Following the first losing season under Mark Gottfried, NC State heads into the 2016-17 season with a renewed vigor. Armed with young stars in the paint and backcourt, the Wolfpack has a schedule conducive for a team looking to hit its stride midway through the season.Gottfried is known for scheduling difficult non-conference opponents during his tenure, regularly playing Power Five teams prior to ACC play. That decision looks like a wise one, especially considering that the final month before March Madness includes five of the toughest opponents in the conference.After dissecting the entire Wolfpack schedule, here’s a look at five things every NC State fan needs to know about the 2016-17 slate.TOUGHEST STRETCH: February is going to be rough for NC State. It’s really as simple as that. The Pack face a daunting task with Syracuse (Feb. 1), Miami (Feb. 4), North Carolina (Feb. 15), Notre Dame (Feb. 18) and Virginia (Feb. 25) all coming to PNC Arena. What do those teams have in common? All five advanced to the Sweet 16, with both UNC and Syracuse landing in the Final Four. In the search of that all-important top-four seed, coming away with a winning record in those games will be critical.MOST INTRIGUING NON-CONFERENCE GAME: Traveling to Champaign to face Illinois in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge will be a tough test for the Pack, but the Paradise Jam presents the biggest challenge. Starting off against Montana and Creighton before likely facing Ole Miss or Saint Joseph’s over a three-day stretch, NC State’s young stars will be pushed to the brink. Then again, spending off time in the Virgin Islands doesn’t seem like such a tough life.PACKED BIG MONDAY: NC State’s lone showdown with national title contender Duke is one of the highlight matchups on ESPN’s Big Monday coverage. The game is set for Jan. 23 at Cameron Indoor Stadium with a 7 p.m. tipoff. Coming off a season where Duke won three straight contests over State at Cameron, PNC Arena and the ACC Tournament this year’s Blue Devils squad promises to be even better. But so is the Wolfpack, making this a tantalizing game to watch.NEW YEARS EVE IN MIAMI: NC State will be ringing in the New Year in Miami on Dec. 31. Why would the ACC choose to put games on New Year’s Eve after what happened to the College Football Playoff last year? Your guess is as good as mine. This isn’t just any team, though. NC State faces a Miami team that made the Sweet 16 last season for the third time in school history. With Jim Larranage and Co. finally finding their stride last year, NC State can come away with a statement win before watching the ball drop.RETURN TO REYNOLDS: The doors are finally open and the Wolfpack men’s basketball team will get a chance to win on its old (new) stomping grounds. NC State will play host to Tennessee State on Dec. 10 at historic Reynolds Coliseum. After not playing in the basketball cathedral last season due to the $30 million overhaul and losing its last contest at the stadium in 2014 against Wofford, this game will mean a lot for the team and its fans. Reynolds just has that affect.
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