If there’s anything missing from N.C. State’s fourth straight trip to the NCAA tournament it’s a sense of newness.
The Wolfpack was completely comfortable at practice Wednesday. The players and coaches even gathered around the NCAA logo at midcourt for a picture, just as they did last year in Orlando, Fla.
To coach Mark Gottfried, getting to what he calls “The Greatest Show on Earth” on an annual basis is a routine he welcomes.
When Gottfried was hired four years ago, he wasn’t sure how quickly success would come, but he has turned the Wolfpack into a fixture at the tournament after going five times in a 20-year span before he was hired.
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The next step for the eighth-seeded Wolfpack (20-13), which faces ninth-seeded LSU (22-10) in the Round of 64 on Thursday night, is making a deeper tournament run.
Gottfried’s first team in 2012 won two games and went to the regional semifinal. The past two have lost in the Round of 64, last year’s group after winning a game in the First Four.
“We’re like everybody else, we’re hungry for more,” Gottfried said Wednesday. “We want more. Hopefully this is the year we can do some things.”
It has been an eventful year for the Wolfpack, with its share of highs and lows.
Gottfried called it a season of “moments,” an apt description. N.C. State knocked Duke from the unbeaten ranks in early January and beat Roy Williams for the first time at North Carolina in late February.
In between, it lost a couple of heartbreakers to Virginia and Notre Dame, and had disappointing performances during a home loss to Clemson and a road loss at Wake Forest.
But by the end, Gottfried became just the third ACC coach (joining UNC’s Williams and the late Skip Prosser from Wake Forest) to take his first four teams to the NCAA tournament.
The Wolfpack knocked off four hall-of-fame coaches too, adding wins against Louisville (Rick Pitino) and Syracuse (Jim Boeheim) during a 10-8 ACC finish to the wins over Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
It’s only the fifth time in 25 years N.C. State beat UNC and Duke in the same regular season.
Gottfried doesn’t often measure the program’s success through the prism of Duke and UNC, and their long-standing dominance of the ACC, but those are the signposts of progress in what he called the “neighborhood.”
“It’s a tough neighborhood, but it’s a neighborhood I like living in,” said Gottfried, who is 90-51 in four seasons, with a 17-9 record during March.
Gottfried said the win at UNC, 58-46 on Feb. 24, was particularly significant. In no small part, because it helped push the Wolfpack into this tournament.
“That was a huge step for us,” Gottfried said. “That doesn’t guarantee anything for the future, but it does make you feel like you are making some progress.”
N.C. State lost all four games against Duke and UNC in Gottfried’s first season, three to the Tar Heels. Since then, the Wolfpack has gone 4-8.
That’s still not a sterling record but consider the Wolfpack had gone 11-55 against them in the previous 15 seasons before Gottfried was hired.
N.C. State’s success this season, with basically the third roster in as many years, has been rewarding for Gottfried.
The Wolfpack had to replace T.J. Warren, the ACC’s leading scorer and conference player of the year, from last season’s 22-win team.
Gottfried has been able to regroup with the help of a pair of SEC transfers, junior guard Trevor Lacey from Alabama and senior guard Ralston Turner from LSU, and the emergence of sophomore point guard Cat Barber.
Gottfried’s touch with a new group and younger roster has at times been delicate. He was as positive as he could be after the disappointing 77-53 loss to Duke in the ACC tournament last Thursday, but he has also been stern.
After a listless 76-60 home loss to Cincinnati on Dec. 30, Gottfried got into the players after the game in the locker room and then, in a rare move in his playbook, with the media.
Gottfried opened his postgame remarks to the media with: “I truly and sincerely apologize to our fans.”
He spoke at length in that press conference about effort and earning the right to play. With the players, he cut to the quick.
“It wasn’t really a long talk,” Turner said. “It was just more of everything is on the table. In practice that week he challenged us, but we responded and it ended up working out for us.”
N.C. State won its next game 68-50 against Pittsburgh but it wasn’t like the season was magically back on track. The Wolfpack went 3-7 over its next 10 games. It looked like the NIT would be more the Wolfpack’s speed than the NCAA tournament.
But Gottfried again got his team’s attention after an 88-84 loss at Wake Forest on Feb. 3. His message then was simpler: “It’s time to play.”
The Wolfpack dropped its next game by four points to then-second-ranked Virginia at home but won six of eight games, highlighted by wins at UNC and Louisville, to play its way into the NCAA tournament.
Gottfried has been in tune with the pulse of the team, Lacey said.
“We’re not perfect,” Lacey said. “If you’re always hard on somebody, you don’t know how they’re going to take it. They might get down and quit on you and not respect you anymore. He’s good at balancing it out.
“When you mess up, he’ll get onto you, but he’ll also bring you back up.”
After the loss to Duke last Thursday, and an almost farcical first 12 minutes when the Blue Devils stormed to a 31-13 lead, Gottfried has to pick his team back up one more time.
The comfort in a season of moments is the coach has been there before.
No. 8 N.C. State vs. No. 9 LSU
When: 9:20 p.m.
Where: Consol Energy Center, Pittsburgh
TV/Radio: TBS, 101.5-WRAL
Projected starting lineups
G Jalyn Patterson 6.7 ppg, 2.2 apg
G Keith Hornsby 13.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg
G Tim Quarterman 11.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg
F Jarell Martin 16.9 ppg, 9.2 rpg
F Jordan Mickey 15.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg
N.C. State (20-13)
G Cat Barber 12.1 ppg, 3.8 apg
G Trevor Lacey 15.8 ppg, 3.4 apg
G Ralston Turner 13.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg
F Lennard Freeman 3.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg
F Abdul-Malik Abu 6 ppg, 4.5 rpg
Lock it in: Focus has eluded N.C. State at key moments this season, most recently during a 24-point loss to Duke in the ACC tournament. When the Wolfpack locks in and gets going, it can beat just about any team in the field. If it has another no-show moment, the season is over.
Bother the bigs: LSU has a strong forward combination of Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, one of the few to go toe-to-toe with Kentucky’s bigs this season. Abdul-Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya will likely take turns on Mickey, while Lennard Freeman will be tasked with defending Martin.
Guards win in March: LSU has the advantage inside on the Wolfpack, but good guards usually win in March. N.C. State’s trio of Cat Barber, Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner are capable of carrying the team. All three, not just two as has often been the case, will have to be effective for the Wolfpack to advance.