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The feeling one came away with from NC State’s NCAA Tournament selection watch party Monday night at Reynolds Coliseum would have made Rodney Dangerfield proud.
Because the predominant mood following the Wolfpack’s 23rd ticket to the Big Dance wasn’t overwhelming joy — it was more in the spirit of Dangerfield’s famous one-line catch phrase: “I don’t get any respect!”
Despite a 22-win season that included victories over the No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 9 Duke, No. 10 Florida State and No. 13 Louisville (rankings from the March 13 Associated Press poll), a 12-4 and fourth-place finish in the ACC (NCSU’s highest since 2014), a No. 17 national ranking in both the AP and USA Today coaches polls, and a projected No. 5 seed by ESPN analyst Charlie Creme, Pack players, coaches and more than 100 energetic fans had to wait 45 minutes of ESPN’s hour-long selection show before finding out their fate: a No. 6 seed in the final regional announced, in Lexington, Ky.
The Pack will take its 22-8 record to Austin, Texas, Friday to face No. 11 seed Auburn in a noon tipoff.
All four of the ranked ACC teams that NC State defeated during the regular season not only were seeded higher, but will be hosting first- and second-round games this weekend. But the most startling revelation, and the one that rubs worse with the Pack, came midway through the selection process when Miami, which finished seventh in the ACC regular-season standings (21-7 overall, 10-6 in the league), was seeded fourth in the Stockton, Calif., regional — and awarded the two sub-regional opening games.
“If you’d have told me that five ACC teams were going to get to host, I’d be confident that we’d be hosting,” Pack head coach Wes Moore said. “It’s hard to understand how a team that finished seventh in our league gets to host.
“It is a moving target. Last year [when the Pack was bypassed by the NCAA selection committee despite a 20-win season], they said we didn’t have enough top-15 wins. This year we’ve got top-15 wins. I’m sure they’ll go back to RPI [NC State’s rank was 39] and strength of schedule, so it’s very frustrating.”
As expected, four-time ACC regular-season and tournament winner Notre Dame was one of the four No. 1 seeds for this year’s NCAA field, along with UConn, South Carolina and Baylor.
Despite a one-point loss to Louisville in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, most predictions, including Creme’s, had the Pack at least a No. 5 seed. Most post-selection analyses noted that the selection committee, in several cases, appeared to downplay regular-season results and conference finishes below conference tournament results — which certainly appear to be the case with NC State.
Though the Pack did beat both Notre Dame and Florida State — joining UConn as the only two teams in the country with both of those wins on their record — and was one win from finishing second in the ACC, the one-point loss to Louisville and a 67-64 home loss to Miami in January coupled with the Canes upset of the Seminoles in the ACC Tournament probably proved the difference in the Pack moving down in the seeding and the Canes getting a No. 4 seed and two home games to open the tournament.
“It’s hard to understand,” an obviously disappointed Moore admitted, “but it’s motivation for me, and hopefully it will be for the players.”
“Yeah, it is,” senior guard Ashley Williams confirmed. “It’s like, ‘What do we have to do? What are we not doing?’ Last year, the argument was we didn’t get enough big wins. This year we did that, and we play in one of the toughest conferences in the country, probably the toughest. So, we feel like we did what was asked … and then to see [a No. 6 seed].
“But it is what it is. The bottom line is we’re in, and we are where we are, so we have to go make the best of it.”
Miah Spencer, another of the team’s four seniors, was happy to be going back to the NCAA Tournament after missing out the past two years but mystified by the Pack’s seed.
“I projected us to be a possible No. 4,” she said. “Looking at the teams we beat and compared to who the other fours beat, but it’s okay. I’m just excited to be back in.
“Winning and going to the Final Four is what we’re planning to do.”
Senior forward Jenn Mathurin, who’s early injury in the ACC Tournament game against Louisville played a major part in that loss, feels the Pack is in much better shape, mentally, for this year’s NCAA Tournament than her freshman year, when as a No. 5 seed the Pack lost to 12th-seeded BYU 72-57 in its opening game in Los Angeles.
“We were in UConn’s regional that year,” she recalled, “and we were already thinking ahead. Now, with four seniors, that’s a lot of maturity. We’re going to take it one game at a time, and play hard every single second, regardless of who we’re playing or where.
“Three years ago, we weren’t prepared mentally, we weren’t 100 percent focused. That’s going to be key for us this time.”
Tigers No Strangers To Pack In Postseason Play
Friday’s first-round meeting between NC State and Auburn will be the fourth in program history, and the second time the Tigers and Wolfpack have met in the NCAA Tournament. Auburn defeated the Pack 79-59 in the first round in 2004 in Bridgeport, Conn.
Auburn (17-14 overall) finished eighth in the Southeastern Conference regular season with a 7-9 record, and lost 56-52 to Georgia in its SEC Tournament opener.
Both teams had two common opponents this season: Kansas State and LSU. The Pack lost to K-State 67-50 in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands Nov. 24, while Auburn lost to the Wildcats 71-66 a week later. LSU nipped the Pack 59-58 in the final game in the Paradise Jam Nov. 26, and Auburn beat LSU 54-49 in an SEC game Feb. 23.
Moore, who hasn’t faced the Tigers since his coaching days at Chattanooga, expects Auburn to play an up-tempo, 40-minute pressure game.
“They press the entire time and like to speed the game up, so we’re going to have to make some very good decisions with the basketball and handle that,” he said. “But it’s good to have four seniors out there, so hopefully we can do that.”
Katie Frerking, a 6-1 senior wing, leads Auburn in both scoring (15.9 points per game) and rebounding (6.4 baords per contest). Brandy Montgomery, a 5-10 senior guard, and Janiah McKay, a 5-6 senior guard also average double figures in scoring (13.7 and 13.0, respectively). The Tigers defense has forced opponents to average a whopping 22 turnovers a game, while NC State has committed just 7.3 per game this season.
Auburn is 2-1 all time against NC State, with its only loss to the Pack an 85-71 defeat in the Wolfpack Invitational on Dec. 10, 2012, in the last meeting between the two squads.
An NC State win would pit the Pack, most likely, against the host No. 3 seed Texas Longhorns (23-8), who face No. 14 seed Central Arkansas in their first-round game. Times for the second-round games in Austin, to be played Sunday, will be determined following Friday’s contests.