Wolfpack begin "do or die" week

BY foxsports • February 25, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. -- At 17-10 overall and 7-7 in the ACC, NC State has had a better season than many expected. Picked to finish 10th by the media and having lost most of its production from a year ago, the Wolfpack sit in seventh and just a game behind the fifth and sixth place teams. 

Many thought making the NIT might be a struggle for this young/inexperienced team. Instead, it still has a realistic shot at making the NCAA Tournament.

"I don't know back in the fall if anybody thought that you'd even put NC State and the NCAA Tournament, those two things in the same sentence right about now," head coach Mark Gottfried said. "But here we are."

But right now, it's a shot at best. NC State is not even on CBSSports.com bracketologist Jerry Palm's list of teams with work to do. That's basically the third tier of the bubble. 

The Wolfpack is No. 58 in the RPI right now and the biggest black mark is the lack of a top-50 RPI win. After beating Florida State at home in late January, the Seminoles fell out of the top 50 and are No. 56 right now. A win at Tennessee, another bubble team, is a feather in the Wolfpack's cap, but the Volunteers are No. 59.

The top-50 win part of a team's tournament profile is admittedly a bit of an arbitrary cutoff, but the 0-7 record against said top-50 is a problem.

The Raleigh News and Observer's Joe Giglio took a look at NC State's chances with four games left. As Giglio pointed out, the biggest area besides the lack of top-50 wins where NC State has been hurt is its non-conference schedule. 

Gottfried built that schedule to be a competitive one, but it hasn't lived up to it. Florida Gulf Coast -- last year's "Dunk City" -- is turning things around but got off to a very rough start. Detroit has been competitive, but is 13-16 this year. East Carolina won a CIT title last year and returned a lot of its pieces, but is 15-13. Those are just a few examples.

And the missed opportunities -- at Syracuse in particular -- loom large. NC State has faced other top-50 teams, but lost those games by double digits for the most part. 

Now, though, the Wolfpack has a chance with North Carolina coming to PNC Arena on Wednesday night. The Tar Heels are on a nine-game winning streak and No. 22 in the RPI. Even a win like that is just a start, though.

"I think an honest assessment is our backs are against the wall. We've got a lot of work to do," Gottfried said. "We're a long ways away. But it's reachable. So whether it's this game or Saturday's game or the ones we have left, they all become big for our group. I think we're treating it more like that than anything else. We've got a lot of work to do. So that's kind of the way we've been going at it."

Were the Wolfpack to get that North Carolina win followed by a win in a "don't screw it up" game at home on Saturday against Miami, they'd arguably be back in the bubble discussion. 

NC State would probably need to win its remaining games after that -- at Pittsburgh (No. 42) and at home to Boston College, of course -- to ensure it wouldn't have to do too much in the ACC Tournament. Otherwise, it would likely have to make a pretty significant run, even with the win over North Carolina.

It's already a pressure-packed game to host the Wolfpack's primary rival in North Carolina, but now there's a lot more on the line. 

As the energy buzzes around campus with the anticipation of a ranked North Carolina team coming to town and the possibility of a marquee win, the pressure builds on NC State. 

But the pressure is going to be there in the next four games, anyway.

"I think that we're aware that we need anything right now, so we're gunning for that," sophomore Ralston Turner said. "Tomorrow with a win, it would help us out. At the same time, if it doesn't happen, it's still not over, but it's harder."

And for Gottfried, he'd be happy with his team just getting to the point where no one wants to play them, no matter who they beat along the way. Then, if they can get to the ACC Tournament on a roll, who knows what could happen? 

It's somewhat reminiscent of his first team, the 2012 Wolfpack -- that group rebounded from a slow start to finish strong and reach the Sweet 16.

"I hope that our team becomes a team that other people would say, 'I don't know if I want to play them in Greensboro'," Gottfried said. "When you're young and so inexperienced like we've been this year, you kind of start off in the hole. You've got so many young guys and they're trying to learn, they're trying to get better and so your hope is that by the end, that you can become a team that could do that. So we'll see."

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