JOHNSON: Perception Problem

RALEIGH, N.C. -- A string of losses and a close win drastically changed the perception of NC State, but little changed in the team's performance.

In sports, we only care about results.

The problem is that when evaluating a team in the middle of a season, particularly in sport like college basketball, the end results don't tell the entire story.

Such is the case with NC State, a team that just a month ago was being discussed as a Final Four contender. Thanks to a 2-5 stretch of play after defeating Duke, the Pack has been forgotten and dismissed. The results haven't been there, even with a buzzer-beating win over Clemson, but the actual performance tells a different story.

First it's important to note that at no point has the Pack put together any sustained stretch that suggest they are one of the top four, or even top 10, teams in the country. They have, based on whichever power ranking you chose to pick (Pomeroy, Massey, Sagarin), jumped around from the 15-30 range most of the year. The stretch since the Duke game did little to change those rankings.

Four of the five losses came in true road games, and only one was really an upset by the home team – Maryland, Virginia and Duke were all favored to varying degrees in their game. Certainly, the Wake Forest game is inexcusable and the only real example of the Pack playing poorly – they might have played below their own potential in those other games but none of the other three losses is on the same level.

For the Pack, the difference between being 6-5 and 9-2 in ACC play is three possessions. Four possessions are the difference between being 5-6 and 9-2. Close games, as much as we like to discuss heart and poise and clutch performance, are often as much about luck as anything.

Simply put, NC State has gotten somewhat unlucky since conference play started. They've been soundly beaten once, on the road against one of the best teams in the country. Every other loss has come down to the last possession, while just one of their six conference wins has come down to the last play.

And that's before we even factor in the impact that losing Lorenzo Brown for three games – the toughest three-game stretch on the schedule – had on the team. In the Virginia game, it had a clear impact on the team's ability to run its offense. Yes, Virginia is a great defensive team, but the Pack had it worse turnover percentage in league play on that night in large part because Tyler Lewis and Rodney Purvis were not prepared to step in and take over the offense for 30 minutes. The Pack had 14 turnovers in that game, 11 of which came after the Brown injury and the team shot just 38 percent.

In the next two games, it was Brown's defense that was mostly missed. Lewis stepped up offensively and the Pack had an effective field goal percentage (which weights for 3-pointers) of over 55 percent in both games. But they only turned Duke and Miami over on about 1 of every 10 possessions, limiting their transition game and giving both teams lots of looks at the basket.

Brown's defense is often overlooked, but the last two years he's consistently rated as the team's best perimeter defender and his ability to generate steals helps the Pack get easy baskets.

Without Brown, arguably the team's best player, the Pack lost to the top three teams in the league standings. With Brown, you have to believe the Pack wins at least one of those games, a result that would drastically change the perception of this team.

Ultimately, all most pundits see is that 2-5 stretch and not the context surrounding the record. If anything, the Pack should be encouraged by how well they played without Brown and how close they came to winning two of those three games. Now the schedule turns and the Pack will have several opportunities to pick up wins over its last seven games. Four are at home, and the team will be favored in likely all of them except against North Carolina.

There's a very good chance the Pack closes the season on a 5-2 run or better, leading to another perception change as the team hits the ACC tournament. But the truth will be that this team has played at around the same level all season long.

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