BROOKLYN, N.Y. — NC State’s loss at Georgia Tech last Thursday cost it a double bye into this week’s ACC tournament in Brooklyn and put coach Kevin Keatts’ fifth-seeded team in a much less advantageous position as it looks to win the event for the first time since 1987.
Instead of having to win only three games to take home the title as this year’s official ACC champion, the Wolfpack will have to win four times in as many days. That includes being on the same side of the bracket as top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Virginia.
It’s a tall task.
And yet, this is the ACC tournament and it’s NC State — a combination that has become college basketball’s version of a full moon. When the two come together, everything and anything seems to happen — no matter how strange and unexpected.
It’s a tradition that began back in 1983 when a team led by gritty point guard Sidney Lowe stunned the league by winning the title, three weeks before shocking the rest of the world on its way to an even more improbable national championship.
The Wolfpack’s tournament magic has been especially strong when it comes to the tournament with a first-year coach. Two of the last three times that’s happened, State has staged an improbable run to the finals — including once with Lowe as that coach. And it would have been three-for-three had coach Mark Gottfried’s 2012 team gotten a call on the decisive play of a semifinal loss to North Carolina.
This year’s team is far more accomplished than its predecessors in 1997, 2007 and 2012, having won 11 ACC games and 21 overall on the way to a third-place tie in the regular season standings.
“I’m excited about the way we’re playing,” Keatts said after Saturday’s Senior Night win against Louisville. “If you think about it, winning five out of six games to end the regular season … that says you’re playing very good basketball. Our guys are starting to figure it out.”
The Wolfpack faces a difficult draw in Brooklyn, with fourth-seeded Clemson and No. 1 Virginia on its side of the bracket. But at least it has history on its side.
Here is a look at how State fared in each of the last three times it has played in the ACC tournament under a first-year coach:
1997, Herb Sendek
At 13-13 overall, the undermanned Wolfpack entered the tournament in Greensboro with the modest goal of winning a game or two to ensure eligibility to the NIT. Despite being down to only a six healthy players because of a season-ending injury to big man Damon Thornton, State turned in one of the most remarkable performances in the event’s history.
With freshman point guard Justin Gainey playing every second of his team’s 160 minutes over four days, the Wolfpack became the first team in tournament history to advance to the finals by winning three games.
State began its run by beating ninth-seeded Georgia Tech in the dreaded “Les Robinson Invitational” play-in game. It then upset top-seeded Duke 66-60 behind 28 points from C.C. Harrison before taking out No. 5 Maryland 65-68. The Wolfpack finally ran out of gas in the championship game, falling to third-seeded UNC 64-54.
2007, Sidney Lowe
Under almost identical circumstances, Lowe’s first team also came to Tampa simply looking to solidify its NIT hopes, only to come within a win of earning a miracle NCAA bid.
It was a run that nearly didn’t get started, as the Wolfpack had to survive overtime against seventh-seeded Duke in its opening game before pulling out an 85-80 victory. State then had to rally from a 12-point halftime deficit to take out second-seeded Virginia before riding the hot hands of Brandon Costner and Gavin Grant to a 72-64 win against No. 3 Virginia Tech.
As was the case 10 years earlier, this Wolfpack team also fell short in the championship game against UNC, 89-80, but only after gallantly cutting a 16-point deficit down to just one in the final five minutes.
2012, Mark Gottfried
Unlike those two previous Wolfpack teams, Gottfried’s first squad came to Atlanta for the ACC tournament on the NCAA tournament bubble with 20 wins and a 9-7 conference record. Needing a win or two to ease some of the Selection Sunday uncertainty, fifth-seeded State accomplished what it set out to do by beating Boston College and Virginia in the first two rounds before battling traditional nemesis UNC down to the wire in the semifinals.
The Wolfpack lost 69-67, but not without controversy. On what turned out to be the winning basket with 10.2 seconds remaining, the Tar Heels’ Kendall Marshall appeared to lower his shoulder and shove defender Alex Johnson to the floor before making an uncontested layup.
Although State left frustrated and disappointed over the no-call, it still ended the season on a high note by advancing to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.