What a difference a healthy roster makes.

That has to be the thinking inside the Dail Basketball Complex at N.C. State, where Kevin Keatts has gone from hot seat to hottest team in the Triangle in the span of 1 great month.

Just a season ago, preseason All-ACC big Manny Bates went down in the 1st minute of a star-crossed campaign that saw N.C. State go from preseason NCAA Tournament team to an 11-21 nightmare. Last Saturday, at a sold-out PNC Arena, the Wolfpack edged then-No. 16 Miami, 83-81, securing the team’s 3rd consecutive win and 6th victory in the team’s past 7 contests.

The Wolfpack, who won at Georgia Tech on Tuesday night for their 4th straight victory, have a huge test this Saturday at the Dean Dome. But for now, it’s safe to kick off another ACC basketball notebook by suggesting that …

N.C. State is legit!!

The Wolfpack rank inside the top 50 in KenPom in both Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (41st) and Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (48th). Here’s the list of the ACC teams with that distinction as of Tuesday: Virginia and N.C. State. That’s the list!

The Wolfpack (15-4, 5-3 ACC) have a bona fide star in Terquavion Smith, who is grading out as the 3rd-best player in the ACC, per KenPom, and while he’s still a poor shooter despite high volume (just 38% from the field), it’s the other stuff Smith has done this season to elevate his game that has made a huge difference.

Smith’s assists are up by 3 helpers per game on the season (from 2.1 to 4.7), and he’s still good for 4 rebounds a night. He’s also averaging 2 steals per game, a 0.7 jump from last season and a testament to his improved on-ball, point-per-possession defense, which grades out as “good” this season after a “below average” grade last season, per Hoops Lens. Stars that contribute in other ways beyond scoring tend to lead good teams, and Smith fits the bill.

The Wolfpack are better around Smith, of course, especially shooting the ball. Casey Morsell is 1 of 3 Wolfpack players averaging in double figures in scoring, and he’s threatening to join the prestigious 50-40-90 club (FG%-3P%-FT%), which would make him the 1st — yes, the 1st — N.C. State player to join that elite fraternity. He’s another guy, however, who hasn’t just made his mark offensively, as this huge block in N.C. State’s win at Virginia Tech demonstrated.

Finally, the Wolfpack are getting big-time contributions from frontcourt role players. Winthrop transfer D.J. Burns Jr., an All-Big South performer a season ago, is averaging just 20 minutes a night, but he’s making the most of the floor time Keatts gives him. At 9.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and a block per game, one wonders why he isn’t playing even more? And Keatts hinted that maybe that is a change that’s happening in the recent win over Miami, when Burns logged a season-high 34 minutes and outplayed Miami’s frontcourt transfer star Norchad Omier with a monstrous 13-point, 9-rebound, 7-assist stat line. Burns Jr. was so good in the win over the Hurricanes that the N.C. State crowd chanted his name.

And he wasn’t even the best of N.C. State’s bigs in last Saturday’s victory. That was Ernest Ross, the seldom-used bench player who had a career night. Ross did it all, shooting 8 of 10 from the field, cleaning up on the glass with 9 boards and adding a steal.

If Keatts’ frontcourt plays consistently, this team can beat most anyone, including North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Saturday evening.

Is a leaky defense Miami’s fatal flaw?

N.C. State’s win was the story of Saturday in the ACC, but let’s not forget the team that lost and why even a 2-point defeat in overtime on the road is a bit of a concern for Jim Larrañaga’s crew.

The Hurricanes can’t guard. It’s time to just come out and say it. Miami gave up a big 1.12 points per possession to N.C. State and the Canes have slipped to 142nd overall in KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. A bright side could be that Miami ranks 7th in defensive efficiency since the beginning of ACC play, per Bart Torvik, but that ranking was 5th a week ago.

The Canes were supposed to be a dramatically improved defensive team by adding Norchad Omier, a truly elite frontcourt defender and the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year in 2021-22, to this roster. When Omier makes big-time plays, like the one he made Monday night to save the Hurricanes against Syracuse, Miami can survive.

The bigger issue is that Omier hasn’t really “lifted all boats” simply by being on the floor. Larrañaga is committed to man defense. The Canes have not played a single possession of zone defense this season, per Synergy. But maybe he shouldn’t be? Only Isaiah Wong, Bensley Joseph and Omier grade out as plus-defenders, according to Hoops Lens.

Is that enough to fuel another deep run in March? It helps to have more guards than Everglades Correctional (shout out to Jon Rothstein for hijacking my line, repurposing it and claiming it as an original with his “more guards than Shawshank” line). But at some point, you need stops to win big games.

Perhaps Monday night’s late stop to beat Syracuse will be a start.

Bracketology Watch

It’s officially the middle of the season, so it’s time to take a quick look at where Bracketologists have slated various ACC teams. While Joe Lunardi’s bracket tends to be the most referenced, Joey Brackets is far from the most accurate, ranking in just the middle of the bracketologist pack, according to Bracket Matrix, a great website/resource that tracks such things.

Bracket Matrix is great because it collects every bracketologist on the internet and averages the seeding given to each program to give us a strong bird’s-eye view of the field. It also updates daily.

Using Bracket Matrix and the latest bracket projection from Lukas Harkins, a top-10 prognosticator who runs Heat Check CBB, here’s a look at where the ACC stands:

Currently safe (1-6 seeds): Virginia, Miami, Duke, N.C. State

The Skinny

The Cavaliers are the highest seeded of the ACC’s teams, per Bracket Matrix, and Harkins has Tony Bennett’s group as a 4 seed in the East taking on Rick Pitino’s Iona team in Round 1. The lone ACC team ranked in the top 30 in both KenPom offense and defense, the Hoos would like to get onto the 3 line by the next projection.

Harkins has Miami as a 4 seed, as well, with a South Regional date with Oral Roberts, the darling of the 2020-21 Big Dance, in Round 1. That would be a heck of a guard showdown.

Duke is a fascinating case study. The Blue Devils remain in the top 25 in the NET, but they don’t look like a team that should feel terribly safe about its place in the field of late. Harkins has Jon Scheyer’s team playing Dayton in Round 1 in the Midwest Regional, and if that was the bracket tomorrow it would be hard not to circle Anthony Grant’s team in the classic 5-12 upset. Still, the Dookies have 3 Quad 1 wins, which is 2 more, for example, than Tennessee, a universally beloved team.

Finally, N.C. State is receiving the respect it is due and is up to a 6 seed in Bracket Matrix. Harkins doesn’t have the Pack that high. He has the Wolfpack as an 8 seed playing Illinois in the West Regional, but like other bracketologists Harkins has taken the Wolfpack out of the bubble conversation entirely. This team is safe as long as it avoids losses it shouldn’t take moving forward.

Should be in (7-9 seeds): North Carolina, Clemson

The Skinny

The preseason national champions aren’t on the bubble, per se, but they are teetering around the conversation. A 1-6 record in Quad 1 games doesn’t help but, then again, that’s 1 more Quad 1 win than the Tar Heels had by mid-January last season. Harkins has a more favorable view of UNC, seeding the Heels 6th (as opposed to Bracket Matrix’s 8th). In the Heat Check bracket, the Tar Heels would face 11 seed Iowa in Round 1. Defense outside of Leaky Black and Armando Bacot? Optional.

A curious team for the committee will be Clemson. There’s nothing — good, at least — on the nonconference profile. There are 2 bad losses — a dire L to South Carolina and a lopsided L to a middling Atlantic 10 Loyola-Chicago team. Harkins has the Tigers as a 10 seed in the South, playing Wisconsin in Round 1. But the Tigers’ win over Duke likely elevates their seed, in our view. The Bracket Matrix aggregate seed is a 9 at present.

On the bubble (10, 11, or First or Next 4 Out): Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest

The Skinny

Only Pittsburgh is in the field safely among this group, per Bracket Matrix. The average seed for the Panthers across all brackets is an 11 seed — in the field. Harkins has Pitt as his “last team in,” and the Panthers would play Memphis in the First Four in his bracket. The winner would get Auburn.

As for the Hokies and Demon Deacons, Bracket Matrix indicates that Virginia Tech ends up selected for the field in 12 brackets, while the Demon Deacons only are picked in 6. As I’ve written repeatedly at Saturday Road, this seems harsh to Wake Forest, which has a tremendous road victory against Wisconsin and a win over Duke on its profile (and now has Tuesday night’s win over Clemson).

But I am in the minority, apparently, and Harkins does not even include Wake Forest in his first or next 4 out. He also omits Virginia Tech, though Mike Young’s team, despite its 1-5 ACC start, remains “in” the field in 12 brackets, and so, somehow, the Hokies appear better situated at present than Wake Forest to shake out of their slump and make the field.

Every other ACC team, including Syracuse, which missed a golden opportunity on Monday night at Miami, is “out” in every bracket projection — at least for now.