Opportunity looms large for Wolfpack

N.C. State begins its most important stretch of regular-season games in two decades Thursday when the confident Wolfpack travels to fifth-ranked Duke.

The Pack enters the contest at 18-7 overall and 7-3 in the ACC and facing a tremendous opportunity over the next week. Mark Gottfried’s first NCSU team certainly passes the eye test as an NCAA Tournament-caliber club, but it hasn’t landed the kind of signature win that grabs NCAA selection committee’s attention.

With Duke on Thursday, Florida State visiting Raleigh on Saturday, and hated North Carolina making the short trek from Chapel Hill next Tuesday, N.C. State can thrust itself into the ACC race and generate some national steam that could propel it into the big dance and change this once-proud program’s course.

But Gottfried, the former head man at Alabama for a decade, isn’t thinking in multiples.

“I’m not talking about three games,” he said. “I’m talking about one game. That’s all we’re about.”

Gottfried said looking at the three games separate from NCSU’s three other remaining ACC contests is a mistake, and he’s right from his perspective. But the reality is, if the Wolfpack can’t nab one of these next three it likely won’t matter if it wins the final three against Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech.

N.C. State entered the week with a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 51, and it has just one victory over a team among the top 50 (Miami). Texas is on the verge of climbing back into the top 50, which will help. And while Gottfried likes to point to his team’s non-ACC schedule, which also includes Vanderbilt, Indiana, Stanford and Syracuse, the committee wants to see wins.

If the Duke game was at home, N.C. State would have a much better chance at pulling off the surprise. It can still do damage to the Blue Devils in Durham because the Pack has the ability to drive to the basket, something Duke struggles defending, and it can hit perimeter shots. That combination will challenge the Devils’ greatest weakness.

And if the Pack can spring an upset over this next week, it will begin a process of truly beginning a new era in Wolfpack hoops. The nose is pointed in the right direction, it’s just that more evidence is needed to convince the masses.

Since Les Robinson took the Pack to the NCAA Tournament in his first season at the helm in 1991, NCSU has made just five NCAA appearances. Those came in Herb Sendek’s last five seasons at the helm before being strongly encouraged to move on. He went to Arizona State in 2006.

That’s five trips in 20 years.

Sidney Lowe, the point guard on N.C. State’s 1983 national championship team, took over and the program fell deeper into irrelevance.

That process began when Robinson replaced Jim Valvano. He inherited some solid talent, but the program quickly declined after Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchianni led the Pack to a 20-11 mark and second round of the NCAAs before losing to Oklahoma State in Robinson’s first year. Since then, the Wolfpack has managed just four winning ACC marks.

It wasn’t always this way on Tobacco Road.

N.C. State was the first power program in the ACC, as Everett Case’s teams won seven consecutive conference titles beginning in the Southern Conference and continuing with the birth of the ACC in 1953. The Pack won the national title in 1974, ending UCLA’s string of seven straight NCAA titles, yet the 1973 squad, which went 27-0, may have been better, but it was on probation and did not participate in the tournament.

Both teams included David Thompson, who is still regarded almost unanimously as the ACC’s greatest player of all time. Case is considered the “Father of the ACC.”

Basketball tradition runs much deeper at N.C. State than many observers and casual followers realize because the last two decades have been pretty miserable. But beginning Thursday and ending next week, the Pack has a chance at finally taking that next step toward relevance in a historic league it was once competitive.

The impact of beating a Duke, FSU or UNC in the next week won’t be felt just in March, but it could be lasting. And if you ask folks in the know in these parts, that’s the way things ought to be in this hoops hotbed. Now it’s all in the Pack’s hands.