A Formidable Focus

A pair of games against rival UNC show why the Wolfpack has all it needs this season going into March Madness.

In early January of last year, NC State’s men’s basketball team entered the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill battle ready for the No. 14 Tar Heels—or so it thought.

The Wolfpack had defeated Virginia Tech by 26 points in PNC Arena just four days prior. Sitting at 12-3 overall and 1-1 in the ACC with freshman phenom Dennis Smith Jr. running the show, NC State fans were confident that the Pack would put up a fight against its arch-rivals.

But the Wolfpack was outmatched from start to finish.

North Carolina exploded out of the gate to a 26-4 lead and never looked back. Smith Jr., the nucleus of the Pack’s offense, committed three fouls in the first 10 minutes and was forced to sit on the bench for the majority of the first frame, fueling UNC’s dominance. State looked completely bewildered on defense, allowing the Heels to easily drive to the basket and shoot countless uncontested shots from beyond the arc. The offense wasn’t any better—the team turned the ball over a staggering 26 times to UNC’s 12.

The Tar Heels went on to hand the Wolfpack its worst loss since 1921, and, though the Heels usually get the best of the Pack, the 107-56 blowout was a particularly stinging one for NC State fans.

Fast forward just over a year on the brink of the ACC tournament in Brooklyn, and the Wolfpack secured the No. 5 seed following a surprising loss to Georgia Tech last week. The Pack will face the winner of No. 12 Boston College versus No. 13 Georgia Tech on Wednesday at 2 p.m., narrowly missing the coveted double-bye which could have marked the first time the team finished the season in the conference’s top three since 2004.

That disappointment aside, the Pack has far surpassed preseason expectations following the termination of former head coach Mark Gottfried. Enter former UNC-Wilmington head coach Kevin Keatts, 45, who NC State Athletics Director Debbie Yow hired last March. The onetime Louisville assistant coach rebuilt the Seahawks’ program, and vowed to restore greatness in Raleigh in his introductory press conference.

“We will be champions again,” Keatts said. “And I promise you guys that.” A year on, he’s more than kept his word.

Though the coach brought fresh excitement to the NC State faithful, the 2017-2018 season was largely expected to be something of a rebuilding period for the team. Analysts predicted that the Wolfpack would finish 12th or 13th in the ACC, the same standing as the previous season. But Keatts defeated Hall of Fame coaches Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim in his first turn in the conference, instilling a new culture at NC State and in the players.

For instance, last season the Wolfpack tended to quit in games when it was trailing and played poorly on the defensive end, as it did against North Carolina. Keatts put the team through a rigorous offseason conditioning program to increase defensive intensity and push the pace on offense. He also brought an up-tempo style of play to the Wolfpack that, coupled with a full-court press defense, has generated excitement on both ends of the hardwood. Keatts’ squad isn’t afraid to heave shots from beyond the arc or to play aggressively on the defensive end, forcing opponents to commit turnovers. As it’s happened, under Keatt’s guidance, the Wolfpack proved doubters wrong and secured five wins over ranked opponents in the season including Duke, Florida State, Clemson, Arizona, and UNC.

The hard-fought victory over the Tar Heels, the Pack’s Tobacco Road rival, was arguably the most impressive. It was a 95-91 overtime thriller in the Dean Dome in late January, just over a year since the infamous 51-point loss in the Dean Dome.

North Carolina started the game hitting five of its first six shots, but the Wolfpack quickly answered with baskets of its own. Graduate transfer Allerik Freeman dialed in for the Pack, drilling seven of seven shots from downtown, tying the ACC record for most three pointers without a miss on his way to a career- high 29 points. Sophomore Markell Johnson was clutch when it counted. With less than a minute left in regulation, he drove down the lane amidst contact to tie the score at 81. Then, following an NC State timeout, he dashed his defender for the hard-earned layup to pull ahead by two points with 16 seconds left. Johnson scored 20 points in total, including the go-ahead three pointer with four minutes remaining in overtime, plus two free throws to ice the game as time ticked off the clock for a sweet tasting win.

As for the ACC Tournament, the Wolfpack could have its hands full from the outset—it will face either Boston College or Georgia Tech again, in a second round revenge seeker. If State pulls out the win this time, the Pack will take on Clemson, a team it’s already beaten twice, once decisively. That would pave the way for a potential matchup against No. 1 Virginia, the top seed for the third time in five years and a deeply talented squad helmed by an explosive offense.

In all likelihood, the Pack will muster a solid run in Brooklyn this week, commensurate with its above average 11-7 conference record. What’s clear is that, unlike a year ago, it certainly has the capability—the drive, the focus and the talent—to make some noise in March Madness.