Big-time ACC challenge?

North Carolina State enters Tuesday's game against Northwestern undefeated, but it's tough to get a read on the Wolfpack. No, they haven't lost, but save a neutral-site game against Akron, the Pack hasn't had the most rigorous schedule – certainly not as stiff as NU's. A breakdown of the Wildcats' opponent in the annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge…

It's precarious to look too closely at a college basketball team's record at this point of the season. Teams often frontload their schedules with patsies, stripping the term "undefeated" of all its meaning.

Northwestern, of course, is not guilty of this. The Wildcats have already played then-No. 10 Butler – a 13-point loss – and then-No. 23 Notre Dame – a 14-point win. The Cats also played Iowa State, which, before being beaten by NU, was undefeated* itself.

* While certainly not a pushover, ISU highlights the point about early-season hoops records. The Cyclones opened the season with Idaho State (currently 2-4), Chicago State (3-2), Drake (2-4), Mississippi Valley State (1-6) and Tennessee State (1-6). So while the ‘Clones were undefeated when NU played them, it was with an asterisk. That's not to say that that ISU is second-rate, or that the win doesn't count. Just evidence of the occasional irrelevance of the word undefeated.

Well, NC State is one of those teams that is "undefeated" – with quotes around it. The Wolfpack, 5-0, is off to its undefeated start with wins over Georgia State, Akron, Austin Peay, Auburn and New Orleans. Now, Akron made the NCAA Tournament last season as a No. 13 seed, but the Zips – awesome nickname aside – also lost to Austin Peay and barely squeaked past winless Arkansas-Pine Bluff by four.

Ken Pomeroy's strength of schedule rankings rate NC State as having the No. 234 most difficult schedule in the nation (NU is No. 194), not a surprise considering the slate of so-so competition populating the Wolfpack's early-season schedule.

Thus, it's a little tricky to tell just how good the Pack is. Undefeated, yes. Truly tested, not so much.

Still, with tonight's matchup – part of the annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge* – Northwestern will have a chance to notch a win against a good team. A team that could, like NU, find itself competing for a spot in the Big Dance in a few months.

* The Big Ten-ACC Challenge hasn't been all that kind to NU since its inception in 1999. NU has only won three games in the 10-year history of the ESPN-fueled event, and have twice been beaten by at least 25, including a 25-point setback to NC State back in 2002. The other blowout loss was a 42-point shellacking at the hands of Virginia in 2007.

Other inglorious Big Ten-ACC Challenge tidbits: NU posted the second-lowest score in the tourney's history when it lost 48-44 to Virginia in 2004. NU has played Florida State four times, more than any other opponent, and beat the Seminoles 73-59 last season. The last time NU played NC State, it was a 74-49 loss; that one, like tonight's game, was played in Raleigh.

Even if we don't know exactly what to make of NC State, they do have talent. The Pack nabbed a pair of four-star recruits last season in Richard Howell and Deshawn Painter, both of whom are athletic enough to give teams fits, even if they haven't put it together yet. Neither is averaging more than two points or two rebounds, and neither is playing more than nine minutes per game. But there is potential there.

More than the freshmen, though, the Wolfpack have a stout front line with 6-foot-8 junior Tracy Smith and senior Dennis Horner, 6-9. Smith is averaging a double-double with 16.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, and Horner is chipping in 14.4 points himself. While Smith fits the low-post-bully archetype – he has snared at least 11 rebounds in three of State's five games – Horner is a bit of a Kevin Coble clone. Along with the 14.4 points and 4.4 boards – Coble averaged 15.5 and 4.8 last season – Horner, like Coble, is a big man who thrives from downtown. On the year he's hitting 57.1 percent, eight-of-14, and has hit at least one three in every game. He has a career three-point percentage of 39.4, so he can step out. Now, Coble shoots more from downtown; he has 325 career three-points attempts to Horner's 160. Still, the similarities are there.

In the backcourt, the Pack are led by 5-11 junior guard Javier Gonzalez, one of the nation's elite assist men. Gonzalez averages 6.6 dimes per game, which is 10th-best in the nation. He's also good for 9.6 points and five rebounds per outing.

Purple Reign wrote earlier this season about how similar Butler was to Northwestern. Well, NC State provides a bit of a mirror image as well. Not quite as stark, but there are definite congruencies. For instance, NU is averaging 68 points per game, NC State 66. NU is averaging 62.2 possessions per game, NC State 63.6. Both teams shoot between 44.4 and 45 percent from the floor, and both shoot between 35.1 and 35.5 percent from distance.

This is NU's third big game in five days, and the Cats have a chance to knock off an undefeated squad from the ever-ballyhooed ACC. NC State did, after all, receive some votes in this week's AP Top 25 poll. So even if the Pack's résumé doesn't include wins over any marquee teams – like, say, Notre Dame – a win could bode well down the road.

Like maybe in March, when teams are vying for Tourney spots.

PR can be reached at Thanks.

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