Good teams, with good coaches, get better during the season. In the hustle and bustle of an unbalanced conference schedule, that isn't always easy to see. Sometimes, it couldn't be more obvious.
For N.C. State, the 48-point swing between the Wolfpack's desultory loss at Notre Dame and Saturday's runaway win says it all.
In the month between that no-show capitulation in South Bend and this 76-58 response – in a game N.C. State led by as many as 30 midway through the second half – the Wolfpack has beaten Duke and North Carolina while coming to believe in itself, something lacking not only earlier in the season, when N.C. State followed its upset of Arizona with a regrettable loss to Northern Iowa, but all of last season.
“What a difference a month has made,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said.
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There are many signs of progress, from Omer Yurtseven's development to the aggression of the Wolfpack's defense to Markell Johnson putting up NBA assist numbers with double-digits in the past four games, but the biggest and most important is not quantifiable.
How do you put a number on self-confidence and belief? Forty-eight points is probably as close as you'll ever get.
“They beat us pretty bad at their place,” said N.C. State's Torin Dorn, who scored a game-high 21 points. “We were kind of motivated for this one and wanted to get that one back. That was our second ACC game. We've come so far since then. You can see the progress that we've made just based on the swing in the score.”
As much as this is representative of N.C. State's growth, some of it is also representative of two teams heading in diametrically opposite directions. Notre Dame has lost seven straight without Bonzie Colson and the first five of those losses were by single digits before Monday's 22-point loss at Duke. The Irish fought to stay within six in that game with 12 minutes to play, and Duke's 18-0 run apparently broke Notre Dame's spirit. There was no fight in the Irish on Saturday, even with a half-speed Matt Farrell back in the lineup.
“I think they have a great vibe about them,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “And we don’t.”
Over the last 52:05 in the 919 area code, Notre Dame has been outscored by 34. “And we have to come back next week,” Brey lamented, to play North Carolina.
“At some point you can tell that they lost their enthusiasm for the game,” Yurtseven said. “When you beat them by 20, 25 in the first half, you know they're going to attack at the beginning of the second half. So if you just take that first enthusiasm or first aggressiveness away, you take the whole spirit away.”
Still, and this is worth repeating, assuming Colson is back for Brooklyn, either Virginia or the No. 2 seed may have the misfortune of facing a healthy Notre Dame team on Thursday. Connecticut won the Maui Invitational in 2010, staggered to 9-9 in the Big East and won the 2011 national title. Reigning Maui champion Notre Dame has a lot of work left to do just to get to 9-9, but good teams do have the capability to rally.
While Notre Dame's NCAA ship may have sailed, N.C. State added to its tournament resume with the win, even if the victory's value may decrease as Notre Dame continues to slide, but while the Wolfpack can't change the strength of its schedule or what the NCAA selection committee thinks of it now, it can force the issue by continuing to win. There are two big games in the next week, at Virginia Tech and at home against North Carolina, both of which would have a major impact on the Wolfpack's chances at a most unexpected postseason appearance – so unexpected, Keatts could even joke about how far his team has come.
“When coach (Debbie) Yow hired me, I said I was going to win 35 games this year,” Keatts said. “Didn't I, coach?”
“Yes, you did, absolutely,” athletic director Yow, in the audience, replied to laughter.
“My opinion hasn't changed,” Keatts said. “We're learning how to compete and play hard.”
It's apparent. N.C. State had never beaten Notre Dame in Raleigh, not at Reynolds Coliseum, not at PNC Arena. Anything's possible now.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock