NC State basketball: What went wrong in disappointing 2012-13 season

jgiglio@newsobserver.comOctober 19, 2013 

— Chairs can’t talk, but the empty ones around Mark Gottfried said it all.

This is the difference a year makes for the N.C. State basketball coach and his program. A year ago, the Wolfpack was the talk of the ACC, the sexy preseason pick – top 10 in the country and the choice of both the coaches and the media to win the ACC.

Last year, there were no empty seats at Gottfried’s table at the conference’s media day in a swanky Charlotte hotel. Gottfried, who had led his first Wolfpack team to the Sweet 16 in March 2012, got the star treatment last October.

Then came a disappointing fifth-place ACC finish and an opening-round loss in the NCAA tournament. Fast forward to Wednesday, back in the same Charlotte hotel. While the media’s double-stacked around Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, as they would be later around North Carolina’s Roy Williams, there are five people and 12 seats at Gottfried’s table.

There’s a number one in N.C. State’s predicted finish this year, only it’s accompanied by a zero. The Wolfpack was picked to finish 10th in the 15-team ACC.

Gottfried, who has won 48 games in two seasons at N.C. State, understands the juxtaposition of expectations.

“We have a completely different team,” Gottfried said. “We’re in a different place.”

2012 magic disappeared in 2013

It’s easy to understand why so much was expected of N.C. State last season; it’s more complicated to explain how the season unraveled.

A combustible combination of personalities, a lack of strong leadership and an untimely injury to Lorenzo Brown contributed to the Wolfpack’s woes.

None was an issue in 2011-12, Gottfried’s first season, which ended with a run in the ACC tournament and then another in the NCAA tournament.

As a No. 11 seed in the Midwest region in 2012 NCAA tournament, the Wolfpack dissected sixth-seeded San Diego State 79-65 in the opening round and then outslugged third-seeded Georgetown 66-63 to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005.

After taking an early lead against second-seeded Kansas in the regional semifinal in St. Louis, the Wolfpack ultimately lost a close call, 60-57. The Jayhawks went on to the national title game. The Wolfpack left St. Louis and wondered, “What if?”

“That team had a little magic in a bottle,” said former UCLA coach Jim Harrick, who is Gottfried’s mentor. “They were a bounce away from the Final Four.”

After the Kansas loss, forward C.J. Leslie and Brown decided to postpone their NBA dreams and come back for their junior seasons. Seniors Richard Howell and Scott Wood were back, too, and three McDonald’s All-Americans were coming in.

Combine the high-profile exits at UNC and Duke, and the Wolfpack entered last season picked to win the ACC for the first time since 1975.

But last season was never as simple as picking up where it left off the previous March.

“It’s really hard to put the magic back in the bottle,” said Harrick, who spent eight seasons with Gottfried at UCLA.

Brown blames himself

Brown looks back on last season and remembers the high points – the 84-76 home win over then-No. 1 Duke, the 91-83 home win over UNC, to end a 13-game losing streak to the Tar Heels.

He sees a program that went to the NCAA tournament in two straight years after a five-year drought and one that beat Duke, UNC and Wake Forest at home in the same season for the first time since the 1988-89 season.

“We did some good things,” said Brown, who was a second-round pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

There is a “but,” though, and Brown understands that. And to Brown, last season wasn’t about living up to someone else’s expectations, rather the opportunity to win the ACC.

By their own impossible standards, UNC and Duke were down a peg last season and Miami – with a similarly structured lineup to N.C. State’s and a coach (Jim Larrañaga) in his second season – was able to take advantage of that opportunity, winning the regular season and the ACC tournament.

Brown said he felt responsible for the team’s 11-7 ACC record. He led the ACC in assists (7.2 per game) but said he should have done more, even before an ankle injury cost him two and half conference games.

Brown shot 20 of 76 (26.3 percent) from 3-point range, which he said should have been better. He said wasn’t aggressive enough.

“Our offense never clicked like it did the year before,” Brown said. “That was on me, I needed to do more.”

Stars, freshmen never became one

During the season, Gottfried often lamented the effect of Brown’s injury and his absence in losses to Virginia, Miami and Duke.

It wasn’t until after the Temple loss in the NCAA tournament that Gottfried really expanded on the team’s internal problems. He called out players for attitude issues in the post-game conference.

“We had some immaturity at times,” Gottfried said after the Temple game. “It just seemed hard at times to have everybody buy in all the way.”

Gottfried has since said it was difficult to blend the returning players with the new players.

N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow didn’t single out any player, rather she said they were “all good people with different agendas at different times.”

Yow said given the range of personalities, Gottfried made the best of a difficult situation.

“I think there are only a handful of coaches who could have done as good a job with the team last year,” Yow said. “I understand that and I appreciate it.”

While Gottfried tried to manage the egos, the players took their cues from forward C.J. Leslie, who was a lightning rod for criticism for his inconsistency.

Gottfried’s first team had a core of veteran leaders in C.J. Williams, Alex Johnson and DeShawn Painter.

“They made our team tick,” Scott Wood said. “That was a big thing a lot of people didn’t realize: You want stars, but you need people who understand their role.”

Johnson, a graduate transfer from Cal State Bakersfield, in particular had a calming influence on Leslie and helped keep him focused during practice.

If Leslie had an off practice, there was a good chance everyone else would play “follow-the-leader.”

“As freshmen, we looked up to the older players,” said guard Tyler Lewis, a reserve freshman on last year’s team. “If we saw them having a bad day or being lazy, we felt like we could as well.”

Leslie led, for better or worse

Without those leaders, Leslie, the team’s best player, stepped into the void by default. Brown said there was no doubt the team fed off Leslie, both in a positive and negative way.

“He was a our leader,” Brown said. “And with us, we did every thing as a team. When we were on, we were on, but it didn’t take much to knock us off our game.

“And when we were off, we were all off.”

Leslie, a prep star in Raleigh, had a breakout sophomore season under Gottfried in 2011-12, improving his scoring, shooting percentages and general attitude from an uneven freshman campaign under former coach Sidney Lowe.

In Gottfried’s high-post offense, the game flowed through Leslie, who led the team with 15.1 points per game as a junior and 14.7 as a sophomore.

His best games – 25 points in an 84-76 win over No. 1 Duke, 17 points and 10 rebounds in a 91-83 home win over UNC – coincided with the team’s best games.

His low points – six turnovers in a loss at UNC, a first-half technical and two late turnovers in a critical loss at Florida State – were the team’s low points.

Leslie lack of consistency was one reason why NBA teams passed on him in the draft.

“I love C.J. to death,” said Wood, who’s playing for a pro club in Spain. “When he’s on a roll and he’s right mentally, you can’t find many players better than him.

“But I think if you asked him, he didn’t play hard all the time. He was talented enough that he could get away with that.”

Leslie, who signed a free agent contract with the New York Knicks after the draft, could not be reached for comment to discuss what went wrong last season.

Wood said it would be a mistake to blame Leslie for the team’s problems, though. He said there was a collective shortage of toughness.

“When the going got tough, our team would fold at times,” Wood said. “If we had a bad game, we’d fold instead of trying to get back after it.”

Different, lower expectations in 2013-14

Gottfried prefers to emphasize the team’s success, especially compared to where the program was, rather than what went wrong last season.

He said he has looked back on last season, in an effort to get better in the future, but he recently bristled at the notion that he was humbled by what happened last season.

“There’s so many things when you look back and say, ‘This could have happened, that could have happened,’” Gottfried said. “Bottom line is, we did not get done what I wanted to do.”

The roster has been reworked with more versatile parts. There has been an emphasis on leadership, accountability and defense.

Gottfried has publicly embraced the low expectations for his third team.

“I think our guys understand that most people are going to consider us to be pretty bad this year,” Gottfried said earlier this summer.

But Harrick wouldn’t be surprised if the Wolfpack is better on the court than on paper.

“Mark knows the game, he knows what he’s doing,” Harrick said. “He’s going to do a great job there for a long period of time.”

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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