North Carolina State (19-12, 10-8 ACC) ended the season on a high note, winning 5 of the final 6 games of the regular season. Because of this streak, Mark Gottfried has his team primed for an entrance into the tournament on Sunday. NC State picked up marquee wins at Louisville and at North Carolina, while also winning hard fought games against solid squads such as Clemson and Syracuse. The only blemish, as of late, on the Wolfpack’s resume is the 16 point loss to Boston College, a game they did not seem emotionally involved in to their full capacity. Looking past this game, however, NC State has looked like one of the ACC’s best teams in the final stretch of the season, and is playing its best basketball going in to March. So, how have the Wolfpack turned things around and solidified themselves for an at-large bid?
1. Defense: NC State’s defense is becoming a hallmark of this team. This is something the Pack has not been able to say over the last 3 year, but times have changed. NC State has cracked down on the boards, out-rebounding their opposition in recent games. Against Louisville and North Carolina, this was key. A frontcourt of Lennard Freeman, Abdul-Malik Abu, and Beejay Anya, winner of the ACC 6th Man of the Year Award, have stepped up tremendously. They have defended the interior and rebounded the ball at a high level, stopping the scoring of other teams inside. NC State has won plenty of games recently with its defense. They held UNC to a mere 46 points en route to a huge victory on the road. They cracked down against Clemson, holding them without a point for 14 minutes in the second half, opening up a chance to again earn a big win. Finally, the defense stepped up during a 27-2 run against Syracuse that won the game for them in the regular season finale.
2. Productive Backcourt: NC State has one of the best backcourts in the nation, led by Trevor Lacey, Cat Barber, and senior sharpshooter Ralston Turner. Since the Wolfpack beat Georgia Tech in overtime, Barber has become more assertive offensively and has stepped into a larger defensive role as well, and is the main reason for State’s success. He has found a way to use his speed to his advantage, constantly making beautiful drives to the hoop, and also breaking defenses down. He did just so against Syracuse. The Orange attempted to trap the lighting-quick PG, but he turned onto a new gear, drove to the hoop, and kicked the ball to Caleb Martin, who turned to whip it to Ralston Turner for a three that gave the Pack a 20 point lead. This was one of many huge shots that Turner has had this season. He is not only the leader of this team, but one of its best scorers. He averages 13.4 points per game, and when he is on, he knocks down every three he gets. He led the Wolfpack past North Carolina with two big threes to swing momentum the way of his team, led State to the win over Clemson with 23 second half points, then again against Syracuse with 19 in the second half. Lacey, averaging 16.1 PPG, is State’s best player. Leading the country in ISO points, he has the ability to create off the dribble, or any other time he wants to. The impressive backcourt has led NC State all the way here, so why stop now?
Now that the regular season has come to a close, NC State can look forward to March. They kick off the ACC Tournament tonight against Pittsburgh, and, if they can pull out a victory, get a showdown with rival Duke, who they took down in Raleigh two months ago. If NC State can keep up its winning ways and keep turning heads in the ACC Tournament, they will gain a lot. Right now, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Wolfpack locked up in the Big Dance, but has them as a 9 seed. This means they get a team about their level in the first round, and even worse, a number 1 seed in the next round. Unfortunately, according to Lunardi, NC State would play Cincinnati, who they lost to early in the season, in the round of 64, and then if they win, NCSU would get undefeated Kentucky. NC State would benefit tremendously from moving off the 8-9 line, and a deep run in Greensboro this week could potentially boost them to a 6 or 7 seed. NC State is certainly capable of going on such a run. They can beat teams at the top of the ACC standings, as they have done many times this year, but can also lose to some of the worst, another thing they have done this year.
As for tonight’s game, NC State needs to come out strong. Pittsburgh will come out looking to avenge an 18 point loss at the hands of NC State to open conference play, and desperately need to win to have any shot at playing in the NCAA Tournament. NC State, meanwhile, will need their guards to do what they do best, and keep this team on their winning streak. I think the Wolfpack will go in and pick up a win tonight, setting up a rematch with the Duke Blue Devils in the next round of the tournament. NC State wins tonight by a score of 77-72.