RALEIGH — N.C. State has spent the first half of the season trying to prove it's a better team than it was a year ago.
Wednesday's paint-by-the-numbers 78-44 win over Delaware State is just the latest example of the Wolfpack's progress in coach Mark Gottfried's first season.
Last season, State needed a last-gasp shot by Scott Wood to eek out a 72-70 win over the same Delaware State team. And this season? The game, for all intents and purposes, was over by halftime.
Wood (14 points) and the regulars got to watch the final 5 minutes of the game from the comfort of the bench but not before Wood caught some grief for his second-half dunk attempt, which he ended up having to lay in at the rim.
"I hope his ankle is bothering him," C.J. Leslie joked. "For his sake, I hope so."
Style points on dunks -- and Leslie had the best of the game to highlight a 22-0 run to end the first half -- were among the Wolfpack's biggest problems on Wednesday.
The question now for N.C. State, which closed its nonconference schedule at 11-4, is can it show the same type of improvement against the ACC?
"For right now, we're playing good basketball," Gottfried said. "That gives our team some confidence, but again, things can change quickly. We are playing better than we did early (in the season), I am happy with that."
Maryland comes to the RBC Center on Sunday for Gottfried's first ACC game. N.C. State has put together two good months before conference play only to fizzle out in the league. The Wolfpack is coming off of back-to-back 5-11 ACC finishes.
The difference in execution and effort, between this Pack team and the last, was evident in Wednesday's rout, even with a MEAC team as the barometer.
The Hornets (4-9) trailed 20-18 after Tahj Tate's jumper at 7:19 in the first half. The Wolfpack was sluggish in the first 13 minutes -- perhaps looking ahead to Sunday's game -- but found its gear in the final 7 minutes.
Senior guard Alex Johnson, as he has the past half-dozen games, came off the bench and got the Pack's offense going. He followed his own layup with a 3-pointer to make it 29-18 at 5:19.
The Wolfpack kept going, while the hard-working Hornets couldn't hit water from a boat. Casey Walker's 3-foot putback attempt, which rolled in and out, typified the Hornets' struggles from the floor.
N.C. State had no such problems. Leslie (14 points) flushed his own alley-oop after one of his two first-half steals.
Lorenzo Brown (eight points, five assists) had a coast-to-coast layup during the 22-0 run and there was a parade at the free-throw line (15 of 17 for the game).
Wood reminded his teammates before the game about last year's close call.
"He said we needed to blow them out this time," Brown said. "That's what we tried to do."
The Wolfpack led by 30 late, which opened the door for fan favorites Staats Battle and Kendall Smith to get some quality minutes. The walk-ons, spectators in last year's close call with Delaware State, were hoisting 3s on Wednesday.
What a difference a year makes.