The only smiles coming from the North Carolina State basketball program over the last 10 days have been in regard to the wheelchair student who was saved by Wolfpack forward C.J. Leslie — after rushing the court following a victory over then-No. 1 Duke two weeks ago.
Otherwise, it’s been a trickle of negativity.
The No. 18 Wolfpack responded to the Duke delirium by falling at Maryland in a poorly-executed, last-second situation, escaping with a narrow win over offensively challenged Clemson and then rolling over in the second half against lowly Wake Forest on Tuesday night.
For N.C. State, things have become tangled so quickly that there was a players-only meeting Thursday attempting to synchronize the varying directions certain players had gone since the win over Duke.
“There’s been a lot of nonsense going on between us, but we’re all grown men, we sat down and talked it out and we’re perfectly fine now,” junior point guard Lorenzo Brown said.
Senior Scott Wood found the clearing-the-air discussion to be healthy.
“I think we just needed to sit down and settle some things up, and I think it was good for our team to hear a couple of guys talk and listen to them and let it sink and realize what we need to get done,” he said.
Was the meeting just about basketball, or did it include talk about some off-the-court stuff?
“I wasn’t talking about anybody’s grandmothers or anything,” the often-humorous Wood replied. “It was mostly basketball.”
Perhaps Leslie, who spent most of last week doing television appearances with Will Privette — the handicapped student now known for being rescued by the star forward — lost some focus during this sluggish stretch. Or maybe it was Leslie being Leslie.
He has always been a bit of an enigma — hot and cold and unpredictable off the court, as he has been on the court. Leslie also has been known to simply check out while on the floor. In the last two games against Clemson and Wake Forest, he appeared to be disengaged from the on-court action.
As a result, the team’s leading scorer (15.3 points per game) and second-leading rebounder (6.8 per outing) has totaled just 32 points and 13 rebounds in his last three contests.
N.C. State doesn’t need Leslie to play great in order to beat North Carolina, the Wolfpack’s Saturday-night home opponent, but it can’t afford for Leslie to simply check out. He can single-handedly bring down the team, and it’s a genuine fear that likely churns within all of Wolfpack Nation.
Leslie’s teammates won’t toss him under the bus, but they also aren’t always quick to his defense, either. If Leslie is engaged and the rest of the team plays with focus and passion, the Wolfpack (15-4, 4-2 ACC) are a Final Four-caliber team.
If not, they are capable of allowing 51 second-half points to Wake Forest and making the Demon Deacons seem well-coached, which happened on Tuesday.
But the Tar Heels are making the 24-mile trek over from Chapel Hill, and that should have the Wolfpack’s full attention.
With a level of hatred for the Tar Heels (13-5, 3-2) so high in the Wolfpack community, it seems almost impossible to imagine Leslie, Brown, Wood and company not on the same page when the baby blues walk into PNC Arena.
Throw in the prime-time hoopla leading up to the nationally televised clash, giving N.C. State’s notoriously rowdy fans all day to generate added heat for the Heels, and there’s no way the ‘Pack fall flat.
Beating Carolina is so rare — UNC has won 13 in a row; Roy Williams is 19-1 against NCSU while at UNC — yet so desired that it can also lead to tightness among the players. An early positive start by the Tar Heels can add to that pressure.
As for UNC, its biggest rival is Duke. Even senior guard Dexter Strickland dismissed N.C. State as irrelevant until it achieves something.
“They talk those guys up every single year, and we beat them every single year,” Strickland said a couple of months ago. “They are the least of our worries. Beat us one year, and then they can talk smack. Until then, you can’t put them in the mix.”
Of course, the Wolfpack got a chance to respond Thursday.
“That’s perfectly fine,” Brown said. “[Strickland] has his reasons why he’s saying that we haven’t beaten them. But it’s a new year, [so] we’ll see.”
When both squads are playing at peak efficiency, N.C. State is the better team this season. The Pack have four NBA-ready players and another in the grooming process. They are much more experienced, and their standard six-man rotation is among the most talented in the nation.
But the Tar Heels have won three straight games and are beginning to come together. They are starting to play and feel like Tar Heels, and that is often a mental advantage that carries more weight than any statistic can measure — especially in a series where emotions run so high and one-sided dominance has been the prevailing storyline.