RALEIGH — No. 20 N.C. State is unbeaten in the ACC and a sellout crowd is expected for its matchup with a Triangle rival, which also happens to be the No. 1 team in the country.
Its a confluence of near-perfect circumstances that N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow had hoped for when she hired Mark Gottfried to rebuild the Wolfpack program 21 months ago.
Gottfried led N.C. State back to the NCAA tournament last season and into the national spotlight this season, but theres still the matter of clearing the big blue hurdles in his backyard.
No. 20 N.C. State hosts No. 1 Duke at noon Saturday at PNC Arena (ESPN) in the first of the Packs four games against its powerful Triangle neighbors.
Yow giddily proclaimed the Wolfpack was back when she hired Gottfried in April 2011. In his first season, he promptly delivered 24 wins, including two in the NCAA tournament after a five-year absence. Gottfried also has made significant inroads on the recruiting trail and raised the programs national profile.
Thats a good start, Yow said this week, but theres more work to be done.
Were in better shape than we were, but were not what we can become, Yow said.
I think it adds a whole new level of excitement and anticipation to these games, and its important to the ACC, when N.C. State is good.
N.C. State (13-2, 2-0 ACC) has won nine consecutive games since losing at Michigan on Nov. 27. Theres an opportunity for validation in this game, both because of the opponent and the way the Wolfpack has handled its early-season tests.
Picked to the win ACC for the first time in 38 years, and ranked in the top 10 ahead of Duke and UNC, N.C. State stumbled in late November against Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico and then lost a close game at Michigan.
The Wolfpack has since picked up important wins over Connecticut and Stanford and conference wins over Boston College and Georgia Tech, but theres nothing on its resume like a win over Duke.
As much progress as Gottfried made last season, State lost its only matchup with Duke 78-73 in Durham after the Pack built a 20-point lead. It also dropped all three meetings with North Carolina.
Gottfried, who has embraced just about every challenge of the N.C. State job, didnt downplay the significance of Saturdays game, rather the noise and potential distractions on the periphery.
All of those type of things that are around the game, those arent really a priority for me right now, Gottfried said Friday.
For us to become the program we want to be, you have to step up and take advantage of your opportunities. This is one of them.
N.C. State has had problems making the most of its chances against Duke. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has won 39 of his past 46 games against the Wolfpack, including last seasons epic in Durham.
N.C. State led 61-41 with 11:33 left before Seth Curry (26 points) led a wild Duke comeback.
It was actually that game, last Feb. 16 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, when N.C. State realized how good it could be, senior forward Richard Howell said.
That game opened our eyes, Howell said. Even though we lost, we learned we had it in us to beat good teams.
That loss started a four-game losing streak, but Howell said it was a key reason the season ended with wins over San Diego State and Georgetown in the NCAA tournament and four points shy of a spot in the Final Eight.
Thanks to that finish and personnel losses by UNC and Duke, N.C. State entered the season as the ACC favorite for the first time since the 1974-75 season.
Duke, on the other hand, entered the season on something of a downward trend, by its standards, after losing its opening NCAA tournament game to 15th-seeded Lehigh and then losing two first-round picks in the NBA draft.
However, Duke (15-0, 2-0 ACC) shot to the top of the national rankings with forward Mason Plumlee emerging as the ACCs best player the preseason designation of N.C. State forward C.J. Leslie. Krzyzewski guided his veteran team to impressive wins over Louisville, Ohio State and Kentucky.
N.C. State senior Scott Wood, a freshman the last time N.C. State beat Duke, said the Blue Devils offer a chance to show how far the program has come under Gottfried.
Were a good team, but we just have to go out there and prove it, Wood said. Were going find out a lot about ourselves on Saturday.