T.J. Warren slumped in the corner of the crowded locker room in Greensboro Coliseum on Saturday afternoon after N.C. States ACC tournament loss to Duke.
Hopefully, well get in, Warren said when asked about N.C. States NCAA tournament chances, but his words didnt match his demeanor.
The mood in the Wolfpack locker room was funereal, but about 24 hours later, the players would be bouncing off the walls in jubilation in the lounge in Dail Center after watching the NCAA tournament selection show Sunday night.
How did N.C. State go from the wrong side of the bubble to Tuesday nights First Four game with Xavier in the NCAA tournament? It took some work by the Wolfpack in Greensboro, a combination of stumbles by other bubble teams and the foresight of coach Mark Gottfried, who tweaked the schedule.
Win your way in
You have to win your way into the NCAA tournament, Gottfried said last month when the Wolfpack was closer to a spot in the NIT than a third straight trip to the NCAA tournament after a 73-56 loss at Clemson on Feb. 18.
The Wolfpack won five of its next seven after the disheartening Clemson loss. One of the losses was to North Carolina, by a point in overtime, after a 36-point performance by Warren.
Weve had tough losses that just rip your gut right out of you, Gottfried said Sunday in an interview with ESPN radio. Our guys kept coming back and they kept getting better and they kept finding a way to improve.
That improvement was never more apparent than in the last week of the season. The Wolfpack went to Pittsburgh on March 3 and beat the Panthers 74-67 after falling behind by 13 points in the first half.
On March 9, Warren posted a second straight 40-point game and the Wolfpack dispatched Boston College 78-68 to close the regular season.
Then came the ACC tournament. N.C. State, the seventh seed, eliminated Miami on Thursday 67-58 in the second round. The Wolfpack upset second-seeded Syracuse on Friday 66-63.
The win over Syracuse, No. 16 in the RPI, gave the Wolfpack two top-50 RPI wins in the span of 11 days (Pitt is No. 39).
Unlike other bubble teams, N.C. State took care of its business down the stretch, especially in its conference tournament. The selection committee eliminates a teams record in the last 10 games as part of the tournament criteria but the most recent results invariably still affect how decisions are made.
California, Georgetown and Arkansas all bubble teams projected to be ahead of N.C. State in the selection committee pecking order all lost opening games in their conference tournaments. A fourth at-large contender, Minnesota, beat Penn State in its first Big Ten tournament game but then lost to Wisconsin by 26 points.
Like Syracuse, Wisconsin was the second seed in its conference tournament. Unlike N.C. State, Minnesota couldnt close with a kick to impress the committee.
Perhaps no one loss helped N.C. State more than Georgetowns. The Hoyas closed out its season 2-5, with a loss to 12-21 DePaul in the Big East tournament. The Hoyas had five wins over top-50 teams (including one over Xavier) and one of the best nonconference strength-of-schedule rankings (No. 24), but their late losses harpooned their tournament hopes.
Arkansas had more top-100 wins (nine) than N.C. State (six), but the Razorbacks lost at Alabama to close the regular season and then to 14-20 South Carolina in the SEC tournament. Cal had a better marquee win (over No. 2 Arizona) than N.C. State (No. 16 Syracuse), but lost five of its last seven games, including to Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament.
Colorado, which finished with the same Pac-12 record (10-8) as Cal, got into the field as a No. 8 seed in the South Regional. The Buffaloes, like N.C. State, won two conference tournament games. Clearly, the results of the conference tournaments had an influence on the committee.
Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, the chairman of the selection committee, said N.C. State was the last at-large team to get in the field and Southern Methodist, coached by Larry Brown, was the first team out.
SMU lost its first American Athletic Conference tournament game, to Houston. The Mustangs also had a poor rating for its nonconference strength of schedule, No. 295, compared with No. 108 for N.C. State. When you factored conference play, States strength of schedule was No. 33, compared with 114 for SMU.
Gottfried, who had one of his early Alabama teams miss the tournament because of a weak schedule, has made it a priority to make the schedule as challenging as possible. Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley) and N.C. Central (MEAC) were two conference champions on States schedule. The Pack also went to Tennessee (No. 42 in the RPI) and Cincinnati (21).
Youve got to choose to play a difficult nonconference schedule, Gottfried said. Some teams didnt, and thats their choice.
That message has been said to us, loud and clear, over and over again.
Without all the dominoes falling the way they did, N.C. States name probably would have never popped up on the CBS screen Sunday night. But like Gottfrieds first season, the Pack enters the tournament feeling like it has nothing to lose.
Weve got a chance, Gottfried said, now maybe we can make some noise.
Giglio: 919-829-8938; Twitter: @jwgiglio