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March 12, 2009

Can the Pack make another memorable run?

March Madness has officially arrived for NC State. The Pack is known for producing a magical run here and there in the postseason, and they'll need another one if they want to continue their season beyond the ACC Tournament this weekend.

Here are five things to look for in Atlanta when the Pack competes against their conference rivals for the ACC title. If the Pack can achieve these five things, they just might have a chance.

Score at least 70 points

Every team has a number they must get to seemingly have a chance to win the game. For instance, top-seeded North Carolina's number is 80. The Heels have not lost a game since the second round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament where the opponent scored less than 80 points.

For NC State the number is 70. For the Pack to have a good chance of winning, they need to score at least 70 points. NC State went 13-4 when they had at least 70 points on the scoreboard. More importantly, they were just 3-9 when they scored less than 70, including a 71-60 loss to Maryland on March 1, the first-round opponent today for NC State.

The good news is NC State can be efficient offensively. They shoot 47.7 percent from the field, third best behind Wake Forest (49.7 percent) and North Carolina (48.5) in the ACC. NC State also has the third best three-point shooting percentage at 38.0 percent in the ACC. The Pack is 9-4 when they shoot 40.0 percent or better from long range. NC State is also second in the ACC in assists per game at 15.2.

However, State has been dismal holding on to the basketball. They average 14.5 turnovers a game, eighth in the ACC, and have the worst turnover margin by far in the conference at negative-3.21. The next closest is Boston College at negative-1.10.

Start strong and take a lead into halftime

After 29 games it has been established that NC State is not good at coming from behind. Outside a rally from 10 down with five minutes to go against Georgia Tech on Jan. 17 at the RBC Center to win in overtime, the Pack has gone winless when trailing with five minutes to go.

In fact, viewers may have a good feel for which way the game is going to go right off the opening tip. NC State is 13-4 when they score first, 3-9 when they do not. However, if the Pack is trailing at halftime, it's not a good sign at all for State fans. NC State is just 1-7 when trailing at the break, 15-6 when tied or leading at half.

One thing for certain, if State is not leading with 10 minutes to go, it's not a good sign. The next time the Pack breaks open a tied contest or rallies from a deficit at the point in the game to win would be the first this year. State is 0-10 when tied or trailing with 10 minutes to go in the game.

Hold the opponents under 70 points

Going back to 70 being the magic number for NC State, that works on both ends of the court for the Pack. NC State has not proven to be good at outscoring teams this year. Realistically, they need to hold their opponents to under 70 points in the ACC Tournament. NC State is 12-3 when it does that, and 4-10 when the opponent gets 70 points or better.

NC State is not likely to do it with pressure defense. They force only an average of 11.3 turnovers a game, easily the fewest in the conference, and average just 5.7 steals a contest, also worst in the ACC. NC State is not likely to block many shots either, since once again they're last in the league there at just 3.8 a game.

So State will need to rely on its field-goal percentage defense and rebounding to get the job done. The good news is that the Pack is plus-3.2 on the boards this year, fifth in the conference. This is the first time since the 2003-04 season that the Pack has had a positive rebounding margin for the year. Also their first round opponent Maryland is last in the conference in rebounding, the lone team in the ACC to have a negative margin at negative-1.8.

NC State's field-goal percentage defense though will be tested. They allow teams to shot 43.0 percent from the field, third worst in the league. Teams shoot 32.7 percent from long range on State, which is middle of the road in the ACC at seventh best. State is 1-6 this year when their opponents shot 50 percent or better. The one win came against Wake Forest on Feb. 11, who would be the Pack's second-round opponent.

Be the aggressor

Conventional wisdom is that it's harder to shoot in a spacious dome such as the Georgia Dome, and that the shooting percentages, especially from long range, will be lower because of that. So that may put the onus on being more aggressive offensively and attacking the basket and drawing fouls. It just so happens that when NC State does draw fouls and get to the line, they do well.

NC State is 14-5 this year when they have attempted the same amount or more free throws than their opponents. When the opposition gets to the line more times, NC State is just 2-8. Once you get to the free-throw line you must also convert, and NC State will need to show some improvement. State shot 71.5 percent from the line this season, only good for eighth in the ACC.

If they allow Maryland to get to the line more, State is in trouble. The Terps lead the ACC with a 76.8 percent mark at the line.

State should be helped out if senior wing Courtney Fells does indeed play as projected. Fells is the only member of State's regular rotation to shoot above 80 percent from the line, making 85.7 percent this year. Freshman Julius Mays, who has played a total of one minute in the last eight games, leads NC State at 88.0 percent.

Find a go-to guy

Any ACC title winner is going to have that player that rises to the occasion and has the weekend of his life. John Gilchrist did it for Maryland in 2004. Who could ever forget Randolph Childress for Wake Forest in 1995 when he scored 107 total points in three games.

When NC State had their improbable run to the ACC Tournament title game in 2007, it was forward Brandon Costner, then a redshirt freshman, who rose to the occasion. Coming into this tournament, Costner has averaged 18.0 points in five ACC Tournament games. He would seem like the most logical candidate to emerge once again as State's go-to guy this weekend. He is State's leading scorer at 13.6 points per game.

However, Costner only averaged 11.9 points per game in conference action, and it's interesting to note that NC State is only 11-10 this year when Costner scores 10 points or more. Some may argue it should be sophomore forward Tracy Smith, who emerged as a force in the second half of the ACC slate. However, State is only 8-7 when Smith scores in double figures.

The player to watch may actually be senior center Ben McCauley. When McCauley scores at least 10 points, NC State's chances of winning go up. The Pack is 14-7 this year when McCauley reached double figures. That's not a one-year anomaly either. State is 38-19 throughout McCauley's career when he reaches double figures.


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