NC State faces do-or-die week

The Wolfpack probably need to win out — including beating Duke and UNC in the next week — for any chance at an at-large bid

NC State guard DJ Horne made 43.2% of his 3-point attempts this season entering Tuesday’s game at Florida State. (Adrian Kraus / AP Photo)

It’s been an up-and-down season for the NC State men’s basketball team, to say the least.

After a 5-1 start to ACC play, the Wolfpack have been on a pendulum of wins and losses that has left them sitting just above the mushy middle of the conference.

NC State entered the week in a three-way tie for fifth place with Clemson and Pitt with time running out on the regular season, and the Wolfpack lost 90-83 Tuesday at Florida State to drop to 9-8 in the conference.

They’ve lost too many games to back their way in, so the Wolfpack will need to do the improbable to make a case for an NCAA Tournament bid: beat both UNC and Duke in back-to-back games over a three-day span.

NC State will head to Chapel Hill to face the ninth-ranked Tar Heels on Friday before returning to PNC Arena to face No. 10 Duke on Monday in its final home game of the season.

NC State’s greatest hope is graduate guard DJ Horne, who had averaged 17.6 points per game and shot 43.2% from 3-point range this season entering the game in Tallahassee. He has been one of the conference’s best players of late — his 13-point performance in the Wolfpack’s win over Boston College on Saturday snapped a run of six straight games with 24 or more points while making more than half of his shots from long range.

But it will take more than Horne for NC State to pull off a sweep of its two biggest rivals.

DJ Burns — whose uneven season has been more consistent of late — will need to be an impact player each night — and guards Jayden Taylor and Casey Morsell have to continue to provide shutdown defense while hopefully adding some secondary scoring.

The Wolfpack will also need to take care of business in their other remaining conference game: their regular season finale at Pitt next Saturday.

“We’ve got some good opportunities,” said NC State coach Kevin Keatts. “We did a good job of taking care of home court against [Boston College], but we now have opportunities. … You have Carolina, Duke and also Pitt left. The way we do it is we just have to concentrate on each one at a time.

“We have to really lock in and try to take care of each day in their own individual games.”

It won’t be easy as two of the final three games will be on the road, but the Wolfpack has had some success away from Raleigh this season, going 4-4 in opposing arenas during conference play.

“I just think we have some guys that have just been completely locked in,” Keatts said about the team’s strong play away from home. “If you’re fortunate enough to get a road win in this league or any league, they’re golden. I just think that one of the things we’ve been able to do is kind of focus on the road, and that’s a hard thing to do getting guys locked in.

“The one thing that will help you to win road games, and I think it’s helped us, is some of them have been some of our best defensive games where you’re not letting the home crowd really get involved and you’re defending and doing a good job with that part of it. But I’m proud of our guys and what we’ve done with it so far on the road, and hopefully we can continue that.”

But the point of the matter remains the same: If NC State wants any chance of sniffing an NCAA tournament bid, they have to win out — either in its final three regular season games or at the ACC Tournament.