WINSTON-SALEM — Rock bottom for NC State’s forgettable 2016-17 basketball season came last Feb. 11 at Joel Coliseum, when it absorbed an embarrassing 30-point loss at the hands of Wake Forest.
It was a game that led directly to the firing of coach Mark Gottfried a few days later.
Fast forward to Saturday, just over a year later, and the Wolfpack’s workmanlike 90-84 victory on the Deacons’ home floor.
It won’t be the high point of a much more satisfying 2017-18 season. Not with wins against Arizona and higher rated in-state rivals Duke and North Carolina already in the books and a trip to the NCAA tournament looming tantalizingly on the horizon.
But it sure does highlight just how far State’s program has come over the course of a year under energetic new coach Kevin Keatts.
“The coaching staff, the whole mentality, the whole atmosphere … everything in the program has changed,” said sophomore center Omer Yurtseven, who scored 21 points and blocked five shots in leading State to its second straight ACC road victory and fourth this season. “You can’t really compare the two.”
It’s just as fruitless to compare the Wolfpack as it’s playing now to the team is was earlier in the season, when it lost to UNC Greensboro and got off to an 0-2 start in conference play.
Although it had a few more lulls than usual, especially on the defensive end and at the free-throw line, State (18-9, 8-6 ACC) showed off all the reasons why it passes the NCAA tournament eye test Saturday while beating the Deacons for the second time this season.
Yurtseven was a dominant inside-outside threat, going 9 for 17 from the floor, including three 3-pointers.
Sophomore point guard Markell Johnson helped make everyone else on the court better by handing out 10 assists, the sixth time in his last eight games he’s been in double figures.
Grad transfer Allerik Freeman continued to play under control by hitting 6 of his 10 field goal attempts on the way to 24 points while contributing to a deep perimeter corps that saw six different players hit 3-pointers while combining to go 11 of 24 from beyond the arc.
Even more important than the numbers on the final stat sheet was the grit that is rapidly becoming the Wolfpack’s trademark, especially down the stretch with games on the line.
“I took over a bunch that didn’t have a lot of success,” Keatts said, “so we wanted to make everything competitive and they’re playing that way.”
That competitiveness showed itself over the final few minutes Saturday. Although Wake was able to narrow a 14-point deficit down to just four — thanks to career-highs of 29 points by Bryant Crawford and 23 by Doral Moore — State never let the Deacons (10-17, 3-12) get within a single possession.
In doing so, it posted a win that won’t necessarily enhance its position on the NCAA bubble, but certainly won’t hurt like a loss to a team with an RPI of 119 would have.
Not that Johnson or his teammates are, at least publicly, concentrating on such things as postseason resumes with four more regular season games still to play.
“All of that stuff will take care of itself,” Keatts said. “We’ve got great wins. We’ve done everything an NCAA team can possibly do, win on the road, having great wins with the new quad. So we’ve put ourselves in good position.”
State is in much better shape now than it was this time last week after bouncing back from losses to Virginia Tech and North Carolina with road wins at Syracuse and now Wake Forest. With a winnable home game coming up on Tuesday against Boston College, point guard Johnson said the last thing he and his team needs to do now is get too comfortable about its postseason position.
“Every game, we want to win,” said Johnson, whose 7.7 assist-per-game average would lead the ACC if he’d played enough games to qualify. “It’s a different mindset. “I just go out there, play as hard as I can and try to win every game.”
The reward for winning this one was yet another trip for ice cream, a tradition Keatts brought with him from UNC Wilmington to celebrate road victories.
“That’s nice,” said Yurtseven. “I feel like it’s a small reward that we get. The big reward that we’re looking for is the NCAA tournament.”