There is a path to the NCAA tournament for N.C. State that does not include a home win over Syracuse on Wednesday night.
It would just be a whole lot easier for the Wolfpack (17-7, 5-6 ACC) on Selection Sunday if it can find a way to beat the Orange (17-7, 8-3) at PNC Arena (8 p.m., WRAL).
N.C. State needs to start adding some quality wins to its resume. It has a lofty NET ranking in its favor (No. 35) and handful of “good” losses but the “good” wins, at least ones over teams projected to be in the 68-team field, are lacking.
Auburn, No. 20 in the NET rankings, is the only team N.C. State has a win over this season that looks like it will make the NCAA field. The Wolfpack has a chance to expand its resume in that category with dates with the Orange (No. 48 in the NET), Duke (No. 2) and at Florida State (No. 25) coming up.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Since this is the only one of those three games that will be at home, it feels like a capital “B” big game for the Wolfpack. Coach Kevin Keatts agrees. Sort of.
“It’s a big game because it’s the next game,” Keatts said.
That’s “coachspeak,” but you can’t blame Keatts. His team just picked up its first ACC win, at Pittsburgh on Saturday, since a buzzer-beater over Clemson on Jan. 26.
The Wolfpack is still not quite out of a difficult conference stretch where it has lost 5 of 8. That’s why junior guard C.J. Bryce, who had 21 points in the road win over the Panthers, was a little bit more direct when talking about the value of the Syracuse game than his coach was.
“We don’t have any room to drop any more games,” Bryce said. “No room for error. Every game is important for us at this point.”
The Orange, who have found their footing in ACC play after a rough early start to the season, are in need of their own quality wins. They do have a win at Duke (95-91 on Jan. 14) in their back pocket but their resume could use some more brandishing.
The Orange present a unique challenge for N.C. State, which has seen its fortunes go as its 3-point stroke goes. The Wolfpack is 8-1 this season when it makes 10 3s or more in a game. N.C. State made a season-high 14 3s in Saturday’s 79-76 win at Pitt.
The Wolfpack was able to crack the Orange’s defensive code last year on the road. The Wolfpack made 10 3-pointers and Keatts found some success by using guard Markell Johnson at the foul line in the middle of the zone. Johnson had five assists and scored 16 points in the 74-70 road win.
Johnson will get more minutes in the middle on Wednesday and so will senior wing Torin Dorn. Keatts is hoping to replicate the smart passing from last year’s win at the Carrier Dome. N.C. State had 17 assists on 27 field goals.
“We moved the ball,” Keatts said. “We had great player and ball movement. I thought we shared the basketball.”
N.C. State has already faced a lot of zone defense this season. Pitt used some on Saturday, so did Wake Forest and Miami earlier this season. Those zones were fine, a change of pace, but they’re not as good as Syracuse’s zone, Keatts said.
“When you think about zones, you think about Syracuse,” Keatts said.