With core players back and a strong freshman class, NC State could make a move for the top of the ACC.
By ANDREW JONESFS Carolinas
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State wants to wake up the echoes of its basketball program much like a certain Midwestern football power croons about on the gridiron.
Wolfpack’s basketball history doesn’t rival Notre Dame’s football tradition, but it’s pretty darn good. But it’s also been forgotten about outside of Tobacco Road for the most part.
But could this be the season the ghosts of Bobby Speight, Vic Molodet, David Thompson and Thurl Bailey awaken? Such a prospect hasn’t been very realistic around here in some time, which is why second-year head coach Mark Gottfried is trying to temper expectations.
Good luck. The reality is the media that covers ACC basketball, some of whom were on the scene when NC State won national championships in 1974 and 1983, likely are going to tab the Wolfpack as the ACC favorite next week in Charlotte when the conference holds its annual media day.
Not North Carolina. Not Duke. NC State.
Gottfried says it doesn’t matter.
“It’s no different than last year,” said the former Alabama player and coach, whose team is ranked in the top 10 in seemingly every preseason poll published thus far. “We were picked near the bottom (of the ACC), and that’s not something we paid attention to last year, and it’s not something we’re going to pay attention to this year. Regardless of where you’re picked, the only thing that counts is how hard you work each day and how well you do your job each day.
“Now, can our players truly grasp that? We’ll find out.”
A year ago, Gottfried inherited a program that underachieved in the five years of the Sidney Lowe era — and really, NC State basketball had underachieved in the 21 years since Jim Valvano stepped down following the 1990 campaign.
It had just six NCAA victories in six NCAA Tournament appearances post-Valvano, which followed a 1980s decade in which the program reached four Sweet 16s and three regional finals. NC State had two national championships before Mike Krzyzewski and Duke had one. And the Wolfpack were featured on national television almost as much as rival North Carolina that decade.
Plenty of hard times and two-plus decades of lessons later, Gottfried has NC State back to where many in these parts believe it belongs, right there with the Tar Heels and Blue Devils in the hunt for the highly coveted ACC championship. But unlike other times in recent years where some Wolfpack players predicted (more like hoped) the Pack was back, this team has the goods to meet just about any expectation.
There is experience with two seniors (Richard Howell and three-year starter Scott Wood) and two juniors (Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie) and a fourth-year junior in 7-foot-1 Australian Jordan Vandenberg.
Howell, Wood, Brown and Leslie will start, and could each lead the ACC in various statistical areas: Howell in rebounding (9.2 average last season), Wood in 3-point shooting (41 percent last season), Brown in assists (6.3 per game last season), and Leslie in scoring (a 14.7 ppg scorer in 2011-12).
Then add a freshman class that was ranked No. 5 by FOX Sports Next and the Wolfpack have plenty of talent in their rotation that could extend to nine and maybe even 10 players. The freshmen, though, could be difference makers.
“They are really talented and are smart, too,” Wood said. “They came ready to play, they are college ready, I’d say.”
Small forward T.J. Warren, wing guard Rodney Purvis and point guard Tyler Lewis were each rated among the seven best players in the nation at their positions with Purvis earning five stars. Warren and Lewis were four-star players.
NC State went 24-13 overall and advanced to the Sweet 16 last season. While the team was quite inconsistent throughout the campaign, much of which had Gottfried focused on getting Leslie on the same page as the rest of the club, it didn’t really find itself until late in the season.
The main cogs are back, Leslie has learned a ton, Brown is healthy, Howell is in even better shape, Wood embodies cool confidence, and if the newcomers are plug-and-play ready, the Wolfpack just may have those hated Blue Devils and even more despised Tar Heels in the rear view mirror for a change.