Once again there is a yin and yang to NC State this season.
It is a season that seems to be both on the brink and in too early of a stage for the Wolfpack to panic following an eight-point road loss Wednesday at Boston College.
At 1-3 in the ACC (12-5 overall) and coming off two straight road losses in the conference that were brutal in their own unique way, it would seem the Wolfpack is at a crossroads that belies the fact that there are still 14 games left in the regular season.
A loss to the Eagles following the epic drubbing at the hands of North Carolina will cause panic and ill feelings among the fanbase yet a glance at the ACC standings shows that 12 of the 15 schools already have at least two conference losses despite the month of January not reaching its halfway point. NC State is actually one game away from fourth place in the league.
Two seasons ago the Wolfpack plodded along early but as time went by they picked up enough steam to reach the Sweet Sixteen. Mark Gottfried never wavered and remained outwardly hopeful as NC State navigated the campaign with both sensational victories and head-scratching defeats.
Gottfried is not in the easiest position although it clearly is his job to speak for the team and sort things out. People will find fault with whatever he says, whether the tone is gentle or tough love, so he has to discern which is the best way to get his team to respond. The optimistic approach worked in 2015. It remains to be seen if it will be effective again this season.
The head coach, when asked about the perception of his team, was quite specific in what it was he “didn’t give” and insisted that his team was improving.
Trying to read minds is both a nonexistent skill and a bad habit, but it is likely that Gottfried meant he did not care about the outside commentary in a broader context of everyone else except for his team and not just exclusively NC State supporters. That is not how he said it however. Those who critique him will now have a seminal moment away from the basketball court to display with contempt.
Over the next nine days it will be the NC State faithful that gets to see firsthand if the Wolfpack is improving as the ACC slate creeps closer to its halfway point.
NC State has its next three games at home in PNC Arena. None of the contests (Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest) are games where the Wolfpack will classified as a huge underdog, if they are favored to lose at all. They will not be easy though, especially if the defense, lack of a consistent third scorer, frontcourt woes and rotational problems cannot be fixed.
The situation the Pack is currently in screams for the help of Abdul-Malik Abu.
The plight of Abu is worrisome for NC State. With prototypical point guards like Dennis Smith Jr. and Markell Johnson in the fold the consensus would be that the junior should up his scoring average from last season, when he nearly averaged a double-double in conference games despite teaming with a score-first player in Cat Barber.
Abu’s scoring output has instead been inconsistent. The wonderful performance against Virginia Tech where Abu converted all nine of his field goals attempts has been an aberration so far and not the norm, although it did show all what he and NC State could possibly be everything is clicking.
A return to form from Abu would resolve many of NC State’s problems. The Wolfpack needs him to be a force down low who can extend defenses to 15 feet while also playing well enough to keep Gottfried from searching for answers both in the context of frontcourt play and a steady third scoring option. Smith and Johnson can help in that regard as well but the ACC is not a place where slow maturation breeds success.
Through it all there is Gottfried, forced to find a balance and sort the issues in a way that presents a united front while also trying to whip his team into shape as the stretch run nears.
The interconnectedness within NC State is on full display once again. The worry and hope that personify that uneasy balance of this season’s Wolfpack team is familiar to many, as is reaching the point where anything can possibly happen and nothing is out of the ordinary.
Either NC State will control its fate or its fate will control them. The answer is coming soon.