Maybe it’s only a coincidence, but NC State hasn’t been the same basketball team since DJ Horne flipped off an official in the final seconds of a come-from-behind win against Wake Forest 2 weeks ago.

Horne flashed the ref a pair of birds. And in the 3 games that have followed, the Wolfpack’s play has been for the birds.

Consecutive losses to Virginia Tech, Virginia and Syracuse have turned their promising 5-1 start in ACC play into a pedestrian 5-4 almost as fast as it took for the Detroit Lions to gag away a trip to Super Bowl LVIII.

More troubling is the fact that they’ve plummeted all the way down into the mid-80s of the NET rankings that factor so heavily in the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s decisions come March.

There’s still more than half of the conference schedule left to play, with several Quad 1 games upcoming. Enough time and opportunity to turn things around and get close enough to the bubble to at least see it without using binoculars.

But coach Kevin Keatts better not wait too long to find the answers. Every game from here on out is an important one. Especially those at home, starting with Tuesday’s date against equally enigmatic Miami.
In the flick of a finger, State has gone from playing to improve its NCAA seeding to fighting for its postseason life.

And possibly Keatts’ job.

At least outwardly, the 7th-year coach is taking the losing streak in stride. Asked about it on the ACC’s weekly coaches Zoom on Monday, he passed it off as a “rough patch” that every team goes through during the course of a season.

“This is ours,” he said. “I told someone today that if we won 1, lost 1, won 1 and lost 1, it would look a little different. But you lose 2 or 3 in a row, it smells different. And it doesn’t feel good at all.”

Before Keatts and his players can even think about fixing whatever it is that’s broken, they must first figure out what exactly it is that needs to be fixed.

It’s been something different in each game.

Against the Hokies, a team that hadn’t won on the road all season until strutting into PNC Arena 2 Saturdays ago, it was a 2nd half defensive breakdown that allowed Tech guards Hunter Cattoor and Sean Pedulla to drive to the rim and score at will.

In the overtime defeat at Virginia, they got crushed on the glass – giving up 20 offensive rebounds and losing the overall battle by a whopping 54-32 margin.

Then Saturday at Syracuse it was a prolonged scoring drought that saw the Orange break the game open by outscoring the Wolfpack 23-4 over the final 8 minutes of the 1st half.

“I don’t think I can point to one thing,” Keatts said. “I just think that we’ve had a couple of tough road trips and 1 game we wish we could get back at home.”

That much might be true.

But it’s also a fact that something was already amiss with the Wolfpack before it began paying the price for their struggles in the loss column.

At Notre Dame on Jan. 3, they shot an icy 28.8% from the floor, but still found a way to eke out a come-from-behind 54-52 victory by clamping down on defense and scoring the game’s final 8 points.

Then after going 2-for-21 from 3-point range in a sound homecourt beatdown at the hands of rival North Carolina, they rallied from a double-digit deficit in the 2nd half to beat Wake Forest in a game that saw Keatts get ejected, Horne get reprimanded for his obscene hand gestures.

State won the game without making a 3-pointer, the first time since 2014 they were shut out from beyond the arc. And they expended a lot of energy and emotion in doing so.

Maybe that took something out of the Wolfpack.

More likely, it gave them a false sense of invincibility. A belief that they can flip the switch on whenever they need to and win any game regardless of the situation.

If that’s the case, the past 3 games have been a rude awakening. The question now how they’ll react to the alarm going off.

Not even Keatts is sure what to expect because of all the new pieces that have been added to the roster through the transfer portal.

“This is the first time this particular group has gone through some adversity,” he said. “It’s different than when you got so many returners. You know what you’re getting because some guys have been through some adversity together. This is the first time this particular group with 8 new people I’ve been through some adversity. There are some growing pains as we go along with that.”

Keatts has already tried shaking things up by replacing DJ Burns in the starting lineup against Syracuse, going with the more defense and rebounding minded duo of Ben Middlebrooks and Mohamed Diarra instead.

Graduate wing Casey Morsell has taken the motivational approach, sending out a message that he and his teammates aren’t ready to give up on their season by posting a video about handling “the ups-and-downs of life” on social media.

While being mentally tough in the face of adversity is a good start, the only way the Wolfpack are going to turn things around and get back into NCAA Tournament contention is through effort.

They’ve already proven that their shooting touch can run hot or cold on a whim.

The only hedge against that inconsistency and the long scoring droughts it can produce is by turning up the volume on defense and on the offensive glass.

They’ve done it in spurts, as Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Virginia in the first meeting between the teams earlier this season can attest. But they’re going to have to learn how to sustain that kind of intensity from here on out.

Otherwise their postseason hopes are destined to fly away like a bird released from a cage.

Or in this case, 2 of them flashed behind the back of a referee.