Home March Madness Notebook: NC State’s Sweet 16 run shows how good the ACC is

March Madness Notebook: NC State’s Sweet 16 run shows how good the ACC is

Chris Graham
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The advanced metrics didn’t give the ACC any credit again this season. NC State, which finished 10th in the league in the regular season, is showing that the algorithms might need some tweaking in the offseason.

“Yeah, I think it’s been a common theme for three years, and it’s crazy because when we do, meaning we as the ACC, we get teams in the tournament, the few that we’re getting in pretty much play pretty well,” said State coach Kevin Keatts, who has his team in the Sweet 16, after the 11th-seeded Pack took down #14 seed Oakland, 79-73 in OT, on Saturday.

NC State isn’t even in this position if Virginia guard Isaac McKneely makes the front end of a one-and-one with 5.3 seconds left in the ACC Tournament semifinals nine days ago.

The miss, a Casey Morsell rebound, outlet to Michael O’Connell, who banked a contested three at the buzzer, sent that game to OT, which the Pack dominated in a 73-65 win.

State then went out, a night later, and, in its fifth game in five days in DC, rolled top seed North Carolina, 84-76, shooting 54.9 percent from the field on exhausted legs.

That earned the Pack an 11 seed in the South Regional.

For Keatts, who was thought to be on the verge of losing his job after a disappointing 17-14 regular season, in which State lost 10 of its final 14 heading into the ACC Tournament, it wasn’t enough to just get back to the Big Dance.

“We tried to send that message early on before we got to Selection Sunday, that we play well once we get in the tournament,” said Keatts, whose team dominated #6 seed Texas Tech in an 80-67 win that got NC State to the Round of 32, and a matchup with Oakland, which knocked out #3 seed Kentucky, 80-76, on Thursday night, guaranteeing that a double-digit seed would come out of this side of the bracket to the Sweet 16.

Keatts called the Oakland-NC State game a “boxing match.” State led by six midway through the second half, by five at the five-minute mark, but Oakland rallied to force the OT, and took the lead with 2:25 left on a pair of free throws from Trey Towsend, who put up 30 points and 13 rebounds, before NC State took control with an 11-2 run that put the game away.

DJ Burns had 24 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Pack.

“I think that’s what March is about,” Burns said after the game. “Some teams got here by winning their conference just like us, and that doesn’t mean they’re a bad team. We executed, and shoot, we just kept playing for each other. I think that’s all it was about for us.”

That it took NC State winning the ACC Tournament to get the conference a fifth NCAA Tournament bid was a point of postgame focus for Keatts.

“We gotta figure it out. Our league is really good. One of the reasons why we’re playing good basketball is because we’re battle-tested,” Keatts said. “A lot of times, a lot is put on the nonconference. You play 11 games. So, let’s say we play five or six Power 5 games, and then we have five or six bye games. They’re good, they’ll challenge you. But you can’t tell me that that’s more challenging than playing 20 ACC games and playing at great venues, Pittsburgh, as you’re here, and going to different places and being battle-tested.

“So, we gotta figure it out,” Keatts said. “We’re deserving. Our league is going to go to 18 teams, and I think we should be able to get 10 teams in. And that’s up to us as coaches. You know, we have to figure out, do we need to win more games in November? How do you schedule? We gotta do a lot of different things. But we got a great league. I think it’s the best league in college basketball.”

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].