Winning only path to NCAA tournament for NC State

There’s no real mystery about how to get into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried, who has taken three teams to the tournament and dissected the criteria as an analyst for ESPN for two years, understands this better than most but he doesn’t pretend there’s a complex formula.

“You win your way into the NCAA tournament, there’s really not another solution,” Gottfried said this week.

After Tuesday’s 73-56 loss at Clemson, the Wolfpack has little room for error left on its schedule. The Wolfpack (16-10) dropped six spots to No. 57 in the RPI after the road loss. With five games left, and two against teams among the top 50 of the RPI (No. 29 North Carolina, No. 33 Pittsburgh), N.C. State needs to start winning to strengthen its case.

In one of the most important factors for the selection committee – record against the top-100 teams in the RPI – N.C. State is on the losing end of most arguments with other teams trying to secure the last few at-large bids.

The loss to Clemson (No. 70 in the RPI) left the Wolfpack at 3-8 against top-100 RPI teams and 0-7 against the top 50. Other bubble teams such as Richmond, Brigham Young, Providence and Oklahoma State each have six wins against the top 100.

Another problem for the Wolfpack: it lacks a marquee win. Syracuse, No. 3 in the RPI, certainly would have qualified, but the Wolfpack couldn’t hold on. Instead, Tennessee (51), a fellow bubble team, stands as the Wolfpack’s “best” win.

With a little help from Wake Forest (102), Northwestern (103) and Notre Dame (106), N.C. State’s top-100 record could double by Selection Sunday. The RPI numbers are fluid; the bottom line doesn’t change for the Wolfpack, though. Starting with Saturday’s trip to Virginia Tech, N.C. State needs to start a winning streak, or the postseason will consist of participation in the National Invitation Tournament.

The past two losses have put a significant a dent in the Wolfpack’s momentum. N.C. State had won five of six before Saturday’s 56-55 loss at No. 1 Syracuse and the trip to Clemson.

Tuesday’s loss was similar to previous costly losses to Cincinnati (14 in the RPI), Missouri (39) and Pitt. The Wolfpack played well enough for a portion of the Clemson game to win (it led 33-32 at the half), but it didn’t play well enough during key parts of the second half to close out the victory.

Some of that can be chalked up to N.C. State’s inexperience and some of it to its struggles on defense. The common thread through those tough losses, even the controversial ending at Syracuse, is the Wolfpack’s inability to get a stop when it needs one.

After each of the losses “that got away,” like the Missouri game, N.C. State had more wiggle room on the schedule. After the missed step at Clemson, the Wolfpack is out of mulligans.