North Carolina State was the ACC preseason favorite for the first time since 1975, and after visiting Raleigh for Midnight Madness, I felt like this team deserved the hype. A one-sided loss to Oklahoma State and a close call with UNC-Asheville has quelled some of that excitement.
As the Wolfpack head into a showdown at Michigan on Tuesday, consistency has been one of the biggest issues -- and it’s not that surprising as Mark Gottfried tries to blend his core group of four returning starters with his extremely talented freshmen.
Let’s look at five important questions that surround this team:
1) The Wolfpack have (and most likely will) beat almost all of the teams they're supposed to, but when will they win a meaningful regular-season game? Part of the reason there is so much hype in Raleigh is because of the Wolfpack’s run in March, but this group went winless (0-8) against Top-25 opponents last season before taking down SDSU and Georgetown in the NCAA tournament. Was that a sign of things to come or an anomaly? They don't want to gain the reputation of being a team that only wins the games it's “supposed” to win. That would be a problem for a program that plays North Carolina and Duke twice each season and is trying to elevate to that same elite level.
2) Can the early-season loss to OSU and near miss with Asheville be a wake-up call that ignites this team? The Pack were told how great they were going to be for six months. They have two All-American-caliber players, three McDonald’s All-American freshmen, an experienced coach and a boatload of hype. That is a recipe for potential, but not necessarily success. Sometimes an early loss can put the chip back on the shoulder of a team that has potentially gotten a bloated sense of themselves. Oklahoma State took it to them. They were more physical, more athletic and played with a sense of urgency that was lacking on the NC State side. The next time out, NCSU lets a Big South team hang around throughout. You have a lot of experience in that locker room. The loss and close-game scare may be the early wake-up call the Pack needed.
3) C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell and Scott Wood are guys who have been there, but can this team avoid chemistry problems? Rodney Purvis was a name that was floated around a lot in the preseason as a game-changing talent. He hasn't disappointed early on, and neither has T.J. Warren. Both guys find themselves averaging double-digit points and are among the leaders in minutes played as the new guys in town. Meanwhile, Brown has struggled through five games, surprisingly not shooting well (34.8 percent) or distributing the ball effectively (a near-even assist/turnover ratio), seemingly trying to do too much and not making his teammates better. State played its best when Leslie was the focal point of the offense and that’s what it needs to go back to.
4) Were Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams smiling contently in the preseason as NC State got all of the attention? For the first time in nearly 40 years, the Pack were the big men in the Triangle. But so far Duke has gone about business as usual and been outstanding. There is no doubt Duke and UNC are equipped to handle expectations -- that's what they do every season. But for NC State, winning big games is not going to be easy. These guys aren't used to being the target. Changing an entire culture takes time. Banners are not hung for teams ranked No. 1 in the preseason.
5) NC State drew fourth-ranked Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and will have an opportunity to prove itself against a very good Wolverine team on the road. But how do the Pack match up? It has to be tempting to look over at the Michigan sideline and think, “Wow, this team is what our team was supposed to look like.” Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are making a case for the best backcourt in the country, and Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary are young guys making huge contributions. Conversely, Leslie and Brown were thought of as All-American quality players, but have underperformed and the freshmen have not fit seamlessly into coach Gottfried’s system. These were two teams that were ranked in the top 10 that are trending in different directions. Does NC State have the talent to beat Michigan? Yes. Do I think they’re ready to do it at this point in the season? No.
But it's important to keep in mind that this is college basketball, not football. Every game is important and winning big games can help immensely during seeding time, but it is also a very long season. NC State is going to be good. Perhaps very good. What needs to happen in Raleigh is a concerted effort to blend as a group and begin to play consistently.