By JD Smith
Since Coach Jim Valvano’s tragic passing from cancer at age 47, no coach has been able to restore NC State basketball to the glory he did. Valvano won two ACC Tournament titles to go along with his iconic 1983 National Championship win over Houston. In the 27 years following the Valvano tenure, State has made just nine NCAA Tournament appearances with no Final Four’s and zero ACC Titles. Those facts, coupled with the frustrations that NC State has let what looked like promising seasons fall apart, has led many Wolfpack fans to be skeptical of any short term success. However, it is time for the State faithful to accept that new coach Kevin Keatts is the real deal and he will be the man to return North Carolina State to the heights they once knew.
Their thrilling overtime victory against in-state rival North Carolina is the first example that those looking for hope with the Wolfpack can point to. It’s not just that State beat Carolina in Chapel Hill, which was accomplished under the previous regime. No, what sticks out is how that win came about. State gave up a breakaway dunk to start the game in an arena that just a year earlier they had lost by 51, and fell behind 8-2 in less than two minutes. That start was all too familiar to fans, but instead of watching their team curl up and let a beat down ensue, Pack fans watched the squad keep composure and take the lead just a few minutes later.
Over the next 35 minutes of basketball, NC State took punch after punch from
North Carolina, falling behind throughout the game, but refusing to cave. Through securing timely rebounds, forcing necessary turnovers, and hitting clutch shots, State kept themselves in the game. In the closing minutes of both regulation and overtime, they were able to take advantage of miscues by UNC. Perhaps none of these were bigger than in the final seconds of overtime, right after Chapel Hill had hit a three to pull the game within two points. Carolina then forced a turnover on the inbounds pass, only to see State guard Markell Johnson steal the ball back and hit two free throws to ice the game. That play and ultimately the game showed the difference in this NC State team and those of yesteryear.
This team plays with a fight and intensity not seen, certainly with last year’s team but also with some of the better teams that former coach Mark Gottfried had. Those teams tended to only play hard when their backs were against the wall and they had to win, a-la their two Sweet Sixteen runs. The same cannot be said about this team, as they have shown up time and time again. Have they had their poor moments? Absolutely. One only has to point to losses to Northern Iowa and UNC – Greensboro (at home), as well as a 30 – point loss on the road to Notre Dame, to tell that the team is far from flawless.
One can see though, in the wins over teams like Penn State, Clemson, Pitt, and UNC, games with situations that past NC State teams would not have handled as well as this one has and those wins would be losses. That type of situational awareness, focus, and intensity in those wins is what is setting this team apart, showing that Kevin Keatts is right for this team and can lead them to where they ultimately want to go.