RALEIGH, N.C. — A hot topic on the local radio shows in the Research Triangle the last couple of days centered around North Carolina State and how much it can change between now and Selection Sunday on March 16.
The prevailing belief is that the inconsistent Wolfpack are pretty much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get team. They play hard and exceptionally well at times, and other times are an indifferent bunch thinking individually more than about the team.
Some observers see them catching lightning in a bottle and rolling to an ACC Tournament title or possibly even the Final Four in Atlanta. The talent is certainly there for such runs.
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On the other hand, many of those same observers wouldn’t be shocked to see this team lose a couple of games before the postseason begins and fall early in both tournaments, looking great one day and ordinary the next.
Fair or not, that’s the narrative surrounding this team right now, and there’s an element of truth to it. More than enough evidence abounds to make that case, but there’s also enough to swat it away just enough to crack open the door for further change.
Tuesday night’s home game with hot-and-cold Florida State was an opportunity to climb through that crack and begin the process of finding the groove the team had before point guard Lorenzo Brown’s ankle injury Jan. 29, but with a twist: N.C. State is deeper now than it was before Brown went down, and with the junior playmaker “85 percent” healthy, he said, it should add another layer of its foundation before the postseason begins in three weeks.
“I love it,” Brown said after the Wolfpack took care of FSU, 84-66. “I love how we rotate as a team now. We’re winning. It kind of helps us out; we’re tired most of the time and we’re getting more guys to come in is helping us.
Freshman point guard Tyler Lewis filled in quite well for Brown, but he’s now settling back into a reserve role. And along with NCSU’s two other freshmen of note — T.J. Warren, who had 31 points and 13 rebounds Tuesday, and Rodney Purvis, who has started 23 of the team’s 26 games — the ‘Pack may be converging the old groove with a new and improved one. Only five games remain in the regular season, but growth is still possible.
“We’re still just learning right now,” Brown said. “We still have a lot of young guys on our team. T.J. (Warren) finally getting his game back, Rodney (Purvis) is getting his game back, and everybody can see what Tyler (Lewis) can do now.”
N.C. State (19-7, 8-5 ACC) wasn’t particularly sharp in its two games since Brown’s return. The Wolfpack struggled to a last-second win at Clemson and managed to edge last-place Virginia Tech in overtime at home over the weekend.
But they were wins, and with NCSU having dropped so many close games before Brown’s injury, maybe this was good for the team. A team has to know and believe it can win nail biters or it’s doomed.
That is also why the Pack needed a comfortable victory, too. When marking off the checklist, an easy victory had to be next, and the team took care of that.
“We needed a game like this,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “We needed to play well and feel good about how we played, so it was an important game for us tonight.”
The second-year coach also noted how pleased he was with his team’s communication, especially on defense. They weren’t great defending the ball at times in the first half, but they were better after halftime and dialed in all game.
More evidence: NCSU scored 29 second-chance points to FSU’s 6. That happens when a team wins the rebounding battle 45-21, as the Wolfpack did.
It appears quite clearly that N.C. State is out of the funk that yanked it from the national rankings and had some people wondering if a free-fall would result in them missing the NCAAs altogether.
That won’t happen, they are headed to the big dance. And while this team can still take off in any direction, moving forward is one of them, and Tuesday night was a step in that direction.