Lofty goals within reach as Wolfpack enters home stretch

Coach Kevin Keatts is trying to keep his NC State basketball team focused on wins, rather than NCAA bids and ACC tournament byes

Graduate transfer Allerik Freeman (center) shouts instructions to NC State teammates Braxton Beverly, Lavar Batts Jr., Omer Yurtseven and Markell Johnson during a game this season (Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY) Sports

 RALEIGH — Virginia Tech’s home loss to Louisville on Saturday was a potentially significant one for NC State..

  Because of it, a three-way tie for fourth place in the ACC basketball standings has been reduced to a virtual two. And because the Wolfpack has the tiebreaker on Clemson if the teams are still deadlocked at the end to the regular season, coach Kevin Keatts’ surprising squad would earn a highly coveted double bye into the quarterfinals of the rapidly approaching conference tournament.

  Not that Keatts is allowing himself or his players to start looking that far ahead as they prepare to solidify their position — and NCAA tournament resume — against Florida State at PNC Arena tonight.

  “We’ve had some great wins. It’s been a great season,” said the first-year coach, who has led the Wolfpack to a 19-9 record (9-6 ACC). “But I don’t want to be defined by the great wins. I want to continue to build on what we have right now.”

  Among those wins are conquests of neighboring rivals Duke and North Carolina, two of the three teams currently above State in the league standings. It also beat then-No. 2 Arizona in the Battle 4 Atlantis all the way back in November.

  They’re victories that have helped put the Wolfpack into a position of controlling its own postseason destiny. But that only makes the final three games on the schedule — against Florida State today, at Georgia Tech on Thursday and Louisville at home next Saturday — all the more important.

  While State’s players are doing their best to follow their coach’s lead by tuning out all the predictions and social media chatter, it’s becoming increasingly difficult not to think about the exciting possibilities that await should they take care of business and win out.

  “It’s a little tough, but we’ve got a focused group and a group that’s determined and ready to fight for this next game,” junior forward Torin Dorn said. “When you talk about running the table, you can only do that by taking one game at a time. We plan to win every game. We prepare to win every game. When you do that, you can talk at the end.”

  That such a conversation is even a possibility is an accomplishment in itself considering where this Wolfpack team started.

  It was little more than a collection of mismatched parts thrown together by a coach brought in to clean up the mess of two straight losing seasons. The roster consisted of two graduate transfers, a senior coming back from injury, a freshman fighting the NCAA to become eligible and a group of leftovers from a team that managed just four ACC victories the previous year.

  With a first-round NBA draft choice on the roster.

  “It was a slow process getting all those guys from different places to come together,” Dorn said, citing the team’s preseason trip to Italy and early upset of Arizona as major factors in its growth. “All those little landmarks and victories that we had led to us having the confidence we have now.”

  That doesn’t mean the job of molding a group of virtual strangers into a cohesive unit was easy, especially considering the early adversities the team was forced to overcome.

  Senior forward Abdul-Malik Abu suffered a knee injury during preseason practice that sidelined him for six of the first nine games. Freshman guard Braxton Beverly missed the first two games while waiting for the NCAA to clear him following his flip from Ohio State.

  Then, just when it seemed as though things were starting to come together in mid-December, starting point guard Markell Johnson ran into some legal problems back home in Ohio and suspended for seven games until the charges were dropped.

 “It’s amazing that we are where we are because of that,” Keatts said, noting the relatively “small amount of time we’ve had everybody on the floor at the same time.”

  State appeared to be going nowhere fast after losing its first two ACC games, including a 30-point humiliation at Notre Dame on Jan. 3. It was a stretch Dorn likened to “a punch in the face.”

   But then it scored back-to-back upsets of Duke and nationally ranked Clemson, got Johnson back and began developing a chemistry that has catapulted it into the top quarter of the ACC standings and solidly into the NCAA tournament picture.   

Beverly said that the possibilities are more of an incentive than a distraction. Not that he and his teammates are looking that far ahead.

  “We just started trusting each other,” said Beverly, one of the team’s most reliable 3-point shooters who ranks second in the ACC with a 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. “We started playing for each other, realizing what everybody on this team could do and utilizing each skill and asset everybody has. Now it shows that we have each other’s back when we’re out there playing and it’s paying off for us.

   “The best thing we can do is continue to play hard and get as many wins as we can in the last three.”