It was in the aftermath of a loss at Clemson two weeks ago that N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts offered a stark assessment of his first Wolfpack basketball team.
“We are not as talented as most teams in the ACC,” Keatts said, explaining the Wolfpack’s low margin for error.
After N.C. State’s next game, an 88-58 loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 3, senior Abdul-Malik Abu vowed the team would make the best of its remaining 16 games.
“We never feel like we are outmanned on the court or talent wise,” Abu said that night. “But something’s got to give. We’ve got to fix it.”
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Since those first two ACC games, N.C. State has shown that it does have talent by beating back-to-back top 25 teams for the first time since 2007, when it beat No. 16 Virginia Tech before beating No. 3 North Carolina.
It started last Saturday with the Wolfpack’s 96-85 win over No. 2 Duke. Then on Thursday, N.C. State beat No. 19 Clemson 78-77.
Just when it looked like the season was spiraling downward, N.C. State tightened up defensively and started sharing the ball better on offense. Those were the things Keatts wanted his team to do to overcome the talent gap he saw.
“It goes back to us just playing,” N.C. State freshman guard Braxton Beverly said. “Not worrying about ‘Oh, I can’t make a turnover.’ Just got out and play, do what we know how to do and let it all work out for us.”
For N.C. State, the opening five games of ACC play (Clemson, Notre Dame, Duke, Clemson, Virginia) represent a tough schedule. After Sunday’s game at Virginia, the Wolfpack will have had five ACC games against teams that have been ranked in the top 25 (Clemson, Notre Dame, Duke, Virginia) this season. Three of those games (Clemson, Notre Dame, Virginia) are road games.
Rather than getting buried early in the season with a tough ACC schedule, the Wolfpack (12-5, 2-2 ACC) is hanging with the better teams in the league. Duke, North Carolina and Virginia Tech – all NCAA tournament teams a year ago – have also all split their first four ACC games this season.
Sunday’s game at No. 3 Virginia (15-1, 4-0) completes N.C. State’s brutal opening stretch. With a win, the Wolfpack would have a winning league record through those five games.
“Every conference season is a new season,” Keatts said. “We look at it in thirds. We look at the nonconference. We look at conference play. And we look at postseason. I think this is a new season for us.”
While going 10-3 in its nonconference schedule, N.C. State beat another ranked team – a 90-84 win over No. 2 Arizona on Nov. 22.
The Wolfpack hasn’t had this many wins over top 25 teams since the 2014-15 season. That season, N.C. State beat Duke, Louisville and North Carolina in regular-season play and upset No. 4 Villanova in the NCAA tournament on its way to the Sweet 16.
So this season is already a special one regardless of what happens from here.
Now that the suspension of sophomore point guard Markell Johnson is over, the Wolfpack is capable of claiming even more big wins. Johnson missed six games while he was suspended under the school’s student-athlete code of conduct because he was charged with felony assault in Cleveland, Ohio. He also sat out of Thursday’s game against Clemson, but because he hasn’t practiced, he has some catching up to do before rejoining N.C. State’s playing rotation.
N.C. State had only eight healthy scholarship players available for Thursday night’s win against Clemson, so his return represents a major boost.
Keatts now has to help his first Wolfpack team manage success as well as he tutored it in overcoming the slow start to ACC play.
NC State at Virginia
When: 6 p.m.
Where: John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, Va.