Almost exactly a year ago, a mere six days off to be exact, N.C. State limped home from a dismal, capitulating loss at Wake Forest and somewhere east of Forsyth County crossed a basketball Rubicon. Saturday, the Wolfpack stopped for ice cream instead.
The gravitational forces that led to Mark Gottfried’s dismissal, and Kevin Keatts’ eventual arrival, started exerting their pull that day. That loss led, both directly and indirectly, to an N.C. State performance on Saturday that was diametrically opposite in so many ways.
A year after a loss that contributed significantly to a coach getting fired, N.C. State’s 90-84 win in Winston-Salem may end up contributing significantly to getting the Wolfpack into the NCAA tournament.
N.C. State followed up Wednesday’s win at Syracuse with another precious ACC road win, and the Wolfpack will be favored to win its final four ACC games, even if by only a hair in two of them. But still, there’s no reason N.C. State can’t finish 11-7 in the ACC, and that combined with the Wolfpack’s marquee wins should – emphasis on should – be enough to get N.C. State to Dayton at the least no matter what happens in Brooklyn.
“We don’t want to get sick again,” N.C. State center Omer Yurtseven said. “When we lose games, that’s what we call it. We get sick. Just another ACC game on the road, we got to win it.”
So much has changed in a year, and it doesn’t take a basketball savant to realize that. But the difference between these two games, between a team headed into the abyss and a team headed into the postseason, drives the point home almost effortlessly.
“Every practice, every situation, we try to make it a competitive situation, because I took over a bunch that didn’t have a lot of success,” Keatts said. “We wanted to make everything competitive, and they’re playing that way.”
Either way, winning in Winston-Salem is a milestone for this Wolfpack team. N.C. State hadn’t won at Lawrence Joel since 2012 – Gottfried’s first season, on its way to the Sweet 16 – and this place has been a graveyard for even really good Wolfpack teams over the years. N.C. State’s past 11 NCAA tournament teams went 3-8 in Winston and the Wolfpack is now 2-5 during the Demon Deacons’ Jeff Bzdelik-Danny Manning era, which except for last season hasn’t exactly been the glory years.
This team has a different vibe to it, shaking off all kinds of N.C. State bugaboos that have transcended eras and coaching regimes – just about everything other than fouling with a lead, which seems to be unshakable. The Wolfpack did that repeatedly Saturday, turning what could have been a comfortable lead of a dozen or more points into a free-throw contest at the end.
“Every game that we win, I think it builds confidence,” Keatts said. “There were some certain games that helped us. Obviously in the Bahamas, Arizona. In the ACC, our season probably could have gotten away from us in Pittsburgh, but we found a way to win.”
N.C. State was on the verge of falling to 3-5 in the ACC in Pittsburgh on Jan. 24 but came back to win and followed that up with a win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill. With Saturday’s win over Wake Forest, the Wolfpack is 8-6, still with a chance to go 12-6.
Another road win earned N.C. State more ice cream, but Yurtseven’s eyes are now officially bigger than his stomach.
“It’s a small reward that we get, but that’s not the big reward we’re looking for,” Yurtseven said. “The big reward is the NCAA tournament.”
A year after it was as far away as it could ever get, with this win, with these road wins this week, N.C. State keeps moving closer. And closer. And closer.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock