The excuses early in the season for NC State are now legitimate.
The results back up the reasoning.
The Wolfpack weren't whole. They were out of sync. And they played two teams -- albeit at different levels -- that were primed to take down a lost squad. Cincinnati was no slouch and will chase an NCAA bid out of the American. North Carolina Central will be a player in the MEAC, and has a scorer in Jeremy Ingram (29 versus the Wolfpack) and the ability to get to the line (41 out of 45 against State) that will help it in late February.
Jordan Vandenberg was out with an ankle sprain for the first four games -- these two losses included -- which forced the Wolfpack to play forwards out of position.
"We weren't ready,'' said NC State coach Mark Gottfried. "We were out of rhythm. Now with Jordan and Anthony Barber in the starting lineup we're better. We had to play a lot of younger players earlier. But we're so much better today than we were after the Cincinnati and Central games. We're a different team a month later.''
Now, it's suddenly time to take NC State seriously again -- for a possible run toward an NCAA berth.
NC State plays No. 25 Missouri on Saturday in Raleigh (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2) with a chance to help the ACC after some disappointing nonconference games by its non-brand-name schools. The contest can also help NC State start to become a player in the league. The Wolfpack open conference play against beatable ACC newcomer Pitt, then visit a Notre Dame team that will have to reinvent itself after the academic ineligibility of Jerian Grant -- meaning NC State has a real shot to begin the conference slate an impressive 2-0.
How did this happen?
NC State has won seven in a row, including the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game against Northwestern and a road game at Tennessee. OK, so that might not move the selection-committee meter. But the reason for the renewed optimism lies with the play of one player -- sophomore forward T.J. Warren.
While the rotation was out of whack early, Warren was not.
He is having an All-America season, averaging 23.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He lit up East Carolina for 32 points in his most recent outing, scored 21 at Tennessee and 29 against Detroit.
"He's as good as anybody I've ever coached," said Gottfried, who saw plenty of high-level talent while an assistant at UCLA and a head coach at Alabama before coming to NC State in 2011. "He's becoming more complete, which is what I like. He's not having defensive lapses. He's rebounding for our team. He's scoring the ball at an amazing pace."
Warren will be the focus for Mizzou.
"It's a big challenge," said Missouri coach Frank Haith, whose Tigers are coming off a 65-64 loss to rival Illinois in St. Louis last Saturday, Mizzou's first defeat of the season. "Our transition D will be key. We have to get back and set our defense. T.J. is a major problem and we'll need to have great defense on him."
"Their perimeter players score well and do a great job with ball screens,'' said Gottfried. "Clarkson is really getting good. They'll be tough to guard, but they'll have to guard us, too."
The ACC schedule starts right after a brief trip to play North Carolina Greensboro at the site of the ACC tournament. A victory over Mizzou at home and a solid start to the ACC could give the Wolfpack a chance to emerge from a muddled middle.