DAYTON, Ohio -- NC State was never the sixth-best team in the country. We should probably get that out of the way.
NC State's now-infamous preseason ranking was less the product of the team's quality and more of the hype that accompanies tournament wins and top recruiting classes, particularly when they arrive in tandem, as they did in Raleigh, N.C. Expectations ballooned. They were always unrealistic.
It would be unfair to grade NC State on that curve. It would also be unfair to overlook the brilliance of Temple guard Khalif Wyatt, who scored 31 points, including a 12-of-14 performance from the free throw line, in Temple's 76-72 win Friday -- or to ignore that this is now Temple's eighth win in its past nine games and the best Fran Dunphy’s team has played all season.
It would not be unfair, however, to say that even if the Wolfpack weren't a top-10 team, ultimately they still had a disappointing season; that a No. 8 seed was far less than a team with one of the best offensive arsenals in the country could have achieved, that Friday's first-round tournament exit was an ending far below their considerable talent and that, above all, their defense -- or lack thereof -- was to blame.
"At times we were really good defensively. At times we were not," NC State coach Mark Gottfried said. "This particular team never seemed to get to a point where we could sustain and maintain great defensive effort the entire game."
That was the case on Friday, particularly during the Wolfpack's nightmare of a first half. NC State began stagnant and sluggish, and as shots failed to fall (it shot 10-of-25 in the first half), whatever defensive energy NC State typically derives off its offensive potency waned. Shoulders slumped. Wyatt, one of the best scorers in the country, and forward Jake O'Brien (who went 5-of-7 in the first frame) took immediate advantage, as the Owls made 16 of their 30 field goal attempts and shot 5-of-11 from 3.
By halftime, NC State trailed, 38-22. When its offense went quiet -- and it happens to every team at least once in the tournament, though usually not in their very first minutes -- the Wolfpack couldn't get stops.
The second half was better. Lorenzo Brown came alive, T.J. Warren created a pair of turnovers and the Wolfpack started feasting on their typical combination of low-post looks to the tune of 50 points while going 19-of-27 from the field. If anything, the second-half spurt might be even more frustrating for NC State fans, not only because it highlighted their team's inability to stop a totally fearless Wyatt -- who made every big shot and got to the line 12 times (and made 11) in the second half -- but also because it presented such a striking contrast from the first half. Accusations that NC State had attitude issues, that the reason it didn't guard people was because it didn't try, rumbled off and on all year.
Forward Scott Wood testily dismissed that notion in the postgame news conference -- "You can come watch us in practice and tell us if you think the same," he said -- but Gottfried was more open.
"I think this team struggled with a lot of things," Gottfried said. "Number one, we had some immaturity at times. It just seemed hard at times to have everybody buy in all the way. And for us to get better in the future, everybody needs to. Our young guys need to learn that lesson.
"At times this year, that just seemed to be a struggle for our group," Gottfried said. "That was a hard thing for us to overcome basically all year long, from the way we started. Some of the young guys, some of the older guys, and building character every day and doing things right every day, putting the team first, and then personal success and glory comes later. It always does. But you have to trust that. We struggled with some of that this year."
Whatever the intangible root causes, the end result was a defense that ranked 192nd in the country in points allowed per possession (1.017) despite a lineup chock full of lanky, athletic, NBA-coveted talents. At times that talent was enough to get NC State by, but not Friday. Not against Wyatt, a quirky but dominant scoring guard, and not against a less-talented team that nonetheless trusts in him and each other.
On the penultimate possession of the game, before Wyatt iced the game with two free throws, and while NC State players reminded him of the importance of the shots ("they were talking a little bit," Wyatt said), he turned to his teammates assembled near the half-court line and said "I got this."
"They trusted me to to make two shots at the end," Wyatt said. And then he did.