Caulton Tudor

Schedule gives Pack chance for fast recovery

Posted January 9

— If NC State’s basketball team turns out to be better than it played in Sunday’s 107-56 loss at UNC, it'll become obvious fast.

By the same token, the historically one-sided win has the Tar Heels (14-3 overall, 2-1 ACC) perfectly positioned to make quick, potentially pivotal gains in the now frantic conference race.

Such is the peculiar nature of both teams’ near-range schedules.

State (12-4, 1-2) is paying a inflated price for its losses – an average of 25 points – and that’s something for Mark Gottfried and his players have to understand. And fret.

The NCAA Selection Committee may pay lip service to “appropriating weighing” one-sided losses (wins too), but it’s all but impossible to assume a 51-point loss at Carolina and an 18-point loss at Miami to start the league schedule on Dec. 31 won’t be factors if the ACC pool of NCAA bid hopefuls ends up being as crowded as all 15 coaches have steadily predicted since the end of ’15-’16.

The Wolfpack’s non-league losses to Illinois and Creighton may get downsized as the season wears on, but league wipeouts tend to stick and smell.

On that front, there’s a decent chance State may have not have hit rock bottom at the totally most inopportune time. The next two games – at Boston College (Wednesday, 9 pm, RSN) and against Georgia Tech (Sunday, 6:30 pm, ESPN) - will give the Pack a prime opening to get above .500 in the conference just in time for visits from Pitt (Jan. 17, 7 pm, ESPNU) and Wake Forest (Jan. 21, 2 pm, ACC Network).

Those four teams are a combined 4-9 in ACC games. It shouldn’t be asking too much for State to rebound, find some focus, improve its transition defense, win all four and take a 5-2 conference record into successive late-January trips to Duke and Louisville.

But the dicey key to this slice of the schedule is that can cut both ways, of course.

These next four games – BC (8-8, 1-2), GT (9-6, 1-2), Pitt (12-4, 1-2) and Wake (10-6, 1-3) – are there for the taking, or getting taken. If State can make the most of mid-January, the NCAA will be within reach. But if it goes the other, the Wolfpack’s entire season will be in jeopardy. The February schedule then very easily could collapse the roof.

Carolina, at the opposite extreme, now has an opening to take off and build its resume for a few games.

The Heels go to Wake Forest on Wednesday (8 pm, ESPN2), then return to Chapel Hill for Florida State (Saturday, 2 pm, ESPN) and Syracuse (Jan. 16, 7 pm, ESPN), then a Jan. 21 trip to Boston College (noon, ACC Network).

Florida State (15-1, 3-0) is among the hottest teams out there, but it’s certainly not a stretch to assume UNC can win these next five games to take a 7-1 ACC record into late-January.

It’s not that the Heels are a great team – at least not just yet. The defense and ball-handling will improve as Theo Pinson continues to adjust and big men Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley are beginning to show signs of more predictable production, but it’s still obvious the team misses the on-court leadership and stability provided by Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson more than many people expected.

Nonetheless, it’s imperative for Carolina, like the Pack, to make the most of this upcoming schedule period. The Heels’ February/March slate – two games vs. Duke, two vs. Virginia, trip to State, Louisville and Notre Dame – looms as the nation’s toughest

closing run.

Jefferson’s Status

The weekend’s local X-factor turned out not so much to be Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski as Blue Devils center Amile Jefferson, who injured his right foot just before halftime in a 93-82 win over Boston College in Durham on Saturday.

With Krzyzewski recovering from Friday back surgery, Jeff Capel took over as acting head coach and things could not have gone better – until Jefferson appeared to trip over an Eagle player and didn’t return to the lineup. It’s the same foot Jefferson injured in December of 2015 and ended his season after nine games.

The 6-9, 225-pound grad student is scheduled to undergo tests today, but his status could be the key to a second straight season.

With Jefferson (13.6 ppg, 10.1 rpg), the Devils (14-2, 2-1) are a national contender. Without him, well, they’re the team that led BC by 20 or more points in the first half and then got outscored 48-40 in the second half in Cameron.

Although 6-10 Harry Giles, though five games, is improving and healing and 6-11 Marques Bolden (eight games) is getting up to speed, Duke’s frontcourt will have to be very fortunate to survive without Jefferson. The season has been that uneven.

Blue Devil senior Matt Jones said Saturday that he feared the “team just can’t catch a break” following Jefferson’s situation. Jones almost certainly will be right if his teammate has to miss another prolonged recovery period.

And unlike State and Carolina, the near-range schedule for Duke is hardly inviting – at Florida State Tuesday (8 pm, ACC Network) and Louisville (Saturday, noon, ESPN). There will be a week-long break between the trip to Louisville and a Jan. 21 game in Durham against Miami. That’s certain to help, whether Jefferson can play at FSU or not.

But the situation easily qualifies as the first urgency of the Capel segment. When the NCAA granted Jefferson a medical hardship season last spring, Krzyzewski called it “huge.” He wasn’t kidding.

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