State's test is more mental than physical
Posted January 11, 2013
Updated January 12, 2013
Heck of a film from the early 1950's, if for no other reason than the presence of a young Grace Kelly. Gary Cooper plays a former town Marshall who decides to ditch it all to marry Kelly, a pacifist. Only problem, a criminal he brought to justice got away from the hangman's noose due to a legal technicality and he's coming back to town to exact his revenge. Cooper now has a choice; leave town with his bride -- knowing that he'll always live in fear of being hunted down -- or stay and fight.
Saturday at PNC Arena, at high noon, North Carolina State has a chance to make their own statement when the top-ranked and unbeaten Duke Blue Devils come calling. Ultimately, there's not a lot of difference between these two teams. In terms of sheer talent, you'd have to give the edge to the Wolfpack -- especially when you consider the Devils' loss of Ryan Kelly to a foot injury. But, the way each club arrived at this date could not be more different. Duke, even without a healthy Seth Curry, rang up about as impressive a first two months of the season as you could possibly imagine.
The Blue Devils beat -- and at times dominated -- Louisville, Kentucky, Ohio State, VCU, Minnesota and Temple; every one an NCAA tournament team. And, they did so while breaking in a brand new point guard and a freshman wing who were both critical to Duke's long-term success. When you consider the opposition they've faced the fact that their team is 15-0 is a remarkable accomplishment.
Meanwhile, there's nothing to sneeze at with regards to NC State's 13-2 record. They haven't lost a game in nearly 6 weeks, they're one of the best -- maybe the best -- offensive teams in the country and every single player on their team knows exactly what they're supposed to do. There is no defining roles for this group. There aren't too many teams that start two seniors AND two juniors while also bringing a pair of spectacular freshman into the mix.
So why is it that the Wolfpack haven't played a single great game against a good team?
I'm not dismissing 13-2. And, I'm not downplaying them as a team. But point to the game, against a quality opponent, in which you saw a team that was ready to lay the wood. In every game of significance so far this year, NC State has left a lot to be desired. The Wolfpack have played two teams that I'm positive will be in the NCAA tournament and were squashed each time. Oklahoma State and Michigan each had their way with the Pack in a 10-day span in November.
Since, NC State has played decently in wins over Connecticut, Stanford and Georgia Tech, but to characterize it any other way would be disingenuous. They simply haven't been great at any time this year against good competition. What's scary, is that if they roll out their A-game, I don't think Duke can touch them -- in fact, if NC State put it all together, I'm not sure they're not the best team in nation. If you base anything on future professional potential, every single player in their top six could end up being drafted in June -- yes, this June.
However, beating Duke on Saturday is going to be far more the mental exercise than a physical test.
This is not to diminish the physical skills of the Blue Devils. Mason Plumlee is a legitimate favorite for national player of the year honors. Seth Curry is a terrific player and a great, clutch shooter and Quin Cook is establishing himself as an explosive, trustworthy floor general for Mike Krzyzewski. And, in spite of the fact that the red-hot Ryan Kelly will not be available, the Blue Devils are talented enough to win.
To me, the difference will be how the Wolfpack handle the moment. While this is far from the biggest game they'll play all year long, State has two battles to wage. Aside from the Devils, the Pack will be dealing with the weight of expectations. Maybe I'm wrong, but I view this as a game that NC State should win.
And, in a very real way, that's what makes it harder.
It's one thing to perform well as a capable and dangerous underdog. State enjoyed that role in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. It's easy to relax without the weight of those expectations. But, that's not the way it's going to be when the Devils and Pack hit the floor a few hours from now. In a way, I think the Wolfpack might have been better served with the first meeting at Cameron Indoor, where the pressure of protecting your home court in a battle between the two best teams in the conference sits on someone else's shoulders. It's a subtle difference, but, in my opinion, not without significance.
In order to be great as a team you need to have all of the physical pieces -- well, at least enough of them -- and there's no denying that NC State has enough in their talent arsenal. But, to truly achieve all you want, the psychological side needs to be along for the ride. Dealing with the big moments, rising to the occasion against the best, keeping composure when things aren't going well.
How will the Wolfpack handle the first few inevitable bad calls that will cause the twittersphere to melt?
That's the element that all championship teams have. The pressure of the moment is more on NC State than Duke at high noon. How the Pack handles the moment will tell us a lot about what's to come the rest of the season.
As in the movie, when the Devils arrive at High Noon, I think the guys in red and white are ready to take a stand. It's State's game to win. I think they will.