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The Daily Tar Heel

Future Unclear for Wolfpack

Worried? With the Tar Heels at 22-4 overall and tied for first place in the ACC?

Herb Sendek wishes he had such worries. But Sendek, N.C. State's coach, doesn't get to fret about which region his team will be sent to as a No. 1 or

No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

It will be a minor miracle if his team is even in the tournament.

"We're very aware of what it would take at this point," Sendek said on Tuesday. "It's not that complicated."

No, it's not. With N.C. State 13-13 overall and 5-9 in the conference, the team has to win the ACC Tournament to earn an invitation to the Big Dance.

A berth in the somewhat smaller dance, the National Invitational Tournament, is also in jeopardy. The Wolfpack, which have played in the NIT. four consecutive seasons, must finish with a .500 record or better to qualify.

And the team's remaining games -- at No. 4 North Carolina tonight at 9, home against No. 23 Wake Forest and then the ACC Tournament -- will make that goal difficult to achieve.

"It's a very challenging task," Sendek said, "as has the entire ACC schedule been."

That wasn't the case for the Tar Heels, who sailed through the league undefeated the first time through the order. UNC started 11-0 in the ACC, riding the momentum of an 18-game winning streak.

But the Tar Heels have since dropped games at Clemson and Virginia, showing signs of vulnerability that weren't apparent two weeks ago.

It's been enough to make Doherty worry. But it hasn't been enough to make him panic.

"We're all on the same page," Doherty said on Tuesday. "No one is fazed by it. We're disappointed, but I don't think there's any panic mode by any means."

Still, the Tar Heels have some issues they need to straighten out before March arrives.

UNC's offense is a picture of balance on the stat sheet, but it hasn't been on the floor.

The team has four players who average double figures in scoring, but guard Joseph Forte is the only one of the four who can create his own shot on a consistent basis.

And Forte has been doing that with increasing regularity. Forte, who has taken over the ACC scoring lead at 21.8 points per game, has squeezed off 68 shots in UNC's last three games.

That total includes the 27 attempts, many of which were forced, that he posted against the Cavaliers en route to his game-high 28 points.

Center Brendan Haywood scored 20 points against Virginia, but no other Tar Heel scored more than eight.

Doherty doesn't mind Forte, whom he said on Wednesday was "the best college player in the country," shooting as often as he has if the shots are good.

But what he can't stand is lack of effort and poor defense. The Tar Heels, by his count, gave up 17 points in transition to the Cavaliers.

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"Our transition defense was awful, and I take full responsibility for that," Doherty said. "That's coaching. It reminded me of the Kentucky game. You can fix that."

Not everything is so easy in Raleigh. Wolfpack players, who deemed themselves ready for the NCAA tournament in the preseason, probably aren't.

Sendek, meanwhile, is disappointed with his team's record but hasn't given up on the season. After all, his Wolfpack limped into the Smith Center wounded in 1998 and marched out victorious.

This time, a trip to the postseason could be on the line. Some people might say "it's only the NIT," but Sendek isn't one of them.

"The NIT is a tournament that doesn't have any chain to it as far as I'm concerned," Sendek said. "It's one that has great history and tradition.

"We've competed in that tournament the last few years, and I can tell you categorically that the teams playing in it are really good teams. They're well-coached, and on a given night they can beat anyone."

Sendek just hopes tonight is one of those nights and his team is one of those teams.

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.