Last Friday, NC State was coming off an impressive upset of nationally-ranked Duke. State had won two of their last three and had staged an impressive comeback in their loss to Clemson. The team looked like it had put the debacles of Florida and Virginia behind them, sitting just a game under .500 in the crowded, middle of the ACC standings... poised to make a move.
Today it appears all hope is lost. The Pack has been manhandled in the second half of its last two games, looking much more like a team picked to finish last in the conference. Losing to its arch-rival in one of those two games has only magnified the sense of despair for the fanbase.
But the slide hasn't been as sudden or as it appears on the surface. The Pack's offense was playing well enough to mask the rest of the problems, particularly when the 3-pointers start falling. Any gameplan that involves shooting 60 percent from the floor or 50 percent from behind the arc to succeed isn't a gameplan, its wish-casting.
The truth is in the defense. And the Pack defense has been on a steady downhill slide since ACC play picked up. Virginia shot 43 percent, Florida State shot 46 percent, Clemson shot 49 percent. The Pack bucked the trend briefly when it forced the Blue Devils to shoot 39 percent from the floor. But it was back to business as usual when Maryland shot 53 percent and the Tar Heels shot 51 percent.
Overall, opponents are shooting 46 percent in conference play and over 36 percent on 3-pointers. A far cry from what the Pack had been able to do early in the year, when it could force less athletic teams into bad shots. Combined with all the troubles the Pack has had creating turnovers and getting defensive rebounds and you end up with the worst defensive team in the conference.
In a league containing six of the top 15 defenses in the nation (according to Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency), State's offense has to be one of the best in the nation for the the team to compete each night out. The offense is good, but not nearly that good.
Unfortunately there is no easy fix to the Pack's defensive woes. Going to a zone would just further exasperate the Pack's rebounding issues and inability to force turnovers.
Committing to a full-court press might work, but the team doesn't have enough athleticism in its backcourt to really bother ACC opponents. Against Carolina, for example, the Heels' guards blew past most trap attempts with ease.
Still, at this point in the season its worth trying anything to fix the defensive shipwreck that State has become. The vanilla man-to-man the Pack employs isn't working, and hasn't really worked in any of the four seasons under Lowe.
NC State has two choices – get better defensively or accept the fact that they need to shoot lights-out every night to compete with the rest of the ACC.