RALEIGH — N.C. State played its best basketball in March and N.C. State played its best defense in March.
This was not a coincidence and its not lost on the Wolfpack.
"Were always going to be able to score," senior guard Scott Wood said. "But for us to be a great team, we have to be able to play good defense."
After an offseason of almost unprecedented hype, at least in the past four decades, the sixth-ranked Wolfpack finally opens the season on Friday at home against Miami (Ohio).
And as Wood pointed out, scoring wont be an issue. N.C. State cracked triple-digits in its only public warmup, a 105-80 win over Division II Belmont Abbey last Saturday.
According to Ken Pomeroys tempo-free adjusted statistics, N.C. State had the 32nd-best offense last season and returns 70 percent of its scoring.
Defensively, States adjusted ranking was not as good. The Pack was 65th, out of 345 teams, not bad, but no major conference team has made the Final Four in the past five years with an adjusted defense lower than 30th.
The Packs defense rounded into form by the end of the season when it went 6-2 and held seven of its final eight opponents under 70 points. Getting back to that level will be the early challenge for coach Mark Gottfrieds second team.
State struggled in the first half against Belmont Abbey, giving up 43 points on 48 percent shooting. Gottfried pleaded for stops in the second half and his veteran players obliged.
In a telling sequence in the second half, guard Lorenzo Brown had a steal (one of three for him and 14 by the team) that started a fastbreak, which forward C.J. Leslie finished with an alley-oop from Brown.
Brown led the ACC in steals (67) last season and Leslie ranked seventh in the league in blocks (54).
"It starts with Zo and C.J.," Wood said. "They can get after anybody, the rest of us have to be smart and be in the right position to help them out."
Brown, Leslie and forward Richard Howell ignited N.C. States defense last March. The Pack gave up 63.6 per game over the final eight games, which was five points per game better than the first 29 games.
The 70-point barrier was particularly important. The Pack was 18-3 when it allowed fewer than 70 points, and 6-10 when it didnt.
Wood said better communication led to better defense. There was more talking as the season went along and a better understanding of how Gottfried wanted the team to defend.
Gottfried used mostly a man defense last season but he mixed in some zones. That plan wont change this season, although the Pack must replace guards C.J. Williams, who was second on the team with 40 steals, and Alex Johnson (31 steals).
Freshman Rodney Purvis and Tyler Lewis will fill their roles, respectively. The transfer of forward DeShawn Painter, who blocked 21 shots, leaves an opening behind Leslie and Howell, which freshman T.J. Warren will get the first crack at.
Theres also the matter of foul trouble costing Leslie and Howell minutes last season. Howell fouled out of five ACC games and had four fouls in 12 other games. Howell averaged 27 minutes, the fewest among the starters, with Leslie close behind with 29 minutes a game.
N.C. State was not the same with Howell and/or Leslie on the bench.
"That really hurt us last year," Leslie said. "We know that."
Leslie fouled out of four games, notably in the ACC tournament loss to UNC, and spent most of the second half of the season-ending loss to Kansas on the bench with foul trouble.
For their part, both Howell and Leslie have spent much of the preseason talking about how to avoid the foul trouble.
"The first step is the acknowledgement of the problem," Leslie said.
And the first step to the season N.C. State expects and wants begins on defense.