NCAA Tournament: Unfulfilled expectations for N.C. State
RALEIGH — North Carolina State never came close to living up to preseason expectations.
The Wolfpack entered the year with a top-10 ranking and as the Atlantic Coast Conference favorite. N.C. State ended it with another year added to the program’s extended ACC championship drought as well as a quick exit from the NCAA tournament with Friday’s loss to Temple.
Second-year coach Mark Gottfried said afterward his team struggled with immaturity and a lack of consistent focus on defense, and even alluded to problems with having “everybody buy in all the way.”
“At times this year, that just seemed to be a struggle for our group,” Gottfried said. “That was a hard thing for us to overcome basically all year long, from the way we started. ... I think at the end of the day, you have a team that had a good year but didn’t have a great year. It was good but nowhere I wanted it to be.”
It was a good season for the Wolfpack (24-11) considering the state of the program when Gottfried arrived. N.C. State had missed the NCAAs and hadn’t finished higher than ninth in the ACC for five straight years, but Gottfried guided last year’s group to the ACC semifinals and a run to the NCAA round of 16.
It was a run that changed the expectations, especially when four starters returned from that group to join three McDonald’s All-Americans to form the core of this year’s team.
As a result, N.C. State was the preseason ACC favorite for the first time since the 1974-75 season. It also had a No. 6 preseason ranking, the program’s highest since December 1983. And it had the preseason league player of the year in junior forward C.J. Leslie.
Yet it wasn’t long before it became apparent that N.C. State would have to figure out how to handle the higher expectations. It also showed a tendency to let its intensity and focus wander during games, as well as its willingness to play defense from the opening tip.
“I wouldn’t say it weighed on us,” senior Richard Howell said of the preseason expectations. “But when you come in the season with a target on your back like we had, people are going to give you their best shot. There were times when we came out and didn’t give other teams our best shot.”
The Temple loss in the second round of the NCAA East Regional in Dayton, Ohio, offered an example of the Wolfpack’s defensive struggles. While N.C. State shot nearly 56 percent, no one could stop Khalif Wyatt (31 points) and the Owls shot 48 percent with just five turnovers.
“At times we were really good defensively,” Gottfried said. “At times we were not. This particular team never seemed to get to a point where we could sustain and maintain great defensive effort the entire game. That’s on me. I didn’t do a very good job with that. ... So that was something that certainly hurt our team this year, no question.”
N.C. State was good enough to beat then-No. 1 Duke for a 3-0 ACC start, as well as end a 13-game losing streak to rival North Carolina that dated back to 2007.
The Wolfpack lost its finale at Florida State to blow a chance to secure a top-four seed and a first-round bye at the ACC tournament, then fell to top-seeded Miami in the semifinals as it fell short of the program’s first title since 1987.
N.C. State ended up with a No. 8 seed to set up Friday’s season-ending loss, though it matched last year’s win total — the best for the program since 1988.
N.C. State will lose Howell and fellow senior Scott Wood, and must wait to find out whether Leslie and point guard Lorenzo Brown will enter the NBA draft. Rising sophomores Rodney Purvis, T.J. Warren and Tyler Lewis are expected to return, while N.C. State will add McDonald’s All-America point guard Anthony “Cat” Barber as part of a three-man recruiting class as well as LSU transfer Ralston Turner.
It’s a sign that N.C. State’s rise under Gottfried should stay on course, even if this year ended up being a missed opportunity.
“We wanted to play a lot longer than one game in this tournament this year,” Gottfried said. “We didn’t. So that’s disappointing, no question.”