After 4-year hiatus, Wolfpack face Creighton in return to NCAAs

NC State is a No. 11 seed in the South region

Jarkel Joiner, left, and Terquavion Smith, right, give NC State one of the most dangerous backcourts in the NCAA Tournament. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

For the first time since 2018 and just the second time in the Kevin Keatts era, NC State is going dancing, earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The Wolfpack earned a No. 11 seed in the South region after a bounce-back season, going from dead last in the ACC last year to a sixth-place conference finish and an appearance in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament.

“It’s always an exciting time when you get to Selection Sunday,” said Keatts. “Even the coaches that know that they’re in the tournament, but at-large, there’s still some anxiety to the whole deal. The only time that I’ve ever really slept well was when I was at Wilmington and we won the tournament and you knew that you were in anyway, you just didn’t know what seed you were going to be.”

While the berth means a lot to the program, it’s even more special for the players on the Wolfpack’s roster. Only two, DJ Burns and Casey Morsell, have previously made an NCAA Tournament.

“It was amazing for my guys,” said Burns, a graduate transfer. “I think me and Casey are the only players that have been in the tournament before, so it meant everything to help those guys get there.”

It’s a culmination of the hard work the program has put in and the commitment that players like Jarkel Joiner and Terquavion Smith, who both committed to this season at NC State for that chance at an NCAA Tournament appearance.

NC State will face sixth-seeded Creighton on Friday in Denver in the first round of the tournament.

Creighton has made the NCAA Tournament three years straight and finished third in the Big East this season, reaching the Big East Tournament semifinals before losing to No. 15 Xavier.

The Bluejays currently have a Kenpom ranking of 13 and NET ranking of 17 — NC State is ranked 55 in Kenpom and 45 in NET — and have the 57th-best scoring offense in Division I, averaging 76.8 points per game. Creighton, however, ranks 114th in scoring defense, allowing 67.9 points per game.

Comparatively, the Wolfpack have the 30th-ranked scoring offense, averaging 78.9 points per game, but is 188th in scoring defense, allowing 70.5 points per game.

“They’re really good offensively,” Keatts said of the Bluejays. “They get out in transition, they’re special. They can shoot the basketball. Going into the game, you’d say these are two teams that really like to play fast. So it could be a high-scoring game.”

Creighton relies heavily on its starters, with four of its starting five averaging more than 30 minutes per game and its other more than 29. All five are averaging more than 10 points per game, led by 7-foot-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner.

“He’s unique,” Keatts said of Creighton’s big man, who is averaging 15.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. “I think you have to be prepared for all different ways because of his ability. He does a great job of posting up deep in the paint, he’s really talented around the rim.

“If you want to talk about defensively, they do a good job on drop coverage with him and they make you take pull-up jump shots, and he’s really elite at blocking shots at the rim. So he’s a tough matchup. We have to do a great job of being prepared to guard him in different ways and figure out how we can score against him.”

Now that the anxiety-filled Selection Sunday passed, NC State has ramped up its practices for the challenge ahead, starting with Friday afternoon’s game.

“When you’re playing for a national championship, I think preparation should change,” said Smith. “I think the intensity should go up, the focus should go up and everybody should be locked in, and the competition in practice should be good and at a high level so you can be prepared for the high-level team that you’re going against.”

Burns said the team just needs to leave it all on the floor.

And what is Morsell, the only other player with NCAA experience, most looking forward to?

“Winning,” he said. “That’s it.”