The same pejorative words and damning phrases kept coming up when Mark Gottfried asked about the N.C. State men's basketball program he inherited.
"Selfish," "didn't play hard," "didn't play together," - this is what the Wolfpack's new coach heard about his team, which finished 15-16 last season, outside the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight time and a double-digit seed in the ACC tournament for the fifth straight year.
"I heard those comments about our team," Gottfried said. "There's nothing I can do to change the past, but what do we do from here?"
That's the crossroads where Gottfried, 47, an accomplished college coach who was out of the game for two years, finds himself with a proud Wolfpack program, one of only 14 with two NCAA titles but almost 30 years removed from its most recent one.
For an anxious fan base, it's difficult to reconcile N.C. State's basketball past with its present. The program boasts national championships in 1974 and '83, and 60 years further back, it was the main player in the creation of ACC basketball under Everett Case. In recent years, the Wolfpack has slumped to the bottom third of the conference, with sparse postseason success in the past 20 years.
Gottfried, who took Alabama and Murray State to the NCAA tournament seven times in 14 years as a coach, has not side-stepped the big-picture issues during his seven months on the job succeeding Sidney Lowe.
He has put together one of the best recruiting classes in the country for next season, with three in-state products who rank among the top 70 prospects in the country, including two in the top 25.
But that's for next season's team. Gottfried has tried to be as realistic about this season, and the state of the program, as he can be.
"We've been in five NCAA tournaments in 20 years," Gottfried said. "Twenty!
"You take a 17-year-old kid, 16-year-old kid, they look at us as, you know, we're not really that cool. So we have to change all that. We have to be able to sell to fans and recruits what we think we can become."
What Gottfried wants the team to become in the immediate future, before the recruiting help arrives, is a team that puts in the maximum effort in its preparation, in both practice and the weight room.
He wants a program built from the ground up, on the pyramid of principles established by coaching legend John Wooden at UCLA, where Gottfried worked for eight seasons as an assistant coach before taking the Murray State job in 1995.
Sophomore guard Lorenzo Brown said there already is a difference in attitude and work ethic among the players. Brown said N.C. State's biggest problem last season under Lowe wasn't a lack of talent.
"We weren't pushed as much as we should have been," Brown said. "We didn't have enough leadership on the team."
Intermittently during the 2010-11 season, N.C. State played hard enough for 40 minutes - most notably during a late ACC stretch against Clemson, Maryland and North Carolina. But those efforts were sandwiched between disappointments - a 39-point loss at Wisconsin on Dec. 1, and an 11-point loss at Virginia on March 1 - that were more representative of N.C. State's effort.
"The games that we played hard were noticeable," Brown said. "Some times, people would get so frustrated that we broke down.
"It was hard last year."
The promising freshman trio of Brown, Ryan Harrow and C.J. Leslie was supposed to push the Wolfpack, a National Invitation Tournament team the previous season, into the NCAA tournament last season.
But forward Tracy Smith, the team's leading scorer and focal point of the offense the previous two seasons, missed 10 games with a knee injury, including four key nonconference games. The team never found a rhythm, with or without Smith.
The talented freshmen had their moments - Leslie led the team in rebounding and Brown in assists - but they couldn't string those moments together during ACC play, where the Wolfpack finished 5-11 in regular-season games.
Harrow, last season's point guard who produced an uneven 9.3 points and 3.3 assists per game, transferred to Kentucky shortly after Gottfried was hired.
Leslie's relationship with Lowe deteriorated as the season progressed, but he opted for a chance to start over with Gottfried.
Cupboard isn't bare
In Brown (9.4 points per game, 3.8 assists per game), Leslie (11.2 ppg, 7.1 rebounds per game), shooting guard Scott Wood (72 3-pointers) and power forward Richard Howell (6.4 rpg), Lowe left Gottfried a foundation to be competitive in a what should be a down season overall in the ACC.
Gottfried added guard Alex Johnson, a graduate student transfer from Cal State Bakersfield, and freshman forward Thomas de Thaey, and each should help in problem areas (ball-handling and toughness).
Gottfried has singled out senior guard C.J. Williams, an on-again, off-again starter under Lowe, as a key to the team's success.
Williams has developed as a shooter and leader in his three seasons. But he has been the "other" C.J. on the roster. In part, that's why Gottfried has taken to calling Leslie by his given name, Calvin.
Gottfried has bristled at the media attention paid to Leslie, a McDonald's All-American from Holly Springs who was a prep star with Washington Wizards guard John Wall at Raleigh's Word of God.
A 6-foot-8 forward, Leslie was considered a recruiting savior a year ago but displayed wild swings of production during an uneven freshman season. He seemed to miss the luxury of playing with Wall, a one-and-done college phenom at Kentucky and the first overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft.
Keeping Leslie, who Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called one of the most talented players in the ACC last season, engaged for longer stretches of the season is the biggest challenge for Gottfried.
His teammates understand the value of Leslie and his importance to the team's success.
"He knows that he needs to step things up and to be a leader and do everything he can to make this team better," Wood said.
Leslie, who was suspended one game by Lowe last season for attitude issues, has impressed Gottfried.
"He's willing to make changes and play harder and play better and be more responsible," Gottfried said.
Leslie, in a sign of maturity, understands he has to be more engaged and more consistent than he was last season.
"The past is the past," he said. "You can learn from it, but you can't go back. I've got a new year to focus on."
That's the same message his coach has been preaching. Gottfried already has one convert.