ACC Team Preview: North Carolina State WolfpackPosted by Lathan Wells on November 6th, 2013
North Carolina State head coach Mark Gottfried’s squad entered last season with the loftiest expectations the program had seen in some time. His Wolfpack was ranked as high as #6 in preseason national polls and was chosen as the odds-on favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. Instead, immaturity and inconsistency from a team loaded with talent landed the team in a fourth-place tie after the conference regular season. NC State finished 24-11 and bowed out of its first-round NCAA Tournament match-up with Temple.
This year, expectations are drastically lower for Gottfried’s squad. Significant departures decimated his roster and left him with a very young team entering his third season in Raleigh. Gone are starters Richard Howell and Scott Wood to graduation and C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown to early entry. Add to that the transfer to Connecticut of highly-touted freshman Rodney Purvis, who had an up-and-down first season at NC State, and the Wolfpack find themselves down all five starters from a year ago. Gottfried has assembled an impressive recruiting class for 2013-14 (though it may pale in comparison to the one he’ll have next year), but replacing all of that scoring and experience will be a mighty task for this year’s team. Gottfried’s returnees this year have experience, but much of it was in reserve situations and in spare minutes giving the aforementioned starters a breather.
The one exception is sophomore forward T.J. Warren. Warren is the player best suited to lead this team, both in terms of his play and his leadership and familiarity with the system. Warren is touted as a player who could burst onto the national scene, and he’ll have to do so with all of the new faces surrounding him. He is the team’s leading returning scorer at 12.1 PPG and rebounder at 4.2 RPG, and he’ll need to elevate those numbers to keep the Wolfpack competitive. Joining him in the frontcourt will be Jordan Vandenberg (though he’ll miss the first four to six weeks with an ankle injury), a true 7’0” center, who will need to finally live up to his promise in the paint to help bring the youngsters along down low. In the backcourt, point guard Tyler Lewis got valuable experience backing up Brown last year and even started in his stead while he was injured. He’s increased his slight frame and probably will start the year running the team, though a heralded backcourt recruit could wrest that starting job from him before long.
That recruit is point guard Anthony “Cat” Barber, the 26th overall rated prospect by ESPNU. Barber will immediately challenge for the starting spot and will probably need to live up to his billing early to qualm Wolfpack fans’ fears of a rebuilding season. In the frontcourt, freshmen big men BeeJay Anya and Kyle Washington also arrive with much billing. Anya has tremendous size and Washington good versatility; both will need to get up to speed quickly to ease the burden on Warren. Newcomers will also help bolster State’s depth on the wing this year, as well, as LSU transfer Ralston Turner and JuCo transfer Desmond Lee become available to help at the guard and small forward spots. It’s easy to picture Barber, Anya, Turner and Lee having a solid shot at starting with Warren before the season is over if all live up to their promise.
Gottfried’s youthful squad will be tested early and often. NC State plays Cincinnati on the road, Northwestern in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Tennessee on the road and Missouri at home before ACC play begins. Gottfried’s reasoning was that if the team gels and defies expectations, he didn’t want the schedule to hold it back when Tourney selection time comes around. If his young team with Warren as “The Man” can win a few of these games, confidence will be high when conference play begins. There will be little time for the newcomers to be brought along slowly if NC State wants to get off to a solid start.
The Wolfpack began last year with grand aspirations and failed to deliver on most of them. This year’s team is nowhere near as talented and drastically less experienced, so expectations are much lower. With a solid recruiting class in place this year and much promise coming in the class of 2014-15, Gottfried has allowed himself time to convince State fans that the team will be in the hunt for the ACC title for years to come. Realistically, though, this year’s team will probably experience too many growing pains and rely too much on Warren, a sophomore who excelled when surrounded by proven veterans last season. If Warren isn’t able to produce under the microscope, the returnees’ increase in minutes doesn’t translate into production, and the freshmen take a while to gel, this could be a team that finds itself right around .500 for the year and in the bottom third of the conference standings. At least Gottfried doesn’t have to worry about lofty expectations heading into the season this time around, and given his track record at Alabama and in Raleigh, that may not be a bad thing.