RALEIGH — Unfortunately for Kevin Keatts, the celebration for Braxton Beverly’s game-winning shot on Saturday couldn’t last too long.
After watching the replay of the long three-pointer that Beverly nailed to beat Clemson, Keatts made the mistake of glancing down at N.C. State’s schedule, which had somehow found its way onto his desk this morning.
“I shook my head, I was like, ‘Man, what in the world is going on,’” he said. “It’s ACC; it’s a brutal stretch that we’ve got coming, but we play in the best conference in college basketball and that’s what happens when you play in this conference.”
The first order of business for the 23rd-ranked Wolfpack will be attempting to solve No. 2 Virginia when the Cavaliers visit PNC Arena on Tuesday night to begin the three-game, seven-day stretch that includes a visit from No. 12 Virginia Tech and a trip to Chapel Hill to meet No. 9 North Carolina.
As always, any discussion of Virginia begins with a focus on tempo, where the Cavaliers rank 353rd out of 353 teams, averaging 60.2 possessions, while State has pushed the pace even harder in its second season under Keatts, ranking 13th nationally at 73.7 possessions.
Opponents have tried for years to solve Tony Bennett’s formula and find a way to force Virginia to play faster with little success, having only allowed two teams to top the 70-point mark this season — the only opponents to do so in the past two regular seasons — while allowing an average of 52.6 points.
Last season, the Wolfpack visited Charlottesville early in the ACC schedule and quickly learned what can happen when you try to compete with the Cavaliers at their own game, scoring six points in the first 11 minutes of what wasn’t nearly as close as the 68-51 final score indicated.
“They put that that pressure on people, they kind of get in their head and take people out of their game,” Beverly said. “They start doubting themselves and thinking, ‘Oh, it’s Virginia and I can’t hit this shot or hit that shot.’
In reviewing “seven or eight” games of Virginia’s tapes, Keatts says Virginia is even better this season that the team that rolled through the ACC with a 17-1 record last year before its stunning loss to UMBC in the NCAA Tournament.
Two years ago, it was Keatts who nearly engineered an NCAA Tournament upset of Virginia when his UNC Wilmington team hit six 3-pointers to help open a 15-point first-half lead before the Cavaliers adjusted their lineup to keep up, putting former guard Marial Shayok into the center position to limit some of the Seahawks' spacing.
Largely, that’s proven to be the best strategy against the Cavaliers, whose Pack Line Defense limits dribble penetration better than anyone in the nation while double-teaming any player who catches the ball in the paint and shutting down baseline drives.
Both Keatts current team and his former have the big similarity in that they generally rely on four guards around one athletic big man, using the same frenetic, pressing style to create open looks and capitalizing on transition 3-point attempts. At the moment though, he’s not sure how far the similarities go, despite the Wolfpack currently ranking 26th nationally at 38.4 percent.
“My Wilmington team was much smaller, quicker and probably shot the ball a little bit better than the team I have now,” he said. “It was a different team and it’ll probably have to be a different strategy.”
Ultimately, it’ll be up to the Wolfpack to stay the course during the types of long scoring droughts that Virginia can force, learning from how the game got away in just a matter of minutes last week in Charlottesville.
Virginia is going to be Virginia, and its proven that time and again. Whether State can compete comes down to whether State commits to being State.
“It’s going to be a tough, challenging game, but we’ve got to stay true to who we are,” Beverly said. “They’re not going to be different — they’re going to do what Virginia does — we’ve just got to do what N.C. State does: pressure the ball and make it a fast-paced game the best we can and go have fun.”