NCAA Basketball ACC BasketballNC State Wolfpack

C.J. Leslie Returns to ACC Player of the Year Conversation in Win over Duke

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s funny how much one game could potentially change things sometimes.

Heading into Saturday, the undefeated Duke Blue Devils looked like the unquestioned best team in not only the ACC, but the country, and Mason Plumlee looked like the clear front runner for the ACC Player of the Year award, which admittedly, still has quite some time to be decided on.

And then, Duke lost.

Although one loss may not be enough to knock Duke out of the top rank in the country, the one win for their opponent, the number-20 North Carolina State Wolfpack (14-2, 3-0), is enough to move them back atop the ACC.

Not only did N.C. State live up to the expectations that they were billed for heading into the season as ACC favorites, but their star player, junior forward C.J. Leslie – who was selected by the conference’s coaches as preseason player of the year – made the biggest impact on the game Saturday, going for 25 points and 6 rebounds.

Leslie’s performance was accompanied by a gritty 16 point, 18 rebound game by fellow big Richard Howell, as well as a 12 point, 13 assist contribution from point guard Lorenzo Brown, but it was Leslie picking and choosing his spots, making Duke pay without Ryan Kelly in the front court. The do-it-all forward from Holly Springs, North Carolina, actually did-it-all in the upset, going 7-of-8 from the free throw line, and 9-for-16 from the field, facing up from all parts of the court, and scoring inside (fairly easily), including a huge basket over Plumlee with about 1:40 to go in the game, putting an end to Duke’s comeback aspirations.

Leslie has scored 19 or more points in 5 of the Wolfpack’s last 6 games, and has helped NC State win ten-straight after starting the season a disappointing 4-2, while averaging career highs in scoring (16.2 points), rebounds (7.3), field goal percentage (58-percent), and free-throw percentage (a less than stellar but improved nonetheless 65-percent). With Mark Gottfried’s teams only two losses coming against Michigan and Oklahoma State, two very good teams this season, the win over Duke has to be a huge confidence boost, and could lead both the Wolfpack and Leslie to living up to the expectations set for them prior to the season.

One game at a time.

For hoops, hip-hop and other random sports and pop culture commentary, follow Jared Mintz on Twitter @JaredMintzTruth