NCAA Tournament N.C. State (12) vs. Saint Louis (5) 7:20 p.m. (TNT)

Gottfried stays positive, pushes right buttons for Wolfpack's NCAA success

jgiglio@newsobserver.comMarch 19, 2014 

  • No. 12 N.C. State vs. No. 5 Saint Louis

    When/where: 7:20 p.m., Amway Center, Orlando, Fla.

    TV/Radio: TNT, 101.5-WRAL

    Projected starting lineups

    N.C. State (22-13)

    G Tyler Lewis 4.2 ppg, 3.6 apg

    G Ralston Turner 10.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg

    F T.J. Warren 24.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg

    F Kyle Washington 4.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg

    F Jordan Vandenberg 4.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg

    Saint Louis (26-6)

    G Mike McCall Jr. 9.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg

    G Jordair Jett 13.7 ppg, 4.8 apg

    F Dwayne Evans 14.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg

    F Jake Barnett 4.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg

    F Rob Loe 9.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg

    N.C. State moves on if ...

    The Wolfpack can channel the energy and confidence from Tuesday’s win over Xavier and ignore the exhaustion of its fifth game in eight days. The Billikens, who won the Atlantic 10, are a fabulous defensive team but not as accomplished on offense. With T.J. Warren and Ralston Turner scoring like they did against Xavier, Saint Louis could be vulnerable, especially if the Billikens start to think about how they’ve lost four of their past five games.

    N.C. State goes home if ...

    The more experienced, defensive-minded Billikens, who start five seniors, assert themselves and squeeze the confidence out of N.C. State’s young lineup. The Wolfpack struggled with strong, man defensive teams, such as Clemson and Virginia, and Saint Louis is of that ilk. The Billikens are making their third straight NCAA tournament appearance, unlike N.C. State, it’s with the same cast of regulars as last season. That experience might be the Wolfpack’s downfall.

    Joe Giglio

— Mark Gottfried gathered his team around the NCAA logo at midcourt after a free-spirited practice on Wednesday at the sparkling Amway Center in downtown Orlando.

N.C. State was all smiles, from the team managers to star T.J. Warren to Gottfried, for the impromptu team photo. The snapshot is a nice keepsake, a digital postcard. If you look close enough at their faces you can see the pride of a season that has already crossed any realistic expectation of success.

The moment was also symbolic of how Gottfried helped a young team find itself and a place in this NCAA tournament.

“He has always tried to get us to see the big picture,” junior guard Ralston Turner said.

That hasn’t been easy for Gottfried, in his third season, but first with an almost completely new group from last year’s 24-win, NCAA tournament team. There have been humbling blowout losses and crippling near-misses but Gottfried has kept his young team focused on the big prize.

The 12th-seeded Wolfpack, fresh off Tuesday’s win over Xavier in Dayton, Ohio, will play fifth-seeded Saint Louis in a round of 64 matchup in the Midwest Regional. Gottfried, who has won 70 games in three seasons, credits the team’s success to the players’ spirit and resilience but the players say there’s a reason they’ve been so buoyant during the learning process.

“He never quit on us,” freshman guard Cat Barber said. “You’re going to lose some games but he never got down on us and we never got down on ourselves.”

Talent, but little experience

This is where Gottfried has always wanted to be, in the NCAA tournament — for the 10th time in 17 seasons as coach — in what he calls “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He wasn’t always sure he could get this N.C. State to this point.

Gottfried, who shouldered most of the blame for last year’s disappointing finish, a round of 64 loss to Temple, knew he had a chance to start over this season, and with a talented group of players, but one he knew they lacked experience.

According to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, N.C. State ranks 330th (out of 351 teams) in player experience. Four of the regulars in the rotation are freshmen, two are sophomores and two more are junior transfers who didn’t play last season — and in the case of Desmond Lee, didn’t have any Division I experience.

Gottfried, who turned 50 in January, has a propensity to pump the brakes on expectations, started the season by comparing this N.C. State team to his second at Alabama in 1999-2000.

That Crimson Tide team finished 13-16 with a 6-10 SEC record. His comparison point was that team was young, and it took its lumps, but two years later it won 27 games and an SEC title.

This N.C. State team, led by ACC player of the year T.J. Warren, has found a way to fast forward through its growing pains.

“I feel good about what has happened because of where we started,” Gottfried said. “You think about how much we lost from last year. I think about some of our early games in November and the uncertainty in how we were going to play.”

N.C. State showed signs early of being a good team, especially during a seven-game winning streak from the middle of November until the end of December, but it has suffered excruciating losses, starting with an overtime home loss to N.C. Central in November and up until the overtime home loss to North Carolina on Feb. 26.

“They haven’t given up and they could have thrown in the towel a number of times,” said Chris Corchiani, a former N.C. State player who remains close to the program and Gottfried.

“Mark has motivated them to the point where they believe they can beat anybody. And they’ve played harder as the year has gone on, which is really difficult to do after some the tough losses that they had.”

Gottfried’s positivity the catalyst

Turner, who sat out last season after transferring from LSU, said the only constant for this team has been Gottfried’s positivity. The coach can be animated with his emotions, especially with the officials, but he doesn’t take out any frustrations on the players.

Gottfried didn’t after a 31-point home loss to Virginia on Jan. 11, or a 35-point loss at Duke, one week later.

“Despite those losses, he never really beat us down,” Turner said. “It would have been easy for him to do that but he didn’t.”

Gottfried also consoled his team after difficult one-point losses to Syracuse on the road (56-55 on Feb. 15) and the UNC game, an 85-84 instant classic on the wrong side of the ledger for State.

Any of the four could have crushed N.C. State’s collective psyche but it never happened. Gottfried helped himself with some timely lineup decisions, too. After Warren missed the Maryland win on Jan. 20, and Turner filled in with 23 points, he kept Turner in the starting lineup and he has since developed into a reliable second scorer to Warren.

After an 84-70 loss at Chapel Hill on Feb. 1, he moved Barber out of the starting lineup and moved sophomore Tyler Lewis back in. Lewis had started the first four games but his minutes dwindled as Barber excelled in nonconference play.

“Coach does a great job of pushing the right buttons and knowing when to make the right changes,” assistant Orlando Early said.

Barber missed the second half of Tuesday’s win over Xavier with a stomach flu but he and Lewis have teamed together, with their divergent skill sets, to give the Wolfpack a productive pair at the point.

Barber’s third on the team in scoring (8.5 points per game) and has been excellent on defense the past three weeks, while Lewis leads the team with 129 assists.

Lewis had eight assists in Tuesday’s romp of Xavier. In the past 11 games, he has 55 assists and seven turnovers. Juggling both point guards, and getting production out of them despite their changing roles, might have been Gottfried’s best piece of coaching this season, said Corchiani, a former point guard.

“It’s hard to keep two point guards, who were both McDonald’s All-Americans, happy,” Corchiani said. “That wasn’t an easy decision but the team has responded to that move.”

Not ready to review season

Gottfried chalked up the lineup changes to a hunch, he demurred and said he has made other moves that didn’t work out so well this season. He was reluctant to put the season in a big-picture perspective because there’s still games to be won.

“I really like our team,” Gottfried said. “I like our spirit every day, even after the tough games that we had the losses that we were really emotionally tough. Our guys always seemed to bounce back.”

Gottfried didn’t have to say too much, though. The smile after practice, shoulder to shoulder with his guys, said enough.

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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