JOHNSON: Here Comes The Test

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Pack has downed rivals North Carolina and Duke, but its next four games will be its toughest test of the season.

NC State holds regular season wins over North Carolina and Duke for the first time in a nearly a decade. The shadow of a 13-game losing streak to the rival Tar Heels is officially lifted, with the Wolfpack bouncing back the embarrassing loss at Wake Forest earlier in the week.

But the real test of for this team starts on Tuesday and stretches over four games through the next two weeks – it's the toughest stretch of games the Pack will play during the whole regular season.

Four teams in the league currently have winning records – the Pack will play the other three of them over the next two weeks starting with a trip to Virginia. Then its Miami at home, unbeaten in the ACC so far this season and on a tear after blowing out both Duke and Florida State at home this past week. After that? Just a visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Pack ends the stretch with its ‘easiest' game on paper as it travels to Clemson, but the Tigers nearly upset the Pack in PNC earlier this season and State hasn't won at Littlejohn Coliseum since Herb Sendek's final year.

These are the games that turn a season one way or another. Wins against Duke and Carolina are great for a variety of reasons – team confidence, NCAA seeding, national publicity – but they were both won on the Pack's home turf. Winning on the road is what will ultimately decide who walks away with the regular season title this year.

Miami sits at the top of the league because they've gone on the road three times and won. The Pack, Duke and Virginia are trailing the Hurricanes by two games in the standings because they can't win on the road. Those three teams are a combined 2-6 on the road in league play, and Duke has yet to win a true road game this season after losses to the Pack and Miami.

Make no mistake, the potential for the first losing streak of the season comes in this series of games. Last season, the Pack had a similar stretch of games which started with the collapse at Cameron and spiraled into a four-game losing streak before the Pack managed to right the ship with a home win against Miami. Obviously this is a better and more experienced team, but it's not immune from a repeat of last year's losing streak. First up for the Pack is Virginia, possibly the most frustrating team in the league to play – especially for a team like Gottfried's squad that will want to get out in transition. Simply put, Virginia will not let the Pack get out and run. They aren't going to turn it over, they aren't going to let guys leak out on missed shots – they will force the Pack to play a slow, physical game in the half court. The Pack has struggled some in slow-paced games this year, holding a 2-2 record in its four slowest games and the two wins were four-point victories over Connecticut and Clemson.

The Pack needs to find a way to lock down on defense, especially after giving up 50-plus points in the second half against both Wake Forest and the Heels. The offense, even on the road, has been good enough to beat anyone but the Pack's propensity to give up easy buckets (teams are shooting 46 percent inside the arc this season) is making life too easy on the opposition. If the Pack minimizes the defense lapses and crashes the defensive boards with the same fervor they showed against the Heels, the Pack will become a much more dangerous road team.

The games against Miami, Duke and even Clemson aren't any easier, but picking up a win in Charlottesville – especially considering the Pack's history after wins over Duke and Carolina – would be a significant step forward for this team. Even splitting these four games would ultimately be a victory, though Miami's recent play suggests that falling to 7-4 in the league might put them out of striking distance from the Hurricanes for the regular season title.

The good news is that if the Pack can survive this stretch the sailing gets a little easier in the final seven games of the regular season. Four of its final seven games are at home and none of them come against the current top four in the league standings.

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