RALEIGH, N.C. — 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.”