RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State wasn't supposed to even be in this position, entering February with several marquee wins and in the discussion for an NCAA tournament bid. Yet first-year coach Kevin Keatts isn't talking about the possibility of his program getting back there after its two-year absence.
"We're not a mature enough team for me to look ahead," Keatts said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We have to really stay in the moment with these guys. . I'm not one of those guys who'll put up the standings on the board and say, 'Here's where we are.' Because I think with this particular bunch, I think if you do that it can spook 'em."
N.C. State (15-7, 5-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) was picked to finish 12th in the league. But the Wolfpack upset then-No. 2 Arizona in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November, beat another No. 2 in Duke to start January, beat current No. 20 Clemson at home and won last weekend at then-No. 10 North Carolina .
Those four Quadrant 1 wins — the selection committee has moved to a four-tiered system to evaluate quality of victories — are strong headliners to the Wolfpack's resume.
But there's still work to do. N.C. State sits at No. 64 in Friday's RPI rankings because 11 wins came against Quadrant 3 and 4 opponents. In addition, the nonconference schedule wasn't strong (ranked 269th) and there were losses to UNC Greensboro (110th in the RPI) and Northern Iowa (140th).
Baylor graduate transfer Allerik Freeman referenced the goal of getting to the NCAAs after the UNC win without being asked, but Keatts is talking about the steps immediately in front of his team.
He wants them focused on continuing to refine their fullcourt-pressure style. He also wants them to take advantage of their conditioning work, which can help them wear down opponents and cut down on their own fatigue-driven mistakes late in games such as a missed boxout or a blown defensive assignment.
"Eventually I want these guys to be able to compete for 40 minutes," Keatts said. "I think we've had times in games where we were 20, 25, 30 and even 35 minutes. But I want them to play selfless basketball and to play for N.C. State. I feel like if they do that then everybody will get some credit for doing it, not just one or two people."
And that just might be good enough to get the Wolfpack in on Selection Sunday.
ON THE RISE
Alabama: The Crimson Tide (14-8, 5-4 Southeastern Conference) and high-scoring freshman Collin Sexton had won five of six — including upsets of ranked Auburn and Oklahoma teams — before Wednesday's loss to Missouri . Alabama ranks 40th in the RPI.
Kansas State: The Wildcats (16-6, 5-4 Big 12) have regrouped from a bumpy early-January stretch by winning four of five. They sit at No. 66 in the RPI and have games with No. 15 West Virginia (Saturday) and No. 10 Texas Tech looming as opportunities to help their resumes.
Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders (17-5, 9-1 Conference USA) have lost just once since a Christmas Day loss to Miami and are 21st in the RPI.
New Mexico State: The good news is the Aggies (19-3, 6-0 Western Athletic Conference) have won eight straight and have a December win against Miami (No. 20 in RPI). But they have little room for error; there isn't much on the schedule to significantly boost their RPI (47th) while 14 of their wins have come against Quadrant 3 and 4 opponents.
Notre Dame: Mike Brey's Fighting Irish (13-9, 3-6 ACC) are just trying to stay afloat with preseason Associated Press All-American Bonzie Colson — who is roughly halfway through a projected eight-week recovery from a broken left foot — and senior point guard Matt Farrell missing time with injuries. But they've lost six straight entering Saturday's trip to N.C. State.
Marquette: The Golden Eagles (13-9, 4-6 Big East) have lost three straight and five of seven, missing resume-helping chances against top-ranked Villanova (twice) and No. 6 Xavier in that stretch.
Maryland: The Terrapins (15-9, 4-7 Big Ten) have lost three straight and five of six. They also have a 1-7 record against Quadrant 1 opponents.
Utah: The Utes (13-8, 5-5 Pac-12) had a rough January by losing five of eight. They're just 1-6 against Quadrant 1 teams, though they upset Arizona State last week.