you couldn’t help but applaud the way State fought. When UVA has a double digit lead in the second half, they bury opponents. Other than a two point loss at Cameron Indoor, the Cavaliers have won all of their ACC games by double digits including manhandling’s of both Florida State and Virginia Tech. So when they went up 42-28 with just over 12 minutes left it felt like a wrap. But as we’ve learned with this team, there is no quit and they will make a run. Just getting the game in to overtime was impressive enough. The Wolfpack were able to do what just about no one has done, which is turn UVA over 16 times. That helped contribute to 14 second half fast break points which jump started their big push in the last 12 minutes. They missed an opportunity at a huge upset but still had to feel good going in to Saturday with VT at home.
Then Saturday happened. I started doing my weekly write up where I break down each of the games from the past week, but I had nothing for what transpired at PNC Arena this weekend. There were no top performers; nobody showed up to play. There were no takeaways from the game other than that the Pack made all sorts of history for all the wrong reasons. It wasn’t even angering, it was honestly just kind of sad and confusing. I still have zero explanation for why they shot 16.7% from the field and only scored 24 points in a regulation basketball game. Personally, other than taking a few too many threes when they clearly weren’t falling, I didn’t think the shot selection was even that bad. There were plenty of open looks and shots in the paint off of offensive rebounds, but the ball just simply would not go through the hoop. I’ve watched a lot of basketball in my life and that was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. Still just speechless.
And that brings us to today. This season is at a crossroads exactly halfway through the ACC schedule as the Pack heads over to Chapel Hill. After losing two straight at home, it’s getting to be desperation time. What happened against Virginia Tech would be enough to crush most teams. How do you respond from the embarrassment of being the laughing stock of college basketball for a few days? Torin Dorn mentioned in an interview yesterday that immediately following the game Saturday, he along with several other players went over to the practice facility to work out and get shots up. This was a pre-practice interview, but according to Joe Giglio, Dorn showed up drenched in sweat. These are signs of a team that’s pissed off about what happened and wants to prove it was a fluke. But that’s all talk until they actually go out there and do it for real. What happens when you come out and miss your first few shots? Or Carolina goes on an early run and the crowd sets down their wine glasses to stand up and make a little noise? Their mental toughness will be tested throughout.
If I’m the coaching staff, I’m telling the starters that the first few possessions need to have at least one paint touch and preferably a shot from in there. Start attacking the basket early instead of settling for jump shots. After going 2-28 from three, the action needs to be going towards the hoop and only wide open attempts from deep should be taken early on. Just getting to the free throw line and seeing the ball go through the hole could be all some of these guys need. What can’t happen is NC State digging themselves an early hole because they’re stubbornly missing threes. Virginia Tech did a good job of slowing the game down, but UNC has zero intention of doing any such thing. NC State showed in Raleigh that they have the ability to run with the Heels, and hopefully this will result in some easy transition points. Aside from scoring though, NC State just needs to battle. I think the life got sucked out of them a little bit on Saturday and it showed in the second half. We’re starting to see that this isn’t a great shooting team and a lot of percentages were inflated by a poor nonconference schedule. But what you lack in shooting you can make up for with aggressiveness, hustle, and physicality. Those three things can open up opportunities for good, high quality shots. And when you get good, high quality shots, they’ll eventually start to drop.
There’s still plenty of basketball to be played, but at 4-5 in the conference and their best win of the season coming against a team that isn’t even ranked anymore, we’re moving away from the top 25 and in to bubble territory. After tonight, there are only two ranked teams remaining on the schedule, which means more opportunities for wins but less opportunities for quality of those wins. Another loss against Carolina, especially if it’s not competitive, could snowball this once promising season down the drain. The Pack needs it’s mojo back, and I couldn’t think of a better team to take your anger out on. It’s certainly a tough feat, but winning in Chapel Hill is not impossible as evidenced by last year’s victory. Kevin Keatts is in fact 1-0 over there. Hopefully Keatts has his squad show up ready for a fight, because what happens tonight could very well determine how this season finishes. A road win against a top-10 opponent (also your rival, I think?) would give this team all the confidence in the world, while a third straight loss puts them at 4-6 in conference play with a tricky road game at Pitt next up. Nothing would surprise me, but let’s hope for the best.