While No. 3 Virginia has a firm grasp on what has helped it become the last remaining ACC team without a conference blemish -- defense and efficiency on both ends of the floor -- N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts is still trying to figure out his bunch.Keatts brings a Wolfpack team to Charlottesville on Sunday night that has won back-to-back games against ranked opponents, defeating No. 19 Clemson 78-77 on Thursday night in Raleigh, N.C. and then-No. 2 Duke 96-85 on Jan. 6 in Raleigh, plus boasts a 90-84 win Nov. 23 against then-No. 2 Arizona in Nassau, Bahamas.
Yet, N.C. State (12-5, 2-2 ACC) also lost 81-76 on Dec. 16 against UNC Greensboro at home and 64-60 in November against Northern Iowa in Nassau -- two teams who entered Saturday's play ranked 102nd and 148th, respectively, in the Ratings Percentage Index.
So, who exactly is the Wolfpack? Keatts, who is in his first season as N.C. State's coach, recognizes a few undeniable truths about his guys.
"We're a group that doesn't necessarily have a superstar," Keatts said Monday. "In order for us to have an opportunity to win in ACC play, we've all got to play on the same page, and I've got to get all my guys playing well on the same night."
He pointed to the win against Duke as a perfect example of the kind of team effort required for N.C. State to succeed against elite foes.
Six N.C. State players scored in double figures for a team that shared the ball (17 assists on 34 successful field goals) and didn't turn the ball over a lot (10 turnovers), while forcing the Blue Devils to make mistakes (16 turnovers).
Highlights from the win over Clemson pic.twitter.com/XDPSu4gGG2— NC State Men's Bball (@PackMensBball) January 13, 2018
Against Clemson, N.C. State took care of the ball again (just four turnovers), made the Tigers uncomfortable (17 turnovers) and did a good job spreading the ball around for good looks at the basket (15 assists on 28 made field goals).
Omer Yurtseven, a 7-foot center, also stepped up with his best game against Clemson, scoring a career-high 29 points (including five 3-pointers) to go along with four blocks to help the Wolfpack avoid blowing a 12-point lead in the final one minute, 23 seconds.
N.C. State's win against Clemson gave the Tigers their first conference loss of the season, ensuring the Cavaliers (15-1, 4-0) would be the last program with an unbeaten league mark in the ACC. U.Va., which is led by guard Kyle Guy's 15.4 ppg, is off to its best ACC start since it opened the 2014-15 conference slate 7-0.
"We've got some toughness as a group," said U.Va. guard Devon Hall after Tuesday night's 68-61 win against Syracuse. "We will learn from the mistakes we've made and keep getting better."
N.C. State, which has five players averaging in double figures in scoring (led by guards Allerik Freeman and Torin Dorn with 15.2 ppg and 13.1 ppg, respectively, and Yurtseven's 12.7 ppg), might see a key member of its backcourt return at U.Va., but point guard Markell Johnson's status has yet to be determined by Keatts.
Johnson (8.7 ppg, team-high 6.6 apg) has missed N.C. State's last seven games while serving an indefinite suspension in the wake of a felony assault charge stemming from an October incident in his native Ohio. The charge has been dismissed, and Johnson has been reinstated to the team, but he hasn't played in a game since being reinstated.
N.C. State, which came into Saturday 17th in the nation in turnover margin (plus-4.2), 28th in steals per game (8.3) and 33rd in scoring offense (83.1 ppg), got the win against Clemson less than two weeks after the Wolfpack lost 78-62 on Dec. 30 on the road against the Tigers in the ACC opener for both schools -- a loss N.C. State followed on Jan. 3 with an 88-58 loss at Notre Dame.
While N.C. State is looking to find some consistency in league play, it'll have to try to do it on the road again against a U.Va. program that has won seven consecutive games, and five straight meetings against the Wolfpack.
U.Va., which as of Saturday afternoon was first in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (giving up 85.8 points per 100 possessions by opponents) and 34th in adjusted offensive efficiency (scoring 114.6 points per 100 possessions) according to Ken Pomeroy's advanced statistics, last saw Keatts in the NCAA tournament last season, when the Cavaliers defeated UNC Wilmington 76-71 in the first round.
It was Keatts' final game as UNC Wilmington's coach. He was hired the day after the loss by N.C. State.
As oppressive as U.Va.'s pack-line defense continues to be, entering Saturday first in the nation in scoring defense (53 ppg) and second in field goal percentage defense (36.1), some timely perimeter shooting against the Orange ended up being just as important for the Cavaliers.
Guy made 5-of-11 shots from 3-point range, accounting for the majority of his game-high 22 points. Guard Ty Jerome connected on just three shots from the floor and was 3-of-10 from beyond the 3-point line, but all three of his long-range shots came within a two-minute span early in the second half. U.Va. made nine of its season-high 27 attempts from beyond the 3-point line.
"You just want to get quality shots," U.Va. coach Tony Bennett said after the win against Syracuse. "Maybe two or three were maybe a little rushed and not good shots, but we had some really good looks. We rotated the ball and got them to rotate -- feet set, lining up the seams. You have got to take those."
This article is written by Norm Wood from Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.