Is NC State approaching a danger zone?

DURHAM, N.C. — North Carolina State should be well beyond the point of looking for moral victories.

That is for young teams that have proven little and are building a bridge to future seasons. While there’s an element of youth with the Wolfpack, this season has been more about meeting their immense potential ever since they fell short of beating Kansas in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament last year.

The media picked NC State to win the ACC regular season title back in October. After handling Duke a month ago in Raleigh, it was the toast of the ACC and soaring on the national radar.

But in spite of an encouraging second half at Duke in Thursday’s 98-85 defeat, NC State finds itself a team in dire need.

The Wolfpack (16-7, 5-5 ACC) have lost five of their last seven games, with the lone wins being a narrow one at home over Clemson and over North Carolina, which melted a 28-point deficit to five with 30 seconds left. Hence, the Wolfpack need a win, any win, and they need one while looking good.

That doesn’t mean wowing fans and casual onlookers who live by highlight-reel plays. NC State needs to win a basketball game in which the sport’s fundamentalists watch in appreciation.

The Wolfpack must prove they can play the game the right way, beginning the contest with intensity and focus — something Duke’s players noted was a clear edge for them right out of the gate Thursday night.

Asked when he recognized NC State wasn’t matching their intensity, Blue Devils’ guard Seth Curry replied, “Right away.”

That is inexcusable, especially for a team with so much to play for.

“They shot the lights out,” junior C.J. Leslie said. “Any time a team is shooting like that, it’s hard for any other team. I don’t know if there’s a factor of intensity or not, all I can say is when guys shoot the ball like that it’s hard for any team.”

Duke hit 10 3-pointers in the first half, but that was still the wrong answer. Senior forward Richard Howell acknowledged what went wrong.

“That’s definitely true,” Howell said about Curry’s words. “They definitely came out on fire knocking down almost every jump shot. But at the same time, their intensity level was way higher than ours. And no matter if you’re knocking down jump shots, if your intensity level is there most of the time you can keep up, and our intensity level wasn’t there and it showed.”

Why was this a problem, a predictable one given the way the Wolfpack have played on the road this season?

“I don’t have the explanation,” said Howell, who finished with 23 points and nine rebounds. “I felt like I came out ready to play — I felt like I got my team ready to play — but we didn’t come out with the intensity we needed to.”

To their credit, the Wolfpack had a mission for the second half after trailing 58-37 at the intermission, and in some respects accomplished it, at one point cutting Duke’s lead to eight with 1:08 left.

But the hole the Wolfpack dug themselves was too much to overcome and was a process that had all the trimmings of something that began before the game even started.

The team knew point guard Lorenzo Brown wasn’t going to play, and maybe that filled them with doubt. But certainly his backup, Tyler Lewis, hasn’t been the problem. In two starts with Brown sidelined with an ankle injury, the freshman has totaled 29 points, handed out 11 assists and turned the ball over just once.

NC State’s body language was awful in the opening half with the exception of Lewis, who ironically had the most pressure on him, as he was filling in for one of the top candidates for ACC Player of the Year.

But Lewis moving forward while the rest of the team stagnates or even slides backward doesn’t do the team any good. NC State must next visit a Clemson club that will muck it up with the best of them, further challenging the Wolfpack’s hoops IQ and patience.

The Wolfpack are out of mulligans; they are now officially fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives. A loss at Littlejohn and this mess one NC State fan dubbed a “dumpster fire” late Thursday night will become a four-alarm inferno.