Survive and advance II: Can the current NC State team repeat history?

2021-03-10 01:10:11

N.C. State isn’t on too many guest lists as the music starts to tune up for the Big Dance.

The NCAA tournament is right around the corner and despite a five-game win streak to end the regular season, the Wolfpack has some work to do if it wants to play beyond the ACC Tournament.

N.C. State (13-9) opens ACC tournament play Wednesday at noon, facing Syracuse (15-8) for the third time this season. The Orange won both of the previous meetings and like the Pack, come into Greensboro on a winning streak (two games).

In what’s considered the most wide open ACC tournament in decades, there will be a lot of teams in Greensboro fighting for their postseason lives. The five-game streak by N.C. State is impressive, but it’s still not enough to get them dancing if they bow out early in Greensboro.

The Wolfpack doesn’t need to just win a couple of games to get in. To secure a spot, N.C. State needs to win the entire thing.

Kevin Keatts has been in this position before. As the head coach at UNC-Wilmington, Keatts led the Seahawks to consecutive Colonial Athletic Association tournament titles and back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances.

The CAA is a one-bid league, though, so despite winning 20-plus games each of those years, Keatts still needed a conference playoff title to punch his team’s ticket to the big dance.

This year with N.C. State, he’s in the same predicament, though as a nine seed needing to claw its way up to the title game. Keatts isn’t so sure his experience in Wilmington will help much with his current, similar situation.

“It’s a different league,” Keatts said. “The way I can help these guys is for us to concentrate on Syracuse and try to figure out how to beat those guys and if we’re fortunate enough to get a win, concentrate on the next team.”

Concentrating on the next team, not looking too far ahead, even with their backs against the wall. Keatts’ message sounds eerily similar to one State fans have heard before.

Inspiration from the past

Thirty-eight years ago the N.C. State basketball team found itself in a similar situation. There have been speculations that the 1983 Wolfpack basketball team didn’t actually need to win the ACC tournament to get to the NCAA tournament. Some say they were in regardless of what happened, but in their mind, it was win or go home — for good.

“I’m not sure we would have (been in), we had a strong schedule,” Thurl Bailey, a senior forward on that team told the News & Observer. “But in our minds we were either in if we won it or out if we didn’t. That’s the way we were thinking.”

That team entered the ACC tournament with 10 losses, and even though the NCAA tournament field expanded to 52 teams that year, the Wolfpack still didn’t want to leave anything to chance. In three consecutive days N.C. State defeated Wake Forest, defending national champion North Carolina and the top team in the land, Virginia. That team ended the season on a 10-game win streak, capped off by a 54-52 win over Houston in the national championship game.

The improbable NCAA tournament run is legendary, but it all started with a win-or-go-home mentality in the conference tournament.

“Going into the (conference) tournament, there’s some urgency about it,” Dereck Whittenburg, a senior guard on the 1983 team, said. “Your approach is, ‘OK this is what we have to do.’ It’s not just the mindset of the players, but the leadership of the coach because the leadership of the coach sets the tone.”

Bailey and Whittenburg played for Jim Valvano, whom they both credited for making sure the team compartmentalized the task in front of them: Focus on the next opponent, don’t look too far ahead. If there was any looking ahead by the staff, Valvano didn’t mention it to the players, keeping them focused in the moment, believing they could make a run if they just locked in.

“Your belief system has to start from somewhere and we obviously had the guy in V (Valvano), who was a master at painting that picture and hammering it home,” Bailey said. “(There) are two really important ingredients, one, do you have the talent to get there and now do you believe, collectively, that you can go in and do some incredible things that nobody expects you to do.”

‘Winning breeds character’

Keatts definitely has his team playing at a different level. The Pack won five straight ACC road games for the first time since the 1973-74 season, and achieved its first five-game ACC win streak since the 2003-2004 season. N.C. State rebounded from losing its best player, Devon Daniels, and benefited from the emergence of freshman guards Cam Hayes, Dereon Seabron and Shakeel Moore. Whittenburg credits the leadership of Keatts for keeping things together when N.C. State dropped five out of seven league games earlier this season.

“Obviously, winning breeds character and losing exposes character,” Whittenburg said. “It was easy throughout their struggles, when you’re not successful it’s easy to fold, but to Coach Keatts credit and his team, although they lost Daniels, their best player, I think they got themselves together and they put on a nice winning streak.”

Two of those five losses during that stretch were to Syracuse. The Pack played the first game without senior forward D.J. Funderburk, who was suspended. They had a full roster in the rematch in Raleigh, but were unable to split the season match up, falling 77-68. N.C. State turned the ball over 20 times in that game. During this current winning streak, the Wolfpack has cut down on the mistakes, playing with more confidence. N.C. State will carry momentum into Greensboro, a major piece if it hopes to win out.

“Very, very important. Internally for that confidence,” Bailey said. “If you’re gaining momentum, if you’re snowballing at the end of the season, I think it works in your favor because something is clicking, something is happening. Strategy is strategy, but sometimes it takes teams later in the season to start to understand what they need to do to be in games and pull them out.”

Will the pause help or hurt?

N.C. State’s momentum came to a screeching halt in the final week of the regular season when the Wolfpack had their season finale at home against Virginia Tech on Saturday canceled because the Hokies were in COVID-19 protocol.

N.C. State would have loved to keep playing games, riding that wave of the previous five wins. Now the Pack will take on Syracuse after being off for seven days.

“When you’re playing good basketball, you want to keep playing good basketball,” Keatts said. “It’s always tough when you’re playing good basketball just to have a pause of any type. But we could look at it as a positive, maybe some guys needed a little break going into the tournament.”

The challenge now for the current team is winning four games. It would have been five had they started as the 10 seed on Tuesday. However, North Carolina did N.C. State a solid by beating Duke, allowing the Wolfpack an extra day off.

Whittenburg said mental toughness comes into play during the gauntlet of the ACC tournament. At this point of the season, players become numb to nagging injuries, knowing this is the type of moment they signed up for. He didn’t feel any pressure being put in a win or go home situation in 1983. He embraced the moment.

“Although it’s a challenge, this is what you want, this is why you came to the ACC, this is why you came to N.C. State,” Whittenburg said. “I think you look at it as a great opportunity as opposed to the pressure of it. Now you have to thrive in that pressure, you’ve got to thrive in that moment.”

And if all else fails, Bailey encourages the current squad to view the ‘30 for 30’ documentary of their championship team.

“Just tell them to go and watch ‘Survive and Advance,’” Bailey said. “That will get them ready.”

NC State vs. Syracuse

When: Wednesday, noon

Where: Greensboro Coliseum

Watch: ACC Network

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Source by [tellusdaily.com]