RALEIGH, N.C. — It’s a whole new year for Mark Gottfried and N.C. State basketball. And maybe that isn’t the worst thing.
Nearly 80 percent of N.C. State’s scoring from last year is gone. Five freshmen, an LSU transfer who sat out last season and junior college addition will join forces with N.C. State’s returning players — redshirt senior Jordan Vandenberg and sophomores T.J. Warren and Tyler Lewis.
Warren started quite a bit last year and averaged 27 minutes. But Lewis (12.4) and Vandenberg (5.4) are hardly seasoned veterans. While the incoming freshman class is talented, there’s no telling how they’ll adjust to the ACC.
But there is a certain freedom that comes from a lack of expectations, and certainly Gottfried and his staff is relishing the challenge.
“It’s kind of a blank slate as far as we’ve got these new guys that we’re excited about. We’re not real sure who can do what yet,” Gottfried said. “Kind of molding all that together and developing that, it’ll be fun. It’s going to be hard, but it’ll be fun from a coaching standpoint. I understand we’re going to have a long ways to go to be competitive, but we’re excited about that.”
Gottfried compared this year’s squad to the team he had at his second year at Alabama. The senior class he had inherited graduated, and he had a team with a bunch of freshmen. He said that team could beat Kentucky one night and lose to Ole Miss the next, but two years later, that core of freshmen turned into a team that won the SEC outright.
The waiting part can be tough, but it’s a reality. And Gottfried understands that better than anyone. Looking at this roster, he knows that his team will likely be picked to finish near the bottom of the league. He said that N.C. State fans seem to understand that, too.
“I’ve got Joe Guy in the grocery store kind of says, ‘Hang in there, Coach. I know it’s going to be a long year for you.’ I hear it everywhere I go. But maybe we’re a team that can surprise some people,” Gottfried said.
And it’s completely different from last year, when he had four returning starters and a lot of preseason expectations to deal with.
Last year’s team was coming off of a surprise Sweet 16 run and returned most of its players, with a few talented new additions. There was a lot of preseason hype surrounding the Wolfpack, which led many to call a team that finished 24-11 the most disappointing team in the country.
The season finished somewhat like it started — in a first-round NCAA tournament loss to ninth-seeded Temple. N.C. State was down by as many as 17 to a team it arguably should be beating, then clawed its way back into the game — but it just wasn’t quite enough.
Gottfried still replays that game, and other moments from last season, in his mind. He thinks about how his freshmen had a hard time blending in initially, particularly Rodney Purvis, who has since transferred to UConn. He thinks about Lorenzo Brown’s injury midway through the ACC season, which arguably cost the Wolfpack a few close games. He thinks about how the team could have been better defensively, but wasn’t.
“I look back, nobody’s harder on themselves than I am on me. Nobody can criticize me more than I criticize myself. Nobody can. I’m always trying to figure out what could I have done differently or better to make that team a team that could make a deep run in the tournament,” Gottfried said.
“I think what we do as coaches — my whole staff, me — is we’re as frank and as honest as we possibly can with ourselves. I’ve got to look in the mirror every day — how can I be better? What can I do better? … I want to be a better coach this year than I was last year. I want to be better than the year before. I want our staff to be better. That’s the challenge that we have, and I have.”
And he has a completely unique challenge. Warren averaged 12.1 points a game as a freshman, but he was the fifth option on a team of proven veterans. Teams are going to be keying on him next year. And Vandenberg’s weight has is at the point where Gottfried said if his seven-footer didn’t weigh 250 or less come the start of the season, he’d no longer be with the team.
“At the end of the season this year, I put (Vandenberg) on the scales at 286, which was just entirely too heavy. He’s about 262 right now and if he’s not at 250 when we start practice, he won’t have a locker and he won’t be here,” Gottfried said. “So he’s got some work to do because we need him to be good. He has to step forward as a fifth-year senior and get serious about improving and be ready to contribute. So he’s on his way.”
In some ways, they’re almost as much unknown commodities as the incoming freshmen, who have issues of their own to resolve in addition to learning the game at this level. Beejay Anya, a 6-9 center, was one of the best players in this year’s class but is listed at 275 and needs to lose weight. Cat Barber was one of the best point guards in the country, but will he be ready to run the team, or will that be Lewis?
Regardless, this team is going to grow and change as the year goes along, and it will have to start now. With the second session of summer school beginning on Monday, all of N.C. State’s roster is on campus and ready to work.
It’s not just Gottfried at the grocery store that’s heard about the low expectations surrounding this team. His players have heard it, too.
“I think our guys understand that most people are going to consider us to be pretty bad this year,” Gottfried said. “They hear it. But I think we’ve got a pretty confident group of guys, too. Even though they’re young and somewhat naive, I believe they are confident.”