NC State has a sub-.500 record after losing at Syracuse. Yet the Wolfpack still controls its destiny.
When the Pack lost badly to William & Mary in its season opener, with Terry Henderson limping off the court minutes into the game, it seemed like things could not possibly get worse.
While there were some sketchy moments in December, NC State entered ACC play with a 10-3 record and seemed to have everything under control in its conference opener at Virginia Tech. When the sky fell, it landed hard on the Wolfpack.
There have been some respites. The huge win at Pittsburgh and the remarkable ease with which NC State pulled away from Miami in Raleigh come to mind, but the rays of sunshine have been fleeting this season for the Pack.
Michael Gbinije was the latest to cast a pall over NC State. His 34 points, with 24 coming from eight three-pointers, relegated the Wolfpack to a fate that has been common in 2016.
In a season where the team does not have quite enough there seems to always be at least one member of the opposition that has too much for the Pack to handle.
At 14-15 overall with two games remaining in the regular season, NC State is in a numbers crunch in regards to whether the team can reach postseason play for a fifth straight season, which barring a near-miraculous five-day run in the ACC Tournament would be in the NIT this March.
The two games left before ACC Tournament play begins are as different as they come. NC State hosts a Boston College team that is winless in conference play and concludes the regular season with a road game against the defending conference champion Notre Dame.
The Wolfpack will need to sweep the final two games of the regular season and make a two-day run in the ACC Tournament or split the pair and play three games in Washington, DC to qualify for a NIT berth—where all the games would be on the road.
The truth is reaching the NIT is not going to make a significant difference in the future of the NC State program one way or another.
Caleb Martin returned to the starting lineup at Syracuse and, despite struggling from behind the arc, played well for the Wolfpack. Abdul-Malik Abu finished with another double-double. There tend to be some bright spots in each game.
NC State head coach Mark Gottfried probably struggles at times to keep himself from looking down the bench at all the talent sitting in street clothes and wondering not only what could have been but also what it will one day be.
With Dennis Smith Jr., Torin Dorn Jr., and Terry Henderson waiting in the wings, the 2016-17 campaign seems certain to be more in line with Gottfried’s first four seasons at NC State. Perhaps it could be even better.
There are games to play until then and while NC State cannot change what has happened the Pack can play as if each game is special in itself. If the Wolfpack can find one or two more games with the magic it had against a Miami team that is fighting for an ACC regular season title it could have an impact down the road, both this season and beyond.
The aspiration to hang a banner can have its beginning at the end of a down season. There are contests remaining on television and with talent watching—not just the ones in street clothes on the NC State bench—there is an opportunity to make impressions to those within and outside the program.
It is not much but that and the pride of wearing a jersey that says NC State across the chest is what the Wolfpack has left this season.