NC State begins its 2021 postseason with a noon game Wednesday against Syracuse in the second round of the ACC tournament. Outside of the start time, the draw worked out as well as State could have hoped for. No one wants to play a noon game, pretty much ever. The lousy game against Virginia Tech a few years ago, where State was held under 30 points? Yep, a noon game.
Now for the positives. The biggest one was getting the first-round bye. It’s next to impossible to win five games in five days and the tournament absolutely needs to be reorganized so that’s not necessary for any team. Next up is a matchup against Syracuse. It seems an odd thing to say, given that Syracuse won both games during the regular season. Yet both of those games came after losing Devon Daniels, when the team was struggling to find its footing. And both games were close, with State blowing a lead late in the first matchup. The old saying – back from when each team played home-and-home matchups against every conference foe – was that it’s hard to beat a team three times. It’s not hard if one team is clearly better than the other. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. State and Syracuse seem fairly evenly matched.
Next up in the positive camp is that Virginia edged out Florida State for the top seed. Basketball is so much about matchups and the Wolfpack just has a ton of difficulty with the size and athleticism of the Seminoles. Virginia certainly has some size, most notably with 15th-year senior Jay Huff, who checks in at 7’1. And there are three others on the UVA roster at 6’9 and above. But Virginia’s deliberate style of play is a better draw for State. And should the Pack advance past Syracuse, they’ll face off against Virginia in the third round. Another team State played twice this season but this time it was a split during the regular season, with each winning on the other’s home floor. State actually led in the first game before a late Virginia rally. The Cavaliers are a better team. But State, which won in Charlottesville in the 2019-20 season, too, isn’t intimidated by facing this team.
If somehow State gets past Virginia, its most likely opponent in the semis would be Georgia Tech. The two teams did not play this year because of Covid. Tech presents its own matchup problems for State, not for any particular size or style of play but just … because. For whatever reason, Kevin Keatts has not fared well against Josh Pastner, despite having arguably more talented teams. But a lot has to go right before the Pack gets a shot to settle that particular score.
What we know for sure is that the Pack is both well-rested and playing its best basketball of the season, having won five straight games. The freshmen have acclimated to the league and gotten over the hump of losing their best player to injury. Keatts has made the adjustment to being more of an interior-focused squad. There’s a lot to like here, even if there are a few obvious shortcomings.
The injuries to Daniels and Thomas Allen have eliminated the depth. State is still not a great defensive team. They turn the ball over a bit more than they should. While they have several players capable of scoring 20 on any given night, there’s no go-to guy when they need a bucket. You never know how freshman are going to react in the pressure of the tournament.
But with no dominating teams at the top of the conference, pretty much every outcome is in play. As the ninth seed, it wouldn’t be a surprise if State lost in the opening round. Yet, with the draw they have, it wouldn’t be a shock if they made it to the finals. Perhaps there’s no better indication than that of the wild basketball season it’s been for the Pack in this time of Covid.
Survive and advance, baby!