Red Hot NC State Charging Toward an NCAA Bid

Posted by Matt Auerbach on January 31st, 2018

While Virginia’s victory at Duke last Saturday afternoon deservedly dominated conference headlines, NC State was busy continuing its underpublicized midseason renaissance just nine miles down the road in Chapel Hill. The Wolfpack, winners of five of their last seven games, now own an NCAA Tournament resume that boasts equity in a trio of quality wins (Arizona on a neutral court; Duke at home; North Carolina on the road) that few bubble teams will approach.

All Smiles for NC State in Chapel Hill on Saturday (USA Today Images)

Kevin Keatts’ team looked dead and buried just a few short weeks ago. After a 30-point drubbing in South Bend dropped NC State to 0-2 in league play, the first-year coach has in the interim engineered a significant reversal of fortune. Playing an up-tempo, unselfish brand of basketball, the Wolfpack to date are taking exceptionally good care of the basketball (49th nationally in turnover percentage), sharing the wealth (six players average more than eight points per game), and have developed into a team-first bunch of veterans who believe that they can play with anybody. That shift in culture has not only made the Pack a joy to watch this season, but it has also been the impetus to yielding results that have exceeded expectations.

Strangely enough, NC State has rapidly conformed into an outfit that delivers on Keatts’ strategies. Pairing a duo of pass-first guards next to each other in the backcourt has facilitated the players who need to put the ball in the hoop. Markell Johnson, who was sidelined for seven games, ranks fourth nationally in assist rate (43.1%) after tallying 37 dimes in the Pack’s last three games. Freshman Braxton Beverly, who averages 4.1 assists per game, has exemplified ball security that belies his limited experience, turning it over a total of three times in the team’s three signature victories. Baylor graduate transfer Allerik Freeman has been a clear beneficiary, exploding for a career-high 29 points last weekend against the Tar Heels, while knocking down all seven of his attempts from beyond the arc. The senior seems to be relishing his new role as a primary option, as he leads the team in minutes played, shot attempts and scoring.

And while the strength of the backcourt has certainly been a factor, the play of NC State’s talented man in the middle is what typically pushes the Pack to the next level. At his best, Omer Yurtseven can compete with every other big man in college basketball, and he has seemed to have found his groove in terms of consistency. Excluding a six-point, six-rebound game against Virginia, the burly sophomore has averaged 21.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game during a six-game span while shooting 63 percent from the floor. On the year, the seven-footer now ranks 31st in offensive rebounding percentage (14.3%) and 72nd in block percentage (7.9%). Torin Dorn, who was disappointing in his first season on the team last year after transferring from Charlotte, has improved across the board. Third on the team in scoring at 13.4 points per game, the wing has benefited from playing the small-ball four role in the Pack’s most frequently utilized lineup to take advantage of mismatches on the offensive end.

Looking ahead, NC State will play host to the strongest teams remaining on its schedule. While road games to Blacksburg and Syracuse won’t be easy, a 15-7 (5-4 ACC) record allows Keatts team some wiggle room in terms of earning an at-large bid. He already owns four wins over teams currently ranked in the RPI top 14, and if the Wolfpack can simply protect their home court the rest of the way, they are likely to find themselves dancing in March way ahead of schedule. But for a guy like Keatts, someone who was coaching at Hargrave Military Academy just seven years ago, ahead of schedule may be the new modus operandi for the basketball program in Raleigh.

Matthew Auerbach (70 Posts)

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