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There are sections of games where N.C. State looks formidable, but those stretches don’t last long enough and have not shown up in enough contests to keep the Wolfpack away from the dreaded NCAA Tournament bubble.
The Pack traveled to Chapel Hill for Tuesday’s game and it was North Carolina that completed a season sweep. The Tar Heels, mired in a seven-game losing streak and without a victory since winning at N.C. State on Jan. 27, made all the plays necessary late in Tuesday’s 85-79 triumph that left the Wolfpack 17-11 overall and 8-9 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I told my guys after the game that we played extremely hard tonight,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts. “The unfortunate thing was (that) we came up with the short end of the stick. Give Carolina credit; I thought they finished the game much better than we did.”
It was a dream start in Chapel Hill for the Wolfpack, who led 10-0 almost four minutes into the game. The Tar Heels hung around and took a three-point lead into intermission after a late first-half turnover allowed UNC the chance to extend its advantage instead of N.C. State taking the final shot.
“I thought, at halftime, we should have gotten the last shot,” Keatts said. “We had two turnovers under 30 seconds, which certainly didn’t help us because all the momentum was to Carolina when we went into the half.”
N.C. State led 52-45 with 14 minutes remaining but North Carolina then used a 22-4 run over the next six-plus minutes to seize control. The Tar Heels took the lead for good when graduate transfer Christian Keeling hit a jumper with 11:14 remaining.
Keeling, who was recruited by Keatts when he announced his decision to transfer from Charleston Southern after last season, scored eight points in a stretch of less than three minutes to help the Heels create separation.
“We just weren’t paying attention to details,” N.C. State wing C.J. Bryce said of UNC’s decisive run. “I feel like we played hard on defense but let them get a couple of easy baskets. It’s a game of runs, but they had more runs than us tonight.”
After the euphoria of last week’s comprehensive home win over Duke, the Wolfpack has now suffered consecutive close losses at home against Florida State and at North Carolina. A chance to become firmly entrenched in the NCAA Tournament discussion slipped away and N.C. State, with three games left in the regular season, likely has to play its way in.
“Yeah, just don’t let this one affect the next one,” N.C. State forward D.J. Funderburk said. “We can’t let the next game slip away, and then we’ve got another game after that and then finish the season at home against Wake Forest. We’ve got to lock back in. We get back in the gym Thursday to get ready for Pitt.”
To get back to the joy of last week’s 88-66 win over Duke it will take a concerted effort that extends for the duration of the game and not simply certain spells.
“I thought we did a lot of good things, but I didn’t think we played particularly smart,” Keatts said. “We turned the ball over at key spots of the game that I didn’t like.
“Unfortunately, we lost a game (Tuesday night). It’s not going to define us. We’ve got plenty of basketball to go, and I like where my team is right now. We’ll bounce back, and we’ll move on.”
N.C. State football players and coaches are getting to know each other and know themselves.
The Wolfpack will enter the spring with five new coaches and there will almost certainly be some schematic changes. In alphabetic order, the new faces are Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay (nickels), Tim Beck (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks), Joe DeForest (safeties), Brian Mitchell (cornerbacks) and Charley Wiles (defensive line).
Excluding strength and conditioning coach Dantonio Burnette, the Pack will enter the 2020 campaign with one assistant coach who has been with the program longer than two seasons.
It is the second year in a row which has seen significant change on head coach Dave Doeren’s staff, so he will enter his eighth season at N.C. State with a reference point on how to handle the infusion of new blood.
“The year before (2019) I had four new coaches, this year five,” Doeren said. “It is the most I’ve had, I guess, in my tenure other than year one, but I feel like I kind of went through this a year ago in a different way.”
What does Doeren expect from his new staff as N.C. State looks to rebound from last year’s 4-8 season that snapped a streak of five consecutive bowl appearances? He wants the assistant coaches to take an approach similar to an auto mechanic.
“I’ve asked both offensive and defensive sides of the ball to break apart our systems, similar to taking a car apart,” Doeren said. “Get to know everything about it before we put it back together. Don’t just say, ‘We are going to run this play.’
“Let’s make sure the guys can run that play, and so building an offense and defense around the talent we have and then evolving it as we go.”
The new coaches have plenty of work to do. The dead period prior to the beginning of spring camp is beneficial in some ways for NC State despite the obvious need for an influx of depth in the program.
While there will not be a slew of recruits to visit the campus in the coming days, the time will be occupied with learning opportunities and getting acquainted.
“This time of year is about player development,” Doeren continued. “It is about Xs and Os for us studying our systems. Studying other people, watching NFL film, watching other colleges, learning from each other, ‘clinic-ing’ each other, spending as much time as we can with our guys.”
Doeren and his staff will invest plenty of time with the players in the coming weeks. It is about building bridges.
“Watching them lift weights or going to a morning run with them, showing up in the dining hall and spending time, going over to the tutoring center seeing how they are doing, having them over to your house, just doing things to build the chemistry you want on your football team,” Doeren said.
Once N.C. State knows what it has, or at least has a better picture when the 2020 squad hits the practice field, that is when familiarity will be key.
Then the discovery process begins in earnest. The coaching staff will then have to show its flexibility as things develop if the Wolfpack is to improve in 2020.
“When we get into spring ball and somebody is going to be better than they were,” Doeren said. “Then now we can do a few more things over here, and some of it won’t be clear because some of those parts aren’t on the field in the spring, unfortunately, with the injuries we have. It is going to be a slow process. It is going to be a lot about fundamentals, technique and effort. It’s going to grow as we go.”
Rob McLamb of Inside Pack Sports has covered N.C. State athletics and recruiting since 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @RobMcLamb.