N.C. State’s first three road trips in ACC play resembled the last two seasons far too much for players and coaches.
While posting back-to-back losing seasons, N.C. State lost 12 of 15 league road games during that period.
Lopsided losses at Clemson (78-62), Notre Dame (88-58) and Virginia (68-51) early in ACC play this season left Wolfpack first-year coach Kevin Keatts wondering if his team could play well on the road.
“It was important to me that these guys, as a group, learn how to win on the road,” Keatts said.
He questioned his staff. Half agreed the team wasn’t good away from home. The other half credited the opponents with playing well.
The players knew they could do better but they had to do it together. The season was slipping away but they were intent on reversing things.
“My mindset and my thought process has never been on anything but going to the NCAA tournament,” N.C. State senior guard Allerik Freeman said. “We dropped some games early on at the beginning of the conference that we shouldn’t have. But I knew that we could get better. We had what it takes to be one of the best teams in the country.”
Since that rough start away from home, N.C. State has played like one of the best teams in the country.
The Wolfpack (20-9, 10-6 ACC) has won four of its last five road games, taking games at traditionally tough venues like North Carolina’s Dean Dome and the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.
On Thursday night, the Wolfpack plays Georgia Tech in Atlanta with a chance to end the regular season with a winning road record (5-4) in ACC play.
The Wolfpack faced double-digit deficits for nearly every minute of the second halves of losses at Clemson, Notre Dame and Virginia.
Now, N.C. State is the aggressor on the road, another sign of how far the program has come under Keatts this season.
“We’ve grown a lot,” N.C. State junior Torin Dorn said. “It’s night and day with us. Those first two games (at Clemson and Notre Dame) were a punch in the face. When you get punched in the face, it’s about what you do in response. We’ve grown a lot.”
It helped that point guard Markell Johnson returned to the team and the lineup. The sophomore missed N.C. State’s first four ACC games, including the losses at Clemson and Notre Dame, due to a suspension for a felony assault charge. A Cleveland, Ohio, prosecutor dropped the charge on Jan. 11 and Johnson came off the bench in the Jan. 14 loss at Virginia.
That was one of many roster distractions the Wolfpack has faced this season.
Freshman guard Braxton Beverly, having transferred from Ohio State last summer, missed the first two games before the NCAA reversed its earlier decision and granted him immediate eligibility.
Senior forward Abdul-Malik Abu, N.C. State’s leading rebounder each of the last two seasons, suffered a sprained knee ligament in October that caused him to miss six of the first nine games.
Reserve forward Darius Hicks tore a knee ligament in a November practice hasn’t played since. Reserve Shaun Kirk transferred to UNC Pembroke in December.
Still, Keatts and his staff found a way to hold the team together. The slow start in ACC play, especially on the road, is a distant memory.
“You just get up off the mat and swing back,” Dorn said. “Life’s going to hit you and you face adversity. This is a group that is battle tested and has faced throughout the season, in the off-season, so it was easy for us to turn the page.
“Our mental toughness and our competitive spirit came out. A lot of guys don’t like to lose. We fought.”
Better offense has been a key. The Wolfpack shot 34.8 percent at Clemson, 36.7 percent at Notre Dame and 41.1 percent at Virginia.
The next road game, at last-place Pittsburgh on Jan. 24, looked like more of the same as the Wolfpack shot 33.8 percent. With Pittsburgh holding a 10-point halftime lead, Keatts again wondered about his team’s road woes.
His team, though, expressed confidence a rally was possible.
“I think everybody was OK,” Keatts said. “It was a really good positive halftime speech. What I said was stay the course.”
The Wolfpack came back to win 72-68 and, three days later, shot 44.7 percent to stun UNC 95-91 in overtime at Chapel Hill.
Suddenly, those road problems were gone.
After an 85-75 loss at Virginia Tech where the Hokies shot 63.5 percent, N.C. State won road games at Syracuse and Wake Forest.
Against the Orange, N.C. State shot 55.1 percent to win 74-70 on Feb. 14. At Wake Forest on Feb. 17, the Wolfpack shot 50.8 percent to post a 90-84 win.
“We just started trusting each other,” Beverly said. “We started playing with each other and realizing what everybody on this team can do. We have each other’s back while we’re out there playing. It’s really paying off for us.”
N.C. State has played its way into a strong position for an NCAA tournament at-large bid no matter what happens in the last two regular-season games.
The dramatic turnaround in its play on the road is a big reason why.