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Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Opportunity knocked: Who answered?

By Dana O'Neil

RALEIGH, N.C. -- In late February, a weary salesman comes knocking on plenty a college basketball locker room door.

His name is Opportunity and he’s got a great pitch to peddle -- take advantage of me, of my one-time, two-time, three-time offer and taste the riches of instant success and fame.

And on Tuesday night, with the regular-season schedule dwindling and the sales cycle growing lean, he was especially busy, his sales force out strong across the country. He found a few buyers, but he found more who refused his offer, putting themselves on a very fragile NCAA tournament bubble.

Seton Hall cashed in, trouncing No. 8 Georgetown 73-55. Kansas State sealed up its bid and gave its newly potty-free-mouthed coach, Frank Martin, good reason to let out a ‘gosh darn it’ with their upset at No. 3 Missouri. The Mountain West's lone bubble team, Colorado State, notched a must-win against the new king of the Mountain West, 71-63 against No. 18 New Mexico.

NC State's Mark Gottfried
Mark Gottfried and NC State had three straight chances to improve their NCAA tournament chances against the ACC's top teams, and failed each time.
Count those three among Opportunity takers.

But for every Opportunity grabbed, another is lost and the losers lined up in Evanston, Ill., where Northwestern was outscored 18-6 in overtime to Michigan and looks poised to continue its run of NCAA futility. And in Columbus, Ohio, where the Buckeyes essentially signed Illinois' death certificate and wrote Bruce Weber's pink slip with a rout of the Illini. And in Starkville, Miss., where reeling Mississippi State blew its greatest chance, wilting in the second half against top-ranked Kentucky. The Bulldogs might still get in with some work in the SEC homestretch, but they will limp in like junkyard dogs rather than show puppies.

And then there is Raleigh, the epicenter of Opportunities squandered.

In the past six days, NC State has played three ranked opponents in succession -- Duke, Florida State and North Carolina, no doubt a cruel scheduling twist for a young team trying to get accustomed to even moderate success.

If the Wolfpack had won one of them, they would have put themselves in comfortable position. Two wins would almost guarantee them a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Instead, NC State found different ways to lose each of them -- blowing a 20-point lead at Duke, rolling over against Florida State and succumbing to a 3-point barrage against the Tar Heels, 86-74, on Tuesday night.

“We had some opportunities, we had a lot of them this year,’’ NCSU coach Mark Gottfried said. “So many things can still happen, but we certainly had opportunities to help ourselves. We have to continue to play hard, to do everything we can and see where we end up. That’s where we are right now.’’

The glimmer of a silver lining for NC State: Unlike its flailing counterparts, the Wolfpack isn’t even supposed to be here right now. This is Gottfried’s first year, brought in to try to get NC State out of its five-year NCAA doldrums.

Most people targeted next season as the fix, with three stud recruits inked to come to town, plus Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie likely to return.

The Wolfpack, instead, have played themselves into a conversation they never expected to be a part of. They are 18-10 and 7-6 in the ACC, with a tough schedule that will earn them brownie points and nothing in the way of horrific losses to bad teams.

The only thing missing from the résumé: an eye-opening win. The Pack played Vanderbilt, Indiana, Syracuse, North Carolina and Duke. They just didn’t beat any of them.

“These guys have never been in this situation before, with people talking about must-win games for the NCAA tournament,’’ Gottfried said. “Three months ago, no one was saying NC State and NCAA tournament in the same sentence, so everything is new to them.’’

Others, of course, said it for them, chalking up this three-game string as State’s best chance to make its case.

Northwestern's Davide Curletti
Davide Curletti and Northwestern were one of several teams that missed an opportunity on Tuesday.
For 20 minutes, at least, they looked up to the challenge, trailing just 46-41 at the break. But when you are on a team trying to stay on or get on the bubble, it’s not really a fair fight when you do everything you’re supposed to do according to the scouting report and North Carolina goes against type.

Undersized NC State beat the Tar Heels in the paint, 42-22. The Wolfpack won on second-chance points, 16-8. They even stayed neck-and-neck on the boards, 39-38.

Only problem, UNC drilled 10 3-pointers, and Kendall Marshall, the one guy nobody worries about scoring, did most of the damage. The savvy distributor racked up a point guard’s fantasy boxscore: 22 points, 7-of-8 from the floor, 4-of-5 from the arc, 4-of-4 from the free throw line, 13 assists, no turnovers in 38 minutes.

There are some nights that you can’t help but think Opportunity was merely ringing and running.

This was one of them.

“We understand that we have to have a sense of urgency,’’ senior C.J. Williams said. “We have to get to 10 wins [in conference]. Our goal at the beginning was 11. We can’t do that now, but we can get to 10 and then when you get to the ACC tournament, anything that can happen.’’

Certainly that is true for all of our missed Opportunists.

In this season especially, where Joe Lunardi might want to employ Magellan and Dora the Explorer to help him find 68 teams, it’s not over until Jeff Hathaway sings on Selection Sunday.

Is it likely? Probably not. Northwestern will have to win out, including a win against Ohio State; Mississippi State might need to win at Alabama this weekend; Illinois is toast.

As for NC State, three wins to finish the regular season -- against Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech -- would help put them into the conversation, but not in the field.

And by missing this night’s calling card from Opportunity, all of these teams also are at the mercy of others. They can’t afford wild upsets in a normal one-bid league and they can’t afford other bubble-dwellers answering the knock on the door.

Perhaps their best shot: a prayer to St. Kemba, the patron saint of Opportunism.

“Coach told us you just never know,’’ Brown said. “UConn was 9-9 in their conference before the Big East tournament. Look what happened with them.’’