The one consistency about North Carolina State’s basketball team over the last six weeks has been the overreaction to every Wolfpack result.
If NCSU wins, the Pack is headed to the Final Four. When they lose, it’s the end of the world as we know it.
Not that references to the legendary rock band REM are necessary, though its catalog offers some intriguing sound bites that could well describe the circus that has been Wolfpack basketball this season. From “Shiny Happy People” storming the floor after beating Duke in January to “Hollow Man,” which explains some of supremely talented forward C.J. Leslie’s performances, including his most recent in a 76-65 loss at North Carolina.
Boston College visits N.C. State on Wednesday night, and the Wolfpack is fully capable of stubbing their toes and dropping this game as much as they are blowing out the young Eagles from the outset and cruising to a laugher. The latter is a more likely scenario, or something along those lines. But what transpires during what should be a fairly easy win could have a lot to do with how NCSU performs moving forward.
Two things must change for N.C. State to right a wobbling ship and regain a groove that had it nationally ranked and more often than not looking like a team plenty capable of making a major push in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.
First, coach Mark Gottfried has to do something about Leslie. Nobody in the ACC has more natural talent than the 6-foot-9 junior, yet given that he was the preseason ACC Player of the Year, no player’s inconsistencies have been more perplexing in the league in years.
Leslie, who leads NCSU in scoring at 15.4 points and is second with 7.6 rebounds, was awful in Chapel Hill, finishing with six points, four rebounds and six turnovers in the loss. His seen-many-times-before body language suggested he wasn’t dialed in, something that has probably adversely affected his NBA draft stock, which had lottery written all over it when he arrived at NCSU.
N.C. State (19-8, 8-6 ACC) needs Leslie playing with passion in order to reach its goals, but when he pulls what he did last Saturday, he hurts the Wolfpack more than he helps, so it would make sense for Gottfried, as an investment in the very near future, to send Leslie one final message. Gottfried and the Pack can’t afford to move forward having no idea what level of effort Leslie will give them. So, to try and get through for good one final time, the coach needs to play Leslie only sparingly against BC.
Don’t sit him entirely, as nothing will be gained. Play him two minutes here, two minutes there, which will sting more.
Time is running out of this once-promising season, and Gottfried can’t allow Leslie to pull down the rest of the team and its legion of hungry, passionate fans.
Second, Gottfried must commit to starting freshman forward T.J. Warren the rest of the way. Warren, who averages 12.1 points per outing, has started in place of rookie guard Rodney Purvis the last two games and has scored 41 points and grabbed 23 rebounds. The Pack will never be a great defensive team, so it must score to be effective, and Warren is a natural scorer. But Gottfried wants a more complete game from Warren.
“I don’t want him to be in the lineup just so he can score more points,” the coach said Monday. “He’s got to defend well and rebound well, and we’ve talked to him about that. So I think he’s responded. He’s getting to the glass, finding ways to rebound the ball, and I think that’s important.”
Consider that NCSU is averaging nearly four points per game less since Lorenzo Brown suffered an ankle injury than it was before hand, and is allowing nearly three points a game more, for a difference of seven points a contest, Warren getting more minutes than Purvis can help reverse the difference in those numbers.
The Pack was 5-2 in the seven games before the injury, but is just 3-4 since, with one win coming at the buzzer at Clemson and another at home in overtime over last-place Virginia Tech. Brown has hit just 1 of 10 3-point attempts in four games since his return and is shooting only 37.5 percent from the floor, so Warren can be a key moving forward.
And if Leslie continues his funk, start Purvis along with Brown, Warren, and seniors Scott Wood and Richard Howell, both of whom continues to work their tails off as their careers near an end.
N.C. State has a chance to get on a roll to close the regular season. In addition to BC visiting, the Wolfpack visits Georgia Tech, hosts Wake Forest and heads to Florida State. None of those teams have winning records, so NCSU can and should build steam heading into the postseason.
But the Wolfpack can’t get there from here if Leslie remains an enigma and the Pack doesn’t alter its recent scoring differential from earlier in the season.