It's no secret that NC State's basketball program is not in a good spot right now. The Wolfpack is 12-9 overall and just 2-5 in ACC action. State has lost five of their last six games, and with no marquee wins to its credit the Pack needs to go an incredible run over the final nine games of the year to boost its postseason chances.
The Pack though has played well down the stretch under head coach Sidney Lowe before. His first team reached the finals of the ACC Tournament and third round of the NIT Tournament. Last year's squad won six of its last eight games. Lowe's second team though also lost nine games in a row to close the season.
What does NC State need to do to finish strongly? There are several areas that need to be turned around quickly.
Defending from start to finish
Freshman guard Lorenzo Brown was blunt after the Pack lost at North Carolina.
"We got to be physical. Our defense was horrible," Brown said.
The numbers bear it out. Against ACC teams, NC State has allowed three different opponents, Duke, Florida State and UNC, to score 50 or more points in the second half. That led to a season-high scoring outputs in ACC games for all three of those squads.
A fourth, Boston College, came close with 47 points. NC State is allowing 76.3 points per game in ACC games, 11th in the ACC ahead of just Wake Forest.
Where can the Pack improve? It can start by forcing some turnovers. NC State is forcing just 10.4 in ACC games, fourth fewest in the conference. The bigger problem though is the Pack is not forcing tough shots. ACC teams are shooting 47.1 percent against NCSU. To put that in perspective, that is better than the ACC's leading field goal percentage offense in conference games only (Virginia Tech at 46.7 percent).
NC State has flashed good defense at times. They shut down Clemson in the first half and held them to just 60 points, a conference-low for the Tigers. UNC scored just 34 points in the first half on the Pack, and 13 of those came off offensive rebounds. FSU had only 28 points in the first half as well. Consistent defensive efforts though has been lacking.
"Our defense at times has been pretty good," Lowe said. "The first half of the Carolina game, we held them to 37 percent shooting, and that was with [UNC getting] 14 offensive rebounds and 13 second-chance points. They still shot 37 percent, which is great [for NCSU]."
Avoid shooting slumps
Lowe was asked after his team's 84-64 loss at North Carolina last Saturday what the team needed to change to get on a roll, and he pointed to some offensive woes that have been plaguing the Pack at times.
"Scoring definitely has to change," Lowe said. "We've had the last couple of games where we just haven't been able to score the ball. You can rely on your defense a great deal, but you have to be able to score the basketball. We need some guys to make shots.
"In the situation today, we had the situation in the second half of the Clemson game where we had guys go cold and miss a lot of wide open shots whether it's inside or outside. We need to score the ball. We haven't been scoring the way we had earlier."
In four of the Pack's seven ACC games, NCSU has shot less than 30 percent in one half. Not coincidentally, they are 0-4 in those contests. In NC State's two conference wins, they shot 51.5 and 45.0 percent respectively. In four of its five losses, they have been under 40.0 percent.
NC State has capable scorers. Senior Tracy Smith is one of the best low-post scorers in the conference, and sophomore wing Scott Wood is a dangerous three-point threat. What would greatly aid the Pack's offense is the continued development of freshmen guards Brown and Ryan Harrow. Both are scorers who can create opportunities for themselves and others. Brown's 20-point, 7-assist outburst against UNC may be the breakout performance he needed for a strong stretch run.
Get back to rebounding
In 12 of NC State's first 17 games, the Pack outrebounded their opponent. With physical players like Smith and sophomore forward Richard Howell and an athletic forward in freshman C.J. Leslie, State should be able to hold their own on the boards against most teams.
Rebounding though has been a problem lately. Since crushing Wake Forest 47-22 on the boards, the Pack has only outrebounded one of their next six opponents. NC State hit rock-bottom on the boards against UNC. The Heels outrebounded the Wolfpack 34-18 in the first half alone and finished with a 53-39 edge on the boards.
"We need more guys to be aggressive and rebound the ball better," Lowe admitted. "We were at a point where we were out-rebounding our opponents, but now we are getting killed on the boards. Those are our bigs getting in there and getting rebounds.
"We might have it where C.J. Leslie might get seven, eight rebounds, and he normally is up there getting a few. Richard [Howell] will get a few. We need Tracy Smith and DeShawn Painter to get some boards for us. We need Scott Wood to go in and get some boards. We need to rebound the ball better.