JOHNSON: The Pack Belongs

ATLANTA, GA -- The Pack's play over the last three days has made one thing clear - this team deserves the right to play in the NCAA tournament.

The NC State locker room on Saturday afternoon was dead silent. Each player, sitting in the same slumped position staring into space.

This was a team dejected not just because of the way it lost, but a team dejected because of how well they knew they played. The Pack went toe-to-toe with North Carolina and for much of the game looked like the better team. CJ Leslie was the best player on the court until he fouled and Lorenzo Brown was a dominating force at the point.

"We played out hearts out. We deserved to win," CJ Williams said.

The Pack knew it was close to something special and saw the opportunity slip away in a pair of possessions in the final minute. A team that grew as the season progressed, had a winning record in conference for the first time in year, and wanted to see the fruits of their hard work pay off in its conference tournament.

"It is what it is," Scott Wood said. "It's basketball. Refs make mistakes too - players make mistakes. Things could happen differently but it's nobody's fault."

The bigger picture was hard to focus on after the emotional roller coaster of nearly beating the Tar Heels in the semifinals. Lost in the disappointment is how great the Pack succeeded in out-Heeling the Heels for much of the game – outscoring them in transition and on second chance points. The Pack nearly upset a team that was an overwhelming favorite to win the national title in October and remains in the running for a No.1 seed next weekend.

Every player in the locker room on Saturday said that the Pack belonged in the NCAA tournament. After the last three days, it's hard to disagree. The Pack stepped up when other teams around the country were falling over in must-win games.

"I believe we're a NCAA Tournament team, but I'm not on the committee. Our team has earned the right to play in the tournament," Gottfried said.

Will the Pack have anything to complain about if it gets snubbed later this evening? No, simply because the Pack had plenty of opportunities, Saturday included, to secure a bid and it failed to capitalize by beating any of the best teams on its schedule.

But it will be a massive disappointment. This is a team that has improved so tremendously in a year, with essentially the same personnel, that it would be a shame for this team to end up in the NIT. Gottfried has them playing hard on every possession, sharing the basketball, crashing the boards and hustling on defense.

"We've made a lot of improvement through this season," DeShawn Painter said. "We've faced up and downs and we conquered. That team we just played is supposed to be a No. 1 seed and that shows how good we can be."

This team may be a bubble team by the numbers, but it's an NCAA tournament team to anyone paying attention. The Pack's worst three losses came because their best player cramped up down the stretch, an 80 percent free-throw shooter bricked the front end of a one-and-one and because a bad team played the best 40 minutes of their season against them.

Meanwhile, they played a brutal schedule and still managed to be competitive in all but two instances. Yes, they should have picked off at least one of those teams during the season but no one who watched those games can honestly say the Pack doesn't belong in the field of 68. It's not the eye test, it's the logic test – playing a tough schedule and being right there in most games is more impressive than winning tons of games against awful teams.

The Pack belongs in the tournament. Now they have to wait and see if the committee agrees.

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