N.C. State makes strong case for NCAA Tourney berth with win over Duke

N.C. State earned a massive win over the Duke Blue Devils on Wednesday night. Was it enough to vault it into the NCAA Tournament?

Markell Johnson‘s half-court heave at the end of the first half can be seen as a microcosm of how the Wolfpack’s season has played out: just close your eyes and chuck it, hoping the result will be what you want. In losses to lowly Boston College, UNC and Georgia Tech this season, the Wolfpack’s effort fell dreadfully short. But on rare occasions, the Wolfpack has put together enough skill and luck to pull off shocking upsets.

Tuesday night was one of those rare moments. It brought an increased effort from the team, after several games (including UNC and Louisville) it felt like the Wolfpack were lacking in enthusiasm. The Wolfpack also received a good showing from Johnson, something that is so critical to this year’s squad. Johnson went 10-19 from the field, hitting five of six threes and finishing with 28 points. He along with Devon Daniels and D.J Funderburk combined for 74 of the team’s 88 points.

The Wolfpack desperately needed a win to boost a quickly sinking resume and it did what it has made a habit of doing: beating Duke at PNC Arena.

Entering Wednesday’s crucial match-up with No. 6 Duke, the N.C. State Wolfpack appeared to be on the wrong side of the bubble. The Wolfpack was listed in the “Next Four Out” by Joe Lunardi, barrelling towards a second straight season in the NIT under Kevin Keatts. The win gives the Wolfpack a much-needed signature victory on its resume, as well as improving its Q1 record.

N.C. State is now ranked No. 52 in the NET rankings (NET is a results-oriented team-ranking metric that combines wins, scoring margin, efficiency and the location of games), jumping up eight spots after the victory. More importantly, the Wolfpack is now an impressive 5-2 in Quadrant 1 games, an important benchmark for the Selection Committee.

Looking ahead, the Wolfpack has two Quad 1 opportunities left on the schedule: this Saturday at home against No. 8 Florida State and a March 2nd rematch with Duke on the road. Sandwiched in between are match-ups with ACC bottom-feeders North Carolina, Pitt, and Wake Forest. It currently sits in 5th in the crowded ACC standings, trailing Virginia by two games for the desired double-bye.

Still even with the massive win on Wednesday, the team needs to take care of business down the stretch. The level of execution needed is very much up for debate. Does the Wolfpack need a win over Florida State or Duke in the following weeks to bump themselves into the tournament? Would beating UNC, Pitt, and Wake Forest be enough?

To speculate, let’s look at last season as a comparison. The Wolfpack were one of the last teams out, finishing the year at 21-10 (9-9 in the ACC). The Wolfpack was ranked 32nd in the NET rankings, with a combined Q1/Q2 record of 9-8 (only three Q1 wins, zero Q2 losses).

This year’s squad is not far off. The Wolfpack 17-9 (8-7) and is 52nd in NET. It’s currently 7-6 in Q1/Q2 games. All very similar numbers to last year’s squad. The one differentiating factor, however, is the team’s out-of-conference strength of schedule. This year’s team played the 75th toughest non-conference schedule, a marked improvement in an important metric.

According to Lunardi, N.C. State must leap-frog Indiana, Alabama, Richmond, Mississippi State, and Stanford, along with one team currently in the field.  Here’s how N.C. State stacks up with these teams:

Team                              Record      NET        Q1/Q2           SOS
Indiana                            17-9         59             7-9               56
Alabama                         14-12       44            6-10             12
Richmond                       20-6         43             4-4               87
Mississippi State          17-9         50             6-7               53
NC State                          17-9         52             7-6               75
Stanford                          16-9         37             4-8             209

Does N.C. State have the best resume in this group? Would you feel comfortable going up against these teams on Selection Sunday? Although our metrics are slightly improved from last season, it would be wise for the Wolfpack to pick up likely one more Q1 win and to continue to climb up the NET rankings. And yes, that means not losing in Chapel-Hill, another seemingly yearly tradition.


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