Luke DeCock

DeCock: Wolfpack building reputation as tournament team to avoid

N.C. State's T.J. Warren gets a dunk over UNC's Brice Johnson in the second half for two of his game-high 36 points.
N.C. State's T.J. Warren gets a dunk over UNC's Brice Johnson in the second half for two of his game-high 36 points.

In the calm before the storm Tuesday afternoon, more than 24 hours ahead of a game that’s still reverberating throughout the Triangle, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried was asked, almost as an afterthought, to look ahead to the ACC tournament, now only two weeks away.

Might his team be a bigger threat there than anyone thought?

Gottfried nodded, then said, “I would hope people would say, ‘I don’t want to play them in Greensboro.’ We’re that team.”

The unspoken what-if behind the question was the implication of a loss to North Carolina on Wednesday that would end the Wolfpack’s slim at-large hopes, leaving the ACC tournament as the only back door into the NCAA tournament.

That’s how it ended up playing out, although it was anything but a foregone conclusion. It required overtime to decide one of the ACC’s all-time shootouts between T.J. Warren and Marcus Paige, the latter getting the last shot for an 85-84 win even after the Wolfpack scored the first six points of overtime.

And just like that, whatever realistic chances N.C. State had of making the NCAA tournament as an at-large team evaporated. It would take a miracle now, even with a win at Pittsburgh and three wins at the ACC tournament.

As disheartening as the circumstances of the loss were for N.C. State, there’s still reason for optimism. For there is still Greensboro, where the Wolfpack would have to win four games in four days. After Wednesday night, is it so crazy to think it’s not impossible?

N.C. State has proven it can trade blows with some of the hottest teams in the country and have a chance to win right down to the final possession. And not just on one night, but twice – at Syracuse as well. (The Wolfpack also lost final-possession games against Missouri and Wake Forest, not quite the same caliber of competition.)

Wednesday’s loss may have had a painful result, but unlike the Wolfpack’s first three games against opponents from the 919 area code, it wasn’t a painful performance. N.C. State gave a strong account of itself against the Tar Heels, unlike the early season home loss to N.C. Central, the second-half collapse at Duke or the first-half implosion at North Carolina Feb. 1.

That such a young, inexperienced, immature group still had a chance to make the NCAA tournament this late in the season and came within a bucket of being the first team to beat Syracuse is a testament to the collective growth of the group, the switch to Tyler Lewis at point guard and the relentless scoring ability of Warren.

The worst-case scenario is now a potential NIT home game or two at Reynolds Coliseum, with PNC Arena occupied for an NCAA subregional. Those are invariably a unique and memorable experience – a reminder of what made N.C. State basketball, even if the program has outgrown those walls. And while it’s a step down from the NCAA tournament, where the Wolfpack played in Gottfried’s first two seasons at N.C. State, it’s would still be a reward for a team that has, unquestionably, continued to improve and given itself a chance to exceed expectations.

It may not come to that. The Wolfpack came as close as possible to winning at Syracuse and against North Carolina on Wednesday. It would be difficult, but not impossible to close that gap in Greensboro.

“Your hope is, by the end, you can become a team that can do that,” Gottfried said. “So we’ll see.”

Unquestionably, N.C. State has become a team opponents would prefer to avoid in Greensboro. Whether the Wolfpack can make things more than merely uncomfortable, we’ll see.