It’s a big weekend in the ACC, with two games on the same day between top-10 teams, a first in conference history. Notre Dame visits Duke and Louisville visits Virginia, huge games to be sure.
And then there’s N.C. State, which has the weekend off to consider its plight. After Wednesday’s disheartening loss at Wake Forest, the forecast for the Wolfpack is grim, Mark Gottfried’s three-season perfect run of NCAA tournament bids very much at risk of ending.
It’s hard to see through the gloom, but that streak is still very much alive. It’s too much to say N.C. State will make the tournament, but it unquestionably still could, and maybe even should.
The late runs in 2012 and 2014 to clinch a bid were impressive, but arguably, neither position was as difficult as this one – 14-10, 5-6 in the ACC, losses in four of the past five, each a varying degree of excruciating, N.C. State as inconsistent, infuriating, erratic and explosive as one would expect of a team with lots of talent and not a single four-year player.
To keep the streak alive, it’s going to take some wonders and miracles, so here goes the Wolfpack again. At least N.C. State has done it before.
Even after the home loss to North Carolina, the Wolfpack was in good shape. It had played its usual difficult nonconference schedule and won some sneaky-tough games. Its losses were good losses – even the Reynolds Coliseum loss to Wofford was against a team with a pretty good chance to be in theNCAA tournament – and the win against Duke was an excellent resume builder.
The recent losses were killers, from the blown lead in the overtime home loss to Notre Dame in a game that would have gone a long way to securing the Wolfpack’s position, to the brutal, dismal start in the home loss to Clemson. Instead of cruising to the finish, after these missed opportunities the Wolfpack will have to fight to the end.
N.C. State has 11 days off to regroup, and there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that the presumably easier stretch of the Wolfpack’s schedule is over, not that N.C. State made it look easy. The good news is there are several opportunities to beat the kind of opponent that would improve N.C. State’s NCAA chances significantly.
Three of the next four: Home against Virginia, at Louisville, at North Carolina. That’s the kind of stretch that can make or break a season.
There are seven games left. The other four are must-wins if N.C. State wants to avoid the NIT: Virginia Tech, at Boston College, at Clemson, Syracuse. It will take at least one win against the other three to keep things from coming down to a tournament run in Greensboro.
N.C. State was 17-12 last season and 18-11 in 2012 before each won four straight, two to close out the regular season, two in the ACC tournament. Neither of those teams had a win as good as this team’s Duke win (although Tennessee, last season, wasn’t far off).
The path ahead is clear: Pull off at least one upset against Virginia, Louisville or North Carolina and take care of business otherwise – far, far easier said than done given the way this team has played the past three weeks, and with no margin for error.
The Wolfpack might still have some work to do in Greensboro, but at least it’ll have a chance. Gottfried has pulled this off twice before at N.C. State, but this may be the toughest challenge yet.