by Neil Morris
Cause (n.): 1. anything producing an effect or result
2. a person or thing acting voluntarily or involuntarily as the agent that brings about an effect or result
3. a reason, motive, or ground for some action, feeling, etc.: esp., sufficient reason
Webster's New World College Dictionary Copyright © 2010 by Wiley Publishing, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio. Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Less than 48 hours after snatching defeat from the jaws of sweet victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium, N.C. State faced the second in their three-game ACC gauntlet as Florida State brought their league-leading squad to Raleigh. The result—a 76-62 demolition by the Seminoles that wasn’t even as close as the score suggests—was the sorry consequence of an event that continues to bedevil the Wolfpack, even as they attempt to rebrand it. It was also an occasion for another referee-related incident that, although titillating for both fans and media, is already a red herring diverting attention from the game’s more imperative and ominous lessons.
See if you can detect a theme in the responses given when asked whether Thursday night’s 20-point collapse at Duke had any lingering physical or mental effects on N.C. State’s anemic performance against Florida State.
• “That’s just an excuse. When you play AAU you play four games a day.”—Scott Wood
• “We don’t believe in excuses. That’s in the past. We can’t worry about that.”—C.J. Williams
• [Florida State] played Thursday just like we did. But that’s not an excuse. We just have to wake up and come out and play. We didn’t do that today.”—C.J. Leslie
• “I don’t know if we’re emotionally drained from two nights ago … who knows, we can all guess. Bottom line is no excuses—I’m not interested in any of that. We’ve got to dig down and be better.”—Mark Gottfried
It is admirable for a team to slough off even the hint of pretext when it comes to a bad performance. Still, branding reasons as “excuses” does not make them any less true. You are expected to overcome them, but you don’t always succeed. And the Wolfpack were anything but successful against the Seminoles.
It was clear from the opening minutes that N.C. State was at a disadvantage against the Seminoles, “an experienced, veteran, old group of guys” Pack coach Mark Gottfried called them, borrowing Mike Krzyzewski’s backhanded vernacular. Florida State was bigger, stronger and more poised than the Wolfpack, which never led. A layup by the Seminoles' Ian Miller at the 16:05 mark of the first half gave FSU a lead they never relinquished. Indeed, the score never dropped below double-digits after halftime.
This is not N.C. State’s worst performance of the season—the 29-point thumping at Chapel Hill still carries that ignominious distinction. However, in many ways it’s the most disappointing. Florida State was nationally ranked but thought to be quite beatable, especially at the RBC Center. And, the bullk of the Duke game showed just how good the Wolfpack are capable of playing when firing on all cylinders.
Instead, N.C. State shot a season-low 29 percent (17-58) from the field against the bigger and stronger Seminoles, which outscored the Wolfpack 36-18 in the paint. Add to that 17 turnovers and, even more surprising, N.C. State was outscored in fast break points (15-8) for one of the few times this season.
That last statistic indicates the most troubling mismatch of the game. N.C. State appeared “slow, sluggish,” to quote Gottfried, and as the deficit grew to 20 points midway through the second half, the Pack’s body language became more languid on both ends of the court.
Only an energetic Leslie came to play, scoring a game-high 21 points along with nine rebounds (although he fumbled away five turnovers, also a game-high). Meanwhile, from the field Scott Wood shot 1-for-10, Lorenzo Brown was 2-for-9, and Alex Johnson was 0-for-5.
Even more distressing was the lackluster play of Richard Howell, who never appeared engaged emotionally throughout. Howell gathered 11 rebounds, but he did not manage a single blocked shot and notched as many points as fouls (five each). He shot 1-6 from the field and 3-8 from the free throw line, and he was non-factor against the Seminoles’ big men, particularly Bernard James (12 points, six rebounds, and four blocks).
When asked the gist of Gottfried’s words to the team after the game, Wood replied, “Played like dog crap, basically.” While facing the media later, Gottfried remained apoplectic.
“We just seemed to accept our fate,” he fumed.
“If you want to play in the greatest show on earth, then you better toughen up and you better man up, pal,” said Gottfried with increasing decibels. “There is no other way to look at it. Teams that get to play in March are mentally tough enough to withstand most things and fight their way through it.”
When quizzed directly about whether the Duke debacle carried over to today, Gottfried finally granted a bit of reality.
“It was a quick turnaround after a tough loss, and [when] we walked in yesterday guys were moving slow,” he admitted. “But, I just believe you have to be bigger and better than that. I’m not one of these guys who would just stand up here and say, ‘Hey, we had a tough game the other night, and, boy, that probably contributes.’ My answer is that would be … I can’t say my answer here.”
There were a couple of other notable moments during Gottfried’s post-game presser. Questioned whether Wood’s recent shooting slump—5-for-27 shooting over his last three games—might be attributable to fatigue, Gottfried conceded the point.
“Honestly, he did look a little tired to me today, and maybe he’s played too many minutes,” said Gottfried. “It’s something our staff talked about as soon as the game was over … We need him to be a big shooter, obviously. And he hasn’t been lately.”
Rehashing the topic of N.C. State’s lack of depth would be beating a dead-legged canid. Still, it bears noting that while no Seminole played more than 29 minutes, no Wolfpack starter played less than that amount.
There was another flare-up after Gottfried responded to a question about the importance of the Pack’s current three-game stretch against ranked opponents—which concludes Tuesday night when it hosts a rematch with the Tar Heels.
“I’ve tried my best to convince my team, unlike most people who say … everything rides on these three games, I don’t believe that,” said Gottfried. “But maybe they hear that. I don’t know.”
Minutes later, an intrepid journalist returned to this topic, asking whether it was “nonsensical” to discount the relative significance of matchups against Top 30 competition.
“I think what you’re saying is somewhat nonsensical,” Gottfried shot back. “We lose these three and win the next three, you’re telling me we’re not going to get into the tournament for sure?
“I worked for ESPN … I was told to be an expert. I was told to stand up there and for sure say, ‘THIS IS THE LAW!’ I didn’t know. I’m not going to get on TV and say, 'Oh, I really don’t know what they gotta do.’ What you always have to know about the tournament is we don’t control what other teams are doing.”
Although Gottfried quickly expressed contrition for this mild outburst, both the question and answer make legitimate points. Gottfried doesn’t want his young team to wilt under the pressure of a limited number of games, and he is signaling that he also doesn’t believe their entire season—and postseason prospects—should boil down to a triumvirate of trials.
At the same time, N.C. State is now 0-6 this season against ranked competition (not counting the loss to Indiana, which is currently No. 18 in the AP Top 25). Beating the teams they should beat already separates this Wolfpack squad from last year’s. However, the next step in the program’s aspiring return to prominence is defeating high-profile competition, particularly at home.
Still, the game wasn’t entirely bad news for N.C. State, which enjoyed 10 more opportunities from the free throw line than the Seminoles. And unlike the Duke contest, no Pack player stayed in serious foul trouble save Howell, whose disqualification this day was probably a blessing in disguise.
So, there were none of the typical referee issues that have seemingly plagued the Pack lately … until …
With 6:40 left in the game, Florida State’s Deividas Dulkys was whistled for fouling Wood during a three-point shot attempt. Wolfpack partisans let out a derisive cheer rooted in their belief—rightly—that Wood was being held and hacked all game without sufficient sanction from the officials.
As Wood toed the charity stripe for three free throws, referee Karl Hess wandered over to the scorer’s table and motioned for uniformed Raleigh police officers to escort two fans away from the court area. That event alone would have been noteworthy, even if the two fans weren’t former N.C. State stars Tom Gugliotta and Chris Corchiani.
Under the canopy of their numbers hanging from the rafters of the RBC Center, both ex-players departed without vociferous protest, with Gugliotta doffing his cap to the crowd on the way out. In fact, the incident seemed to energize the fans and, for a fleeting few moments, the team itself, which cut FSU’s lead to 12 over the ensuing 30 seconds until the Seminoles again forged ahead.
After the game, Corchiani proclaimed—first on Twitter and then to local reporters—that while he and “Googs” were giving Hess the verbal business, they did not use profanity or otherwise threaten the notoriously prickly veteran official. Hess refused comment to an Associated Press reporter after the game. N.C. State Athletic Director Debbie Yow demanded redress from the league. And, late Saturday night, ACC Supervisor of Officials John Clougherty issued a statement that faulted Hess for failing to follow proper protocol in requesting fan removal without discussing the reason(s) for the removal.
Leave it to Wood to offer the cleverest guess why an ACC referee would eject two N.C. State fans from their courtside seats: "They probably said, 'Go State!'”
Facing the grim duty of reporting the Wolfpack’s ineptness, journalists consumed the event like manna from writer’s heaven. While a referee perhaps outstepping his authority and running roughshod over a school’s sporting legends in the process is a worthwhile story, its salaciousness not only deflects attention from N.C. State’s woeful effort and chronic shortcomings, but it also feeds the impulse among fans, conspiracy theorists and, yes, perhaps even players to arrogate excuses in lieu of confronting causes.
“We didn’t play anywhere near our best,” said Williams, ever the senior leader. “We didn’t play the way we played for 35 minutes against Duke, and they [Florida State] played a great game. We expected them to come out with a lot of energy and be really physical. We just weren’t able to answer the call today.”