Irish Travel to Raleigh to Take On Embattled N.C. State

Notre Dame will travel to Raleigh Saturday for the penultimate road game of the season as the Irish take on a slumping N.C. State squad at PNC Arena.

The Wolfpack’s struggles have not been without consequences as it was announced Thursday that sixth year coach Mark Gottfried will be fired at the conclusion of this season.

Gottfried got fried…..get it?

It will be interesting to see how the players respond to this announcement. Rumors of Gottfried’s firing have been swirling since the beginning of the season, so will the official news add to the burden of a team already mired in a poor season, or will it give them life and a will to fight for their coach?

The answer to that question will be obvious in the first few minutes of Saturday’s contest. If the Irish struggle out of the gate like they did at Boston College, that could provided a much-needed spark for the Wolfpack desperately in search of one. However, if the Irish come out hot, they could dissuade any fight from N.C. State with a substantial early lead.

The N.C. State job is one of the most unique in college basketball, and not necessarily in a good way. They have a rampant, dedicated fanbase, which, for a coach, is an asset when winning, but brutal when losing.

The expectations from the fanbase and administration are hard to reach. The tremendous financial backing of the program increases the stakes and makes winning, and winning big, a necessity.

Herb Sendek was fired after reaching five straight NCAA Tournaments. From there, they hired former Wolfpack great Sydney Lowe, who’s tenure was mostly disappointing.

Before hiring Gottfried, they offered big money to Shaka Smart and Gregg Marshall. Both turned them down and instead, they hired Gottfried, who has been an ESPN analyst for two years after being fired by Alabama.

Having to go that far down the wishlist was a humbling reality check for anyone associated with the program.

N.C. State’s position in basketball is unique because they have two of the most storied programs in college basketball down the road, which makes their lack of success even harder to take from a fan’s and administration’s perspective.

Another factor is the shadow of Jim Valvano still looms large in Raleigh. He had so much success and was such a popular figure that it was, and still is, impossible for any coach to properly fill his shoes.

Most N.C. State fans sill live in the past (ND fans wouldn’t know anything about that, right?) and believe the Wolfpack should be competing with the Dukes and North Carolinas year in and year out. Coming into that type of mentality surrounding the program is tough ask for any coach.

Now, to Saturday’s matchup.

Saturday will be the 11th all-time matchup between Notre Dame and N.C. State. The Irish lead the series 6-4 and hold a 2-1 advantage as ACC foes.

All three matchups in the ACC have been significant for the Irish.

Their first matchup in the ACC was Notre Dame’s second game in the conference. The Irish had just defeated Duke to kickoff their ACC campaign and hoped to ride that momentum at home against the Wolfpack just a few days later.

N.C. State quelled any thoughts of ND starting off the conference season 2-0 as the Wolfpack beat the Irish 77-70 in a game that was not as close as the score would indicate. That game was a sign of things to come as the Irish faltered throughout the 2014 ACC schedule and were unable to overcome the loss of Jerian Grant earlier in the season.

The second contest ocurred in January 2015. The Irish came into PNC Arena No. 8 in the country, but the Wolfpack came out of the gates hot and built a 16-point first half lead.

This game manifested the essence of what made that ND team great. When full, PNC arena is one of the hardest places to play in the country and that night the atmosphere was as rabid as ever.

Led by Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, the Irish slowly chipped away at the lead before V.J. Beachem had a last-second tip-in to force overtime. In overtime, the Irish took a few more punches, but Notre Dame’s senior leadership continued to shine as the Irish muscled out a 81-78 victory.

The latest matchup between the Irish and Wolfpack came in last year’s regular season. The Irish were mired in an offensive slump and in the practices leading up to the game, Mike Brey had decided to operate with a 20 second shot clock in the hopes that that would inject some life into the anemic Irish offense.

The tactic worked as the Irish finally found the offensive rhythm that had been absent for most of the second-half of the ACC schedule and defeated the Wolfpack 89-75.

Last year’s contest provided the jumpstart the Irish needed in order to reach their second consecutive Elite Eight.

As mentioned above, tomorrow’s game is predicated on Notre Dame not allowing N.C. State to get any life in the first ten minutes of the game.

The Wolfpack come into Saturday with a 14-13 record and a 3-11 mark in the ACC. N.C. State has lost six in a row and fell to North Carolina 97-73 in their last game.

Don’t let the record and the turmoil surrounding the program fool you, N.C. State has one of the most talented rosters in the ACC and they are led by freshman Dennis Smith Jr. who leads the team with 19 ppg and 6.7 apg.

The Wolfpack demonstrated their firepower earlier in the season as they downed Virginia Tech by 26 and defeated Duke in Cameron.

Smith Jr. is one of the most dynamic players in the ACC, but he is also a volume shooter, which hurts the Wolfpack’s offensive flow – the ball tends to stop moving when its in his hands.

Abdul-Malik Abu (who is somehow only a junior) is a force for the Wolfpack on the interior, while Maverick Rowan (incredible name) is one of the best three-point shooters in the ACC.

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of this N.C. State team makes this a tough game to handicap. If the Wolfpack start out strong, ND will be in for a 40 minute fight, but if the Irish give N.C. State a reason to hand their heads and quit, they will.

Going forward, the analysis of ND’s attack is pretty simple: the big four have to play well and whomever is the fifth stater turns out to be, don’t screw it up.

With Farrell running the show Bonzie playing as well as anyone in the country, the Irish can compete with anybody, but winning on the road, especially in a hostile environment, requires as much mental toughness as it does skill.

I am beating a dead horse, but in games like this, the Irish do not have to reinvent the wheel, they just have to do the little things well – limit turnovers, make free throws, stay out of foul trouble.

Beachem is quietly finding his shooting groove and hopefully his eight rebounds against BC is a sign of things to come. While Vasturia continues to struggle with his shot (he is eight for his last 39 behind the arc), he continues to find ways to contribute via defensive effort and getting to the free throw line.

The Irish got their letdown game out of the way at Boston College. Expect the Irish to come out focused and ready to avenge Tuesday’s poor performance, albeit in a win.

After Saturday’s contest, the Irish will receive a much-needed eight day respite before facing Georgia Tech at home Feb. 26. If the Irish can get a win Saturday, they can sit back and watch as the teams ahead of them in the ACC standings knock each other off.

N.C. State in no pushover and PNC Arena is a tough place to play, but if the Irish want that double-bye and fancy themselves a highly-seeded NCAA Tournament team, they will find a way to escape Raleigh with a win.

P.S.

This is the greatest thing I have ever seen…

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