Thursday, January 12, 2012

Slow start finally bites Wolfpack

N.C. State's loss to Georgia Tech was about a slow start and generally poor play. Ethan Hyman photo.
Three observations from N.C. State's 82-71 college basketball loss to Georgia Tech:

1. It's not how you start, it's how you … uh, wait a sec …

N.C. State has been slow out of the gate for about a month and especially last night.

The Wolfpack was able to get away with it in the previous six games, all wins, usually with a strong finish to the first half or a quick start to the second half.

(Basketball 101 note: Halftime is when adjustments are made and good starts to the second half are indicative of good coaching. By the same token, slow starts at the beginning of the game are indicative of issues with motivation and readiness and fall on the minus side for coaching.)

In the first 3 minutes of Wednesday's loss, N.C. State had four turnovers — on consecutive possessions. An early timeout or a mass substitution, a la Roy Williams, might have been in order there to send a quick "stop messing around" message.

It didn't look like the biggest problem in the world because N.C. State led 6-5 by the first TV timeout, but it was more the opportunity that N.C. State — the better team — gave Georgia Tech — the inferior, visiting opponent.

Georgia Tech, in Brian Gregory's first season, is a limited team. Yes, Glen Rice, Mfon Udofia and Jason Morris are talented players, and former top 75 recruits, but there's a reason the Jackets only average 64 points per game. Cover your eyes, tempo-based zealots, it's because that's all they're capable of scoring. If they could score more, they would. Wednesday's game was the first time the Jackets had five players in double-figures all season.

Against a limited team you should beat, you have to start fast and give them no reason to believe they can win the game. Instead, Tech — a team with losses to Fordham and Mercer — got more confidence by the passing minute.

And when C.J. Leslie went to the bench with his second foul, the wheels came off as Georgia Tech closed the half with a 19-3 run in the final 7 minutes.

2. Another press-conference win for Mark Gottfried

Just like after the Maryland win, Gottfried was gold with the media on Wednesday. He was short (4 minutes, 50 seconds on my digital recorder), dropped in a curse word, answered a question about the officials and cut to the chase.

Not to repeat the previous post, but this was his best soliloquy.

"Sometimes, we'd all like to come up with this grand answer of why your team doesn't play good," Gottfried said. "Sometimes you just don't play good. I go golf, sometimes I'm terrible. Sometimes I'm a little better. It's part of life."

He's right, of course, especially with the N.C.  State fan base, which turned almost every game in five seasons under Sidney Lowe into a referendum about Lowe's coaching ability or the point guard situation. And if you really want to go back to Herb Sendek, everything after 2001 was one long referendum on the "Prince-State" offense. (Note: These were/are all valid points of contention.)

Like Gottfried said, N.C. State can definitely play better and actually, it was the Pack's worst game of the season. The team just didn't play well, especially early (see: Point 1), there was no boogie man to chase.

3. About the officiating

Gottfried got his second technical of the season at 12:12 in the second half after an exchange with Roger Ayers. Gottfried ripped off his coat and threw it on the bench after a missed layup by C.J. Williams, a play on which Gottfried clearly wanted a foul called.

State was down 49-40 at the time and Rice made both free throws for two of his game-high 22 points. Georgia Tech's lead grew to 16 points a minute later and N.C. State never got closer than 11 the rest of the way.

And before we get to Gottfried's quote, a key sequence was when Gregory called a timeout after Williams' layup at 14:02 cut Georgia Tech's lead to 45-40. Out of the timeout, Gregory set up an isolation play for Rice, who converted a tough shot in the lane for an important basket. (Basketball 101 note: Use of timeouts, plays for your best player after the proper use of timeouts, well-designed plays for your best player for good shots after the proper use of timeouts are all signs of good coaching).

The call had an affect on the game, in the sense that N.C. State didn't respond after the call (Basketball 101 note: When your coach stands up for you, you're supposed to respond in kind) but it wasn't the reason N.C. State lost.

Gottfried said as much after the game.

"Let me say this clearly, the officials, they did not cost us the game, not at all," Gottfried said. "Everybody can have an opinion but my take on all that is my team has to play better. I'm not into excuses, I'm not into that at all."

Ayers has been, and still is, one of the best officials in John Clougherty's regular rotation. He should have given Gottfried an explanation for the technical, which Gottfried said he didn't, though.

Sean Corbin, a former NBA official, is also one of Clougherty's best. The head official, Jamie Luckie, is quickly becoming something of "referee non grata" in Wolfpack circles. Painful memories from the Stanford loss still linger on that front.

Georgia Tech ended up taking 31 free throws, compared with 27 for State, but N.C. State was fouling late and officiating didn't help Georgia Tech shoot 9-of-15 from 3-point range or out-rebound N.C. State, 34 to 29.

As for the 3-point shooting (60 percent), Gottfied had another good line but I'm not sure he was watching the same game. Tech did make some tough shots but N.C. State has yet to figure out how to consistently close out shooters on the perimeter. There's still too much room, on too many shots, in order for N.C. State to be anything other than ordinary on defense.

Gottfried stood up for his team's defensive effort after the game.

"I'm our hardest critic, but there were a lot of shots that they made that were tough shots — tough, tough shots — that were well defended," Gottfried said. "They went 9-for-15 from the 3-point line, two of them were bank shots, let's see if we can do that again."

That might be missing the forest from the trees on the coach's part but he gets credit for standing up for his players and complimenting the opponent because just as N.C. State didn't play well, Georgia Tech had its best performance of the season.

-- J.P. Giglio