Pack Hoops: Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange reviews the year to date and looks forward to the conference schedule and beyond. Check out the full Wolfpack Report here on Pack Pride.

It might be time to start looking forward to next season in Raleigh.

With a handful of talented freshmen playing quality minutes and the expected return of stars Tracy Smith and Javier Gonzalez, the Wolfpack looks like a team capable of reaching the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

But not this year.

Back-to-back double-digit losses to Maryland and North Carolina have all but cemented North Carolina State's fate of missing the Big Dance for the fourth straight season. If the Wolfpack collapses down the stretch, fourth-year coach Sidney Lowe will be feeling the heat.

For stability's sake, Lowe might get one more year to see if he can build on a young and talented roster. In the meantime, he needs to focus on keeping up his team's fading confidence. The players' body language was not pretty in the second half of Tuesday's loss to North Carolina.

During a lengthy scoring drought, N.C. State let its offensive woes affect its play on the defensive end. The Tar Heels took full advantage and sent a depressed Wolfpack crowd heading for the exits early.

For the most part, Lowe's team has played hard this season, and the Wolfpack do own an impressive win over Duke. But their inability to build off that win is discouraging.

The Tar Heels held the Wolfpack scoreless for eight minutes in the second half and never turned back.

After beating Duke last week, it's the second straight double-digit loss for the fading Wolfpack.

After a tight first half, N.C. State surged ahead behind Javier Gonzalez. State led by five early in the second, before seeing the Tar Heels go on a decisive 22-4 run and cruise to an ACC road victory.

Tracy Smith again led the way for North Carolina State with 20 points. Gonzalez added 19 for the Wolfpack, which shot just 39 percent for the game and was outrebounded 35-28.

--N.C. State seems to have solved its problems with turnovers. After making 36 in the losses to Wake Forest and Arizona in December, the 'Pack has averaged only 11.7 a game since. Three times in that nine-game span, the 'Pack has been in single digits in turnovers. It had 11 in the loss at Maryland.

--In his fourth season with the 'Pack, coach Sidney Lowe fell to 0-6 against Maryland. The Terps are one of only two teams Lowe is winless against in the ACC. The other is Clemson.

North Carolina State is badly in need of a playmaking guard, someone capable of penetrating the lane, drawing in the defense and kicking the ball out to open shooters.

Coach Sidney Lowe hoped senior Farnold Degand would be that player. But it hasn't worked out that way.

Degand is averaging 2.9 assists, but the majority of those are on dump-downs to Tracy Smith.

Point guard Javier Gonzalez, who leads the team with 4.4 assists per game, is much more of a perimeter shooter than a driving threat, although he has shown flashes as a penetrator.

But, when teams double down on Smith like North Carolina did during its big second-half run on Tuesday, the Wolfpack offense really struggles.

"We played terrible defense. We weren't working hard enough. We weren't rebounding. They just played harder than us. They outhustled us and got a lot of offensive rebounds. They got to every loose ball." -- Junior G Javier Gonzalez, after the 24-point loss at Maryland.

N.C. State got the big win it needed with the 14-point victory over Duke, but the 24-point thrashing at Maryland and then North Carolina's decisive victory were obviously big disappointments. The 'Pack hasn't been able to put together back-to-back wins since beating Winthrop and UNC-Greensboro in consecutive outings in December. The 'Pack is 2-5 in the ACC, 13-8 overall.

PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Dennis Horner, F Tracy Smith, G/F Scott Wood, G Farnold Degand, G Javier Gonzalez. Key Subs -- F Richard Howell, F C.J. Williams, C Jordan Vandenberg, G Julius Mays.

vs. North Carolina Central, Saturday, Jan. 30
at Virginia, Wednesday, Feb. 3
at Georgia Tech, Saturday, Feb. 6
vs. Virginia Tech, Wednesday, Feb. 10

Strange time for a non-conference game, but N.C. State needs to use it as a springboard to a run in the ACC in early February.

--Since his 31-point outburst at Florida State on Jan. 12, G/F Scott Wood has had trouble getting open. He had 15 attempts in the win over the Seminoles, but hasn't had more than nine attempts in the last four games and was 1-for-9 against North Carolina.

Wood, a true freshman, will get better at moving without the ball. Until then, coach Sidney Lowe will need to run plays specifically designed to get Wood open shots.

--G Javier Gonzalez seems to have broken out his slump, which included a 0-point outing against Clemson. Gonzalez has had three straight double-digit outings since the loss to the Tigers, including a season-high 19 points against North Carolina.

--Backup PG Julius Mays had played very well over the last couple of weeks. But the sophomore did not have a good game against the Tar Heels. Mays turned the ball over three times and committed four fouls in 18 minutes of play.

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