N.C. State is not in the NCAA tournament but its next coach probably is.
That’s what athletic director Debbie Yow said after she fired Mark Gottfried on Feb. 16.
“The coaches that we will be looking at will be playing in the tournament,” Yow said then.
N.C. State has been able to gauge tentative interest in the job in the weeks since Gottfried was fired, but Yow will have to wait until the involved teams are eliminated to really make any headway.
That was a problem during the coaching search in 2011. Yow identified Shaka Smart as her main target early in the search but Smart was adamant he wouldn’t talk about the N.C. State job until VCU’s season was over.
Smart proceeded to lead the Rams from the “First Four” to the Final Four, winning five games and keeping Yow on hold until April. While it became obvious that N.C. State was waiting on Smart, other candidates (Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin) grew restless with the waiting and the optics of being backup choices to Smart.
If VCU had lost earlier in the tournament, perhaps Smart would have taken the N.C. State job. Or the Wolfpack could have moved on more quickly to Marshall or Cronin.
So, the sooner a candidate’s team loses, the better for N.C. State. The games Wolfpack fans should watch in the NCAA tournament (and the teams you should probably root against):
No. 12 UNC-Wilmington vs. No. 5 Virginia
When: Thursday, 12:40 p.m., truTV
Kevin Keatts, a former Louisville assistant, has the Seahawks (29-5) in the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. Keatts’ group pushed Duke last year, in a 93-85 loss, but that was a game between like-minded teams.
UNCW, which is free-wheeling on offense and dependent on the 3-pointer, plays the opposite style of Virginia. Undersized, the Seahawks will use some pressure but they prefer to play up-tempo and win on offense.
The Cavaliers’ defensive grind will be an adjustment for UNCW, which went 15-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association but was blown out in its only game (87-73 at Clemson) against an ACC team.
Yow holds Bennett, who has pushed Virginia into the top third of the ACC, in high regard. If she has any questions about Keatts’ in-game chops, this will be a good test.
No. 13 Winthrop vs. No. 4 Butler
When: Thursday, 1:30 p.m., TNT
Keep the DVR handy, since this game starts 50 minutes after the UNCW tip. This game features two potential targets. Butler’s Chris Holtmann is at the top of Yow’s list for the work he has done in three seasons with the Bulldogs. Butler’s 2-2 in the NCAA tournament under Holtmann, who is the former head coach at Gardner-Webb.
The Bulldogs skew to the offensive side (they rank No. 19 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offense efficiency ratings) but they have an all-around toughness to them.
As an added bonus, Butler has N.C. State transfer Tyler Lewis at point guard, so you can root for a familiar face.
Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey hasn’t received as much attention as others but he has ACC ties (he was an assistant at Wake Forest) and he has averaged 22 wins per season the last four years.
Kelsey’s teams also have more of a high-scoring, free-flowing identity. There are definitely elements of Skip Prosser’s old Wake teams to what Kelsey does with the Eagles.
No. 10 VCU vs. No. 7 Saint Mary’s
When: Thursday, 7:20 p.m., TBS
Yow will take another look at VCU. This time at second-year coach Will Wade, a former assistant to Smart, and he gets the spotlight to himself in this one. The Rams are a $2-steak tough on defense. They don’t run the “Havoc” press, the same way Smart did when he was there, but they mix up defenses and use some different zones and traps in the halfcourt to create turnovers.
The Rams have size for a mid-major in forwards Mo Alie-Cox, Justin Tillman and Ahmed Hamdy and they can protect the rim.
VCU’s offense starts with point guard Jonathan Williams, who was on the same AAU team as former N.C. State guards Caleb and Cody Martin.
VCU’s effort level is noticeable. Wade, only 34, has a way of getting the most out of his group.
No. 10 Wichita State vs. No. 7 Dayton
When: Friday, 7:10 p.m., CBS
Dayton’s Archie Miller tops the list of most Wolfpack fans who remember the fiery point guard from his playing days at N.C. State.
In his first stint as a head coach, Miller, 38, has already led the Flyers to the NCAA tournament four times (in six seasons). The Flyers reached the Final Eight in Miller’s third season in 2014.
There’s a sense that Miller is content to wait for a bigger job in the Big Ten, rather than return to N.C. State, where was an assistant. He was also an assistant at Ohio State, hence the Big Ten connection.
Most N.C. State fans will recognize Miller’s hard-charging style, his teams get after it on defense, in the mold of his former coach Herb Sendek. There’s more motion, and ball-screen elements to the offense, like his brother Sean uses at Arizona, rather than the version of the Princeton offense Sendek used with the Wolfpack.
Marshall is a bit of a mad scientist with the way he mixes defenses and intense personality. Yow talked with Marshall last go-round but the timing might be off for this search. Marshall’s family is entrenched in the Wichita community and the Shockers are paying him more than $3 million per year.
Financially, Miller is in a similar position to where Marshall was before being courted in recent years by California and Alabama. Miller could use the interest from N.C. State as leverage for a significant raise.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio