No. 6 NC State starts year as ACC favorite

North Carolina State went from rebuilding to Atlantic Coast

Conference favorite so fast that coach Mark Gottfried is already

having to manage expectations in his second year.

It could be the biggest challenge for the sixth-ranked Wolfpack

in a potential-filled year.

”That’s the one thing I tell our guys that we can control: we

can control how driven we are every day,” Gottfried said. ”It’s

easy to talk about it, it’s a little bit harder to do it at

practice. I can’t control a lot of things nor can our guys, but we

do have the ability to control that, so that’s what we’re trying to

do each day.”

It’s been a stunningly fast rise for N.C. State, which hadn’t

been to the NCAA tournament since 2006 before Gottfried’s arrival

last season. The Wolfpack (24-13) had a late-season surge and took

eventual finalist Kansas to the final seconds in loss in the NCAA

round of 16, ending the program’s winningest season in 24

years.

Now Gottfried has four returning starters to go with a

recruiting class of three McDonald’s All-Americans, making the

Wolfpack the preseason ACC favorite for the first time since the

1974-75 season. N.C. State’s No. 6 ranking is the program’s highest

since reaching sixth in December 1983.

It’s easy to see why expectations are soaring amid a rabid fan

base hungry to challenge heavyweights Duke and North Carolina for

control of the league despite the fact the program hasn’t finished

in the top three in the ACC since 2004.

”I’ll go around town and people will say to me, `Wow, coach,

what a great year last year,”’ Gottfried said. ”And the truth of

the matter is, it wasn’t a great year. It was a great finish. We

had a really fun finish. And it was exceptional for our group. But

our year wasn’t great. We were just OK. So we have to be a lot

better than we were, not just at home, but start to finish.”

Then again, this is also the same coach who announced during a

public scrimmage this month that the program’s goal is to ”play on

Monday night in April.”

”I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot and say, `We’re going

to go out there and do this,”’ senior forward Richard Howell said.

”I just feel like we have the right pieces to reach whatever goals

we feel that we need to. … I feel like we definitely have enough

to finish stronger than we did last year.”

Everything starts with juniors C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo

Brown.

Leslie, a 6-foot-9 forward, made huge gains with his

ballhandling and shot selection last year to average about 15

points and seven rebounds. He decided to return to school instead

of entering the NBA draft and was the ACC preseason player of the

year.

Brown thrived in his first year at the point, averaging 13

points, five rebounds and six assists.

Howell (11 points) gives the Wolfpack some toughness and

rebounding, while senior Scott Wood (12 points) is a career

40-percent 3-point shooter.

That experienced group will likely ease the burden on the

incoming freshmen, who are led by hometown star Rodney Purvis – the

preseason pick for ACC rookie of the year.

Wolfpack fans were so excited about the guard’s decision to play

for Gottfried that they made a habit of attending his high school

games at Raleigh Upper Room, where he went on to become The

Associated Press men’s prep basketball player of the year in the

state.

Forward T.J. Warren and guard Tyler Lewis round out the

recruiting class, giving the Wolfpack plenty of depth along the

perimeter.

While 7-foot reserve Jordan Vandenberg is back from a shoulder

injury that cost him most of last year, N.C. State is thin up front

behind Leslie and Howell – who battled foul trouble in several key

games last year. N.C. State lost DeShawn Painter to Old Dominion

via transfer for family reasons, robbing the Wolfpack of a reliable

post defender and rebounder.

The losses of veterans C.J. Williams and Alex Johnson also means

the Wolfpack must replace oncourt leadership – something that will

be critical for a team that isn’t used to wearing a bullseye on its

back.

Until then, at least, Gottfried won’t let his players get

overwhelmed by it all.

”He tells us all the time: `How do we deal with this?”’ Leslie

said. ”We practice hard. We ignore (outside expectations) and we

do all those things that great teams do to be great. … We’ve got

to listen and we’ve got to be focused and jump on it from the

start.”

AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary contributed to this report.