The end and the season, in a nutshell
Posted March 21
Microcosm (noun): "A situation regarded as encapsulating in miniature the characteristic qualities or features of something much larger."
Thursday night's loss to Saint Louis was a microcosm of NC State's season. Something that, ultimately, should have been better. Just like the whole of Mark Gottfried's third season. The record should have been a little bit better, State should have handled situations a little bit better – certainly toward the end of the year – and Thursday night should have gone just a little bit better.
If you're one that buys into preconceived notions and that what the media guessed in October was the gospel then you're probably satisfied with this year's 22-14 season. Heck, almost everyone that wore sneakers for the Wolfpack a year ago packed up and moved away. The Mensa members who cover the league (a group to which I belong) picked State to finish 10th. And, as a result, very few expected an NCAA Tournament bid for this team.
However, things didn't quite turn out the way we all thought they would and, in the end, I would term this season almost, but not quite, a disappointment. Boston College, Maryland and Notre Dame were all thought to be NCAA Tournament-worthy teams. In fact, the Fighting Irish began the season in the top 25. As it played out, all three of those schools proved to be, well, less than we imagined, as they provided their own microcosm of what this season eventually became here in the ACC.
Oh, and the the player of the year, T.J. Warren? He didn't make the preseason All-ACC team, as the rocket scientists chose five others to honor. Had we all known that Warren was going to set the league on fire from a scoring standpoint I'm guessing he'd have been chosen in the top five in October and, in turn, we'd have also though more highly of State's chances to finish in the upper half of the conference.
Thursday night, like the rest of the season, should have ended better. The Wolfpack enjoyed the following leads.
16 points with 8:13 left in regulation.
14 points with 5:03 to play.
Eight points with 1:31 to go.
Six points with 1:03 left.
It was a game they should have won. However, for at least the fifth time this year, critical errors and a lack of attention to detail cost them a victory. The only difference is that this loss carried with it the finality of the season – and almost assuredly, the end of the T.J. Warren era, brief as it were. Not that Warren doesn't bear some of the blame for the outcome, because four of T.J.'s eight missed free throws came in the final 5:03.
Still, given Warren's dominance, especially in conference play, this was a season that should have featured more wins, Thursday night's among them. State should have beaten Missouri in December. They should have won at Wake Forest. They should have closed out the Orange at Syracuse. And, with Warren scoring a career high (at least at the time), they should have won the second game against North Carolina. They lost them all.
The Pack should, by all rights, be preparing for a matchup with the defending champions on Saturday. Alas, that is not the case, and the way this played out is going to sting for a long time. You can talk all day long about free throws, and you'd be correct, because missing 11 of 20 freebies in the final 5:03 is a major factor in why the Wolfpack is boarding a plane as opposed to heading to the gym. But, they also committed four fouls in the last three minutes, three of them when State was massaging a multiple-possession lead.
Then there were the turnovers, two of them late, a propensity to panic against pressure and an unfocused defense that yielded five Saint Louis layups over that critical stretch, just adding to the pain and misery of all of those missed free throws.
Mike Krzyzewski was right when he said that Mark Gottfried did a great job with this group. After losing so much and being so young at the start of the year, it is encouraging that they were in position to do so well. This wasn't a great N.C. State team, we all know that. I'm not sure that it was even a very good N.C. State team. But Warren? He is a great player. And there was enough around him to take advantage of his greatness. This season could have, should have been better. Even if just a little bit.
Just like Thursday night. And, just a little bit would have gone a long, long way in Orlando.