NC State 'earned' way into NCAA tournament, Gottfried says

CorrespondentMarch 16, 2014 

— The Wolfpack’s bubble didn’t burst Sunday night.

So for the third time in as many seasons under coach Mark Gottfried, N.C. State is going to the NCAA tournament.

This time the experience will be a little different, as the 21-13 Wolfpack be playing for a No. 12 seed in the Midwest Region in the “First Four” against Big East member Xavier (21-12) on Tuesday night at the University of Dayton Arena (9:10 p.m., TruTV). It will be the Wolfpack’s first meeting with Xavier, whose campus is in Cincinnati about 50 miles from UD Arena.

The winner faces No. 5 seed Saint Louis (26-6), the regular-season champion of the Atlantic 10, in the second round Thursday in Orlando, Fla. The Midwest semifinals and finals are in Minneapolis.

State went 9-9 in ACC play this season and earned the seventh seed in the conference tournament. The Wolfpack shocked No. 11 Syracuse 66-63 in the ACC tournament quarterfinals on Friday before falling to No.  7 Duke 75-67 in Saturday’s semifinals.

And then Gottfried had to sweat out a day and a half before getting a happy surprise on the screen at Dail Basketball Center, where the team watched CBS’ Selection Show in private in case it delivered bad news.

“Some of us have been in the room like that before a couple of years ago,” Gottfried said. “It’s still tough. But we knew the feeling. You’re not knowing for sure if you’re going to be called, but I feel our players earned their way into the tournament. And so we were hoping we were going to see our name, and our guys were really excited when we did.

“I think the game with Syracuse had a lot to do to with it, but I don’t know that for sure. I also thought we played really well late. I think our schedule strength was No. 21 in the country. We lost a lot of guys from last year and could have made a choice to soften up the non-conference schedule, but we didn’t do that. I didn’t want to do that. And I played a tough non-conference schedule for the very reason of sitting here today. I hoped that would pay off for us.”

State had a No. 8 seed last season and was sent to Dayton for a second-round game, losing 76-72 to Temple.

“Having played there might help a little bit,” Gottfried said. “But we’ve got a bunch of new guys. It doesn’t matter where this game is. You could play this game in Dayton or in Alaska. Our guys are going to be ready to play.”

T.J. Warren, the 6-8 sophomore forward out of Durham who was named ACC player of the year, averages 24.8 points and 7.2 rebounds to lead for the Wolfpack. Ralston Turner, the 6-5 junior guard who played his first two seasons at LSU, averages 10.2 and 2.4.

Kyle Washington, the 6-9 freshman center, said the Wolfpack was especially excited for the bid after going through so much adversity.

“We’ve been through so much with so many ups and downs,” said Washington, who averages 4.9 points and 4.0 rebounds. “We’re just ready to go. We were pretty nervous. But now we’re just ecstatic.”

Xavier also has a go-to star in 6-3 sophomore guard Semaj Christon (17.1, 4.2 assists), while 6-6 junior forward Justin Martin averages 11.8 points and 5.2 rebounds.

“I’ve watched them a few times, and they’re a very talented group,” Gottfried said. “Christon is one of the better players in the country. It’s going to be a tough game. It will be a home-game atmosphere for them, but we’ve played a lot on the road this year, so, so be it.”

State will be playing in the NCAA tournament for the 25th time. The Norman Sloan’s Wolfpack won the 1974 championship with a win over Marquette at Greensboro Coliseum after defeating seven-time defending NCAA champion UCLA in the semifinals, and Jim Valvano coached the “Cardiac Pack” to victory over heavily favored Houston in the 1983 championship game in Albuquerque.

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