N.C. State has missed the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. Now the Wolfpack is at a key point of its schedule that could determine whether or not it plays in the postseason this year.
With its win over Pitt on Jan. 24, N.C. State (14-7, 4-4 ACC) matched last season’s league win total. The Wolfpack is now one win shy of matching last season’s overall wins total. N.C. State finished last season 15-17 and 4-14 in the ACC.
As is the case with many bubble teams striving to make the NCAA tournament, late January and February are the most telling portions of their seasons.
Two years ago on Jan. 26, 2016, N.C. State was 11-9 overall and 1-6 in the ACC. The Wolfpack won only four more regular-season games that season to finish 16-17 overall, and miss out on postseason play.
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Three years ago on Jan. 26, 2015, the Wolfpack was 13-8 and 4-4. N.C. State closed the season strong, logging six more wins to finish 10-8 in league play. The team went on to the NCAA tournament Round of 16.
At this point in this season, N.C. State’s most likely destination is the NIT. The Wolfpack is No. 75 in the RPI and rated No. 73 by KenPom.com.
So what does N.C. State and coach Kevin Keatts need to do to reach the NCAA tournament? For starters, a win over No. 10 North Carolina on Saturday would put the Wolfpack on the right track heading into its last 10 ACC games of the regular season.
Here are three things the Wolfpack needs to do and three things they need to avoid in trying to make the NCAA tournament.
DO win at least five more ACC regular-season games
The ACC is the No. 2-rated conference in terms of RPI, and, according to KenPom.com, trailing only the Big 12.
Still, a losing record in league play would be a strike against any team. That’s particularly true of N.C. State. The Wolfpack played a weak non-conference schedule, rated No. 278 on the team sheets the NCAA Selection Committee uses to select at-large teams.
KenPom.com currently projects N.C. State to finish with an 8-10 record in ACC play. The Wolfpack’s best chances to win are at home against Boston College on Feb. 20, at Georgia Tech on March 1, at home against Louisville on March 3, at home with Notre Dame on Feb. 3 and at Wake Forest on Feb. 17.
DO pull a few more upsets
The Wolfpack has three wins over top 25 teams (No. 2 Arizona, No. 2 Duke and No. 19 Clemson) this season, and has a 3-5 mark in Quadrant 1 of the team sheet. That category includes home games against teams 1-30 in the RPI, neutral site games against 1-50 and road games against 1-75.
To improve its RPI, N.C. State needs to improve that record.
The two upcoming games against UNC (on Saturday in Chapel Hill and at home on Feb. 10) offer the best chances since the Tar Heels are currently No. 5 in the RPI. Wins over No. 19 Louisville (at home on March 3), No. 38 Syracuse (on the road on Feb. 14), and No. 41 Florida State (at home on Feb. 25) would be next on the wish list.
DO play deep into the ACC tournament
Finishing in the top nine in the ACC standings would give the Wolfpack a bye into second round of the ACC tournament – and it would give it an easier path into the quarterfinals. N.C. State would open the tournament with a team that finished lower in the standings, then get a crack to add another upset win in the quarterfinals to catch the committee’s eyes.
DON’T suffer through a February slump
Last season the Wolfpack followed its upset win at Duke on Jan. 23 by losing its next seven games. A hopeful 14-7 record turned to 14-14 after that.
Though this team has played with far more grit, the chances of a repeat are real. KenPom.com’s projections give the Wolfpack less than a 50 percent chance of winning in each of the next six games (at UNC, Notre Dame, at Virginia Tech, UNC, Syracuse, at Wake Forest).
DON’T suffer one THOSE type of losses
N.C. State is 11-2 against teams in quadrants 3 and 4 on the team sheets.
Quadrant 3 includes home games against teams 76-160 in RPI, neutral site games against 101-200 and road games against teams 136-240.
Quadrant four is home games against teams 161 or worse, neutral site games against 201 and worse and road games against teams 241 or worse.
N.C. State’s only losses outside quadrant 1 are to No. 86 UNC Greensboro at home and No. 130 Northern Iowa in the Bahamas. It can’t afford any more.
The Wolfpack escaped what would have been a horrible loss when it won 72-68 at Pittsburgh (RPI: 171) on Wednesday night.
Possible potholes lie ahead at Wake Forest (No. 127) and at Georgia Tech (No. 140).
DON’T lose more than you win from here on out
KenPom.com projects N.C. State to finish 8-10 in the ACC, which would be better than the Pack’s 4-14 league record in 2017 and 5-13 ACC record in 2016.
But to exceed all expectations and make the NCAA tournament, N.C. State probably needs 10 total ACC wins, at the minimum, plus two wins at the ACC tournament.
An N.C. State team with 10 ACC wins would finish the regular season at 20-11.
If the Pack goes, for example, 4-6, over the rest of the regular season, it would enter the ACC tournament with an 18-13 overall record and profile as an NIT team at best.
NC State at UNC
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill