RALEIGH — Tommy Burleson is an optimist.
One of the stars of N.C. States 1974 national title team, Burleson understands just how good the Wolfpack can be in basketball.
Maybe it was the nostalgia, or a tinge of wishful thinking, but Burleson left the alumni reunion at coach Mark Gottfrieds house in mid-September with a familiar feeling.
Burleson stopped short of making a prediction for this N.C. State team, picked to win the ACC and ranked in the top 10 in the country a position N.C. State hasnt been in for 37 years but he couldnt hide his optimism.
This could be one of those rides you really enjoy, Burleson said. It could be a beautiful thing.
N.C. State has taken its fans on two of the most memorable rides in NCAA history. The 1974 team that featured Burleson and David Thompson, still recognized as the best player in ACC history, went 30-1 and ended UCLAs streak of seven consecutive national titles.
The 1983 team finished fourth in the ACC during the regular season and needed to win the ACC tournament just to make the NCAA tournament.
That team, driven by the personality of coach Jim Valvano, made one unbelievable comeback after another and stitched together enough last-second wins to define the modern version of March Madness.
But it will be 30 years in March since Valvanos Cardiac Pack shocked Houston in the title game. The Wolfpack hasnt been back to the Final Four since.
And to compound N.C. States futility, North Carolina and Duke have become the twin ruling powers of college basketball. North Carolina and Duke have made 20 Final Four trips, and won seven national titles between them, since N.C. States last Final Four appearance.
Which is what makes the convergence of forces behind this season so compelling, especially for N.C. State fans, who are preconditioned to expect the worst.
But can this Wolfpack team deliver on the hype and get to the Final Four?
Why not? asked junior guard Lorenzo Brown. Thats every teams goal.
But not every team has the necessary talent or experience, to get there. The Wolfpack just might have both this season.
Pack ahead of schedule
Eighteen months ago, N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow hired Mark Gottfried, who was out of coaching and working for ESPN, to replace Sidney Lowe, the popular point guard of the 83 team who had been unable to lead the Wolfpack to an NCAA tournament appearance in five seasons.
At Gottfrieds introductory news conference on April 5, 2011, a giddy Yow proclaimed the program to be back.
Gottfried, who previously led Murray State and Alabama to the NCAA tournament, quickly tried to rein in Yows enthusiasm.
Slow down a little, Debbie, slow down, Gottfried said then. Were not back yet, were almost back.
After 24 wins in his first season, the most by the program since 1988, and a spot in the Sweet 16, only the programs second since 1989, Gottfried has started to come around to Yows view.
At the teams made-for-ESPN Primetime with the Pack on Oct. 12, Gottfried stoked the crowd at the PNC Arena with a reference to playing on Monday night in April.
He wasnt talking about the NIT.
Thats the goal every year, not just this year, Gottfried said of the national title. That was the goal last year.
N.C. State (24-13) beat San Diego State and Georgetown in the NCAA tournament last season, before bowing out to Kansas, the national-runner-up, in a three-point loss in the Sweet 16.
Since the loss to Kansas, almost everything has gone N.C. States way. Call it the Offseason of Gottfried.
In the spring, Gottfried added three McDonalds All-Americans, which is a regular haul for North Carolina or Duke, but a first for the Wolfpack.
Unlike North Carolina, , which lost four first-round draft picks, or Duke, which lost two, the Wolfpack returns the core of its team from last season. Forward C.J. Leslie, who emerged at the end of the last season as one of the best forwards in the ACC, opted to return for his junior season, instead of jumping to the NBA.
Gottfried landed commitments from four more highly rated recruits in the fall for the next two classes, and is still in the hunt for forward Julius Randle, one of the big prizes in the class of 2013.
The offseason momentum continued to build last week when the media picked the Wolfpack to win the ACC for the first time since the 1974-75 season and the coaches in the USA Today poll ranked them No. 6 in the country.
This program has gotten better a lot faster than people thought would happen, said Chris Corchiani, the point guard of the 1989 team, the last to win the ACC regular-season title.
When you look at what coach Gottfried has done, hes not just building for this season, but hes building a program that can sustain success.
The burden of expectation
Gottfried has prepared his team to ignore the hype, but that might be easier said than done. The past two N.C. State teams picked to finish in the top four of the ACC (in 2008 and 10), flamed out spectacularly.
This team is different, Gottfried hopes, with so many of the same parts back in Brown, Leslie, forward Richard Howell and shooting guard Scott Wood, but he wont know for sure until the season starts.
This is new territory for our team, Gottfried said. We have to learn how to accept that responsibility.
Theres still the matter of beating North Carolina and Duke, who Gottfried went 0-4 against last season. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams is 19-1 against N.C. State in nine seasons. Dukes Mike Krzyzewski has won 38 of his past 44 games against the Wolfpack.
But neither North Carolina nor Duke, or the pressure to live up to expectations top Gottfrieds list of concerns. Hes more worried about how to replace three veterans from what was a seven-man rotation last season.
C.J. Williams started every game at the shooting guard and was the teams unquestioned senior leader. He graduated and is playing professionally overseas.
DeShawn Painter was the only forward Gottfried used off the bench, and with frequent foul trouble to Howell and Leslie, his role was vital. Painter, who would have been a senior, transferred to Old Dominion.
Graduate transfer Alex Johnson was the only guard to come off the bench, adding some needed shooting but he was also a calming influence on Leslie.
In their stead comes a trio of freshmen: shooting guard Rodney Purvis, point guard Tyler Lewis and forward T.J. Warren. They appear to fit nicely into the vacated roles by Williams, Johnson and Painter, respectively, but they cant match the departed players experience.
But they listen, Brown said. So thats good.
Veteran players vital
Brown understands N.C. State will need the freshmen to contribute, and for junior Jordan Vandenberg or sophomore Thomas de Thaey to add some depth, but he also knows the veterans will determine how far the Pack goes.
Recruited in back-to-back classes by Lowe, Wood and Howell (the seniors) and Brown and Leslie (the juniors) blossomed under Gottfried last season. They each had statistical success in Gottfrieds adopted version of the UCLA high post offense. Howell ranked third in the ACC in rebounding, Wood led the ACC in 3-point shooting and Brown ranked second in assists.
The development of Leslie, who was inconsistent and often disinterested as a freshman, was the biggest change in the program last season.
Leslie, a 6-9 forward, improved his shooting, from 43 to 52 percent, and his scoring average, 11 to 14.7 points. Despite a shoulder injury, he took his game to another level in the final 16 games of the season, averaging 17 points a game and against the best forwards in the country.
Its amazing when you look back and see his improvement, said Burleson, who still attends most home games. He listened to the coaches and developed into a really, really good player.
Burleson then paid Leslie the ultimate compliment and compared his role with this N.C. State team to that of Thompsons with the 74 team.
Leslie is a go-to guy, hes the DT of this team, Burleson said. You get him the ball in a critical situation and put the game in his hands.
Burlesons praise is only the latest adulation for Leslie, who was picked by the ACC coaches and the media as the preseason player of the year.
Leslie was thankful last week in Charlotte for the accolades but said it wont mean anything once the season starts.
The individual honors are nice, Leslie said, but not the reason came back for his junior season.
I feel like I have a lot more to prove, Leslie said. And as a team, I feel like we have a chance to go far.
Far enough to get to the Final Four? Thats the historic question for the Wolfpack.