After stumbling, NC State hopes it’s back on track

The Wolfpack ended a three-game skid with a win at Pitt and is hoping to make the NCAA Selection Committee’s decision an easy one on March 17

NC state point guard Markell Johnson had his best game since returning from injury in the Wolfpack’s win at Pitt. (Keith Srakocic / AP Photo)

NC State’s 79-76 victory at Pittsburgh on Saturday wasn’t a must-win in the literal sense of the word. But after three straight losses, with a trip to Duke coming up this weekend following a challenging home game against Syracuse on Wednesday, the Wolfpack needed something to stop its recent free fall toward the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

“This should give us a lot of confidence,” sophomore guard Braxton Beverly said after combining with teammates C.J. Bryce and Markell Johnson to make 12 3-pointers and score 51 of their team’s points. “Coming off those last three, we were ready to get one. This gets us back going.”

Whether Saturday’s win was the jump-start that gets State headed back in the right direction is yet to be seen. Pitt has, after all, lost seven straight and is tied for last place in the ACC at 2-9.

Even at that, there were some encouraging signs that the Wolfpack might actually be getting its mojo back.

First and foremost, it put together solid efforts on both ends of the floor after struggling offensively in a dismal 24-point effort against Virginia Tech, then getting torched for 113 points — the second most in school history — in a lopsided loss at North Carolina.

State shot 51.9 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, played the Panthers to a virtual standoff on the boards and forced 15 turnovers while improving to 17-7 overall (5-6 ACC).

Individually, Johnson played his best game since returning from a hip injury suffered in the first meeting with Pitt in Raleigh on Jan. 12. The junior point guard scored 10 points and had eight assists to go with only two turnovers.

It was a performance that also provided benefits that didn’t show up in the final box score, specifically the positive effect it seemed to have on teammates Bryce and Beverly.

“When you look at our Big Three, I think this is the first time I’ve seen all three guys play well on the same night,” coach Kevin Keatts said after the game. “I’m excited to get the win. As you guys know, in the ACC any road win is golden.”

It’s especially important now that talk of ACC Tournament seedings and NCAA Tournament bids are starting to become more than just internet clickbait.

While there’s no exact science when it comes to gauging which criteria the NCAA Selection Committee will deem most important from year to year, the Wolfpack’s current RPI of 114 and 193 strength of schedule could potentially lead to some sleepless nights between now and Selection Sunday.

The good news is that in the new College NET rankings, which are supposedly going to carry more weight than the old RPI, State stands at a much more palatable 35.

Keatts said he and his staff don’t pay much attention to things such as computer rankings, at least not with a month still left in the regular season. At the same time, he admitted that he has a clear-cut preference when it comes to the choice between RPI and NET.

“If our NET is (35) and our RPI is 120-something, I’m going to side with the NET now,” he said Monday on the ACC’s weekly coaches teleconference. “Hopefully, that’s what the (Selection Committee) decides to go by.

“But I don’t think anybody’s figured out anything. I do know this: The RPI was outdated and doesn’t factor in a lot of stuff. We’re all, as basketball coaches, trying to figure out the NET.”

One thing Keatts already knows is that if his team gets on a roll and strings some wins together, especially with the upcoming schedule, it won’t have to concern itself with trivial matters such as computer rankings and bubble watches.

That makes Wednesday’s home game against Syracuse just as important as the one the Wolfpack just played at Pitt. It promises to be even more challenging because the confounding 2-3 zone defense that has become the Orange’s trademark under coach Jim Boeheim.

“Going into the game, you’ve got to have a good mixture of what you’re going to do offensively and defensively against them. And you have to make some shots,” Keatts said. “I think we’ll have a good balance after a couple of games concentrating on our defense and, obviously, playing against their zone that’s really effective.”