The NC State men’s basketball team had an all-around rocky season, but went out on a high note by taking care of business against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the first round of the ACC Tournament. But what would have happened from there remains a mystery, as the remainder of the ACC Tournament, and the NCAA Tournament, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fifth-seeded Wolfpack was set to take on the fourth-seeded Duke Blue Devils, with whom the Pack split the season series. While the team was able to take down the Blue Devils in a huge upset at home, Duke was able to get revenge within less than a month by blowing out the Pack in the second half of their rematch.
A win in the rubber match against Duke in the ACC Tournament would have sealed the deal on an NCAA Tournament appearance for NC State as the team was on the bubble of the Big Dance. This one game for the Pack had many different implications, with the Pack being underdogs against a Duke team that went 15-5 in the ACC.
A loss could have ended the season for the Pack, and ultimately, the fate of the team would have been in the hands of the selection committee. On one hand, the Wolfpack had huge wins like the aforementioned upset over the then-No. 6 Blue Devils, as well as against Virginia and Wisconsin. On the other hand, the team struggled to remain consistent all year and had ugly losses to the bottom-feeding Chapel Hill, as well as Clemson, Virginia Tech and Boston College.
It’s hard to say what the selection committee would have ultimately decided, but ESPN’s bracketology had NC State as an 11 seed as of March 12, where it was considered one of the last four in.
While we cannot definitively say how the rest of March Madness’s seeding would have panned out, we can use ESPN’s final bracketology to see the kinds of opponents NC State would have played. Being one of the last four in in this scenario, the Wolfpack likely would have been matched up against a UCLA squad led by Chris Smith, a guard that averaged 13.1 points and is a prospect for this year’s NBA Draft.
A matchup against UCLA would have been a favorable scenario for the Pack, as UCLA severely lacks the scoring punch that NC State could bring to the table. A victory over any team that the Wolfpack faced would have marked head coach Kevin Keatts’s first NCAA Tournament victory in his third season with the team.
According to ESPN’s bracketology, the team would be then locked into the No. 11 seed, set to face the Penn State Panthers led by the forward tandem of Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins. Stevens is better than any player on either team, but the matchup between redshirt junior forward D.J. Funderburk or sophomore forward Jericole Hellems and Stevens would have been one to watch.
Winning in the first round would have marked a second NCAA Tournament win, and would have set up a difficult matchup against Villanova. Realistically, the team would have been ecstatic to get any win in the Big Dance, even in one of the first four games, after the way the season went.
If the team made it to a matchup against Villanova, it would be hard to envision the Pack coming out on top as the Wildcats are perpetually stacked with talent. On top of boasting Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Bryan Antoine, the matchup would have presented a highly anticipated meeting with NBA Draft prospect Saddiq Bey, who decommitted from the Wolfpack in 2018 after originally committing to the team in the prior fall.
The Pack likely did not have an answer for Bey, who averaged 16 points on 45% shooting from deep, as well as the rest of the team that ended its season at 24-7. If the Pack magically came out on top of Villanova, it would have been in the same bracket as Florida State and Dayton, two teams that were riddled with NBA-caliber talent.
Dayton was the projected top seed in this scenario, led by Obi Toppin who was named Atlantic 10 Player of the Year after his breakout sophomore season. Toppin was widely regarded as one of the top five players in the country this season, and if the Pack had been able to reach a game against Dayton, it would have been fascinating to see how Funderburk would approach a player of that level of talent.
It’s impossible to entirely predict how the NCAA Tournament would have gone, but it is not hard to envision the Pack picking up one or two tournament wins, especially if the team was put in the First Four grouping.
While NC State has already done an excellent job of recruiting future talent to the program, being able to win at the biggest stage is a popular deciding factor for potential recruits. The cancellation of the tournament is unfortunate for many reasons, but the fact that Keatts will have to wait for his first NCAA Tournament win stings the most.