Johnson: The Final Stretch

NC State will need to take full advantage of an easier conference schedule to gain some positive momentum heading into the ACC Tournament.

On Sunday afternoon, for the first time in a month, NC State looked like a good basketball team. The problem, though, was the opponent – a Wake Forest team that is so comically terrible they look like they belong in some college basketball version of Bad News Bears.

For those under the illusion that thumping Wake Forest is going to be a catalyst to a good finish for the Pack, look no further than the January thumping of the Deacons for proof to the contrary. State followed up that 21-point home win with seven losses in their next eight games, ending the Pack's at-large NCAA hopes and turning the focus of many fans from the court to the bench.

The reason the Pack might be able to gain some positive momentum over the rest of the regular season isn't because of the confidence gained from beating Wake Forest. It's because of the schedule. State plays four of its final six games at home – and should be either favored or slight underdogs in all but two of its remaining contests.

The first nine games of the conference schedule were drastically tougher than the final six. Unfortunately for the Pack, it wasn't able to keep its head above water during the first nine, falling so far back in the standings that even getting to .500 in conference play would require a miraculous winning streak.

The Pack still needs to win the ACC Tournament to have a shot at the NCAAs, but it can at least finish the regular season on a roll by taking advantage of the easier schedule. Here's a look at the remaining six games and the chances State has to win each.

February 17th vs. Clemson
The nightmare in Tiger Town was one of the more embarrassing losses of Lowe's tenure with the Wolfpack, as the Pack turned a 19-point first-half lead into a 10-point loss.

First-year coach Brad Brownell has the Tigers playing strong basketball of late, as the Tigers have won four of their last six games and their last three ACC losses have come by a total of six points. Despite being at home, the Pack will be a slight underdog in this game.

February 20th @ Maryland
The toughest game left on the schedule for the Pack, simply because it's on the road against a Maryland team that finds itself in the tangled mess at the middle of the conference standings.

A strong defensive team during their out-of-conference schedule, the Terrapins haven't seen that defensive success translate to ACC play. The 3-point line has been especially problematic, as ACC opponents are hitting 36% of their 3-pointers against the Terps.

If Lowe can find a way to get him some open looks, this could be a game where Scott Wood gets back on track. This is likely the only game left on the schedule where the Pack will be a double-digit underdog.

February 23rd vs. North Carolina
Like Clemson, this is a chance for the Pack to avenge an embarrassing road loss. It's also the second toughest game on the remaining slate, as North Carolina has appeared to flip the switch from mediocre to good.

This is still a Carolina team with plenty of weaknesses though, as they lack the perimeter shooting to win games if they can't get easy baskets. Just don't try to win this game by getting the line – the Heels once again avoid getting called for fouls better than any team in the league.

The Pack will be around an 8-point underdog in this game despite playing at home.

February 26th vs. Georgia Tech
After a 3-3 start to ACC play, the wheels are starting to fall off the Rambling Wreck. Turns out that no matter how good Glen Rice Jr. and Iman Shumpert are, two players can't really carry an entire team. The Yellow Jackets aren't a good shooting team and aren't a good defensive team, not a great combination for winning basketball games.

As long as the Pack does a reasonable job of containing the Tech's two stars, this is a game that is extremely winnable at home.

Expect the Pack to be a favorite going into this one.

March 1st @ Virginia
Possibly the least talented team in the ACC, the Cavaliers have the distinction of being the only team to lose to Wake Forest in conference play this year. They've managed to squeak out three conference wins by doing two things better than anyone else in conference play – get defensive rebounds and make 3-pointers.

Their 40-percent 3-point shooting is about the only thing their offense has going for it, as they don't even bother with offensive rebounds and they don't have the post players to convert down low.

They'll be playing at home, however, making this game essentially a toss-up.

March 6th vs. Florida State
It looks like this game will be against a Chris Singleton-less Florida State squad. Without the reigning defensive player of the year to match-up with the Pack, the Seminoles could find winning this game much tougher than winning in Tallahassee earlier this year.

Of course, NC State is going to have to find a way to prevent the Seminoles from another 80-plus point outburst if it wants to end the regular season with a victory.

Depending the course the Seminoles take over the last two weeks without their best player, the Pack could be either a slight underdog or a slight favorite in this contest.


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