In Saturday night's showdown with UNC, North Carolina State gave us both sides of its Jekyll and Hyde act.
The first half was State at its finest: dominating the offensive glass, blitzing Carolina in transition and haranguing its doe-eyed opponent into rushed shots. Watching at home, one couldn't help but be impressed with the Wolfpack's boundless athleticism and offensive zeal.
This was the team that beat Duke, gave Michigan a stiff test and romped through the majority of its non-conference schedule.
Then came the second half, a sloppy effort that revealed far too much about N.C. State's flaws than the bouncy red onlookers would ever care to admit. As the Tar Heels racked up 57 second-half points, the Wolfpack's warts grew harder to ignore: lax defense, tired legs, an attack incapable of adjusting pace.
Here was the team that lost to Wake Forest, got waxed by Oklahoma State and needed every inch of wiggle room to escape with a win over Clemson.
Yes, N.C. State's first-half effort held up for a 91-83 win. And, yes, the emotional and historical implications of beating Carolina are significant, especially considering N.C. State's recent lackluster play. But don't let the big bright "W" blind you into an optimistic stupor.
Nothing about this game changes my big-picture take on the Wolfpack. We're still looking at an intoxicatingly talented offensive team that lacks depth and defensive bite. Come tournament time, those bugaboos will be difficult to overcome.
Now before you sign the hate mail, let me first say that I love N.C. State. Or perhaps more accurately, I love watching N.C. State.
Richard Howell's work on the offensive glass is the very portrait of devilish fury. Scott Wood's jump shot belongs in a museum. C.J. Leslie is gifted in a way that makes you question your own worth.
On and on we could go.
These, unfortunately, are aesthetic things. And while I wish teams like N.C. State were built for March, I must admit to you—and to myself—that they are not.
Teams that allow 57 points in a half to Carolina, rank 157th in defensive efficiency and sit in the bottom tenth of the NCAA in bench minutes don't raise banners.
To wit, I give you the last twelve Final Four teams and their respective defensive efficiency ratings, according to kenpom.com:
Duke (2010): 4
West Virginia (2010): 22
Michigan State (2010): 30
Butler (2010): 5
Kentucky (2011): 15
VCU (2011): 86
Butler (2011): 49
Connecticut (2011): 14
Kentucky (2012): 9
Louisville (2012): 1
Ohio State (2012): 2
Kansas (2012): 4
Again, N.C. State sits at 157. You could fill two NCAA Tournament fields with teams that are better than Mark Gottfried's squad on defense.
The options for the Wolfpack then are twofold:
1.) Make dramatic improvements on defense.
2.) Defy history, statistics and conventional wisdom.
It's hard for me to imagine N.C. State doing either, and what I saw on Saturday only reaffirms that cold reality.