Since they were picked in the preseason to finish fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the North Carolina State Wolfpack is not exactly sneaking up on people. But, with a firm grip on second place in the league standings and six regular-season games remaining, the 21st-ranked Wolfpack might be the league's biggest surprise.
The believers are everywhere in the ACC, now that N.C. State (15-5, 8-2) has claimed enough victims with its potent mix of deliberate, slow-motion offense, outstanding free-throw shooting and multidimensional performers, led by league Player of the Year candidate Julius Hodge.
"They play their style, and they're really good at what they do," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose Terps lost at home to the Wolfpack on Feb. 1, marking Maryland's first loss to N.C. State in College Park since 1989.
The Wolfpack is rolling toward an NCAA tournament berth with the best-looking team in the eight-year reign of coach Herb Sendek, despite losing junior forward Josh Powell. He shocked observers last spring by deciding to leave early for the NBA, where he landed in Dallas as an undrafted free agent before getting waived. N.C. State keeps raising eyebrows.
The Wolfpack erased an 18-point deficit to beat Wake Forest last week. It beat Georgia Tech three weeks ago, despite getting just two points from Hodge. It is the only ACC team to beat Florida State in Tallahassee. It is the only conference team besides Duke that has yet to lose at home.
"I think we've played some good basketball, but the next game gets here pretty quickly," Sendek said. "We have a lot ahead of us. We've got to stay true to ourselves."
When N.C. State is true to itself, it can drive opponents crazy. The Wolfpack runs its offense by milking the shot clock, spreading the court, setting endless screens, looking primarily for backdoor layups or open shots on the perimeter, and asking players to do a variety of things. N.C. State doesn't rebound especially well or play bruising defense, but it controls tempo with Duke-like efficiency.
Hodge, who leads the team in scoring (18.3 ppg), assists (4.2) and steals (1.4) and is second in rebounding (6.4), is as smooth bringing the ball upcourt as he is posting up opponents, taking them off the dribble from up top or shooting threes. He torched Maryland for 28 points without taking a single shot from beyond the arc.
Senior forward Marcus Melvin shoots 36.4 percent from three-point range, handles the ball well and leads the team with 7.9 rebounds a game. Senior guard Scooter Sherrill and freshman guard Engin Astur bring instant offense. Sophomore forward Ilian Evtimov has come back from a knee injury to provide an excellent floor game. He averages 3.1 assists.
And this team can put teams away at the foul line, where N.C. State is shooting 79.7 percent, which leads the league and the nation. The Wolfpack barely averages 19 attempts per game, the fewest in the ACC. But it is making 15.3 attempts per game.
"They create mismatches with their ability to put different players on the perimeter. They have good players who play more than one position," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. "They're a smart team that makes great decisions. They seem to be playing in sync with a spirit of oneness."
Tar Heels falling
If you think Maryland has had problems with consistency, consider the plight of the No. 14 North Carolina Tar Heels, who are in a sixth-place tie with Florida State in the ACC standings and have only three home games left.
Other than sophomore guard/forward Rashad McCants, the league's leading scorer, Carolina (14-7, 4-6) doesn't know where its offense is coming from on most nights.
Defensively, the Tar Heels are a mess. They are allowing 76.8 points per game and 45.1 percent field-goal shooting, last in the ACC on both counts. They recently gave up 81 points in a losing effort at Clemson, which regularly struggles to reach the 60s.
"The defensive end of the floor is about determination and discipline. We can be so good and so really ugly. We're consistently inconsistent," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. "My patience level is the same, but if patience means accepting poor play, then I hope I'm never patient."
After an 11-0 start that had them ranked as high as No. 3, the No. 20 Wake Forest Demon Deacons are in a funk. They have gone 3-6 since, dropped all four of their games against ranked opponents, lost twice at home, and are only 1-4 against Top 25 teams. ... With three road games left and a home game against No. 1 Duke looming, Florida State (16-8, 4-6) needs to break a bad habit to avoid falling out of the middle of the pack and out of favor with the NCAA tournament selection committee. The Seminoles have lost 21 consecutive ACC road games.