1) Effort vs. execution
Effort was a problem for N.C. State before coach Mark Gottfried was hired. "Was" as in past tense, and Saturday's loss to Virginia is the latest proof of how far a State team, made up of essentially the same players as a year ago, has come on the effort front.
Any of Rich Howell's nine offensive rebounds, or the three jump-ball tie-ups on Virginia's end of the floor he caused, qualify as proof, but there's also the matter of State's defensive effort as a team in the second half.
Virginia's a low-scoring team, 243rd in the country, by coach Tony Bennett's design, but the Cavaliers scored 38 points in the first half, on some incredible shooting (15 of 25). But State responded in the second half by holding the Cavaliers to 4 of 18 and 23 points.
"If they play that hard every night, we're going to win a lot of games this year," Gottfried said. "We have won a lot of games; we're going to win a lot more. The effort, that's your takeaway from tonight's game, there's no question."
It was the kind of "phenomenal" effort, as Gottfried put it, you would expect from a team fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament (see Point 2) and it was the kind of desperate effort most of Sidney Lowe's five teams either severely lacked or did not have the wherewithal to summon at the appropriate moment.
But effort didn't lose the game on Saturday; poor shooting did. And, yes, Virginia is one of the most disciplined defenses in the country, but the Cavaliers are not particularly talented, nor do they have one especially dominant defender, as UNC does in John Henson.
Virginia just makes you earn every shot, like the one on State's last possession, which was a contested 3-pointer at the buzzer that didn't hit the rim.
State finished 2 of 15 from the 3-point line, its worst performance in seven ACC games, and second-worst of the season. The Pack was 1 of 8 in a 60-58 win over Princeton, a game in which it didn't have its best 3-point shooter, Scott Wood, for 36 minutes because of an ankle injury.
Wood was 2-for-8 on Saturday, which means the rest of the team was 0-for-7. It wasn't a matchup problem for Wood, either; he was mostly being defended by Sammy Zeglinski, a shorter player. UVa, with its team principles, gets some credit for Wood's poor shooting, but not all of it.
"I just didn't make shots," Wood said. "Personally, a lot of it's on me. That's why I'm there. I'm not there to be Ben Wallace in the paint and block every shot. I'm there to knock down shots, and I didn't do that tonight."
State's real shooting woes were where UVa couldn't defend — the foul line. In a one-point loss, that can't happen. In the first six ACC games, State hit 72.1 percent (80 of 111) of its free throws. Against UVa, it made 57.1 percent (12 of 21), compared with 69.6 percent (16 of 23) by the Hoos.
"We had a night where we had some great looks and we couldn't make a shot," Gottfried said. "We're a terrific foul-shooting team, and we couldn't make a foul shot."
2) On the outside looking in
The loss to UNC on Thursday was a two-by-four to the skull, but the Virginia loss was a straight shot to the solar plexus.
No one should have expected State to beat the best team in the ACC on the road on Thursday, but Saturday's game — against a team in both its conference and RPI peer group (both teams started the week in the 50s in the RPI) — was a must-win.
Now, State needs to put on its work boots to end a five-year NCAA tournament drought, a position that could have been avoided by winning some/any/all of the winnable games (Indiana, Stanford, Virginia, Vanderbilt), nevermind the pie-in-the-sky wouldas and couldas against UNC or Syracuse.
Despite UVa's national ranking (No. 19 in the AP top 25), it was in the same bubble as State. The Hoos started the week at No. 53 in the RPI, compared with No. 55 for State. Bennett's team picked up a nice nonconference win over Michigan (28 in the RPI) and a decent win at Oregon (62), but it needs more meaningful ACC wins. And now it has one over State, and the two teams won't play again in the regular season.
Bennett's third team is in better position to make the NCAA tournament after last night's win than it has been at any point during the season. The opposite is true for State.
Realistically, State could be 18-4, with wins over Indiana, Stanford and Virginia. Instead, the Pack is 15-7 with its best wins out of the league over Texas (70), St. Bonaventure (85) and Princeton (108) and wins inside the league over Miami (67) and Maryland (96). That's not going to get it done on Selection Sunday.
At 4-3 in the ACC, State has nine league games left but really only three that will matter to the selection committee — at Duke, No. 2 in the RPI, on Feb. 16, and at home against No. 23 Florida State (Feb. 18) and No. 13 UNC (Feb. 21).
State also has a pair of land-mine games on the road at Clemson (Feb. 25) and at Virginia Tech (March 4), but neither of those would qualify as quality wins. Clemson and Virginia Tech are hard-working but extremely limited offensive teams. Their seasons will end in the NIT. State has to find one or two wins against Duke-FSU-UNC to avoid the same fate.
3) Big players play big ...
UNC is the only other ACC team with two players as talented as State's Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie. Brown and Leslie are All-ACC caliber players with NBA potential. They've each had shining moments in the first 21 games and have played well with State's complementary parts (Scott Wood, C.J. Williams and Rich Howell), but in order for State to beat good teams — and Virginia qualifies as one — those two guys have to be on.
Leslie, with Henson nowhere in a 20-mile radius, was on his game against UVa. He produced a team-best 17 points, with three really good assists, in 33 minutes. It was a nice bounceback effort from Leslie, after he predictably struggled with the bigger Henson and UNC on Thursday, and the latest sign of his progress and maturity as a sophomore.
But Brown, who has been fantastic for most of the season, finished with eight points, four assists and four turnovers in 37 minutes. State needs more from him, and not just on the last possession. (You have to tip your hat to UVa on that play; they just defended Brown well).
Brown was being defended by Jontel Evans for most of the game. Evans is a strong point guard, a football player really moonlighting in basketball, but he's only 5-11. Brown, who's a legit 6-4, needed to be more aggressive in shooting over Evans and/or posting him up on the low block. I counted only one possession where Brown posted him up, and he immediately passed it back out to the 3-point line, to Leslie of all people.
Brown finished Saturday's game without a trip to the free-throw line. Gottfried questioned the contact on the last play by Akil Mitchell, but officiating is not the reason Brown didn't attempt a free throw in the entire game. His unwillingness to take the ball to the basket with a purpose is why.
Bottom line, Brown and Leslie have to be great for State to be great, and only half of the equation was there on Saturday.