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A three-game losing streak put N.C. State in a danger zone. Consecutive thrashings had folks wondering if the Wolfpack has what it takes to be an NCAA Tournament team. A 79-76 victory Saturday at Pittsburgh means everything is on the table and the story is still be written.
The Wolfpack (17-7, 5-6 ACC) enters another crucial phase beginning Wednesday when Syracuse visits Raleigh. The Orange has an identical 17-7 overall mark on the season but is a major player in the ACC standings. Syracuse sports an 8-3 record in league play, including a road win in Durham to hand second-ranked Duke its only ACC loss, and has a legitimate shot to receive a highly coveted double-bye in the upcoming ACC Tournament in March.
Meanwhile N.C. State is currently in ninth place in the ACC and could use more wins, including those of the marquee variety. The Pack knocked off a top-10 foe in Auburn earlier in the season but that victory has lost some luster. The Tigers are now 16-7 overall, which is not poor but also no longer commands the attention received back in December when they fell to the Wolfpack at PNC Arena.
This week N.C. State faces the Orange and then on Saturday makes the short trip to Durham to take on the No. 2 Blue Devils. It is a golden chance for the Pack and it was an opportunity enhanced by the win at Pittsburgh.
“Obviously, we had dropped three in a row, which you never want to do that, but the other part of it was just having a chance to win on the road,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said of Saturday’s win. “In any conference, a road win is good, but in the ACC, a road win is golden.”
Whether the Wolfpack is completely out of its rut remains to be seen.
N.C. State has only won one league game against an opponent with a better conference record and that was the unlikely home victory over Clemson, which sits only a half-game ahead of the Pack at 5-5 in the ACC, on Braxton Beverly’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Yet playing conference games against teams with lower marks are not a guarantee of success, as N.C. State painfully found out earlier in the season at Wake Forest. The victory at Pittsburgh, coming off two horrendous losses, was huge.
“That three-game losing streak we took a big hit as far as what we’d worked for this season,” redshirt junior guard C.J. Bryce said. “Getting that win was big for us and we have to build on that. Every game at this point is big for us. We don’t have any room to drop games, no room for error. Every game is important for us.”
Will N.C. State rely on 3s against Syracuse’s vaunted zone defense?
Using long-range shots as a primary weapon has not been a tactic that produced positive results for the Wolfpack, with the losses at Wake Forest and against Virginia Tech the better examples of failure.
N.C. State remains confident that it can use the 3-pointer if necessary but still remain diverse enough offensively to get results.
“Anytime you face a team that plays zone like that you have to hit 3s to open it up some. ... Give yourself some driving lanes,” redshirt senior guard Torin Dorn said. “It’s definitely important that we go in with a lot of confidence. We have shooters who can shoot them out of their zone so we have to go into that mentality. It can be if you get too complacent and aren’t hitting. But if you’re hitting, keep shooting. You definitely need to get inside the zone and work inside-out and score in the inside as well as the outside.”
The Wolfpack straddles the NCAA Tournament bubble gently but Keatts is not putting the cart before the horse. The contest against Syracuse is the next step, and the second-year head coach wants to see growth and not repetitive errors.
“We’ve played 11 games and what I’m looking for is I don’t want us to beat ourselves anymore,” Keatts said. “We have to do a better job of comprehending scouting reports, not putting people on the foul line as much and, obviously, understanding what we have to do to be successful. The way I look at it, it’s a big game because it’s the next game. They are ranked and 8-3 in the league, but it’s the next game for us.”
Rob McLamb of Inside Pack Sports has covered N.C. State athletics and recruiting since 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @RobMcLamb.