JOHNSON: The Gut Check

After two shaky performances in non-conference, NC State got bowled over by Pittsburgh in its ACC opener. But with 17 conference games still left, what matters now is how it responds.

There were signs that something like this might be coming – the shaky final seconds against Missouri, a close win over a bad Greensboro team.

But few people, including Mark Gottfried himself, were expecting the Pack to be so thoroughly dominated by Pittsburgh on Saturday. The Pack jumped out to a big lead when Pitt came charging back, the Pack's answer was to just allow a few more lay-ups.

"How we responded today in the second half was the first time I have seen our group do that," Gottfried said. "We have not done that in any game."

The Pack scored 17 points in the first 5:40 of the game and proceeded to score just 45 points the rest of the way. It started 7-for-10 from the field and because of offensive rebounds scored on all but one possession during those first five minutes, then shot 33 percent the rest of the day. It was an ugly performance that prompted some of the curtest answers in Mark Gottfried's time in Raleigh.

"Our young guys better learn at this level that if you do that you'll see the results that you saw today," Gottfried said, in one of his handful of answers that was longer than one sentence. "It's real simple to me, we have to be a lot tougher than we were today."

The Pack, even during its seven-game winning streak, hasn't consistently played like a NCAA tournament on a pure numbers level. Virtually every ranking – RPI, Sagarin, Pomeroy – has the Pack in the 60's or 70's before they stepped onto the court against Pittsburgh. As you might imagine, those numbers did not improve despite facing a team that many of those same systems consider a top 15 squad.

The things working in favor of the Pack, the reasons that some people were discussing them as a potential NCAA team were its steady improvement because of its youth and the fact that T.J. Warren would be the best player on the court almost every night.

But instead of steadily improving like the Pack did most of December, the team has been on a steady backslide for three games now. Losing a nail-biter to Missouri in and of itself wasn't bad, but coupled with a narrow win over UNCG, one of the worst teams State will play all year and Saturday's defeat and it's a trend in the wrong direction.

And while Warren has been and still will the best player on the court, he got outplayed by Lamar Patterson on Saturday. Warren wasn't as efficient as usual, needing 22 shots to score his 23 points while Patterson put up 22 points, eight boards and six assists for Pittsburgh.

"When we came out and started the second half, it was kind of like a prizefight. In a boxing match when someone punches you a couple of times you better make a decision and respond," Gottfried said. "We did not respond today to their aggressiveness in the second half."

Of course, what matters now is how the Pack responds. Basketball seasons are long, and the Pack isn't even halfway through its season yet. With 17 conference games still left there remain infinite possible outcomes for the season – both positive and negative. But the Pack has to reverse its recent trend quickly if it wants to avoid its first losing ACC record under Gottfried.

The reasons for optimism – the improvement of its youth and Warren's incredible individual play – are still there. This is not a team devoid of talent that has no hope in conference play – it's a team with talent that just isn't doing enough to win tough games right now.

The road ahead doesn't get any easier – three of the next four games are on the road with a lone home date against the always frustrating Virginia defense. But a solid performance at Notre Dame, facing a team riding high after beating Duke, would quickly make people forget about Saturday.

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