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N.C. State is starting to mesh together on the court.
Winner of three straight Atlantic Coast Conference games for the first time since February of 2015 and already sporting more conference wins this season than in each of the past two campaigns, the Wolfpack is trending upward.
In his first season as N.C. State’s head coach after being hired away from UNC Wilmington less than 11 months ago, Kevin Keatts has guided the Pack to a 16-7 overall mark and a 6-4 record in ACC play. The 16 wins are the most State has had in a season since it last made the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen, also in 2015.
All of that comes despite a tumultuous start. The Wolfpack was 0-2 in the ACC after getting blitzed by on the road by Clemson and Notre Dame.
N.C. State trailed then second-ranked Duke by 11 early in the second half on Jan. 6 in Raleigh. The Pack survived that and once the legal drama involving sophomore guard Markell Johnson was settled and senior forward Abdul-Malik Abu started finding his form after starting the season sidelined by an injury, a squad that was projected to finish near the bottom of the conference standings now looks every bit like a NCAA tournament team.
“I think guys have responded to the new system that we are trying to put in,” Keatts said. “I feel like at this point we are still getting better as a basketball team even though we are making some mistakes but I do think, for the most part, we are trying to come together as a group. Our guys are starting to play together as a team, not as individuals — which is good from my standpoint.”
Johnson is the first player in N.C. State history to dish out at least 10 assists in four consecutive games. He was re-inserted into the starting lineup against Miami at home. The Wolfpack dropped that contest but have won three in a row since.
It gained the attention of Notre Dame, which won the first meeting 88-58 on Jan. 3 in South Bend, Indiana, in the Pack’s win Saturday in PNC Arena.
“There’s no question, Johnson changes them,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “He can get in there and make plays. They are a lot better team than what we saw in South Bend, and I think he’s the key. He can distort the defense, get to the basket and make plays.”
The re-entry of Johnson into the starting five, where he plays alongside Braxton Beverly in a double point guard set, has given N.C. State improved ball movement and has led to better 3-point shot selection along with entry passes inside that are of a better quality.
That has added to the renaissance of 7-foot sophomore center Omer Yurtseven, who finished with a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds Saturday against Notre Dame. With the win, N.C. State has avenged both of its two road losses to open the league slate.
“Everybody just figured out that we can only win games when we share the ball and take good rhythm shots,” Yurtseven said. “It’s not about us playing one-on-one. We’re not one of the best one-on-one teams in the nation. All we have to do is play as a team, play as five players, and take whatever challenge is thrown at us.”
The next challenge for Yurtseven and N.C. State is a road game Wednesday against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The matchup has some pitfalls and head coach Buzz Williams’ Hokies, also at 16-7 overall for the season and one game behind the Wolfpack in the ACC, present a unique threat to State’s march to a potential postseason berth.
“They are unconventional,” Keatts said. “Buzz does a tremendous job. They can really shoot the ball from behind the (3-point) arc. They are tremendous in transition. They give you several looks on the defensive end.
“Obviously, they can switch (positions) 1 through 5 at times, with (Chris) Clarke at the five. Their ability to make shots; they do a tremendous job of getting paint touches and, obviously, making the right decision.”
SIGNING DAY, PART 2
N.C. State hopes to tie up some loose ends Wednesday for National Signing Day to complete the football program’s 2018 class.
On Sunday, the Wolfpack received a commitment from Val Martin, a defensive tackle from Iowa Western Community College. Martin has three seasons of eligibility remaining.
Head coach Dave Doeren received the bulk of his signed National Letters of Intent during the three-day early signing period in December and there are only a few available scholarships remaining, so Wednesday should be a low-key day for the Wolfpack.
Taiyon Palmer, a 5-11 cornerback from Archer High in Lawrenceville, Georgia, remains a priority for Doeren’s staff. Palmer originally committed to Duke before re-opening his recruitment and is considering Clemson, Notre Dame, Virginia, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Minnesota along with N.C. State.
The Wolfpack also recently received a commitment from 2019 offensive lineman Tim McKay of Wakefield (Raleigh) High. McKay is the younger brother of Matt McKay, a quarterback on the N.C. State roster.
The younger McKay recently turned 16 years old and plans to enroll at N.C. State prior to the spring semester in 2019.
The ACC baseball coaches have picked N.C. State to finish fourth in the Atlantic Division in the upcoming 2018 season.
The Wolfpack is coming off of a 36-25 campaign (16-14 in ACC) in 2017 that ended with a pair of losses to Kentucky in the Lexington Regional. N.C. State has reached regional play in each of the last three seasons.
North Carolina was picked by coaches to win the Coastal Division while Florida State is the pick to win both the Atlantic and conference titles.
PACK EARNS RANKING, GAINS VERBAL
N.C. State’s women’s basketball team has used a seven-game winning streak to power its way back into the national rankings.
The Wolfpack, which has not lost since a road defeat to Duke on Jan. 7, is currently ranked No. 23 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, marking the second week that N.C. State has been ranked in the that poll this season. The Pack was also No. 23 in the coaches poll on Nov. 21 and is currently No. 23 in the Feb. 5 edition of The Associated Press Women’s Top Twenty-Five.
Head coach Wes Moore has his team at 19-5 overall, 8-3 in the ACC. The Wolfpack has won at least 20 games in three of Moore’s first four seasons at the helm.
On Sunday morning prior to N.C. State’s win over Boston College in Reynolds Coliseum, the Pack received a verbal commitment from class of 2019 6-2 forward Esra McGoldrick of New Zealand.
McGoldrick, a four-star prospect, is ranked No. 11 in the Elite 25 for International Prospects according to Prospects Nation.