Why N.C. State will be dangerous in the NCAA tournament

“With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Mark Gottfried hasn’t spent much time contemplating his shadow in four seasons at North Carolina State. There simply hasn’t been any time.

Or consistency.

Gottfried’s Wolfpack is working its annual late-season makeover of a hot mess of a season. The latest step in the beautification process was an 81-70 victory over Pittsburgh here in the second round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament – a victory that eradicates any lingering doubt about N.C. State’s NCAA tournament status.

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The Wolfpack (20-12) is in the Dance. And the Wolfpack will be dangerous.

State has players. That much was abundantly clear against Pitt. Starting guards Anthony “Cat” Barber and Trevor Lacey combined for 55 points and 10 assists, scorching the Panthers with speed and long-range shooting. Big men Beejay Anya (a really big man) and Lennard Freeman did their part, combining for 16 points and 12 rebounds.

Mark Gottfried reacts to a call during the first half of N.C. State's win over Pittsburgh. (AP)
Mark Gottfried reacts to a call during the first half of N.C. State's win over Pittsburgh. (AP)

The mystifying thing with this team – and with past N.C. State teams – is why it was in a bubble situation all season. The reason is inconsistency.

This program habitually plays hide-and-seek with its talent. Sometimes it’s on dazzling display, sometimes it’s maddeningly missing.

The Wolfpack went more than two months earlier this year without winning consecutive games – it was 6-10 from Dec. 14 through Feb. 13. But it closed the regular season by winning five of its last six – something N.C. State hasn’t done since 1988. This win made it six out of seven heading into a quarterfinal matchup against a Duke team State handled by 12 two months ago.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of their players and fans thought it was a fluke,” Freeman said. “If we do it again and beat them twice, they can’t say it’s a fluke.”

Fluke wins and fluke losses seem to be the hallmark of this program under Gottfried. Four days after beating North Carolina by a dozen in Chapel Hill, the Pack lost by 16 to a Boston College team that finished the season 13-19. State enjoyed a court-storming beating of Duke, and also lost by double digits on the same court to Clemson. The Pack has won two of its last five against the Blue Devils – and three of its last six against a Wake Forest program that is near a historic low ebb.

That’s how N.C. State has lost at least seven ACC games in all four seasons under Gottfried, and at least 11 games overall each year. And that’s how N.C. State hasn’t been seeded higher than eighth in its three NCAA appearances under Gottfried.

Of course, at least the Pack is back in the Dance on a regular basis. It never made it in five seasons under predecessor Sidney Lowe.

Under Gottfried, N.C. State has been a tough out in this tournament. It has advanced to the semifinals every year, despite never being seeded higher than No. 5. This year, as a No. 7, it must beat the hottest team in the league. Duke is on an 11-game winning streak.

Anthony Barber finished with a career-high 34 points in N.C. State's win over Pittsburgh. (USAT)
Anthony Barber finished with a career-high 34 points in N.C. State's win over Pittsburgh. (USAT)

But N.C. State is only slightly less hot. And it has one of the hotter players in the league in Barber.

In January, the sophomore point guard went seven straight games scoring in single digits and attempted a total of two 3-point shots. That’s when Gottfried pulled Barber aside and told him the team needed more offense.

“Coach Gottfried told him, ‘We recruited you to be a scoring point guard,’ “ associate head coach Bobby Lutz said. “He did a great job giving him confidence to be more aggressive.”

Said Barber: “Coach kept telling me, ‘You’re great, so be great.’ “

Since Jan. 31, he’s been pretty great. Barber has averaged 17.6 points and 4.4 assists over the last 10 games. He’s also made 19 3-pointers in 36 attempts.

“He was making 3s in practice and it wasn’t translating into games,” Lutz said. “Now it is.”

Barber made four 3s in the first half against Pitt, on his way to a career-high 34 points for the game. In the second half leading scorer Lacey stepped forward and finished with 21.

If guards are golden at tournament time, North Carolina State has a 24-carat tandem. And as usual, Mark Gottfried’s team seems to be shedding its habitual inconsistency just in time.

The coach hasn’t wasted any time on his shadow, instead spending his time tinkering and cajoling until he has a contender. Now his team is just a shadow of its mid-winter self, and that’s a good thing.