ORLANDO, Fla. — 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 hasnt been easy for Gottfried, in his third season, but first with an almost completely new group from last years 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 Tuesdays 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 teams success to the players spirit and resilience but the players say theres a reason theyve been so buoyant during the learning process.
He never quit on us, freshman guard Cat Barber said. Youre 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 wasnt always sure he could get this N.C. State to this point.
Gottfried, who shouldered most of the blame for last years 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 Pomeroys 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 didnt play last season and in the case of Desmond Lee, didnt 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 havent 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 theyve played harder as the year has gone on, which is really difficult to do after some the tough losses that they had.
Gottfrieds positivity the catalyst
Turner, who sat out last season after transferring from LSU, said the only constant for this team has been Gottfrieds positivity. The coach can be animated with his emotions, especially with the officials, but he doesnt take out any frustrations on the players.
Gottfried didnt 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 didnt.
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. States 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 Tuesdays 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.
Barbers 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 Tuesdays 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 Gottfrieds best piece of coaching this season, said Corchiani, a former point guard.
Its hard to keep two point guards, who were both McDonalds All-Americans, happy, Corchiani said. That wasnt 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 didnt work out so well this season. He was reluctant to put the season in a big-picture perspective because theres 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 didnt have to say too much, though. The smile after practice, shoulder to shoulder with his guys, said enough.