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NC State's apathy angers hoops gods
There is a God.
Or to be more precise, there are gods. We know this beyond a shadow of a doubt, and we can thank college basketball because this March has proven all-powerful spirits rule over the game. After a regular season without rhyme or reason, the gods of basketball gave us a sense of order this week, asserting their wrath on the teams who’ve broken their commandments.
From a courtside seat for North Carolina State’s trademark inconsistent performance that brought an appropriate end to a big fat letdown of a season, it was obvious that one thing the gods do not abide is a hugely talented team that dogs it for a good chunk of a game.
But we will get to how North Carolina State offended the college basketball gods in due time. First, a few of the other commandments the gods of college basketball have revealed to us this week:
• Thou shalt not be arrogant. After Kentucky won the national championship last season with an underclassmen-filled roster, we crowned the Calipari Way — get the most talented freshmen, win the national title, see them off to the NBA and reload — as the way that would win the next dozen or so national championships.
They were ranked No. 3 in the preseason, which was pretty presumptuous for a team that lost six players to the NBA and had four freshmen as top minute-getters. The arrogance continued with a worshipful all-access preseason show on a national sports network. Then they started playing, and the wrath of the basketball gods rained down on them. The gods gave Calipari’s squad a final dose of humility with a first-round NIT loss at Robert Morris.
• Thou shalt not play boring basketball. Sorry, Bo Ryan. Even though you always have a winning team, you take our fast-paced sport and slooooowwwww iiitttttt dooooooowwwwwwwwnnnn. The basketball gods do not like it when the most exciting thing about your low-scoring basketball team is your forward’s ginger afro. Your Badgers were 309th in the nation in adjusted tempo this season, according to KenPom.com. The only tournament teams slower? Big East plodders Notre Dame (whipped by Iowa State), Pitt (lost to Wichita State), and ... wait for it ... Georgetown, which on Friday became the seventh two-seed to lose to a 15-seed when Florida Gulf Coast handled the Hoyas 78-68.
• Thou shalt not overly rely on RPI. Who had the best conference in basketball this season? If using the eye test and common sense, you’d argue between the Big East and the Big Ten. But if you used RPI, the formula the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to help select the 37 at-large bids, you’d argue for the Mountain West, which ended the year with the best conference RPI.
Here’s how that’s worked out so far this March: five-seed UNLV lost to 12-seed California and three-seed New Mexico lost to 14-seed Harvard. The gods have a soft spot for people who’ve been through rough times, because Larry Eustachy’s Colorado State trounced Mizzou.
• Thou shalt always care deeply about winning. Sure, Missouri lost to Colorado State by only 12 points Thursday, but did it even once feel like the Tigers had a chance to win? More to the point, did it even seem like they wanted to? The difference between Colorado State and Mizzou was the difference between a team that wanted it and a team that didn’t. Good riddance, sayeth the basketball gods.
• Thou shalt never mess with Frank Martin. It was not a pretty separation when Martin left his first head-coaching job at Kansas State last year for South Carolina. Bruce Weber came on, led Martin’s recruits to an impressive 25-6 regular season, got them ranked as high as No. 9 in the nation, secured a four seed in the NCAA tournament — and then lost to 13-seed La Salle on Friday. At a game played in front of all purple in Kansas City, Mo. Ouch. The gods took their revenge.
• Thou shalt not dog it.
And it is this basketball commandment that brings us back to Dayton. That’s where North Carolina State — which went from a No. 6 preseason ranking to an inconsistent season to a first-round loss Friday to Temple — was hanging its heads.
Not after the loss. The Wolfpack players were hanging their heads during the loss. As they walked off the court at halftime, down 16 to a hard-working, fundamentally sound Temple team that was their basketball antithesis, their body language said all you needed to know about this team.
They weren’t unaware of what ailed them this season. The disease was diagnosed. It was just never cured.
“This team struggled with a lot of things,” coach Mark Gottfried said in a candid postgame news conference. “Number one, we had some immaturity at times. It just seemed hard at times to have everybody buy in all the way. And for us to get better in the future, everybody needs to. Our young guys need to learn that lesson.”
These were the words of a coach whose season has been filled with frustration. The potential has always been there with this North Carolina State team. A good chunk of this team — C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell, Lorenzo Brown, T.J. Warren — will play in the NBA someday. But the basketball gods do not smile upon a bunch of NBA talents who don’t play a full 40 minutes.
“That just seemed to be a struggle for our group,” Gottfried said. “That was a hard thing for us to overcome basically all year long … putting the team first, and then personal success and glory comes later. It always does. But you have to trust that.”
Was it just a lack of effort, a cardinal sin to the basketball gods?
“You can come watch us in practice and tell us if you think the same,” senior forward Scott Wood snapped.
One of his teammates, however, did. Freshman point guard Tyler Lewis, who filled in admirably when Brown was injured earlier in the season, sat at his locker and said this team didn’t always play hard.
“Not every practice was 100 percent,” Lewis said. “I feel like we didn’t have discipline there every day. Whenever we had discipline, we were probably the best team in the country. We showed throughout the year we had talent to be one of the best teams in the country. … (But) we took plays off sometimes and didn’t play the whole game.”
Even after their season ended, a season that seemed to be filled with lessons of how you do it right and how you don’t, the message didn’t seem to fully sink in. A couple stalls down from Lewis, Leslie, the most talented but enigmatic player on a talented but enigmatic team, said this team wasn’t always there mentally.
In the next breath, he showed he wasn’t always there mentally, either. Moments after losing, he spoke about their turnaround in his three years in Raleigh. “We started from dirt,” Leslie said.
His sophomore year they made the Sweet 16. This year they got on the national radar.
Then he did something that would make the basketball gods weep. To show that this season’s team — a colossal disappointment nearly to the level of NIT loser Kentucky — was actually a partial success, Leslie mentioned the team’s No. 6 preseason AP ranking as his primary evidence.
Which gives us one final sin against one more commandment from the basketball gods: Thou shalt never, ever, ever cite your national ranking from November as an example of success in March.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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