RALEIGH, N.C. — N.C. State started last season ranked in the top-10 in the preseason and a consensus pick to win the ACC. Neither of those things happened and the Wolfpack ended up exiting the NCAA Tournament a round earlier than in 2012 when Mark Gottfried’s program went to the Sweet 16 with nearly the same roster.
But the base of those two teams — both the pleasantly surprising 2012 Wolfpack and the up-and-down 2013 team — is gone.
The 2013-14 Wolfpack will be starting over again, returning just 21.8 percent of last year’s minutes, 21.1 percent of the scoring and 16.3 percent of the rebounds.
Through a mix of transfers, freshmen and veterans that all need to prove themselves, N.C. State will try to get to a third straight NCAA Tournament under Gottfried. Oh, and it will somehow replace the production of those departed players with six freshmen, a junior college transfer, two D-I transfers and four walk-ons.
“Try to make a highlight film of the returning players, it’s three guys. You’ve only got three guys on the tape,” Gottfried said. “Our team is way different, but I think that’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s a challenge for our guys and for us, so we like it.”
There are a lot of question marks surrounding the team, like how will T.J. Warren (last year’s fourth-leading scorer and ACC All-Freshmen Team member) do as the No. 1 option? What will the Wolfpack’s backcourt look like with two point guards (sophomore Tyler Lewis and freshman Anthony “Cat” Barber).
And those are just the minor questions, really. Warren showed what he can do, averaging 12.1 points (albeit in a supporting role), and so did Lewis. He started two games against Duke and Clemson when point guard Lorenzo Brown was out with injury, and was the primary point in at least part of four games. In that span, he averaged 9.5 points and had 13 assists to two turnovers.
Those two are probably the least of N.C. State’s worries. There’s already talk about Warren, a perimeter-oriented forward, alternating between the three and the four. And that’s in spite of having four other forwards or centers on the roster that could conceivably see time.
It’s unclear who among that group — senior Jordan Vandenberg and freshmen Lennard Freeman, Kyle Washington and BeeJay Anya — will be the ones N.C. State will count on, and the Wolfpack will probably need all three. They’re all at least willing to work, and two of them have been transforming themselves physically all off-season.
The 7-foot-1 Vandenberg was told by his head coach that he needed to get down to 250 pounds, or he wouldn’t have a locker.
So he did. He’s down from 286 to 248.
“I feel like he’s in the best position since I’ve been here, in my third year, for him to have success,” Gottfried said. “He’s got himself into the best possible shape that he can be in. … One thing Jordan can do is run. We’ve got to utilize his ability as a 7-foot guy to run the floor. He couldn’t do it at 285 pounds. He can now. So, he’s got himself in a position, he’s recognized it. C.J. and Richard have left, golden opportunity, somebody’s got to play.
“I believe that he can have a good year and help us win. I’m excited about his opportunity this year.”
Young teammates are already looking up to Vandenberg, who has found himself newly motivated and ready to attack this season.
“A lot of people are sleeping on Jordan just because of his track record here, but he’s going to have a great opportunity to do big things,” Washington said. “He’s an athletic big. He’s like 7-1, but he can run up and down the floor just like me. He can jump. He’s going to have a great chance to do some big things. … I’m staying in his ear and I’m just like, ‘Just keep on working hard, keep on doing that hook’ because people need 7-1 people.”
Anya’s weight-loss journey has been just a little tougher.
Gottfried told reporters on Monday that when he watched Anya as a junior in high school, he was amazed at how well the then-270-pounder moved. Then he came to Raleigh weighing 336 pounds. Gottfried set him up with the trainer and a full-time nutritionist, and he somehow gained 11 pounds, up to 247.
“He’s put himself behind the eight-ball. He’s starting off in the hole and he’s got to find his way and climb out of the hole,” Gottfried said. “I think he’s becoming more diligent now about it. But when you’re talking about trying to get 60-70 pounds off somebody, that’s not something that happens in a month or two. That’s a process that’ll take some time.
“Maybe this year he can get to 300. We’ll see. But he’s got a ways to go. He’s got a ways to go to be an effective player.”
Anya has been working hard since hitting that 347-pound defensive-tackle-esque plateau, trying to do cardio at every opportunity and doing a better job of watching what he eats.
“My jersey’s getting a little looser already since I first put it on,” Anya said. “I’m getting up and down the court a lot better than I did when I first got here. I’m trying to contribute more and last longer on the court. I’m trying to produce more on the court.”
Washington in particular and Freeman were two of the players Gottfried praised the most, Washington because of his positive attitude and Freeman because of his rebounding. Clearly, though, N.C. State will need all four to produce, and when it comes to the freshmen, Gottfried doesn’t know what he’ll get from day to day, much less what will happen in a game.
“Typical for young people — what’s happened most of the time is they have a good day, they can have a not-so-good day and then the next day, a different one has a good day and they kind of trade off on who’s doing well at different times,” Gottfried said. “But we are excited about all three of them, we really are, and their potential. Now the question for us is going to be how quickly can those guys become contributors in a role that there’s a lot to ask for them? Collectively, they’ll probably do it together. It may not be one guy.”
Unknowns lead to lower expectations — from outsiders, anyway. Or, at least, lower expectations than they had going into the 2012-13 season.
And to a degree, for the players, it’s a relief not to have to deal with that.
“I think we had a bull’s eye on our back and everybody wanted to come out and get us (last year),” Lewis said. “This year, we’re going to be going out getting all the teams that have a bullseye on their back.
“To be honest with you, expectations — it’s hard to live up to it. So I’d much rather be this team easily and be able to surprise a lot of people than be last year’s team. Not at all did we have a bad year last year, but it just looked bad coming from preseason 6 to losing in the first round.”