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Wolfpack’s suddenly struggling again

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N.C. State will limp into February, figuratively and literally.

The Wolfpack has lost two straight, both in lackluster fashion, after appearing to right the ship with three straight wins only a week earlier.

There are only two things consistent about the Pack: They have suffered a bevy of injuries throughout the season and the team continues to struggle mightily behind the 3-point line.

“We have got to get better, which I will take as a coach,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said after dropping a 75-65 decision at home Monday to North Carolina. “We are halfway through our season being 5-5 in the ACC. We have 10 games left and we have to figure it out pretty quickly.”

The home loss to North Carolina, a middling team with injury woes that would put the Wolfpack’s problems to shame, was remarkable only in the fact that N.C. State never showed a real inclination to get over the hump whenever the game was still within a possession or two. 

When the Wolfpack needed a vital score, shots clanged off the rim. When the shots went down, the Tar Heels summarily went to the other end of the court and countered — usually without the type of tribulations N.C. State seemed to go through just to simply bring the game back within reach.

North Carolina strolled into Raleigh with two things going for it — the Tar Heels had nothing to lose and they were playing in a venue where none of the current players have ever lost. N.C. State looked like a team that did not have the wherewithal to compete with a big dog, although this season’s version of the Tar Heels look nothing like recent UNC squads.

As things went south for N.C. State, the sold-out crowd at PNC Arena had an exasperation that was palpable.

“I’m not going to say it’s deflating, but we have to get better, and we need everyone back on the floor and everyone healthy and on the same page, and obviously we aren’t there,” Keatts said.

There is, however, early signs of a sense of urgency that is beginning to show. The Pack is suddenly at the halfway point in the league season, and its next game is in February — which will be against a Louisville squad that is significantly better than any ACC team N.C. State has faced and may ultimately prove to be the toughest opponent on the schedule.

Sorting itself out is an immediate need and it comes at the worst time, not there is much time remaining.

“We’re 5-5 (in the ACC) right now,” N.C. State forward D.J. Funderburk said. “Like I told the guys, if we keep letting them slip, we’re going to get the NIT. We need to lock in now, like right now. We’re going to get back into the gym and try to focus on those things.”

Funderburk, with his 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting, was a bright spot against UNC. C.J. Bryce was N.C. State’s leading scorer heading into Saturday’s game at Georgia Tech, but consecutive scoreless games from the senior have come at the worst possible time. Manny Bates blocked five shots, but he is still recovering from a concussion and his minutes were limited.

“When you have so many guys that miss for whatever reason — C.J. Bryce missed a lot of games, Manny Bates has missed some games, and we don’t have guys playing right — we aren’t clicking on all cylinders and you would hope that you would be since we’re almost into February, but our issue is our issue,” Keatts said.

The third-year head coach has preached patience throughout the season. Keatts has urged all not to panic as N.C. State tries to find its way.

The words after yet another rivalry loss were similar, but Monday’s performance also means that N.C. State is in the last vestiges of a softer portion of the ACC schedule. The Wolfpack needs to find itself soon or missing the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season and fourth time in five years will likely be in the cards.

It is all in front of N.C. State, but it will not be easy.

“We have to take one game at a time,” Keatts said. “There’s a lot of basketball to be played and a lot of teams that can determine our fate whether we win or lose those games. We play some really good teams at home at PNC Arena and some guys on the road. We need to fix our issues like mental and physical toughness if we want to win those games. That’s what it’ll come down to. On any given night, any team in this league can beat you but you can beat anyone as well.”

Rob McLamb of Inside Pack Sports has covered N.C. State athletics and recruiting since 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @RobMcLamb.