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Is NC State’s basketball schedule better in Year 2 under Kevin Keatts?

N.C. State's Torin Dorn (2) drives to the basket during the first half of N.C. State's game against Seton Hall in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan., on Thursday, March 15, 2018.
N.C. State's Torin Dorn (2) drives to the basket during the first half of N.C. State's game against Seton Hall in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan., on Thursday, March 15, 2018. ehyman@newsobserver.com

N.C. State got into the NCAA tournament last season in spite of its nonconference schedule.

Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts has said, the more comfortable he feels with his team, the more he’ll turn up the degree of difficulty.

In Year 2, Keatts has added a few more challenges — N.C. State will play four Power 5 conference opponents outside the ACC — but there’s still a good bit of chaff padding it out.

N.C. State will play five games against teams that were in the 300s of Ken Pomeroy’s computer rankings last season.

The Wolfpack’s No. 261 strength of schedule outside the ACC did not help on Selection Sunday last year but Keatts’ first team was able to offset that number with four “Quadrant I” wins. The selection committee is moving on from the RPI this season, replacing it with a new ranking system that is closer to Pomeroy’s efficiency system.

On paper, N.C. State’s schedule looks a little bit more interesting (and difficult) than last year during Keatts’ debut. The Wolfpack, 21-12 overall last season, will open the season at home on Nov. 6 against Mount St. Mary’s. The four Power 5 opponents all ranked in Pomeroy’s top 100 last season with Penn State (No. 19) as the highest.

The Dec. 19 date with Auburn is the only Power 5 opponent N.C. State will play in Raleigh.

Keatts argued last year that the ACC would provide enough meaningful games for the team’s NCAA chances. With wins over Duke, North Carolina and Clemson, Keatts turned out to be right.

UNC, Wake Forest, Boston College and Pittsburgh are the teams N.C. State faces twice on the ACC schedule. The Wolfpack will get Virginia (Jan. 29), last year’s conference champions, in Raleigh only this season but its only shot at Duke will be in Durham (Feb. 16).

The highlights and headscratchers from the 2018-19 schedule:

Mark the calendar

The two games with Carolina were really good last year. N.C. State walked out of the Smith Center with a 95-91 overtime win and the Tar Heels returned the favor with a 96-89 win in Raleigh.

The old rivals will meet in Raleigh on Jan. 8 and at the Smith Center on Feb. 5.

Why?

You gotta fill the schedule with somebody but Maine? The Black Bears have posted single-digit win seasons five years in a row.

Best road trip

Madison is a great college town but Wisconsin in late November is only for those who can handle and/or enjoy the cold.

If you’re into gambling or Bruce Springsteen nostalgia, the Dec. 15 game against Penn State is worth the trip to Atlantic City for the Boardwalk Classic.

Most difficult stretch

Virginia won the league by a mile last year and will be one of the favorites to win it again this year. Virginia Tech basically returns its whole lineup from an NCAA tournament team. Ditto for Clemson. UNC adds two top-notch freshmen (Nassir Little and Coby White) to a veteran lineup.

N.C. State plays those four teams in a row — Clemson (Jan. 26), Virginia (Jan. 29), Virginia Tech (Feb. 2) and UNC (Feb. 5) — but only the UNC game is on the road.

Easiest stretch

Some teams go to Maui, last season N.C. State went to the Bahamas. This year? A four-game home stretch in November which the school is calling the Wolfpack Classic.

The opponents for the “Classic” and their KenPom rank and record from last season: Maryland-Eastern Shore (No. 349, 7-25), Maine (No. 332, 6-26), Saint Peter’s (No. 217, 14-18) and Mercer (No. 154, 19-15).

Mercer, you might recall, when a fairly large NCAA tournament game over Duke at PNC Arena in 2016.

Three games to know

1. The annual game at Reynolds Coliseum is always a highlight. Western Carolina will be the opponent on Dec. 5. This is the Catamounts’ first season since 2005 without coach Larry Hunter, a former N.C. State assistant, who passed away on May 4.

2. N.C. State opens ACC play at Miami on Jan. 3. The disastrous 2016-17 ACC season (Mark Gottfried’s last) started with an 81-63 road loss to the Hurricanes. This is the fourth year in a row Wolfpack will open conference play on the road. State is 0-3 in its past three road openers.

3. Keatts was an assistant at Louisville for three seasons from 2011-14. He makes his return there on Jan. 24 in an ACC matchup with first-year coach Chris Mack. Keatts and N.C. State beat the Cards in Raleigh their only matchup last season.

Schedule

Nov. 6 Mount St. Mary’s

Nov. 10 Maryland-Eastern Shore

Nov. 13 UNC Asheville

Nov. 17 Maine

Nov. 20 Saint Peter’s

Nov. 24 Mercer

Nov. 27 x-at Wisconsin

Dec. 1 y-vs. Vanderbilt

Dec. 5 z-Western Carolina

Dec. 15 #-vs. Penn State

Dec. 19 Auburn

Dec. 22 USC Upstate

Dec. 28 Loyola (Md.)

Jan. 3 at Miami

Jan. 8 UNC

Jan. 12 Pittsburgh

Jan. 15 at Wake Forest

Jan. 19 at Notre Dame

Jan. 24 at Louisville

Jan. 26 Clemson

Jan. 29 Virginia

Feb. 2 Virginia Tech

Feb. 5 at UNC

Feb. 9 at Pittsburgh

Feb. 13 Syracuse

Feb. 16 at Duke

Feb. 20 Boston College

Feb. 24 Wake Forest

March 2 at Florida State

March 6 Georgia Tech

March 9 at Boston College

March 12-16 ACC tournament, at Charlotte

Notes: x-Big Ten Challenge; y-Hoophall Invitational, Miami; z-at Reynolds Coliseum; #-Boardwalk Classic, Atlantic City, N.J.

NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the Wolfpack's season after they lost Seton Hall in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship at INTRUST Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan., Thursday, March 15, 2018.

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