Fortunately, the schedule sets up for a strong finish.
On Feb. 26, North Carolina State hosts a Georgia Tech team that has lost seven straight ACC games. Then the Pack go to mediocre Virginia before hosting Florida State, which is without its best player, Chris Singleton.
Winning out wouldn't put North Carolina State into the NCAA Tournament discussion, but it would help the Pack lock up an NIT bid.
N.C. State, of course, must win the ACC tournament to make the NCAA field. That's far-fetched. Yet the Pack should be dangerous if they are at full strength. That's been a rare occurrence this season.
Senior forward Tracy Smith missed 10 games with a knee injury earlier this season. Freshman guard Ryan Harrow missed two due to illness, and freshman forward C.J. Leslie missed one due to suspension.
Sophomore forward Richard Howell, who missed the loss to North Carolina with a concussion, should return against the Yellow Jackets.
BEYOND THE BOX SCORE: In N.C. State's four ACC wins through Feb. 23, the Wolfpack had a plus-9.8 rebounding advantage. The Pack was at minus-7.2 in its nine conference losses. N.C. State was overmatched inside against the Tar Heels on Feb. 23, getting outrebounded 43-30.
It hurt that the Pack didn't have sophomore forward Richard Howell, who was out with a concussion. N.C. State started no one taller than 6-foot-8, while the Tar Heels started 7-footer Tyler Zeller and 6-10 John Henson. That duo combined for 24 rebounds.
-- North Carolina State has lost 20 of its last 25 meetings with North Carolina after the Feb. 23 home defeat. The Pack fell to 3-9 against the Tar Heels at the RBC Center in Raleigh.
-- Though only 4-8 in the conference through Feb. 20, North Carolina State already had a two-game improvement over where the Wolfpack was after 12 ACC games last season. The 'Pack was only 2-10 in 2009-10 but won three of its final four outings of the regular season, then won two games in the ACC Tournament. A similar finish would make the 'Pack 19-14 when postseason bids are issued.
-- N.C. State publicists are touting freshman F C.J. Leslie for ACC Rookie of the Year honors. After scoring 18 points in the loss at Maryland, Leslie was averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds a game in 11 ACC games. He did not play against Duke while serving a one-game suspension.
BY THE NUMBERS: 0-11 -- N.C. State's record when trailing at the 5:00-minute mark of games following the Feb. 20 defeat at Maryland.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Something I've been talking about the last few weeks is how we've been playing so well together. During those last seven minutes, though, some of our guys were just trying to play one-on-one, whether it was outside or in the post." -- Coach Sidney Lowe, on his team's fade at the end of the loss at Maryland.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Georgia Tech, Feb. 26
KEY MATCHUPS: Tech can be a problem on the perimeter where it has guards Iman Shumpert and Glen Rice scoring in double figures. The 'Pack figures to have its way inside with Smith and Leslie.
FUTURES MARKET: Sophomore G Scott Wood has been the only player who has started every game for the Wolfpack this season, though coach Sidney Lowe has sent the same five out to start the last three games. That would be F Tracy Smith, who likely would have started every game were it not for a knee injury that sidelined him nine games; F C.J. Leslie, who was suspended for one game; G Ryan Harrow, G Lorenzo Brown, and Wood. That lineup looks to be good the rest of the way.
-- Sophomore F Richard Howell (7.7 points, 6.5 rebounds per game) missed the Feb. 23 loss to North Carolina after taking an inadvertent blow to the head from DeShawn Painter in the Feb. 20 loss at Maryland. Coach Sidney Lowe called Howell's absence a big loss, saying the Wolfpack missed his offensive rebounding, passing and defense.
-- Freshman F C.J. Leslie, an ACC Rookie of the Year candidate, had averaged 16.7 points and 7.8 rebounds over the past six games he'd played through Feb. 23. Leslie had 13 points and eight rebounds in the Feb. 23 loss to North Carolina.