With the ACC tournament four weeks away, N.C. State is exceeding expectations in Kevin Keatts’ first season as the Wolfpack’s coach.
Picked to finish 12th in the ACC in a preseason media poll, the Wolfpack (16-7, 6-4 ACC) right now looks like a team that will earn a bye and not begin league tournament play until the second round on March 7 in Brooklyn.
NCAA tournament bracket projections by CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi released Monday have N.C. State in the tournament field, with both listing the Wolfpack among teams playing in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio.
Riding a three-game winning streak, N.C. State has eight ACC regular-season games remaining. The Wolfpack has a better ACC record than all eight of those teams.
Let’s consider that for a second. Back on Dec. 30, Keatts assessed his team by saying N.C. State had a “low margin for error” because his team was “not as talented as most teams in the ACC.”
Keatts wanted his team to play together to maximize the talent it does have and the Wolfpack has done that, pleasing and surprising its coach at the same time.
On Jan. 3, N.C. State lost by 30 (88-58) to Notre Dame in Indiana. A month later, on Feb. 3, N.C. State beat Notre Dame 76-58 at home.
Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey is now a Wolfpack believer, too.
“They believe they are going to win in any situation,” Brey said. “They are an NCAA tournament team. They deserve it.”
N.C. State’s weak non-conference schedule (rated No. 267 nationally) means the Wolfpack has to have a strong showing in league play to overcome that negative.
So far, N.C. State is doing that.
Through Sunday’s games, N.C. State’s RPI is 62, and through Monday’s games its KenPom rating is 57. Here’s a look at the Wolfpack’s final eight opponents and N.C. State’s chances of winning those games:
at Virginia Tech, Feb. 7
Virginia Tech’s record: 16-7, 5-5 ACC
Virginia Tech’s RPI: 67
Virginia Tech’s KenPom ranking: 41
KenPom projected percent chances of winning: Virginia Tech 68, NC State 32
KenPom projected score: Virginia Tech 85-80.
Steve’s thoughts: This game is a battle of two bubble teams. N.C. State can deal the Hokies’ NCAA chances a serious blow with a win.
North Carolina, Feb. 10
UNC’s record: 17-7, 6-5 ACC
UNC’s RPI: 10
UNC’s KenPom ranking: 12
KenPom projected percent chances of winning: UNC 62, N.C. State 38
KenPom projected score: UNC 84, N.C. State 81
Steve’s thoughts: Hey, remember that KenPom gave the Wolfpack an 11 percent chance of winning in Chapel Hill on Jan. 27. Instead, the N.C. State won that game 95-91 in overtime. A Wolfpack win on Saturday should move N.C. State off the “last four in” lists and comfortably in the field.
At Syracuse, Feb. 14
Syracuse’s record: 16-8, 5-6 ACC
Syracuse’s RPI: 47
Syracuse’s KenPom ranking: 44
KenPom projected percent chances of winning: Syracuse 64, N.C. State 36
KenPom projected score: Syracuse 70, N.C. State 66
Steve’s thoughts: There’s nothing special about this Orange team. But N.C. State struggled to make outside shots against Pitt’s 2-3 zone. Syracuse does it better.
At Wake Forest, Feb. 17
Wake Forest’s record: 9-14, 2-9 ACC
Wake Forest’s RPI: 116
Wake Forest’s KenPom ranking: 93
KenPom projected percent chances of winning: N.C. State 50, Wake Forest 50
KenPom projected score: N.C. State 80, Wake Forest 79
Steve’s thoughts: N.C. State had to outplay Wake in the final four minutes to rally and beat the Demon Deacons 72-63 at PNC Arena on Jan. 18. Wolfpack needs this win and should get it.
Boston College, Feb. 20
Boston College’s record: 14-9, 4-6 ACC
Boston College’s RPI: 79
Boston College’s KenPom ranking: 83
KenPom projected percent chances of winning: N.C. State 71, Boston College 29
KenPom projected score: NC State 81, Boston College 75
Steve’s thoughts: Boston College is a more competitive ACC team than it has been in previous seasons, but has no road wins against teams in the top 200 of the RPI. The upcoming game is a home game for N.C. State, so the Wolfpack simply has to win this one. And it should.
Florida State, Feb. 25
Florida State’s record: 17-6, 6-5 ACC
Florida State’s RPI: 40
Florida State’s KenPom ranking: 22
KenPom projected percent chances of winning: Florida State 53, NC State 47
KenPom projected score: Florida State 84, NC State 83
Steve’s thoughts: This is similar to N.C. State’s home game with Miami on Jan. 21, when the Hurricanes pulled out an 86-81 win. It was a winnable game for N.C. State but it let it get away. Beating FSU is possible for the Wolfpack, especially at home. N.C. State needs to have a good shooting day, which it didn’t have against Miami.
At Georgia Tech, March 1
Georgia Tech’s record: 11-12, 4-6 ACC
Georgia Tech’s RPI: 140
Georgia Tech’s KenPom ranking: 108
KenPom projected percent chances of winning: NC State 54, Georgia Tech 46
KenPom projected score: NC State 72, Georgia Tech 71
Steve’s thoughts: Notice that, according to Ken Pomeroy, N.C. State’s chances to win this one are the second-highest among the final eight games. The Wolfpack needs to play well in this road game to send a positive message to the NCAA selection committee.
Louisville, March 3
Louisville’s record: 16-8, 6-5 ACC
Louisville’s RPI: 26
Louisville’s KenPom ranking: 37
KenPom projected percent chances of winning: N.C. State 52, Louisville 48
KenPom projected score: N.C. State 78, Louisville 77
Steve’s thoughts: This one is hard to project because no one really knows what Louisville’s mindset and emotions will be by this point in the season. The NCAA and FBI cloud over the Cardinals is real.