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Preview: No. 25 Notre Dame @ N.C. State

With the firing of N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried, the Wolfpack have little to play for against an Irish squad taking aim on an ACC tournament double-bye.

Game 28: No. 25 Notre Dame (20-7, 9-5) vs. N.C. State (14-13, 3-11)

-- Date: Feb. 18, 2017
-- Place: PNC Arena; Raleigh, N.C.
-- Time: 12:00 pm ET
-- TV: ESPN
-- Nickname: Wolfpack
-- Conference: ACC
-- Head coach: Mark Gottfried (401-236 overall; 122-82 in 6th year at N.C. St.)
-- Location: Raleigh, N.C
-- 2015-16 record: (16-17, 5-13 in ACC)
-- 2016 Postseason: None
-- Point spread: Notre Dame by 5½  

N.C. STATE IN TURMOIL

It’s been a season that started out poorly and has only gotten worse, which led to this week’s firing of N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried, who will remain with the team through the remaining four games.

The Wolfpack (14-13, 3-11) lost four of their first five in ACC play and currently are riding a six-game losing streak heading into Saturday’s noon tip-off against Notre Dame (20-7, 9-5) at the typically-loud PNC Arena in Raleigh.

“Given the coaching situation, I think that stirs the intensity, energy, fan base and the team,” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey. “They have really good players. They’ve got a physical frontline. There have been nights when they’ve really put it together.”

Those nights haven’t come recently. North Carolina hammered the Wolfpack by 20 earlier this week, and a trip to Wake Forest last weekend resulted in a 30-point loss. During the current six-game losing streak, N.C. State also has lost by 25 at Louisville and 24 at Florida State.

“My feeling is they’re going to play great and we are going to have to play fabulous to win a road game,” Brey said. “You have to throw out the record right now, given the dynamics around the program.”

Indeed, there is talent in Raleigh, led by 6-foot-3 freshman Dennis Smith Jr., who is averaging 19.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game.

“You’re going to have to weather numbers,” said Brey of Smith. “He had 27 (vs. North Carolina). Florida State really trapped him a lot. Some people have played a lot of zone against him.

“You just want to slow him down and make him more of a jump shooter because when he gets in the lane, he gets fouled. He’s a heckuva passer. Rex (Pflueger), Matty (Farrell), T.J. (Gibbs) and Steve (Vasturia) are bodies that can guard him, and then playing some zone.”

Terry Henderson, a 6-foot-5 senior, averages 14 points per game while 6-foot-7 freshman Maverick Rowan is in the middle of five double-digit Wolfpack scorers at 12.4 with an 86.2 percent free-throw percentage.

Abdul-Malik Abu, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound junior, averages 12.0 points and 7.0 rebounds with a team-leading 63 offensive caroms. Torin Dorn, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, is the fifth player in double figures at 10.3.

Henderson (67 three-pointers made), Smith (49), Rowan (46) and Dorn (22) all are shooting at or above 38 percent from beyond the arc.

“It’s not a 3-11 team given the dynamics and the ability,” Brey said. “The last time we played there, it was unbelievably loud.

“We have to be ready to get off to a good start, but if we don’t get off to a good start, I’ll take a great second half.”

SPEAKING OF STRONG SECOND HALVES…

The Irish needed a really good one Tuesday at the Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill as Notre Dame allowed 49 first-half points and trailed by 10 at halftime to Boston College.

The Irish flipped the switch for the final 15 minutes, limiting the Eagles to 27 second-half points and 33.3 percent shooting in the 84-76 come-from-behind victory. It was Boston College’s 10th straight loss.

Brey said he did not rip his team at halftime, but rather, allowed the leadership to step forward.

“I didn’t say anything at halftime,” Brey said. “I don’t think that was the time to do that. Our guys are really sharp and hard on themselves, and they were upset with themselves. I thought (I should leave) them alone to figure it out without me guiding it.”

Brey said he doesn’t know exactly what was said amongst the players, although he did cite Matt Farrell shortly after the game.

“Matt is fiery, and I’m sure he spoke up,” Brey said. “Everybody spoke up. I didn’t even ask, but it was obviously handled.

“The one thing I told them before we went back out was, ‘Fellas, we’re certainly within striking distance, and 20 minutes is a long time.’ We have come back from situations before and I give a lot of credit to the players.”

Notre Dame’s leadership is an interesting blend of personalities. Steve Vasturia is by far the quietest. V.J. Beachem is too, but his fire reveals itself at times on the court and, according to Brey, in huddles.

Bonzie Colson, who leads and plays with emotion, and Farrell, who can wear it on his sleeve, provide an interesting blend of fire and ice.

“I respect them,” Brey said. “They’ve invested in this. They’ve been so coachable. They’ve chased it as a group.

“This group has taken ownership of itself or we would not be 20-7. So you’ve got to let them go, let them run with it.”

FARRELL: NOT MOST IMPROVED!

Everywhere you turn, from one basketball analyst to another, they’re calling Notre Dame junior point guard Matt Farrell the most improved player in the ACC, if not the country.

Farrell played sparingly as a sophomore last season, sitting behind Demetrius Jackson. When Brey felt he needed an offensive/ball-handling infusion in the NCAA tournament, he turned to Farrell, who helped spearhead the Irish to a second straight Elite Eight run.

His 26 points (4-of-7 three-point shooting) and 14 assists in four NCAA tournament games were a crucial contribution to the cause.

Farrell has been outstanding this season. His 14.3 points per game ranks third on a team that has four 14-point-plus scorers. He’s shooting 44.1 percent from three-point range for the season and a spectacular 40-of-82 (48.7 percent) in ACC play.

The Irish point guard has scored in double figures 19 of the last 21 games. His assist-to-turnover ratio – which takes a hit at times because of his daring, attacking approach – is still solid at 148-to-69.

So it’s no wonder college basketball’s talking heads are calling him the most improved player in the country.

But Farrell isn’t buying it, and it’s not because he’s being modest.

In a nutshell, Farrell translates “the most improved player in the country” as “you’re saying I wasn’t any good last year.”

“He doesn’t like it, and that’s the epitome of him and his makeup,” Brey said. “He bristles at that.”

Farrell, who played behind Jerian Grant two years ago and Demetrius Jackson last year, believes he wasn’t afforded the opportunity to show his wares until this, his junior season. For Farrell, it’s not a sudden upturn in ability and effectiveness.

“I wasn’t playing. I was behind two really good guys,” Farrell said. “Me, personally, I don’t think I got a chance to prove to people in this program I can play until I got the chance to start playing.

“Now that I’m playing, I’m having fun and loving the guys around me.”

Farrell knows there are aspects of his game that have improved.

“I’m trying to improve defensively every day,” Farrell said. “I’m taking better care of the ball in the lane. I want to play off two feet, which is something I work on every day.”

Farrell will have competition in the ACC for most improved from Georgia Tech’s Ben Lammers and Wake Forest’s John Collins.

So what happens if/when the ACC names Farrell the most improved player in the conference?

“No, I’m not going to be upset,” smiled Farrell. “That would be awesome. It would be meant as a compliment and I would take it as a compliment.

“But for me, personally, I like to think that I just didn’t have that chance to play the way I could because I was behind two really good players. Those were two guys I learned from, so I don’t take that time for granted.”

TAKING A 10TH/THE AMUSING 9TH

In a league like the ACC this season, a 10th victory guarantees an NCAA tournament berth, which would be Notre Dame’s win total in conference play with a victory over N.C. State.

“It’s hard to keep anybody out with double-digit league wins,” says Brey, whose team is on the verge of landing its sixth NCAA tournament berth in seven years.

“If you get to 10-5, all of a sudden your position could be really interesting by the following Sunday when you play Georgia Tech.”

Brey still has his eye on an ACC tournament double-bye, which looks feasible with a) Notre Dame’s upcoming opponents and b) the gauntlet facing teams like Louisville, Virginia, Duke and Syracuse down the stretch.

Each year, Brey starts by saying 9-9 is the team’s initial goal. The more he’s said it, the more grief he’s gotten for it, and that kind of amuses him.

“As much as I’ve teased about 9-9, we’ve never been 9-9!” laughed Brey. “I love getting our fan base going. ‘Oh, 9-9! He’s selling himself short.’”

Fans aren’t the only ones that react that way to his 9-9 stance.

“I say to my staff the first week of practice, ‘Come on, be honest, can we be 9-9?’  And they’ll say, ‘Coach, you’re selling us short!’

“(Assistant coach) Rod Balanis is so tired of hearing that. (He says) ‘Oh, here we go, 9-9!’”

Excluding Notre Dame’s 6-12 mark in 2013-14 – its first year in the ACC – the Irish have been well beyond status quo. Beginning with last year and working backward, the Irish have been 11-7 (ACC), 14-4, 11-7 (Big East), 13-5 and 14-4 in five of the last six seasons with a similar regular-season-ending record expected four games from now.

“I love when we have winning records in the Big East and now the ACC because it’s very powerful,” Brey said.

POINTS IN THE PAINT

• Bonzie Colson – the reigning ACC Player of the Week – is averaging 21.0 points in his last seven games with single-game rebound totals of 16 (Wake Forest), 13 (Florida State) and 13 (Georgia Tech).

• Steve Vasturia is seventh on the ACC’s active career scoring list with 1,308 points. He’s also fourth in career assists with 303.

• The last time Notre Dame played N.C. State at PNC Arena was two seasons ago when the Irish were en route to a 14-4 ACC record. It wasn’t easy. Notre Dame won that game in overtime, 81-78, after overcoming an 18-point Wolfpack lead.

• With Notre Dame’s victory over Boston College, the Irish reached the 20-victory mark for the 13th time in Mike Brey’s 17 seasons as head coach, and the 10th in the last 11 seasons. That matches the school-record of 13 set by Digger Phelps.

• Notre Dame has won seven of its last nine games on “Tobacco Road,” including wins over North Carolina in 2015, Duke in 2015, Duke in the 2015 ACC tournament, North Carolina in the 2015 ACC tournament, and Duke in 2016.

Prister/O’Malley Prediction: Notre Dame 85, N.C. State 76


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