The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on Mark Gottfried.
The morning after a 66-59 loss to Michigan in early December dropped Gottfried’s N.C. State team to 4-3, he got a phone call from the person who could help his team the most.
“I miss you,” Trevor Lacey, who was checking in from Italy, told Gottfried.
“We miss you,” Gottfried couldn’t say fast enough or mean any more sincerely.
Lacey, the driving force behind N.C. State’s Sweet 16 team in 2015, left after his junior season to pursue a pro career. He is averaging 13.5 points for VL Pesaro in the Italian Serie A league this season.
The coach and former star player talked on FaceTime for about 15 minutes while Gottfried walked Kota, his year-old White German Shepherd, around his Raleigh neighborhood.
It would be too easy to blame N.C. State’s problems, with a 5-13 ACC record and a four-year NCAA tournament streak about to come to an end, on Lacey’s absence.
It was a big part of N.C. State’s struggle this season, but it wasn’t the only reason for the Wolfpack’s drop.
An injury to guard Terry Henderson, defensive shortcomings exacerbated by depth issues and scoring inconsistencies also helped land the Wolfpack (15-16) in this predicament. They must win five games in five days at the ACC tournament starting at noon Tuesday against Wake Forest (11-19, 2-16) in Washington, D.C. to return to the NCAA tournament.
Watching the Wolfpack trail a winless Boston College team by 13 points in a half-empty PNC Arena last week, it was easy to forget the optimism N.C. State once had for this season.
N.C. State, led by Lacey and guards Ralston Turner and Cat Barber, had knocked off Villanova, a No. 1 seed, in the NCAA tournament last March.
We had a good season this year and made a good run, and I felt like it was the best time for me.
Former N.C. State guard Trevor Lacey on turning pro after last season
It was the second Sweet 16 trip in four seasons under Gottfried. Even after the Wolfpack lost to ACC foe Louisville in the regional semifinals, there was a sense that something bigger was ahead.
Turner, a senior on that team, was the only player from the regular rotation who was expected to be gone by the start of this season.
With Lacey, Barber and Henderson, a lean, long-armed 6-5 shooter from Raleigh, sliding into Turner’s role, the Wolfpack had a chance to win their first ACC title since 1987.
Less than three weeks after the 75-65 loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16, Lacey decided to put his name in the NBA draft.
Before the draft, Lacey, who turned 24 in October, had said his age was a big part of his decision. But he had another explanation, which in retrospect, sounds like a warning.
“We had a good season this year and made a good run, and I felt like it was the best time for me,” Lacey said at a pre-draft workout in Charlotte in June.
“If we have one of those crazy seasons where we fall off, then what?”
A guard short
Players leave early for the NBA or to transfer, as forward Kyle Washington did, to another school all the time. Good programs plan ahead and make adjustments.
Gottfried has been as efficient and flexible in this process as any coach in this transient era, but the timing of Lacey’s departure caught him flat-footed.
It wasn’t just the loss of a top player, it was the other guards N.C. State missed out on because, like Gottfried, they had assumed Lacey was going to be around for this season.
The Wolfpack was in the running for guard Seth Allen, who left Maryland after the 2013-14 season. Barber and Lacey were in place on N.C. State’s roster, but there were no such obstacles for playing time at Virginia Tech. He averaged 13.9 points for the Hokies this season and helped them improve from 2-16 in the ACC to 10-8.
N.C. State had also pursued former Broughton guard Devonte’ Graham, a high school teammate of Gottfried’s son Aaron. Graham had gone through a complicated breakup with Appalachian State and got his release from the school in April 2014.
Graham, a true point guard, had a choice between N.C. State, which had two guards in place, or Kansas, which had parted ways with starting point guard Naadir Tharpe.
Graham chose the Jayhawks and played 17.8 minutes per game and averaged 5.7 points per game as a freshman last season. His numbers have jumped to 11.2 points and 3.5 assists per game. Playing alongside point guard Frank Mason, Graham is a big reason the Jayhawks won the Big 12’s regular season and will likely enter the NCAA tournament as one of the favorites to win it all.
But Gottfried felt good about Barber’s trajectory and Henderson’s potential.
Barber, who averaged 12.1 points per game last season, has followed the path of Lacey and T.J. Warren as players who excelled in Gottfried’s system and took ownership of the team.
The All-ACC point guard leads the conference in scoring (23.4 ppg) and the team in assists (4.4 per game) and has done so while playing 38.7 minutes per game.
Unlike Lacey or Warren, Barber hasn’t had enough help to push the Wolfpack into a late-season surge and into the NCAA tournament.
Sophomore forward Abdul-Malik Abu showed significant progress with 12.9 points per game and a team-best 8.7 rebounds per game but there wasn’t any other consistent scoring help.
“We have these spurts where we play good and then we play bad,” Barber said after a loss at Syracuse on Feb. 27. “We have to learn how to play good the whole time.”
A healthy Henderson would have helped the Wolfpack’s consistency. As a sophomore in 2014 at West Virginia, Henderson averaged 11.7 points and made 47 3-pointers.
In N.C. State’s only preseason game that was open to the media and public, Henderson struggled, scoring five points while missing all five of his 3-point attempts in a 71-54 win over Cal State-Los Angeles on Nov. 8.
After the game, Gottfried said, “I don’t know that we’re a great team if Terry Henderson averages 5 points a game. He has to step up for us.”
In what the NCAA calls a “closed” scrimmage against Richmond, Henderson did just that with 25 points and a 5-of-6 effort from the 3-point line.
Gottfried has played the “What if?” game, considering the impact of a lineup that featured both Lacey and Henderson. But he would have settled for just Henderson.
“In April, we had Trevor and Terry,” Gottfried said after Saturday’s loss at Notre Dame. “In October, you kind of absorbed Trevor’s loss with Terry. So, even though we lost Trevor, you’re sitting there waiting for Terry.”
But Henderson’s regular season lasted all of 7 minutes. He tore ligaments in his right ankle in the first half of the season-opening loss to William & Mary on Nov. 13. He had surgery three days later and hasn’t played since.
It’s difficult to say how much of a difference one player could have made for a team in 12th place in the ACC.
“We’re not 5-13,” Barber said.
Dwayne West, Henderson’s AAU coach at Garner Road, said Henderson would have helped on both ends of the floor.
“He would have given them another scorer and someone who could guard his position,” West said.
For our team to be good, (Caleb Martin) and Maverick (Rowen) need to make open shots. It’s just that simple.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried
Eight of N.C. State’s 13 ACC losses were by single digits. A veteran player like Henderson would have likely helped in tight games, especially the first one, a 73-68 overtime road loss at Virginia Tech on Jan. 2.
Rowan and Martin
A healthy Henderson also would have meant fewer minutes for freshman Maverick Rowan and sophomore Caleb Martin, who were both overstretched at times, especially in ACC play.
After the duo struggled early in January, they were a combined 4 of 19 from 3 in an 85-78 home loss to Florida State on Jan. 13.
“For our team to be good, (Caleb) and Maverick need to make open shots,” Gottfried said. “It’s just that simple.”
N.C. State ranks No. 266, out of 351 Division I teams, in 3-pointers per game (6.1). Rowan shot 32.6 percent from the 3-point arc in ACC play, and Martin was 35.8 percent.
The limited number of bodies, one of Gottfried’s least favorite topics, has also hurt N.C. State on the defensive end. The Wolfpack hasn’t had as much energy to create turnovers and ranks No. 322 in the country with 4.5 steals per game.
A second chance
After N.C. State pulled out a 72-71 win against Boston College on Wednesday, Gottfried breathed a sigh of relief.
Both the 1974 and 1983 team had to win the ACC tournament to get into the NCAA tournament.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried
It would have been difficult to live that down.
“We don’t live under a rock,” Gottfried said.
The ACC tournament is a second chance, however remote, at rewriting the season, Gottfried said.
“Both the 1974 and 1983 team had to win the ACC tournament to get into the NCAA tournament,” Gottfried said.
Last season, when N.C. State was leaving the Carrier Dome in Syracuse filled with optimism despite a difficult NCAA loss, there was no way you could have convinced the Wolfpack of what was to come.
“Looking back at it from last year, we would have never believed we were going to go 5-13,” Abu said. “Even going forward, we still believe we can win every game we play. It didn’t turn out to be that way this year, but we keep looking forward.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio