Despite win, No. 16 NC State still needs a leader

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State needs leadership. Richard Howell said so.

And he’s right. The Wolfpack has all of the tools in the shed to develop into an outstanding team that sticks around for a while in the NCAA Tournament, but it isn’t going to happen if this club doesn’t identify a capable leader, soon.

That was apparent in NC State’s 20-point loss to Oklahoma State last Sunday and again Friday night at home in an 82-80 victory over UNC Asheville. Friday’s performance was more perplexing than last week’s because of the opponent and how one would have expected the Pack to come out and play.

Second-year coach Mark Gottfried said it would have been easy to expect to “blow ’em out of here right from the get-go,” but that wasn’t the case. He believes his team was wound too tight, though their nonchalant ball handling and passing, laissez-faire defensive effort, and overall body language for most of the first 34 minutes of the game told a different story.

It spoke of a team with a disposition not geared toward success. And NC State, which made a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament last March, looked like a team resting on its laurels.

But the 16th-ranked Pack came to life in those final six minutes. Of note, Howell, a 6-foot-8 bruising power forward, did a little fanny-smacking to ignite the surge. It was time someone stepped forward.

“I just told my team it was about heart; it was gut-check time,” said Howell, who had 23 points and 15 rebounds. “It all depended on who wanted it, and whoever wanted it was going to get it. I told my team they wanted it, I wanted it so we out there and played hard. I thought like we should have played that way from the beginning.”

Why wasn’t it, especially given State’s performance in the loss to Oklahoma State? And why was it needed considering the program’s expectations of finally leaping neighborhood rivals and national powers Duke and North Carolina? And why for a program in which its slogan is “Our State,” which is what their pregame video is all about?

Maybe that silly video represents part of the problem here: NC State used it to take a swipe at UNC’s football team in the summer because it had won five straight in the series. But overall, State was 3-30 against UNC in sports last school year, including two losses in basketball.

Maybe in some respects the cart was put before the horse, and that mentality must change.

Junior point guard Lorenzo Brown was asked why there was no blowout as expected.

“That was our intent coming into this game, but I guess it didn’t go that way,” he said, looking down, almost dumbfounded.

Asheville scored 31 points off of turnovers and registered 14 steals. This next fact can’t be ignored: NCSU converted 55.8 percent of its field goal shots on the night, yet beat a struggling team from the Big South by two points at home.

This is rather alarming, but Howell’s words should sooth NCSU souls some.

“Honestly, at the beginning of the season I would say we didn’t have one,” when asked to identify the team’s leader. “I felt like everybody could step up and everybody could speak their mind. But as we get more into the season and I feel like we do need a leader and I am that person.

“I’m starting to build leadership roles and starting talk to that about coach … and that’s something that we need.”

Gottfried didn’t acknowledge such a conversation with Howell because he needs the other vets to step up as well, including C.J. Leslie, who played most of the night as if he’d rather be anywhere else. But Leslie was strong late, giving effort and playing with a different disposition after Howell’s magic words.

“Richard is emerging right now as somebody that wants to win bad, and you could see it tonight in how he played,” Gottfried said. “He wanted to win, and that’s what leaders have. They have a competitive spirit that you want to follow. And if you don’t have that competitive spirit nobody wants to follow you, so you can’t be a leader. So he emerged tonight in that role.”

Maybe Howell leading is a temporary thing until someone else steps forward, or maybe he’s the man. Whatever the case, the Pack needs a fanny swatter. All great teams that reach their goals have one.