The clearest path for N.C. State to get back to the NCAA tournament for a fourth consecutive year includes winning an ACC basketball game this week.
Facing Virginia, No. 3 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), at home Wednesday night and Louisville, No. 12 in the RPI, on the road Saturday, that falls squarely under the category of “easier said than done” for the Wolfpack.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried, an expert in the details of the NCAA selection process, usually will quibble with such sweeping generalities.
With losses in five of seven games since beating then-No. 2 Duke on Jan. 11, Gottfried is no mood to pick nits with the reigning ACC champions coming to town.
“We need to get going here,” Gottfried said. “We have stubbed our toe a few times, we know it. The time is now, it’s time to step up and get going.”
N.C. State (14-10, 5-6) will start its push for a fourth straight tournament bid coming off an eight-day break after its 88-84 loss at Wake Forest on Feb. 3.
Gottfried gave his players three days off since their last game, including Saturday and Sunday, in hopes of recharging for the final seven regular-season games.
N.C. State, at No. 64 in the RPI, finds itself on the outside of the NCAA tournament bubble looking in but has a few things going in its favor.
The Wolfpack has six wins against the top 100 in the RPI and two in the top 50 (No. 4 Duke and No. 40 Boise State).
More important, it’s overall strength of schedule is ranked No. 11, and its nonconference strength of schedule (the measure the committee weighs more heavily because it’s the games you control) is No. 35.
That means, while the Wolfpack is on the outskirts of the projected 68-team field, it still has opportunities to play its way in.
But these next two games, plus a Feb. 24 trip to No. 12 North Carolina, are the only ones against top 25 RPI teams. Since N.C. State has never beaten UNC coach Roy Williams in Chapel Hill (0-10), that puts a premium on Wednesday’s game with Virginia and Saturday’s at Louisville.
“You’ve got to win your way into the NCAA tournament,” Gottfried said.
The door might be a slightly ajar against first-place Virginia (21-1, 9-1). The Cavaliers have won 28 of their past 31 ACC games, including their first ACC title since 1976, but star guard Justin Anderson broke a finger in his left hand in during the first half of Saturday’s 52-47 win against No. 9 Louisville in Charlottesville.
Anderson had surgery and is expected to miss four to six weeks. Virginia coach Tony Bennett is hopeful Anderson, a strong 6-foot-6 wing who fits perfectly into Virginia’s defensive system and is having an All-ACC season, will be back for the ACC tournament.
The Cavaliers will have to rely on junior Evan Nolte, a 6-8 shooter, and freshman Marial Shayok, a 6-6 combo guard, in Anderson’s absence.
“We aren’t going to be exactly the same,” Bennett said. “We don’t have a replica to replace Justin, but others will come in and we’ll have to look a little different and figure it out as we go.”
Gottfried told his players in practice Monday to expect Virginia’s best effort and for the Cavaliers, who lead the ACC by two games, to rally around Anderson’s injury.
“I think they’re a terrific team,” Gottfried said. “I think they’re a team that can compete for the national championship.”
Anderson was instrumental in Virginia’s 61-51 home win against N.C. State on Jan. 7 with 16 points, nine rebounds and three assists, but Gottfried said if any team is equipped to handle a personnel loss, it’s Virginia.
“Their success is more predicated on their system and style than one person,” Gottfried said.