NC State, Louisville have to go through each other to continue surprise runs

Louisville must figure a way to slow down surging NC State point guard Cat Barber (left) if it wants to avenge a 74-65 home loss to the Wolfpack from earlier this season and advance to the Elite Eight.

North Carolina State’s run as the No. 8 seed in the East Regional is probably only surprising to those who haven’t covered the Wolfpack this year.

All season long, NC State (22-13) rode the roller-coaster. The only time the Wolfpack were consistent was in the non-conference, when they lost to all but one of the top-50 teams they played, entering ACC play at 10-4. Then they beat Pittsburgh, lost a close one at Virginia and throttled Duke at home, handing the Blue Devils their first loss of the season — and opening plenty of eyes in the process.

The ups and downs continued. A close loss to North Carolina. Winning at Florida State. Lose three in a row, including at Miami, in overtime to Notre Dame (after losing an 18-point lead) and by double digits at home … to Clemson. Beat Georgia Tech in overtime. Lose at Wake Forest. Lose close one at home to Virginia.

Since then, however, the roller-coaster has more or less smoothed out: NC State has had three top-25 wins since and has won eight of its past 10 games.

Granted, it hasn’t been without bumps — an inexplicable loss at Boston College, a throttling at the hands of Duke in the ACC Tournament — but here they are in the Sweet 16, two wins away from a Final Four in a wide-open region.

"I don’t look at it as an upset," junior guard Trevor Lacey said when asked if it would be an upset were the Wolfpack to win the East. "I feel like we’re a higher seed than where we are. We had some ups and downs earlier in the season and played ourselves as an 8-seed. By the seeding it would be an upset, but I don’t feel like it would be an upset. We’re up there with any team."

Even their tournament run so far has reflected their season — the Wolfpack struggled with 9-seed LSU and needed a comeback to win, then dominated the Villanova game and withstood a late rally.

And now they’ll face a familiar foe in 4-seed Louisville (26-8), a team that has had its own share of ups and downs. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino is a Hall of Famer for a reason, and he’s gotten this group to find a way to win in spite of its flaws.

Louisville suspended starting point guard Chris Jones for good on Feb. 22 after rape allegations surfaced. He had been suspended the first time for something unrelated, according to Pitino, the game after the Cardinals lost at home to NC State in February. Jones came back to lead his team to a close win at home over Miami, and the Cardinals have won six of eight including that one — five of seven since Jones’ dismissal.

It’s led some to believe that the team is somehow better without Jones — it had lost two of its last three with him in the lineup — but Pitino doesn’t share that sentiment

NCAA TOURNEY: STORIES WORTH SHARING

Jones was Louisville’s second-leading scorer behind Terry Rozier, so it’s hard to say the team is better without him. But since his absence, Rozier stepped in at point guard and freshmen Quentin Snider has been thrust into a starter’s role. He’s responded well, or so NC State coach Mark Gottfried has noticed.

"I think the biggest thing, without Chris Jones, is the other players … they’re all more aggressive offensively. I think Rozier is the biggest one. He’s the guy that seems to hunt for shots more. They go to him more," Gottfried said. "I think he realizes he needs to score and step his game up.

"Sometimes, when you lose a good player, especially a guy offensively that can do what Chris Jones could do, those other guys, they know they have to play at a higher level, and that’s probably the biggest thing that I’m noticing."

When NC State won at Louisville back on Feb. 14, Jones scored 20 of Louisville’s 65 points. Rozier was just 3 of 11 and had one of his worst games of the year, fouling out in 24 minutes, while Harrell — Louisville’s only real inside presence — scored just seven points on 1 of 5 shooting.

Louisville hasn’t been perfect down the stretch, either. It beat Virginia at home to close the regular season, then lost to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament with a poor shooting performance. And they struggled with 13-seed UC Irvine in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

But the performance the Cardinals put on against Northern Iowa was one to behold, particularly that of Rozier, who logged 25 points, five rebounds and seven assists. Senior Wayne Blackshear has also stepped up his play, averaging 14.5 points in the tourney so far. Snider saved Louisville against UC Irvine, and he’s averaging 13 points on 10 of 20 shooting in the NCAA tournament.

"The most important thing is defense. [Snider’s] been struggling defensively. But he got to go every single day against Chris Jones, one of the strongest point guards in the nation, and he got a lot better because of that," Pitino said. "Sometimes people like Quentin and (freshman forward) Jaylen Johnson don’t show how good they are because all they’re doing is giving a breather to Chris. They come in before a timeout, play another minute or two after the timeout just to give the guy a breather.

"Now he’s in a different role, and he can showcase his skills a lot more. So he’s doing an outstanding job for us. He’s improved, but I think because going head to head with Chris Jones every day made him a much better basketball player."

NCAA TOURNAMENT CENTRAL

NC State is different since the last Louisville game, too — although not as much. NC State was already on its upswing, largely because of point guard Cat Barber.

In the first 21 games this season, Barber averaged 10 points on 44 percent shooting but was inconsistent. He hit just 25 percent of his 3-pointers and 68.7 percent of his free throws. Since Jan. 31’s game against Georgia Tech, however, the sophomore has been on a tear. He’s averaging 15.8 points over the past 13 games, making 20 of his past 45 shots from deep and shooting 82.4 percent from the foul line.

That has changed NC State’s offense for the better.

"I think he’s been terrific. What I like about Cat’s play is he’s turned it loose without the fear of making mistakes," Gottfried said. "He wanted to try to be the perfect point guard all the time and kind of a cerebral guy. There came a point where I felt with him you’ve just got to turn it loose. And for us to become a good team, you’re the guy that’s got to take it to another level.

"And the turning point was at Georgia Tech. I thought we played over there, and he had great speed up and down the floor. He made three-point shots. He played with confidence. I thought everything began to change right about that time. He’s made a huge difference for us. Big-time difference in our team when he plays at a high level."

Barber was in single digits just twice during this stretch, and both have been NC State losses. One was an inexplicable one at Boston College; the other was a 24-point loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament where Barber was 0 of 7 shooting and had no points. 

In spite of that clunker, Barber’s averaging 16 points in four postseason games, including a career-high 34 against Pitt. He’s pushing the pace, and he’s made a big difference for the Wolfpack with his aggressiveness and speed.

PLAY FOX BRACKET CHALLENGE

No doubt, Pitino & Co. will try to take something away from the way Duke defended Barber. Louisville, as much as it has struggled offensively, is still very good on defense. It had no answer for Barber the first time around, and will have to find one.

But Pitino is 11-1 in his career in the Sweet 16 for a reason. Though the veteran coach knows as well as anyone that tournament results are often unpredictable.

He was terrified when he watched film of Northern Iowa, he said, and he thought his team could exploit UC Irvine in a lot of areas. His team controlled the Northern Iowa game and very easily could have lost to the Anteaters. So there’s no telling what, if anything, the first matchup means to this one.

"That’s just what this tournament is about. We know them, and they know us," Pitino said. "One of us may make a big change in this game that the other team’s not ready for and maybe surprise someone."

Neither team can really play the underdog or the favorite role in this one, especially considering NC State won the first matchup in Louisville.

That certainly got Pitino’s attention.

"They’re a team right now that can beat you so many different ways. They can beat you inside. They can beat you outside with 3-point shooting with their two and three. They can beat you off the bounce with their point guard. They’re very physical inside. They can beat you on the break. So many different ways that they can win," Pitino said. "Sometimes NC State is not as well noticed on Tobacco Road as, say, Carolina or Duke, but they beat both of those teams, and they can beat anybody. They’re that good. So we know that. I think they know we’re pretty good as well. So we just know each other better."

The comeback win against LSU, Gottfried said, got his team to play with confidence and play more loosely against Villanova. That obviously paid off.

There’s no telling how his team will come out in this one, but Gottfried feels satisfied that his team believes it can beat anyone. And why not? It essentially has beaten almost everyone — including its next opponent.

"I like my team. I’m excited about where our team has come to. We’ve gotten better throughout the year. I think we’re playing some of the best basketball that we’ve played all year in the last eight or ten games," Gottfried said. "I think, to go win, like we did earlier, at Louisville or at Carolina or at Duke the way we beat them earlier in the year, there has to be a level of confidence, a swagger kind of thing with our team to do those things.

"I don’t think you can walk into any of those situations and win without confidence. So we’ll see what happens."