There were times last season, too many to count, when Mark Gottfried would peek down at the end of the N.C. State bench and see Terry Henderson, Torin Dorn and Dennis Smith Jr.
The answer to the Wolfpack’s problems was sitting right there, so excruciatingly close yet so far away.
There was both hope and futility in glancing at the Wolfpack’s own “Rescue Squad” while the team struggled to a 5-13 record in ACC play and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in Gottfried’s tenure.
“I looked over there a lot,” Gottfried said. “I tried not to look over there.”
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Gottfried wasn’t the only one hoping the three talented guards could be on the floor instead of on the bench.
“Almost every game it was ‘I wish we could do this, I wish we could do that,’ ” Henderson said. “We understood we had to wait our time and now it’s our time.”
Yes, finally the wait is over for the Wolfpack, which opens the season on Friday at home against Georgia Southern.
Smith, Dorn and Henderson will be able to do more than just play a pregame round of “H-O-R-S-E,” they will be counted on to lead the Wolfpack back to the NCAA tournament, perhaps even contend for the program’s first ACC regular-season title since 1989.
“The sky is the limit for us,” Henderson said. “We have a chance at a great year.”
A hard year
Nothing about last year went according to plan for N.C. State, even the formation of the Rescue Squad was an accident.
Dorn, after transferring from Charlotte, was ticketed for a redshirt season under NCAA rules. He was the only one who was supposed to be in street clothes at the end of the bench.
Henderson, who sat out the year before after transferring from West Virginia, got hurt seven minutes into the first game of the regular season.
The 6-3 Smith, one of the top point guards in his high school class, suffered a major knee injury in August 2015 and missed his senior season at Trinity Christian in Fayetteville. He enrolled at N.C. State in January to help with his knee rehabilitation.
Henderson, who’s from Raleigh, was the player N.C. State missed the most last season. The 6-5 shooting guard averaged 11.7 points per game as a sophomore at West Virginia in 2013-14. He was expected to slide into Ralston Turner’s 3-point specialist role in the starting lineup.
The sky is the limit for us. We have a chance at a great year.
In N.C. State’s close scrimmage with Richmond last year, Henderson had 25 points and went five of six from the 3-point line.
Seven minutes into the season-opening loss to William & Mary, Henderson tore ligaments in his right ankle. Despite an initial diagnosis of being out for eight weeks, he didn’t play again for the rest of the season.
The Wolfpack missed Henderson’s shooting and defense last season, two qualities he will be counted on to provide. As a fifth-year senior he also gives an inexperienced lineup a veteran voice.
Gottfried has called Smith, who led the team in scoring in both preseason games and is projected as one of the top picks in the next NBA draft, the “face of the program” but Henderson is one of the team’s main leaders.
“Terry is as important of a player as anybody on this team,” Gottfried said. “He’s got a calming effect on our team. His teammates trust him. They know he’s a really intelligent player.”
If Smith is the star and Henderson is the sage, then Dorn is the jack-of-all trades. A 6-5 wing, Dorn led Charlotte in scoring (12.0 points per game) as a freshman in 2014-15.
Whatever his jumper lacks in perfection, Dorn makes up for in aggressiveness. Dorn’s father played cornerback at North Carolina and in the NFL in the 1990s and he plays defense with a football mentality.
He can defend four positions and his versatility will be particularly important in the early portion of the season while forward Omer Yurtseven serves a nine-game suspension. Without Yurtseven, a 7-footer, Gottfried is going to use a four-guard lineup.
“He’ll shine because he can play multiple positions,” Smith said of Dorn. “He’s so athletic, big and strong. It will be great for him.”
Dorn has the perfect unselfish attitude to make N.C. State’s small ball lineup work. In Monday’s preseason win over Barton, he had 13 points, 11 rebounds and four steals. Dorn only took eight shots (most were off of his own offensive rebounds) and that was fine with him.
“Whatever coach needs me to do, whatever it takes to win, that’s what I want to do,” Dorn said.
The last laugh
Smith, Henderson and Dorn will be counted on for a lot this season. They might even have time to settle some old “H-O-R-S-E” debates.
“I definitely got the last laugh,” Henderson said.
“I did win the majority of the games,” Dorn countered.
The next time Smith, even with one bad wheel, admits defeat will be the first.
In the actual games, the trio will get help from sophomore wing Maverick Rowan and freshman guard Markell Johnson but for the most part, N.C. State’s success this season is contingent on their success. They say they’re up to the task.
When the offseason hit panic mode with the exit of All-ACC guard Cat Barber to the NBA, the transfer of the Martin twins and the testing of the NBA waters by Abdul-Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya, Smith posted a picture of the Rescue Squad on the bench from a game last season on his Twitter account on March 24.
“No worries WPN,” Smith wrote, using an abbreviation for Wolfpack Nation. “Great things are to come next season.”
After all that waiting and watching, “next year” is finally here.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
Georgia Southern at N.C. State
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
TV: ACC Network Extra