The last time North Carolina State won the conference title was in 1987, as the Wolfpack made a surprising run as the sixth seed in the tournament. They took down Duke in overtime, Wake Forest in double overtime of the semi-finals and beat North Carolina by one, 68-67, in the finals. The Tar Heels had gone undefeated in conference play that year before the upset loss that saw Vinny Del Negro named tournament MVP.
Flash forward to 25 years later: Del Negro is coaching in Hollywood, while the Wolfpack’s ACC record since has been more Clipper-esque than not.
At least that was mostly the case, until the arrival of Coach Mark Gottfried, who quickly turned the program around in his first season with NC State. The year before his arrival, the team had gone 15-16 overall and 5-11 in ACC conference play. Under Gottfried, the team went 24-13 and 9-7 in conference play while making its first appearance in the March Madness tournament since 2006, making it to the sweet sixteen as an 11th seed.
It’s no wonder that with solid recruiting and a close to 2-1 coaching record in his history (303-167, with Alabama and Murray State), Gottfried’s Wolfpack are becoming early favorites for the ACC title.
However, does Gottfried have the roster to take NC State back to the top of the ACC?
Led by 6’5 junior point guard Lorenzo Brown, this floor general will be one of the best in the country all season long. Last season, he led the ACC in steals with 1.8spg, 61 overall. Proving every opponent better be aware of where Brown is at all times while the game is in motion. Otherwise, opponents will be the victims of disappearing passing lanes, as Brown uses his length and quickness to take them away.
More importantly, Brown finished second in the ACC in assists with 6.3 apg while committing 3.2 turnovers per game. With a 2:1 assist/turnover ratio as a sophomore and another season of growth to come, Brown appears to be the ideal unselfish point guard needed to help lead a championship team. He also rebounds well for his position, pulling down 4.5 rebounds last year. Its not surprising some early mock drafts have him going in the first round.
C.J. Leslie is another junior with first round draft pick potential. In fact, he came close to testing the NBA waters last season, where some believed he’d be a late first or second round pick. Leslie gave it some thought, but ultimately decided to remain at NC State.
At 6’8 Leslie has double-double potential any given night, and although his season averages a year ago were 14.7ppg and 7.3rpg, over the last 11 games of the season he bumped those numbers up to 18.3ppg and 9.1rpg. Given his potential, it’s not out of the question for Leslie to average somewhere in between those two sets of numbers. 16.5ppg and 8.2rpg or in that neighborhood doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
Brown and Leslie will be the two major keys for any Wolfpack success, but they aren’t alone.
Senior Richard Howell is a typical down low enforcer. At 6’8 250lbs he is a rebounding machine, averaging 9.2rpg, collecting 342 altogether. More than his previous two seasons combined. He can score too, averaging 10.8ppg last season. Opponents will have their hands full trying to box out Howell and keep him off the offensive glass, where he averaged 3.6 offensive rebounds a year ago.
Senior Scott Wood averaged 12.4 ppg last year and is the type of shooter that can catch fire and pull the game away or more importantly, bring you right back in it. He was 40.9% from long range on 95 of 232 shooting, last season. A number that has been consistent with his time at NC State, in three seasons combined he’s averaging 40.1% from downtown.
He is also an excellent free throw shooter, shooting 92.3% in 2010/11 and 90.7% in 2011/12. Opponents will want to keep the ball out his hands late in close games.
The Wolfpack will also have some youth expected to make an impact. Freshmen T.J. Warren, Tyler Lewis and Rodney Purvis are all expected to contribute. With Purvis, who was just cleared to play a few weeks ago, already in the discussion as a potential 2014 NBA first round pick.
Gottfried appears to have a well balance set of options at his disposal. Whether its rebounding, shooting or a point guard that can take care of the ball and loves getting his teammates involved. Gottfried’s Wolfpack will be hovering around the top of the ACC standings all season, looking to snap that quarter-century drouth.