As NC State fizzles, coach Sidney Lowe's hot seat gets warmer

If Sidney Lowe truly needs to make the NCAA tournament this season in order to save his job, then the fifth-year NC State coach might want to start collecting empty boxes to use to clean out his office.

A 92-78 home loss to Duke on Wednesday night drops the Wolfpack to 1-3 in ACC play and leaves them in an unenviable position.

Since NC State lost to every marquee opponent it faced in non-conference play, the Wolfpack entered the conference schedule in dire need of signature victories to boost their hopes of earning an at-large bid. Unfortunately, opportunities for quality victories in this year's watered-down ACC are scarce, which is why Wednesday's home game against Duke was so crucial to NC State's season.

Expectations were high at NC State entering the season even though the Wolfpack had gone 20-44 in the ACC in Lowe's previous four seasons in Raleigh. The return of all-conference big man Tracy Smith and the arrival of elite recruits Ryan Harrow, C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown raised hopes that this would finally be the year the Wolfpack return to relevance.

An ill-timed left knee injury to Smith short-circuited NC State in December, but his return hasn't made NC State an ACC contender thus far. After a 21-point thrashing of woeful Wake Forest to open conference play, the Wolfpack fell at Boston College and Florida State before Wednesday's home loss to Duke dropped them to 11th place in the standings.

The outside shooting of Scott Wood, the interior scoring of Smith and second-half bursts of promise from Harrow and Leslie were bright spots against Duke, but NC State was undone by costly mistakes and the talent differential.

Duke annihilated the Wolfpack on the glass, took advantage of lackadaisical first-half defense from NC State to build a double-digit lead and got unexpected frontcourt production from Miles Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. And NC State shot under 40 percent as a team and got zero points from Brown, who is really struggling recently after a strong start to his freshman season.

Lowe kept his job last spring because NC State wanted to make sure it preserved its recruiting class, but it remains to be seen whether he'll have the chance to coach them as sophomores.

A first-year athletic director, an impatient fan base and a potential fifth straight season without an NCAA tournament appearance are certainly not promising signs for Lowe's job security.