Like most ACC teams this season, N.C. State has encountered a series of disappointments and found itself, at times, near the bottom of the conference standings. Picked to finish third in the league, the Wolfpack suffered surprising losses to New Orleans and East Carolina, and embarrassing results at Michigan State (81-58) and North Carolina (93-62).
Along the way, the Pack has faced probing questions about its effort, chemistry and togetherness, but it rebounded to pass the mid-point of the ACC schedule with a .500 conference record and a shot at the NCAA Tournament.
"We're one of the tightest teams in the country," senior Gavin Grant said. "We all like each other. And somehow people think they know enough to say we hate each other."
By Dan Wiederer
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
February 12, 2008
Gavin Grant has heard all the theories and cockamamie explanations for why N.C. State just hasn't been able to get over the hump this season.
He's heard critics say that the emergence of freshman J.J. Hickson has created a jealousy amongst the older Wolfpack players. He's heard that Brandon Costner isn't getting enough shots in State's structured half-court offense.
He's heard national analysts and local newspaper columnists and disgruntled fans all take their cracks at explaining why State hasn't fulfilled expectations, and he can only laugh.
"I get a kick out of it," Grant said. "People just talk. And they're so off. It's like, Brandon needs to get more shots.' J.J.'s ruining the chemistry and messing the team up.' It's everything. People say we're bickering. They think they know what's going on.
"Well, we're one of the tightest teams in the country. We all like each other. And somehow people think they know enough to say we hate each other."
NCAA: "OUTSIDE LOOKING IN"
What makes all the outside conjecture even more frustrating for Grant and his State teammates is that they haven't been able to offer a valid counter-argument for why their struggles and inconsistency continue almost four months since practice began.
With less than a month left in the regular season, the Wolfpack a team picked by the media to finish third in the ACC, behind Tobacco Road rivals North Carolina and Duke hasn't been able to establish its identity and could be facing a reality that seemed impossible in October. The Pack could be headed back to the NIT.
"As far as the NCAA Tournament goes, we know that we're on the outside looking in right now," Grant said. "And that's not the feeling we want to have."
At times this season, State has looked both formidable and resilient, as evidenced by its championship at the Old Spice Classic in November, its impressive win at Seton Hall after Christmas, and a brilliant first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 31 in which the Wolfpack shot 58 percent, held a 19-9 rebounding advantage and took a 46-37 lead to halftime against a Duke team that has established itself as a legitimate Final Four contender.
More often, however, the Wolfpack has struggled with inconsistency, showing neither the focus nor the toughness to be considered a Top 25 threat.
State lost at home in November to New Orleans, suffered an even more demoralizing faceplant at East Carolina three weeks later, then followed lackluster wins over Presbyterian and N.C. Central in early January with one of the most dismal halves in the ACC this season, when it went scoreless for more than 10 minutes and fell into a 30-point halftime hole in a 93-62 loss at UNC.
So, what exactly is the Wolfpack's problem? To hear coach Sidney Lowe tell it, his team is still learning to "play the right way."
More exactly, the Pack players still are learning to play his way, still figuring out the nuances of his structured half-court offense, and still fighting to check their individual egos at the door in order to buy into the team-first concept that so heavily fueled Lowe's 1983 national championship run as a State player.
COSTNER PERSONIFIES PROBLEMS
If there is someone on State's roster this season who typifies the team's slumping ways, it is Brandon Costner, the 6-9 sophomore forward who was a preseason pick to earn first-team All-ACC honors.
Costner is almost certain to be left out of the 2008 all-conference conversation altogether, after a season in which he's seen his statistical production plummet. His scoring has dropped from 16.8 points per game as a freshman to 9.4 now, and his rebounding average has fallen from 7.3 to 5.0.
Suddenly, the once sharp-shooting star, who lit up the ACC Tournament last season to the tune of 90 points over four games, has lost his swagger and his starting job.
Lowe believes Costner has allowed his offensive struggles through Feb. 8, he was shooting just 37.1 percent and taking four fewer shots per game than a year ago to hinder his concentration.
"It's not so much the number of points that he scores," Lowe said. "It's what else he's doing to help the team. Can he get us double-digit rebounds? If he only gets four shots, can he make two? Can he make three?
"He doesn't have to get 15 points. There's so much more that he can do to help the team."
A 12-point first half in the loss at Duke showed what Costner is capable of when his assertiveness and intensity are running high. But that performance was sandwiched between outings in which he went scoreless against Florida State, then scored just two points on 1-for-5 shooting versus Wake Forest.
"It's confidence, man," Grant said. "Most of basketball is all about confidence. A lot of people get caught up with coaches and plays and telling you this and telling you that. But it's confidence. You're only going to complete half the things you normally would complete if you're not confident. And I think the biggest thing right now with Brandon is his confidence is shaken.
"Last year, when he was on, when you saw Brandon Costner out there you knew he was coming to war, he was coming to battle. This year, suddenly he's more timid, he's afraid to make mistakes."
Costner's body language has proven as much, with the moody sophomore often returning to the bench with his palms facing upward and a confused look on his face. Lowe, quick to remove Costner after careless mistakes, understands that attitude is an issue, but he also wants his talented big man to embrace the overall philosophy he wants inside his program.
"I don't know what you do to get that (confidence) back," Grant said. "Honestly. I know for me, I won't ever let anyone take my confidence. You can't shake my confidence. I knew coming up that that was something you can control. You can control how confident you are."
MCCAULEY SYMBOLIZES HOPE
If Costner's struggles represent all that has hindered the Wolfpack this season, then it's the resolve of junior Ben McCauley that symbolizes the team's promise.
The versatile and hard-working forward has pushed through a roller-coaster season in which he lost his starting spot to Hickson and saw his playing time sliced substantially at the start of the year.
Yet McCauley, while admittedly deflated, refused to let his frustration affect his effort. Now he's back in the starting lineup, next to Hickson.
"Ben just plays hard," Lowe said. "He plays his minutes without complaining. He knows there are times he's going to be in there at the end of games, and he knows that if there's another group in there that's playing well, we'll probably keep them in there.
"But the way he's handled this has not only helped this team but it's helped him to have that approach. That's only going to help us going forward. It's really going to pay off."
The biggest payoff came Feb. 3 at the RBC Center in Raleigh, when McCauley provided State's highlight-reel moment of the season, flushing down an impressive left-handed tip dunk at the buzzer that lifted the Wolfpack to a 67-65 win over Wake Forest.
Making his heroics all the more impressive was the fact that his dunk came after he threw an inbounds pass to Grant from the opposite baseline, then sprinted the full 94 feet, end-to-end, and put himself in position to follow Grant's missed three-pointer, just as most other players on the floor were ball-watching.
Said Lowe: "When the shot went up, Ben wasn't going to accept that that was the end of it."
Added Grant: "That's just Ben. If you've ever seen Ben McCauley play, you know that's just the way he hustles."
PACK REMAINS IN ACC MIX
With one energized jolt of determination, State had found a way to sidestep a potentially crushing home loss and instead had turned things in a positive direction, notching its third conference win by three points or fewer.
Only adding to the excitement is the idea that while State is still well short of the goals it set for itself back in the summer, the pieces are still there to put together a definitive run.
"There are so many teams in the ACC right now just jammed together in the middle," McCauley said. "And we're right in the mix. We have to take advantage of that."
Grant is quick to support that point. Always candid with his thoughts, the State senior has acknowledged that Duke and UNC appear to be head-and-shoulders better than the rest of the conference. But after that, the middle of the ACC is cluttered with ordinary and inconsistent teams trying to make a mark.
"I still believe our potential's through the roof," Grant said. "Just look at our personnel alone. I know we're not the same team we were last year, and I guess we haven't found the right fit yet. But once we do find that right fit, I think we'll be rolling. I think we're going down the right road right now."
For that potential to be realized, State must continue to grow and must continue to find new and creative ways to mask its weaknesses.
When starting point guard Farnold Degand was lost for the season in late December with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Wolfpack's offensive rhythm took a major hit with the inexperienced tandem of Javier Gonzalez and Marques Johnson taking over the steering wheel.
Neither player has been a disaster at the point, and Gonzalez has shown significant improvement in recent weeks, but they also haven't made enough big plays to solidify State as a feared opponent. Making the challenge even more complex is the idea that the Wolfpack's most potent offensive weapon, Hickson, has been swarmed by opposing defenses during league play, consistently double- and triple-teamed on the low block.
Initially, that situation caused problems for a State team that didn't always seem to have a Plan B. The Wolfpack's minus-3.67 turnover margin (worst in the ACC) isn't simply a product of unsteady point guard play. Moreso, State made too many silly decisions earlier in the season in trying to force-feed Hickson down low, without having an instinctive alternative when the productive big man was taken away.
Said Lowe: "Once you take that quick look, if he's not there, the ball has to be reversed around to the other side."
Lowe's offensive system may be partly to blame. Reliant on half-court reads and structured NBA-style movement, the Wolfpack offense hasn't showed enough creativity, and the transition game has been dormant, with State topping 75 points only three times in its first 22 games.
But the second-year coach believes things now are headed in the right direction, with his team playing with greater purpose and unity. It's no coincidence, then, that the Wolfpack had fashioned a 7-3 record in games decided by six points or fewer.
WANTED: LEADER, TOUGHNESS
In January, Lowe had come out publicly and said State still was lacking a true leader.
"To me, a leader is a guy who's going to get his teammates ready, that's going to pump them up, that's going to keep their heads up, that's going to get on them when they're not playing hard," he said. "He's going to wear a lot of hats. It's not someone who just yells and yells and yells. Most importantly, a leader can only be a leader if he's doing those things himself.
"We're still looking for that guy."
As State's lone scholarship senior, Grant would seem to be the Wolfpack's most natural leader, particularly with his unwavering confidence and genial personality. Yet Lowe has been reluctant to designate Grant as the team's foreman, wary at times of Grant's outspoken nature, particularly after the senior swingman made preseason comments that State was in position to lose no more than four or five games.
"You like your guys to be confident," Lowe said. "But I'm the type of person where I'd rather keep mine inside and amongst my teammates. I'd rather let my playing do the talking for me. But some guys, I think they function better that way. They can't keep it inside."
Despite that subtle criticism, Lowe also has lauded Grant's assertiveness and focus down the stretch of close games.
In November, it was Grant's last-second free throws that gave State a 69-68 win over Villanova for the Old Spice Classic championship. On Dec. 27 at Seton Hall, Grant scored 17 of his 23 points in the second half of a 79-73 win. And in one of State's most memorable wins so far this season, it was Grant's steal and layup with 2.1 seconds left in overtime that gave State a 79-77 win over Miami and helped save the Wolfpack from falling to 0-3 in ACC play.
"Gavin is a finisher," Lowe said.
Now Grant has the task he always wanted, trying to finish this season and his State career with a memorable surge.
"If we finish like 10-6 (in league play), that would be very respectable in this conference," Grant said. "We just have to finish. We've been in a lot of close games. And you just have to be tough. If you keep getting wins, eventually people have to respect you."
Earning that respect this season has been harder than State could have ever imagined. And yet with the second half of the ACC season now underway, the Wolfpack feels it still has enough firepower to live up to that preseason hype and carries the belief that it still can emerge as the third-best team in the conference after all.
"I'm trying to get our guys to understand that there's a difference between playing hard and playing tough. That's what it comes down to. Being tough, both mentally and physically," Lowe said. "We need to continue to grow in that area until we get to the point where we're there, where we know that every time we go out on the floor that we're going to be tough. We're going to hit people. We're going to battle.
"On this level, if you have five tough guys, just brutally tough, you're always going to be in the ballgame, because you can out-tough the other guys. That's what we're working toward."
Dan Wiederer, a regular contributor to the ACC Sports Journal, covers the ACC for the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer.