DAYTON, Ohio -- NCAA tournament games between 8 and 9 seeds, when they don't contain a true mid-major, will always contain a matchup of teams that have their share of questions. You didn't end up in that seed by accident. Either you underachieved or you patched things together in a scrappy way that glossed over enough flaws. In the opening game of Friday's quadrupleheader in Dayton, the scrappy team (Temple) held off the underachievers (North Carolina State), 76-72, in a matchup of teams that were looking for tournament validation for different reasons.
With the media playing a large part in the hype, the Wolfpack entered this season as a top-five team nationally after last year's Sweet 16 run erased rumblings of inconsistency and the import of several top freshmen. Things never really came together, though, starting with a manhandling by Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico and extending through ACC play, where the Pack lost a number of close games on its way to a disappointing fourth-place finish.
The team's most prevalent flaw -- a lack of consistent defending -- is what ultimately killed off its season. The Owls jumped out to a 38-22 halftime lead and were never headed, despite a late Wolfpack surge that nearly got them level. After the game, coach Mark Gottfried took the hit for that issue.
"At times, we were really good defensively. At times we were not," Gottfried said of the season at large. "This particular team never seemed to get to the point where we could sustain and maintain great defensive effort the entire game. That's on me. I didn't do a very good job with that."
Underneath it all, though, was an uneasiness to the whole experiment. The freshmen weren't a bust by any means -- T.J. Warren and Rodney Purvis combined to average almost 21 points a game in under 53 minutes per contest combined -- but this team was still largely led by the upperclassmen who had come to the program when it was flailing under Sidney Lowe and struggled for much of last season, as well.
It's not clear that the preseason expectations were unfair, but things never fully came together in the right way. And while Gottfried painted the whole roster with a broad-stroke brush in terms of buy-in, he didn't exactly mince words when it came to his own recruits, either.
"I think this team struggled with a lot of things," he said. "Number one, we had some immaturity at times. At times, we had ... it just seemed hard at times to have everybody buy in all the way. And for us to get better in the future, everybody needs to. Our young guys need to learn that lesson."
Temple coach Fran Dunphy doesn't have to worry about five-star freshmen. His current roster is headlined by a senior guard with an old-school game, a one-year transfer from Boston University, and three other seniors in his seven-man rotation. Dunphy has done a very solid job pushing Temple back toward the peaks reached under legendary former coach John Chaney, but in the proving ground of the NCAA tournament, he has had significant problems.
Dunphy, who spent much of his career heading Penn in the Ivy League, entered Friday's game at 2-14 all-time in the NCAAs, with a record 11-game losing streak that was stopped with a close win over 10-seed Penn State two years ago. While Penn's seeds never placed him in the role of favorite, he also lost his first three tries at Temple, including a particularly frustrating loss as a 5-seed to former assistant Steve Donahue at Cornell in 2010. Dunphy has handled following a legend (with a short transition period in between) very well, but he, and Temple, needed this win today.
"John Chaney was a spectacular basketball coach. Hall of Famer. He had a wonderful way of playing the game in terms of winning," Dunphy said. "They were really unique. Our program is not unique. We just have to play simple basketball and go after you with what we've got. But to answer your first question, it's very important for us to establish ourselves as a team that can win in the NCAA tournament."