Mike Brey didn’t do it on purpose.
The Notre Dame coach was trying to defend Mark Gottfried after his Fighting Irish dispatched N.C. State on Feb. 18.
But Brey’s relatively harmless answer to a post-game question turned into an explanation of N.C. State’s athletic director Debbie Yow’s decision to fire Gottfried before the end of his sixth season.
Brey pointed out that Gottfried has had to rely on six players this season without any ACC experience.
“I wouldn’t know what to do if I had six new guys,” Brey said. “We’ve had a nice rhythm to our roster with older guys.”
That rhythm and roster continuity helped Brey win the ACC title in 2015. The Irish, who have averaged 12 ACC wins the past three seasons, went 12-6 this season and have a double-bye as No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament.
N.C. State (15-16, 4-14 ACC) is the No. 14 seed and will open the tournament on Tuesday against Clemson (16-14, 6-12).
For Gottfried, the roster turnover that led to the team’s lack of experience ultimately cost him his job, Yow said. Gottfried, 123-85 overall at N.C. State, has had to essentially rebuild the Wolfpack roster in each of the past four seasons. The shuffling caught up to Gottfried during the past two years, in particular.
N.C. State is just 9-27 in league play since the start of the 2015-16 season. Only Boston College (2-34) has been worse.
So when Yow decided on Feb. 16 to fire Gottfried, with four games left in the regular season, it wasn’t about the balance of four good years compared to two bad ones.
“Mark did some very good things for us,” Yow said. “There were some really exciting moments. Years 5 and 6 have not been good but in Years 1 through 4 there were some pretty exciting moments.”
There wasn’t much more Yow could have asked for during the first four years. Gottfried inherited a program that had missed the NCAA tournament for five straight seasons and led them to four straight appearances. The 2012 team, his first, and the 2015 team both made the Sweet 16.
But Yow wasn’t willing to bet past performance would equal future results. She said the direction of the program, “more than anything else,” led to her decision to relieve Gottfried.
“The (roster) turnover has been damaging,” Yow said. “Every program has turnover but we’ve probably had more than most at our level.”
In five recruiting classes between 2012 and 2016, Gottfried has added 20 players out of high school (the total does not include transfers from other Division I schools or junior colleges). Half of those 20 players have left the program early, seven via transfer and three to pursue a pro career (only T.J. Warren, drafted by the Phoenix Suns after his sophomore season in 2014, landed in the NBA).
Only Virginia Tech (11), Wake Forest (10) and Boston College (9) – all three of those programs went through a coaching change during the period – have had more players transfer out. Louisville and Clemson have had the same number of transfers over the same period.
Twin guards Cody and Caleb Martin transferred out after the 2015-16 season. Forward Kyle Washington left after the 2014-15 season. Those three players, Yow said, could have made a difference this season.
“We’re young this year in part because Kyle Washington and the twins are not here,” Yow said.
The Martins are sitting out this season at Nevada. Washington has been a big part of No. 15 Cincinnati’s success this season. The 6-9 forward averages 13.3 points and 7.1 rebounds for the Bearcats, who are 27-4 and ticketed for the NCAA tournament.
Gottfried believes the roster, as it constituted, could have worked out, even with those exits.
Injuries, last year to guard Terry Henderson and this year to forward Lennard Freeman, have been overlooked factors, Gottfried said.
“We haven’t had any luck with injuries,” Gottfried said.
Gottfried believes there is one key loss that would have changed the complexion of last season.
“Truthfully, honestly, regardless of who transferred, if Trevor Lacey is here then last year is a different year,” Gottfried said. “And that probably leads to a different year this year.
Lacey’s exit “hurt,” Gottfried said. The versatile 6-3 scoring guard provided the kind of on-court leadership that has been absent the past two seasons. Lacey helped N.C. State knock off No. 1 seed Villanova in the second round of the 2015 NCAA tournament but that was his only season on the court.
A transfer from Alabama, Lacey decided he was getting too old for college basketball and wanted to pursue a pro career. That left Gottfried short-handed last season which was only exacerbated when Henderson went down seven minutes into the season with an ankle injury.
Henderson was healthy this season, and averaged 13.9 points per game, but was still finding his way back after a season off.
With Henderson, sophomore Torin Dorn (a transfer from Charlotte) and freshmen Dennis Smith Jr., Markell Johnson, Ted Kapita and Omer Yurtseven, Gottfried had to rely on six players without any ACC experience.
Talented, but young
It’s difficult to put all the new pieces together in one season. No less an authority on the subject than John Calipari defended Gottfried after Kentucky’s win at Georgia on Feb. 18.
“(Gottfried) has good players but they’re young, they’re like my team,” said Calipari, who has rebuilt Kentucky as a national powerhouse using mostly one-and-done players. “It’s hard to do this with young guys.”
Especially when the ACC is as good as it has been this season.
“Then you have to deal with this league, this year?” Brey said. “That’s hard man.”
With three years left on his contract, Gottfried figured he could have used this season as learning experience. He likened the lopsided losses to North Carolina, the regular-season winner, to when the Tar Heels lost 58-46 at home to N.C. State in 2015.
“Two years ago, we went into Chapel Hill and (Kennedy) Meeks and (Isaiah) Hicks were sophomores and (Justin) Jackson and (Joel) Berry were freshmen,” Gottfried said.
“North Carolina was there. We put it on them in their own building. They couldn’t get 50 points. That team is now what you’re seeing.”
Gottfried really does believe there will be a payoff for this group, maybe even in Brooklyn. His positivity hasn’t left him despite the circumstances.
But if N.C. State puts it together next season, or beyond, it will be for another coach.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
No. 13 N.C. State vs. No. 12 Clemson
When: Noon, Tuesday
TV: ESPN2, WRAL