Three Points from N.C. State's 86-84 loss at Wake Forest on Tuesday:
1) No one to blame but N.C. State
Let's get this out of the way: Referees Les Jones, Ed Corbett and Ted Valentine were not good on Tuesday. There were too many fouls called, 44 in all, and there was no consistency to the calls.
That being said, the refs were not the reason N.C. State lost the game, they're not even one of the top two reasons N.C. State lost the game. N.C. State lost because its defense was bad in the second half (Wake scored 51 points) and it couldn't make consecutive free throws or an open shot when it had to.
N.C. State missed four field goals in the final 26 seconds that would have tied the game or given them the lead. C.J. Leslie missed three of four free throws in the final 61 seconds. Leslie went to the line down 83-81 with 1:01 left and made one free throw. He went back to the line with 29 seconds left, down 83-82 and missed both free throws.
Leslie also missed a contested layup, Rodney Purvis, who was otherwise superb, missed an open 8-footer and Scott Wood missed an open 3-pointer, all in the final 26 seconds.
The Wolfpack's defense was just as culpable in defeat. Wake shot almost 60 percent in the second half (19 of 32) and scored 51 points, despite scoring only four points (all on free throws) in the final 4:11 of the game.
To put those 51 second-half points in perspective, Wake scored 44 in a loss at Clemson last week. That's 44 points in the entire game, Wake had also 35 in the first half on Tuesday.
State's defensive problems began on the interior and spread to the outside. For the second straight game, a forward named "Devin" destroyed N.C. State.
Freshman forward Devin Thomas couldn't quite top Clemson's Devin Booker's 27 points from Sunday but Thomas finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds. Thomas had nine offensive boards and was 10 of 13 from the floor. That's way too easy, especially for a freshman against veteran players.
The fouls had an effect on how State defended Thomas in the post but N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried could have used 7-footer Jordan Vandenberg more. Vandenberg played 12 mostly effective minutes in the first half, while Leslie sat out with foul trouble, but then only two in the second half.
Thomas still had 12 points in the first half but Gottfried would have been better off using all five of Vandenberg's fouls on Thomas, who was 5 of 11 from the free-throw line.
2) But about the officials
The problem with calling every little foul early in the game is you set a precedent. Then when you stop calling every little foul, there's no consistency. That's why it's best just to let the players decide the game, instead of trying to micromanage every bit of contact.
Touch fouls were called in the first half while considerable contact was ignored in the second half. Valentine, in particular, was unpredictable, to say the least.
On one botched call at 9:24 in the first half, Valentine awarded Purvis two foul shots after a made basket. Either the basket should have counted and Purvis should have gone to the line for one shot or Purvis should have been sent to the line for a one-and-one on Wake's seventh team foul. Instead, Valentine ignored the made basket and inexplicably awarded Purvis two shots (he made them both).
On another first-half call, about 5 minutes later, Valentine came from the opposite side of the floor to make a call on Vandenberg contesting a shot under the basket. Maybe Valentine had a better view than Jones, who was standing 3 feet from the play, but that's not Valentine's call.
"Come on, Les, you can't let that guy do that," Gottfried said to Jones after Valentine's foul call.
On two different calls, Valentine blew his whistle and put his arms out and palms up to indicate he needed help from either Jones or Corbett. To most fans, that "I don't know, help me" pose typified Valentine's night.
Valentine, by the way, has worked two N.C. State games this season and the Wolfpack has lost both games. Valentine whistled Leslie for a charge in the final minute of the Michigan loss on Nov. 27, which derailed any hope of an N.C. State win in that game.
Valentine held onto his whistle while Leslie went to the rim with 12 seconds left. Given Leslie had just missed three free throws, it actually looked like Wake's Aaron Rountree was trying to foul Leslie on the play but there was no call.
Jones, who I think is a good official, also worked N.C. State's foulfest at Boston College on Jan. 5
3) A crossroads for N.C. State
N.C. State has a choice to make: Does it want to be good or great?
State can keep going on the current path — good at home, incompetent on the road — and watch its season end in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Or it can decide to follow senior Richard Howell's lead and leave its best effort on the court in every game.
There is no dominant team in the ACC or the country this season. There's no reason, with its talent and experience, N.C. State can't win the ACC or go to the Final Four. That's the opportunity that N.C. State has, which is a rare one when you consider how good UNC and Duke have been on both fronts for the better part of 30 years.
But N.C. State needs to make a choice. C.J. Leslie and Scott Wood need to make a choice. Leslie and Wood were two of the main reasons N.C. State beat Duke on Jan. 12. They are also two of the main reasons N.C. State has lost two times in three game since.
All players miss shots, it's a fact and no one should blame Wood for missing at the end of the Maryland game or the Wake game. Same for Leslie's problems from the free-throw line on Tuesday.
But both players need to be more involved. They have to take ownership in this team, otherwise, there will be more bad losses to bad teams, and even more painful ones to good teams.
It's N.C. State's choice, and no one else's, and the Wolfpack has 12 ACC games left to make it.