The NC State men's basketball squad has been a second-half team through the midway point of the season, having outscored its opponents after intermission in 11 of 15 games - including eight of the last nine - en route to an 11-4 mark as of Jan. 7.
On the other hand, poor shooting and long scoring lulls in the first half have also been trends. NC State shot less than 45 percent in the first half in 11 games, including less than 40 percent in five contests. Conversely, the Wolfpack shot better than 50 percent in the opening half just three times.
That inconsistency is one area coach Sidney Lowe and the Wolfpack players want to fix going into the ACC season, which starts in earnest against Virginia on Saturday, Jan. 9. (The Wolfpack lost 67-59 to Wake Forest Dec. 20 in the conference opener.)
Lowe said playing a complete game for 40 minutes has been a challenge.
"But that is going to be all year long because of the teams that we play," Lowe said. "These teams aren't going to lay down. They are going to keep coming at you. It's a game of runs. It is just some of the things that we do in those runs."
NC State built big first-half leads against Winthrop and North Carolina Greensboro in consecutive late-December games, only to allow both teams to climb back into the game. Lowe said that's just a mark of a young team.
"It's one of those things that you have to get through," said Lowe. "There are lessons to be learned. To be a good ballclub, you have to learn how to win. That means in late games, you have to learn how to do it, but also when you are up, to turn that screw, and really put the nail in them. We haven't gotten to that point yet. You have to turn and keep the focus."
Junior point guard Javier Gonzalez agreed that the Wolfpack hasn't played a complete game - yet.
"If we played the whole 40 minutes the way we are supposed to, then I think we'd be undefeated right now," Gonzalez said. "Sometimes you get a big lead, and you don't really keep focused, and the intensity goes down. A team will make a little run and get back in the game.
"We just have to be mentally strong and concentrate the whole game. We have to keep the same effort throughout the whole game."
NC State has gone through point guard flux the last two years, but junior Javi Gonzalez has taken ownership of the position and is producing. The native of Puerto Rico talked in the preseason of being more focused and mature, and he has lived up to his words.
Gonzalez is third on the team in scoring with 11.2 points per game, and leads the Wolfpack with 5.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game. He is second with 23 three-pointers made (39.7 percent) and is surprisingly third with 4.6 rebounds a contest. The 5-11, 175-pounder, however, does have 49 turnovers.
Sophomore Julius Mays backs up Gonzalez and sometimes plays with him to provide a second ball handler on the court. Mays has averaged 6.2 points and 2.2 assists in 21.3 minutes of action per game. The 6-3, 187-pound guard is struggling from the field, shooting 36.2 percent - which is nearly 10 percentage points lower than a year ago.
He scored a season-high 16 points against Georgia State in the season opener Nov. 12, had 15 points against Holy Cross on Wednesday and added 11 points apiece against Georgia Southern on Dec. 12 and at Arizona on Dec. 23.
Sophomore C.J. Williams and fifth-year senior Farnold Degand have been splitting minutes at shooting guard, though the former has started every game. The 6-6, 218-pound Williams is averaging 5.1 points and 2.7 rebounds in 22.9 minutes of action. He has reached double figures in three games, with a season-high 12 against New Orleans Nov. 29 and at Arizona.
Degand also adds a second ball handler on the court, thanks to his point guard background. The 6-4, 170-pounder missed the first six games because of an academic-related suspension by Lowe, though he was eligible by NCAA standards. Degand emerged during the four-game stretch of Winthrop, North Carolina Greensboro, Florida and Holy Cross (Dec. 29 through Jan. 6), averaging 25.3 minutes per game. He went a combined 7 of 11 from three-point land, and added 35 points and 18 assists during that four-game span.
NC State's frontcourt has settled into a productive unit, headlined by junior center Tracy Smith, who leads the team with averages of 17.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. The low-post force plays bigger than his listed size of 6-8, 247 pounds, and is shooting 56 percent from the field. His passing (16 assists) and shotblocking (17) have also improved, but he'll need to improve upon his free throw shooting (61.7 percent) in ACC action.
Two players have battled to back up Smith, and both are freshmen. Australian Jordan Vandenberg got the start when Smith was suspended for the Arizona game by Lowe, and he snagged 11 rebounds. The 7-1, 238-pound Vandenberg is averaging 1.4 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocked shots in 9.9 minutes per game.
Classmate DeShawn Painter started off playing both power forward and center, but settled into the latter position when freshman power forward Richard Howell returned from knee surgery. The athletic 6-9, 223-pounder is averaging 1.8 points and 1.2 rebounds in 8.3 minutes per game.
Senior power forward Dennis Horner has also had a productive non-conference season, ranking second on the team with averages of 13.5 points and 5.1 rebounds. The lanky 6-9, 218-pound Horner is shooting 52.9 percent from the field and a team-leading 47.2 percent on three-pointers. He has also become an active team leader, and Lowe has often praised him this season for having the right mindset on and off the court.
Horner has scored in double figures in all but three games, including a 23-point effort that helped the Wolfpack escape an upset bid by Elon on Dec. 17.
Howell has shown flashes of his ability after missing the first four contests following preseason knee surgery. He scored a combined 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 34 minutes in back-to-back games against Arizona and Winthrop. The 6-8, 266-pounder is averaging 3.3 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.
Freshman sharpshooter Scott Wood has taken over the small forward position. The 6-7, 170-pounder has started every game and is averaging 7.7 points and 3.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. He is 16 of 33 from three-point range the last five games.
Backup small forward Josh Davis, also a freshman, has been a pleasant surprise with his hustle, defense, ability to run the floor and willingness to hit the offensive boards. The 6-7, 205-pounder from Raleigh is averaging 3.0 points and 2.1 rebounds in 10.9 minutes per game.
Redshirt sophomore Johnny Thomas rounds out the small forwards, but he has played in just two games this year and is still looking for his first basket of the season.
Taking Stock Of The Pack's Schedule
NC State lost to three "name" non-conference opponents - Northwestern, Arizona and Florida - and dropped the ACC opener to Wake Forest to stand 11-4 at the midway point of the season. The losses to the Wildcats and the Gators were at the buzzer.
The Wolfpack went 4-0 in pool play to have the best record in the Glenn Wilkes Classic, including a buzzer-beating 60-58 win over Auburn. The Wolfpack also avoided any upsets by non-BCS schools, with only Elon coming close.
Best Win: NC State overcame a sluggish first half by shooting a stunning 71.4 percent from the field in the second stanza to upset Marquette 77-73 at the Bradley Center Dec. 5. The Pack shot 20 of 28 from the field in the second half, hitting all four of its three-point attempts, to outscore the Golden Eagles 52-37 after intermission.
Junior center Tracy Smith scored 17 of his 19 points in the final 20 minutes and grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds, while junior point guard Javi Gonzalez added 15 points and seven assists, to spark the Wolfpack. Twelve of Gonzalez's points came in the second half.
Toughest Loss: Florida junior forward Chandler Parsons' stunning 75-foot shot at the buzzer that swished through the net to give the Gators a 62-61 overtime victory at the RBC Center Jan. 3 will be talked about for years.
Everything had to break right for Florida to pull off the miracle. NC State elected to foul Florida at every opportunity down the stretch, rather than allowing the Gators to shoot three-pointers to get back in the game.
The first break occurred when Florida sophomore point guard Erving Walker tried to miss his second free throw attempt with three seconds left, only to make it anyway. Florida then fouled fifth-year senior shooting guard Farnold Degand with 2.6 seconds remaining. Degand made the first, but missed the second, and the ball bounced directly to Parsons. Degand tried to affect Parsons' shot, but none of the other players were near him when he let it rip.
Coach Sidney Lowe said it was the toughest loss of his coaching career.
Best Individual Performance: Smith has been an All-ACC performer this season with six games of more than 20 points, including a season-high 23 against Northwestern Dec. 1. He also has five double-doubles in points and rebounds.
Perhaps Smith's best overall game was against Florida in the overtime loss at the RBC Center. He was guarded by two taller opponents, but still battled for 21 points on 9-of-16 shooting and added nine rebounds in the heartbreaking defeat.