RALEIGH — N.C. State has taken two steps forward in the past two games, according to coach Mark Gottfried.
Progress, even in modest increments, is the recalibrated goal for the No. 25 Wolfpack, which begins a six-game home stand Saturday with a matinee (1 p.m., Fox Sports South) against Cleveland State at Reynolds Coliseum.
Picked to be the best team in the ACC, by media and coaches, N.C. State (5-2) has struggled to find its footing in the early season.
While Duke (8-0) racked up marquee wins over Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State, and carried the banner for the ACC in the process, N.C. State lost by 20 points to Oklahoma State and at Michigan.
A late comeback at Michigan on Nov. 27 and Tuesdays 69-65 win over Connecticut gives Gottfried hope the team is headed in the right direction.
"We played very unselfishly," Gottfried said after the UConn win Tuesday night. "And we made some key offensive plays and it wasnt just one guy."
The premise of N.C. States preseason hope was built on four returning starters and the ability of the team, particularly stars C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown, to pick up where they left off last March.
After a slow start, including a disaster against Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico, Leslie and Brown have found their games. Leslie, a forward, has scored 16 points in each of the past two games, with an average of 11.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
Brown, the teams point guard, followed up a 10-assist game against Michigan with 16 points and five assists against UConn.
Still, Leslie (12.3 points per game), the ACC preseason player of the year, ranks behind Boston College freshman guard Olivier Hanlan (12.6) among ACC scoring leaders.
"By all means, theres still a lot of basketball to be played," Leslie said after the UConn game.
The next three weeks will be different test for the Wolfpack, which started the season at No. 6 in the AP poll. Of the next six opponents, only one (Stanford) is from a major conference and only two (Norfolk State and St. Bonaventure) made the NCAA tournament a year ago.
While N.C. State will be expected to win all six non-conference games, which leads into the ACC opener on Jan. 5 at Boston College, the homestand will be key in determining the teams identity going forward.
Senior Richard Howell leads the team in scoring and has taken a "quiet leadership" role, Gottfried said. Howell had 13 points and 10 rebounds in the UConn win, and made several hustle plays that didnt show up in the box score but had an effect on the outcome of the game.
"Hes a guy that his teammates respect," Gottfried said. "We all like to follow guys that compete. He competes and hes done it in some key games for us."
Gottfried also is still trying to balance the roles of his three new players. Freshman forward T.J. Warren, whos second on the team in scoring (13.4 points per game), has started the past two games. Warren had a season-low two points against an undersized UConn team, while Howell and Leslie feasted inside.
Freshman guard Rodney Purvis provided energy off the bench in Tuesdays win, after getting lost in transition against Michigan.
Freshman guard Tyler Lewis has seen his minutes reduced in the past two games, to 8 and 6, after averaging 15.8 in the first five games.
Theres still time, as Leslie pointed out, but N.C. State needs to find its stride over the next six games before ACC play begins in January.