College Basketball Nation: North Carolina State Wolfpack
Well, this wasn’t the plan for the ACC.
The, um, new king of college basketball.
The early hits continued for the league on Tuesday night when NC State suffered an 82-72 home loss to North Carolina Central in overtime and Dayton topped Georgia Tech 82-72 in regulation.
The Flyers over the Yellow Jackets wasn’t a crazy outcome. Both teams are second-tier programs in their respective leagues. But NCCU beat a NC State team whose newest players were ranked the 13th best recruiting class coming into the season.
But NCCU completed its transition from Division II two seasons ago. A loss to NCCU -- at home -- is a big loss for a program that continues to fall from last season’s preseason perch as the favorite to win the 2013 ACC crown.
Kudos to both Dayton’s Archie Miller and NCCU’s Levelle Moton. That’s a pair of big wins for two young coaches.
But they’re a problem (potentially) for the ACC.
When Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Syracuse all announced that they were joining the ACC in 2013, it was easy to envision the ACC superseding the Big Ten as the top conference in college basketball, especially with Louisville coming in 2014.
And it’s far too early to dismiss that possibility. But it’s not the top league right now. Not even close.
The NCAA selection committee doesn’t care about conference rankings. But the Twitterverse does.
And many folks assumed the ACC would top the game’s hierarchy this year.
OK, I assumed the ACC would top college basketball in 2013-14.
But the entire conference has failed to justify the early buzz. There are far more questions than answers in the ACC right now.
Those losses by a pair of middle-of-the-pack-at-best ACC teams extended a troubling start for a league that should be on the rise. And there’s still time to get there. Plenty of time.
But the Big Ten has been praised as the nation’s best league in recent years because it has possessed both powerhouses and tough second-tier squads. Iowa won 25 games last year and went 9-9 in the Big Ten but failed to reach the NCAA tournament.
It wasn’t easy to get a win in Iowa City last year. Or Minneapolis. Or Champaign.
And when NC State, a Sweet 16 squad in 2011-12, loses to a team that competed at the Division II level a few years ago, it affects the overall reputation of the conference.
Miami losing to Saint Francis (New York) didn’t help, either. USC-Upstate beat Virginia Tech. Belmont beat North Carolina over the weekend. Boston College is 1-3. Maryland is 1-2.
The league’s top is shaky. The middle is even rougher. And the latter is really the most critical factor in the way that a conference is judged. How many teams will compete for an NCAA tournament slot?
That’s difficult to determine in the ACC right now, but these early nonconference upsets will only make it tougher for the ACC to maximize its potential in the postseason.
So far, the ACC hype has not equaled the substance we’ve witnessed from the conference in the first few weeks of the season.
I think Duke, which is led by superstar freshman Jabari Parker, is really good.
What else do I think about the ACC at this point?
Things are a little different this time around: The festivities begin at 7 p.m. ET Monday night and don't end until the 9:30 p.m. Champions Classic finale wraps late Tuesday. Check my math, but that's well over the allotted 24 hours of hoops. By the time we're done, it could be more like 30. Are you excited? You should be. Did you buy enough NoDoz to incapacitate a small farm animal? You should probably do that, too.
Before you run that errand, though, let's run through some of the things you need to know -- or should plan to watch for -- in this 2013-14 edition of the college hoops obsessive's nirvana. (Click here for the schedule. You might need that.)
Sneakiest good game: LSU at UMass, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN2. And not just because LSU coach Johnny Jones has one of the best freshmen in the country (power forward Jarrell Martin, the 11th-ranked player in the loaded 2013 class) making his debut. No, this UMass team -- which averaged a speedy 70.8 possessions per game last season -- is a lot of fun, and kicking off a crucial season for coach Derek Kellogg.
Under-the-whatever* player you should see: T.J. Warren, NC State. Last season, Warren was a hyper-efficient tweener freshman on an overstuffed NC State offense. This season he's the main attraction, and his first game Friday night -- 29 points on 13-of-20 shooting, with six rebounds, three steals and a block against Appalachian State -- provided a glimpse of what could be a monster offensive season. Warren and the Wolfpack go to Cincinnati at 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday night.
(*Note: It's only Nov. 11 and I'm already sick of "under the radar." I'm using this until further notice. Replacement suggestions welcome!)
Team that might be really good, but we just don't know: Baylor Bears (vs. South Carolina, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN). Super-talented? Check. Kept a would-be one-and-done (Isaiah Austin) on campus for his sophomore season? Check. Could be awesome? Sure! Could be thoroughly mediocre? Right.
Best 2013 NCAA tournament Cinderella: Florida Gulf Coast (vs. Hartford, 7 a.m. ET, ESPN2).
Second-best 2013 NCAA tournament Cinderella: La Salle (vs. Quinnipiac, 9 a.m. ET, ESPN2)
Best game: This one's a tie, which doesn't make it any less obvious: It's No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Michigan State, and No. 4 Duke vs. No. 5 Kansas, Tuesday at United Center. You're up to speed on this, right? You don't need me to elaborate, do you? No? Good.
Best non-Champions Classic game: No. 14 Virginia Commonwealth at No. 24 Virginia. Now this is an interesting question. As I see it, there are two viable options, both of which air on the Ocho ESPN2 opposite the Champions Classic. The first is the above, at 7 p.m. ET, followed by No. 10 Florida at No. 20 Wisconsin at 9 p.m. ET. At first glance, you might be inclined to take Florida-Wisconsin; those are the bigger "brand" names and probably more talented squads from top to bottom. But with Florida hobbled by injuries and suspensions, it seems less likely we'll get as good a game from the Gators and Badgers as we will at 7 p.m.
VCU at Virginia is a fascinating fixture. Not only are both programs pegged for big seasons, and not only could we witness the start of a nascent in-state rivalry, but the styles on display couldn't be more dichotomous. Virginia loves to slow the pace, take care of the ball, settle into Tony Bennett's pack-line defense, and generally play as cautiously and intelligently as possible. VCU loves to unleash havoc, press opponents, pounce on turnovers, get easy transition buckets and generally play as furiously and frustratingly as possible. Something will have to give.
Best thing about all of this: You can turn on your TV at any time between 7 p.m. Monday and midnight or so Tuesday and find basketball on the Worldwide Leader and its family of networks! Rejoice, rejoice. College basketball is finally here.
Here are previews for each team in the ACC:
Boston College Eagles
Clemson Tigers (free)
Duke Blue Devils
Florida State Seminoles
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina State Wolfpack
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Virginia Tech Hokies
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Meanwhile, conferences and schools are starting to roll out their college basketball schedules, making for the annual Sharpie dash to circle key dates.
When does Kentucky head to Knoxville for revenge after its Black Saturday date against Tennessee last season, when the Wildcats lost by 30?
When can NC State fans welcome Duke, upset by the Wolfpack a year ago, back to Raleigh?
Can Purdue fans, with a highly regarded recruiting class, get a sweep of hated Indiana by winning not only in West Lafayette but also in Bloomington?
Don't worry. It's not your eyesight. The games aren't there.
Welcome to the world of superconferences, where the money is terrific but things like rivalries are largely an afterthought.
Basketball, long the ugly stepchild in realignment, is once again being victimized by pigskin power, forced to pick and choose home-and-home series thanks to the girth of the leagues.
To read more of Dana O'Neil's piece about how rivalries are taking a hit due to conference realignment, click here.
Here’s a look at the ACC products who have enjoyed the most successful NBA careers since 1989, the year the draft was whittled down to two rounds.
2. Chris Paul, Wake Forest -- Paul is arguably the top point guard in the NBA. He’s a three-time first team all-NBA selection (2008, 2012, 2013) and a six-time All-Star. Paul is averaging 18.6 points and 9.8 assists for his career along with 2.4 steals. He’s been named to the All-Defensive first team each of the past two seasons and won gold medals with the United States Olympic team in 2008 and 2012. Paul led the once-lowly Los Angeles Clippers to the playoffs in 2012 and 2013.
3. Vince Carter, North Carolina -- Carter has averaged 20.8 points and five rebounds across 15 NBA seasons. He has spent time with five teams: Toronto, New Jersey, Orlando, Phoenix and Dallas. His leaping and dunking ability has made him one of the most popular players in the NBA, as he's joined Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Julius Erving as the only players to lead the All-Star fan voting more than three times. Carter is an eight-time All-Star, with his best season coming in 2001, when he averaged a career-high 27.6 points.
4. Grant Hill, Duke -- Hill retired this month after 18 years of NBA service. He averaged 16.7 points, six rebounds and 4.1 assists in 1,026 career games. Hill was the 1995 NBA Rookie of the Year, a seven-time All-Star and a five-team all-league selection. Hill averaged 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists in his first six seasons with the Detroit Pistons, but his next 12 years in the NBA were injury-plagued. Hill was a member of the 1996 Olympic team.
5. Chris Bosh, Georgia Tech -- As a member of the “Big Three” along with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Bosh has helped spark Miami to the NBA Finals in three straight seasons. The Heat won the title in 2012 and are one win away from a repeat in 2013. Before that, Bosh was a standout forward for the Toronto Raptors from 2003-2010. He averaged more than 22 points for five straight seasons with the Raptors. In 2009-10, he posted career-high averages in points (24.0) and rebounds (10.8).
6. Antawn Jamison, North Carolina -- The fourth overall pick in the 1998 NBA draft has averaged 18.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in 15 NBA seasons. He was the NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 2004 and made the All-Star team in 2005 and 2008. He’s averaging 17.2 points in 46 playoff games. Jamison’s best season came in 2000-01, when he averaged a career-high 24.9 points and 8.7 rebounds for Golden State. He spent five seasons with the Warriors and has also played for Dallas, Washington, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Lakers.
7. Elton Brand, Duke -- Although he has tapered off in recent years, Brand was one of the NBA’s top post players in the early-to-mid-2000s. He averaged 20 or more points in five of his first eight seasons. His best performance came in 2005-06, when he averaged 24.7 points and 10 rebounds. Brand earned second-team All-NBA honors that season and was also selected to the All-Star Game. He has averaged less than 14 points in each of his past five seasons. He scored just 7.2 points per game for Dallas in 2012-13.
8. Carlos Boozer, Duke -- Boozer has averaged more than 15 points in each of the past 10 seasons and boasts career averages of 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds. A two-time All-Star, Boozer was named third-team All-NBA in 2008 after scoring a career-high 21.1 points per contest. Boozer has averaged 17.8 points and 11.3 rebounds in 76 playoff games with the Jazz and Bulls. He played for the Olympic team in 2004 and 2008. Not bad for a player who was selected in the second round of the 2002 NBA draft.
9. Jerry Stackhouse, North Carolina -- Stackhouse has averaged less than nine points per game in each of his past five seasons, but that shouldn’t diminish his overall accomplishments in a standout career. He averaged a career-high 29.8 points for the Pistons in 2000-01 and set a franchise record by scoring 57 points in one game. Knee problems began to hamper Stackhouse a few years later. He hasn’t averaged more than 29 minutes per game since 2003, but still boasts a career scoring average of 16.9 PPG.
10. Rasheed Wallace, North Carolina -- Wallace announced his retirement in April after 16 seasons. He averaged 14.4 points and 6.7 rebounds during that span. His best season came in 2001-02, when he posted career-highs in both points (19.3) and rebounds (8.2). A four-time NBA All-Star, Wallace appeared in 177 playoff games and averaged 13.5 points and 6.3 boards -- helping the Pistons win the 2004 NBA title. He was the fourth overall pick in the 1995 NBA draft.
Ten more notables: All of these players have excelled in the NBA, including a few who almost cracked the top 10 (names in alphabetical order).
Kenny Anderson, Georgia Tech
Shane Battier, Duke
Sam Cassell, Florida State
Luol Deng, Duke
Raymond Felton, North Carolina
Steve Francis, Maryland
Tom Gugliotta, North Carolina State
Josh Howard, Wake Forest
Corey Maggette, Duke
Stephon Marbury, Georgia Tech
Too soon to tell: These guys haven’t been in the league long enough to make the top 10, but all appear to have bright futures (names in alphabetical order).
Al-Farouq Aminu, Wake Forest
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina
Ed Davis, North Carolina
Derrick Favors, Georgia Tech
John Henson, North Carolina
Kyrie Irving, Duke
Austin Rivers, Duke
Iman Shumpert, Georgia Tech
Kyle Singler, Duke
Tyler Zeller, North Carolina
*Note: Of the 30 names on these lists, nine are from North Carolina, nine are from Duke, five are from Georgia Tech and four are from Wake Forest. Maryland, North Carolina State and Florida State have one representative each.
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Beating North Carolina, NC State coach Mark Gottfried knows, doesn’t guarantee his team anything. It could still win big. Lose late. The Wolfpack already have done both; and anything in this long, strange ACC season can still happen.
"But for tonight, this one night, it does give us a step in the right direction," the second-year Wolfpack coach said after his 18th-ranked team topped the Tar Heels, 91-83.
For all of State’s accomplishments this season -- a top-10 preseason ranking, a 10-game winning streak, an upset over No. 1 Duke -- there’s something extra significant to this particular victory.
Since the late 1980s or so, NC State has served as an oft-forgotten stepbrother to Duke and UNC in the Triangle, an "other guy" status that made Wolfpack fans seethe but foes simply shrug.
But by beating the Tar Heels for the first time since 2007 (snapping a 13-game losing streak), and topping both of their Tobacco Road rivals for the first time since 2002-03, the Pack not only tossed another monkey off their back, but perhaps their hat back into the ring.
"We feel like this is a chance to make history right now, a step forward," said senior Richard Howell, who had never beaten the Tar Heels until Saturday. “It’s been one-sided a lot between Duke and UNC and NC State, and now we’re part of the change.”
After a midweek loss at Wake Forest led to a clear-the-air Wolfpack team meeting, there was a mingled sense of revelry and relief at PNC Arena after the victory.
State -- with its balanced offense and exuberant crowd -- dominated from the outset, using its bigger frontcourt of Howell and C.J. Leslie to get UNC forward James Michael McAdoo into foul trouble early (two in the first two minutes) and its junior point guard, Lorenzo Brown, to discombobulate Tar Heels freshman Marcus Paige often.
Playing what Gottfried called "our most fundamentally sound defense of the season" in the first 20 minutes, State outscored UNC 20-0 on fast-break points by halftime (thus beating the Tar Heels at their own usual game), and it led by as many as 28 points with 13 minutes, 22 seconds left -- because it refused to stop pushing.
"Our message at halftime was: We did not want our players to become passive," Gottfried said. "We wanted to attack them, and run and run and run."
But the Tar Heels, who had won three straight after starting the ACC season 0-2, finally chipped back with a barrage of outside shots. Sophomore P.J. Hairston’s 3-pointer, followed by McAdoo’s follow dunk, cut State’s lead to as little as 85-80 with 28 seconds left.
But senior guard Scott Wood -- yet another player in the Wolfpack’s arsenal -- made two free throws to push the cushion back to seven points.
It wasn’t easy down the stretch. But it was a win.
"It was a butt-kicking is what it was," said UNC coach Roy Williams, whose team is still trying to find an identity after losing four of last season's starters to the NBA draft.
"I’m not big into moral victories," he added, referring to his team’s rally. " ... NC State was more prepared, had a greater since of urgency, worked harder."
Indeed, in the end, the Wolfpack dominated almost every category of the game: points in the paint (44-34), fast-break points (39-19), rebounding (36-29), assists (22-21), shooting (49.2 percent)
Hairston led the Tar Heels with 19 points, but three Wolfpack players finished with double-doubles: Howell (16 points, 14 rebounds), Leslie (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Brown (20 points, 11 assists). Freshman T.J. Warren also chipped in 19 points, and Wood finished with 12.
Asked about the next step in his team’s progression, Howell said it was to keep improving its defense, win more ACC games than last year.
Added Wood: "We have to keep moving on, and when you get them down 28, you try to get them down 48. We’ve just got to continue to get better; we can't be satisfied."
That is, after enjoying this win. For a night, at least. Finally.
After all, it has been a long time coming.
"I don’t know about its cultural significance, but I just know that our program has lost a lot of games to North Carolina," Gottfried said. "And they’ve been great, give them credit. They are good, and have been good; we’re trying to get good. We’re trying to climb up the mountain, and at some point, you’ve got to turn it a little bit. And this is a start."
In building a lead as large as 28 points, the Wolfpack’s big(ger) guys pulverized the Tar Heels from the inside, their shooters dominated from the outside -- and perhaps most telling, State outscored UNC 39-19 on transition points, beating the Tar Heels at what is usually their own game.
Of course there was a rally -- what else would you expect from this rivalry? -- as UNC cut it to single digits in the final minute.
But the defeat snapped a 13-game losing streak to UNC and marked only the second time the Tar Heels have lost to the Wolfpack since Roy Williams returned to Chapel Hill as head coach before the 2003-04 season.
Turning point(s): Trailing 22-10 early, UNC chipped back with an 8-0 run during a stretch in which the Wolfpack inexplicably settled for jump shots rather than feeding their big men (who had big mismatches on the Tar Heels, what with 6-foot-7 reserve Jackson Simmons in the game and James Michael McAdoo playing with two fouls).
But after a timeout, NC State solved that problem in short order, pushing and pounding to a 20-2 run that began with a wide-open 3-pointer from Rodney Purvis and included a monster jam from C.J. Leslie over Simmons. The Wolfpack sped so hard that they beat UNC down the court again and again and again, as Purvis threw down a dunk and T.J. Warren made two more transition buckets before Williams ended the breakaway -- temporarily -- with a timeout.
State led 45-26 at halftime and by as many as 28 points in the second half.
UNC made a 22-7 run of its own -- cutting it to 70-61 on back-to-back 3-pointers from P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock, and two free throws from Marcus Paige.
But a bucket from Leslie inside, followed by a four-point play from Scott Wood, pushed NC State’s cushion back to 15 with about 4½ minutes left. It was enough to survive the Tar Heels’ last-minute push (when a Hairston 3 and McAdoo putback cut the lead to as little as five).
Key player(s): Choose a member of the Pack: Warren finished with 19 points; Howell had 16 points and 14 rebounds; Leslie recorded 17 points and 10 rebounds; Lorenzo Brown had 20 points and 11 assists; and Wood finished with 12 points.
McAdoo posted a double-double for UNC: 13 points, 11 rebounds. Hairston led the Tar Heels with 19.
Noteworthy number: State had outscored UNC 20-0 on transition buckets by halftime.
What’s next: NC State plays at Virginia on Tuesday, while UNC plays at Boston College the same night.
“When you get big blowout wins like that, it’s probably not the best idea to go back and watch; you might get a sense of comfort, or forget that we have to play hard – or what got us that 33-point lead,’’ forward Bernard James said. “So we just put that one behind us, and chalked it up to Carolina not being ready.”
He knows the Tar Heels will be this time.
The Seminoles downright embarrassed the UNC two months ago, beating the Tar Heels on the boards, holding them to 37 percent shooting. The 90-57 rout marked the most lopsided loss of the Roy Williams era, and it was so irritating/befuddling/maddening that Williams and most of the team left the court early – leaving three walk-ons and two reserves to finish the game.
Since then, the Tar Heels have lost only once, to Duke on a buzzer-beater.
Since then, the Seminoles have lost three times, but won three games with last-second heroics.
"We can't necessarily worry about the games that we've played prior to this game coming up,’’ FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “Each game takes on a different personality and I'm sure the team that we played in Tallahassee will not be the team we play on Sunday."
UNC will be competing for its first ACC title since 2008; FSU will be vying for its first ACC title, period.
A few things to watch in the 1 p.m. EST showdown at Philips Arena:
WILL UNC’S JOHN HENSON PLAY?
The ACC Defensive Player of the Year sat out Saturday’s semifinal victory over NC State after spraining his left wrist during Friday’s quarterfinal win over Maryland.
His status will once again be a game-time decision – and his potential absence will hurt.
James, a former Air Force sergeant and all a member of the ACC’s All-Defense team, is a load for anyone to handle, and if Henson can’t go, James would probably match up with UNC’s James Michael McAdoo. The Tar Heels freshman has been more confident and aggressive lately, but got he into foul trouble during Saturday’s game against the Wolfpack.
One of the reasons FSU was so successful against UNC last time was Deividas Dulkys, who shot 8-for-10 from behind the 3-point arc and scored a career-high 32 points.
The Seminoles senior hasn’t approached anything close to that since (with 12 points being his high), but you get the point: UNC (which also lost to Duke at home when the Blue Devils shot 14-for-36 on 3s) can’t afford to let an opposing team get hot.
The Seminole to watch: Michael Snaer. He’s shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point land for the season, and buried two of those aforementioned game-winners this season.
THAT COMPETITIVE FLARE
One of the reasons UNC lost so badly – and looked so listless in doing so – in the last meeting, according to players, was that they bought into their own preseason No. 1 hype and didn’t compete as hard as necessary. That shouldn’t be a problem Sunday.
The last time UNC was looking for revenge was last weekend, when it went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and pasted the Blue Devils, building a 24-point lead by halftime en route to the ACC regular-season title.
FSU, though, has plenty of motivation, too. Lots of folks wrote the Seminoles off when they lost to two Ivy League schools, then opened the ACC season with a 20-point defeat at Clemson. Since then, they’ve beaten UNC and Duke, but winning the league tournament would prove that the conference is more than a two-team league.
“This has been our goal since the beginning of the season, and we want to accomplish it,’’ Dulkys said.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
ATLANTA -- On Friday, the talk concerning North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall was all about his ability to pass the ball. On Saturday, it was all about his clutch, calm demeanor, as he sank a bank shot in the final seconds to give UNC the 69-67 win over NC State.
The win moves UNC into Sunday's ACC championship game.
UNC struggled for most of the day to stop NC State in the paint without John Henson, who was out with a sprained left wrist. The Heels moved to a zone defense midway through the second half, which helped contain NC State's offense, especially inside.
NC State eventually adjusted to UNC's zone, but lost top post presence C.J. Leslie with eight minutes remaining after he fouled out. That allowed UNC to work the paint more and helped the Tar Heels execute their zone more efficiently.
Before fouling out, UNC forward Tyler Zeller scored a game-high 23 points.
NC State never backed down and had chances to reclaim the lead with under a minute left, but turned the ball over twice before Marshall's game-winning jumper.
Turning point: UNC rarely plays zone, but the Tar Heels moved to it with a little more than 13 minutes remaining in Saturday's semifinal. It helped UNC slow down NC State's offense without Henson down low. It also helped that Leslie fouled out with 8:03 left after collecting three fouls in the span of a minute and a half.
Key player: UNC guard Reggie Bullock only scored five points, but he was all over the court. He grabbed seven rebounds and dished six assists, but really helped the Tar Heels on defense. He shut down NC State sharpshooter Scott Wood, who was held to two points on 1-of-6 shooting, and smothered him on a potential game-winning 3-point shot that Wood failed to even take. He also kept things under control for UNC late in the first half when he hit two straight buckets and grabbed a couple of rebounds.
Key stat: Neither team could get much going at all from the outside as they combined to shoot 8-of-31 from beyond the 3-point line. UNC hit five 3-pointers, while NC State hit just three.
Miscellaneous: UNC has now won 13 straight over the Wolfpack. ... The loss dropped NC State to 5-6 in the ACC tournament as the No. 5 seed. ... Despite fouling out, Leslie continued his tournament tear with 22 points, seven rebounds and two steals. ... With James Michael McAdoo dealing with foul trouble, UNC's Justin Watts played both point guard and power forward.
What’s next: The Tar Heels await the winner of the Duke-Florida State game. A win over Duke would lock up a No. 1 seed for UNC in the NCAA tournament. If the Blue Devils don't make it, the Heels will likely clinch a top seed before the day is over. As for the Wolfpack, Friday's win over Virginia was huge as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned. While NC State is probably still on the bubble, its ACC tournament showing has it in much better shape than a couple of days ago.
Or was it?
Now that NC State's 67-64 win over the Cavaliers is in the books, the Wolfpack can only sit and speculate on the fate of their tournament chances. They know their bubble didn't burst, but was their winning effort enough to persuade an NCAA tournament committee that was probably on the fence about NCSU?
Two wins in the ACC tournament will definitely help, but what could hurt is the fact that NC State entered Friday with an RPI of 59 and a strength of schedule of 31. Also, that four-game losing streak near the end of the season isn't too flattering.
However, NC State got some help when Miami won Thursday, giving the Wolfpack a sweep over a top-50 team. The win over Virginia was even bigger, as the Cavs entered the day 39th in the RPI.
"Everybody's talking about we don't have a key win, a signature win, against a top-50 RPI team," guard C.J. Williams said. "We did what everybody told us we needed to do: we beat Virginia. I feel like we should definitely be in the tournament."
Fellow guard Lorenzo Brown wasn't so matter-of-fact when asked about the Pack's chances at making the Big Dance, but he felt his team had done everything it could to push itself into the Big Dance.
"We've played our heart out. We're trying to prove ourselves to the committee," Brown said.
"We definitely needed this win. Hopefully, the guys that are running the [NCAA] committee will let us in the tournament."
From the way NC State has looked in Atlanta, this team has the makings of being pretty dangerous in the field of 68. NC State blew out Boston College and then shot 54 percent against the best defensive scoring team in the ACC. C.J. Leslie's grit offensively and defensively would make him a must-watch player in the tournament. And this team has shown tremendous resiliency at the end, countering that four-game losing streak with a four-game winning streak.
"A lot of people say we have a lot of talent. We do, but we also have a lot of heart and a lot of fight in ourselves and we just want to win each individual game," Williams said.
All this bubble talk would disappear if NC State did exactly what it set out to do this weekend: win the ACC tournament. (Sounds easy enough.) And this Wolfpack team believes it has what it takes to do it.
Top-seeded North Carolina, which swept NC State this season, is the next obstacle. Beating one of the nation's best would almost certainly lock the Wolfpack into the tournament, but Gottfried and his players are thinking beyond that. NC State has its mind made up on the NCAA tournament, so winning Saturday would just be the next step. Not the end.
"When we got on the plane the other day to come here, we came with the goal to win the tournament," he said. "That's why we came. The surest way to be an NCAA participant is to win your conference tournament and that's what we've come to do."
RALEIGH, N.C. -- North Carolina sophomore Kendall Marshall on Tuesday became the second-fastest player in ACC history reach 500 assists. He recorded his 12th double-figure assist game of the season, tying a school record. He finished with zero turnovers, the first time as a starter he’s managed that feat.
All that, and he showed that he can, indeed, knock down shots, too.
“Leading scorer? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before,’’ Marshall said after recording a career-high 22 points in the seventh-ranked Tar Heels’ 86-74 win over rival N.C. State.
“Well, not since middle school,’’ he said, laughing.
The 6-foot-4 Marshall, you see, is known for his passing. Takes pride in it. Likes to check how far he trails Iona’s Scott Machado in the national assist rankings (Machado was averaging 10.1, and Marshall 9.7, entering Tuesday’s games).
And he tends to prefer deferring to his teammates when it comes to points.
“When I have such great scorers on my team, it’s not my job to score 20 a game,’’ he explained.
But a couple of things happened Tuesday.
First, team video coordinator Eric Hoots gave the player a copy of an article from The (Raleigh) News & Observer, a local newspaper. It gave NC State’s Lorenzo Brown the edge in the point guard matchup because, according to the story, he is more multidimensional than Marshall.
Then Marshall’s dad gave him a pep-talk about being more confident in his shot. “Assists are easy -- because other guys finish,’’ the player explained.
And then he hit his first two shots -- both 3-pointers -- to help give his team a 10-point lead.
“Going into games, if I miss the first one or two, I’m like, ‘All right, that’s it,’” he said. “Tonight, to be able to see those first two go in, I think it really pulled the defense out.”
Which is a positive of having Marshall bury 7 of 8 shots (including a career-high four 3-pointers).
UNC coach Roy Williams has said all season that his team, which has now won 12 in a row over the Wolfpack, would be even better if Marshall could make the shots in games that he was consistently making in practice.
“I’ve seen him shoot like this -- even in the summer, he was phenomenal,’’ said forward Tyler Zeller. “He’ll go out and make 10 or 12 in a row, and we sometimes wonder why he doesn’t shoot more.”
It’s because, Marshall explained, he has so many talented scorers in forwards Zeller (14 points, eight rebounds Tuesday), Harrison Barnes (20 points) and John Henson 14 points, 13 rebounds) around him.
He knows, though, that when those guys are drawing double teams, he needs to connect in order to keep defenses honest.
And that was especially important at the RBC Center, in a game that saw State be the aggressor in the lane (it outscored the Tar Heels 42-22 in the point, and 16-8 off second-chance points).
“We just didn’t expect him to score like that,’’ Brown, who finished with 18 points and four assists, said of Marshall. “He must have been in the gym.”
Indeed, after the Wolfpack rallied from an early 14-point deficit to tie the score in the first half, it was a key 3 by Marshall that gave the Tar Heels a six-point cushion.
He opened the second half with a layup. And then another eventual 3 – with 7:34 left – gave the Tar Heels an 18-point advantage, their largest lead of the game.
His only self-described “awful” attempt: a first-half 3-point transition miss that he knows he should have passed. “If I could have that one play back, I would.”
Not that he needs to erase it. In the end, Marshall-led UNC made 10 of 19 3-pointers, its best output this month.
"Kendall was something else tonight,'' Williams said.
As usual, the sophomore's favorite stat was his assists (he now needs only nine more to tie the school record for dish-outs in a season).
His opponents, though, left impressed with all the facets of his play.
Asked if he had ever seen Marshall shoot like that, Brown replied in the affirmative:
“When he was 12.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
Adrian Branch comments on the ejection of Tom Gugliotta and Chris Corchiani from NC State's game against Florida State. Referee Karl Hess demanded the former Wolfpack players leave the court area.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It looks like Dexter Strickland isn’t the only Tar Heel who can play defense.
With questions about North Carolina’s fortitude still lingering after a 33-point loss at Florida State earlier this month, and new concerns emerging after it lost its starting shooting guard/backup point guard to a torn ACL last week, No. 8 UNC showed it should be just fine -- thank you very much -- by blowing out NC State 74-55 on Thursday night.
And the Tar Heels did it in a way that paid homage to Strickland, widely considered their best shut-down defender.
They blocked eight shots. They held NC State to a season lows in points and shooting (36.8 percent).
They outrebounded the Wolfpack by 22, and sophomore Reggie Bullock -- making his first career start, in place of Strickland -- held State sharpshooter Scott Wood to a forgettable 4-for-12 outing.
All year long, UNC coach Roy Williams has insisted this team had the ability to be “very good” defensively. But it wasn’t until the absence of Strickland in drills this week, his teammates said, that they really realized how much he did -- and how much more they could do.
“As a team, we knew we needed to step up collectively on defense,’’ point guard Kendall Marshall said.
With Strickland watching from the bench in a natty striped sweater, they did.
The Tar Heels led 17-14 about midway though the first half, but then they outscored the Wolfpack 20-9 to take a 37-23 lead into halftime. They flooded passing lanes; they swatted shots from the lane.
The Wolfpack seemed confounded by the overwhelming size of 6-foot-11 John Henson (nine points, 10 rebounds, five blocks) and 7-0 Tyler Zeller (21 points, career-high 17 rebounds) -- especially when State starting forward Richard Howell picked up three quick fouls early.
And the only reason they didn’t trail by more at the break was point guard Lorenzo Brown's 80-foot buzzer beater.
“They got after it defensively, we got a little flustered, we didn't play with poise like we had been the first 20 games of the season and they took us out of what we wanted to do,’’ Wolfpack forward C.J. Williams said.
New coach Mark Gottfried said that for the first time in his 21 games at NC State, a foe’s defensive pressure affected his team’s offensive composure.
“They took away one option and we didn’t have the wherewithal to stay with our offense and really grind out good shots,’’ he said.
Granted, the in-state rivalry had to add something to UNC’s intensity. State, under Gottfried, was off to its best start in six years. Tied for the ACC lead at the beginning of the week, the Wolfpack -- a balanced team featuring five starters that averaged double figures -- finally looked ready to make a run at their down-the-road foes.
Instead, the game marked UNC’s 11th straight win in the series, tying its longest streak of dominance over the Wolfpack (the Tar Heels also won 11 in a row from 1934 to '38).
“We definitely wanted to go out and show them that this was our home court, and that’s what we did,’’ Barnes said.
The Tar Heels shot 48.4 percent for the game; Bullock recorded 11 points, five rebounds and three assists as a starter; and freshman Stilman White, the new backup ballhandler now that Strickland is sidelined, had a 3-pointer, an assist and a foul in five minutes.
Coach Roy Williams wasn’t thrilled when UNC’s defensive intensity let up a bit in the second half, after the Tar Heels led by as many as 31 points. State shot 52 percent after halftime, when Wood also scored all of his team-high 11 points.
Marshall said the Tar Heels need to keep their defensive focus for 40 minutes, “but we’re getting there.”
He added: “I think we could have been a better team while he [Dexter] was here. We just didn’t take advantage of that opportunity. Moving forward now, I think we’re 4-1 [in the ACC], so we’ve got 11 more games where we can better ourselves.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.