It’s a season of uncertainty and transition on the basketball court for N.C. State, which is to say that’s probably a surprisingly good thing for the Wolfpack.
As coach Mark Gottfried enters his fourth season, he’s been at his best navigating unfamiliar waters, whether it was assuming Sidney Lowe’s roster and trying to make sense of it or starting over last year with T.J. Warren and a whole bunch of question marks. Between them, the Wolfpack was picked to win the ACC and managed to underachieve massively, albeit not without making the NCAA tournament.
The good news for the Wolfpack is this season is shaping up like the last one, which ended with a heart-shattering NCAA tournament loss but otherwise saw the Wolfpack exceed expectations with alacrity.
“When you have an unproven team, with a lot of players that have potential, but yet are unproven, that makes it kind of fun,” Gottfried said. “It’s fun to see what this group can become.”
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Warren is gone to the NBA, a massive loss without question. In his place, a more balanced offense, to be led presumably by Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey. The point guard position is settled, with Cat Barber firmly established in the wake of Tyler Lewis’ transfer to Butler, but still with questions how he’ll handle the full-time role.
Ralston Turner returns to fire up 3-pointers from the wing and there’s once again a mess of forwards to sort through, with freshman Abdul-Malik Abu added to a mix that includes sophomores BeeJay Anya, Lennard Freeman and Kyle Washington. Everyone on the roster needs to show improvement, because replacing Warren will be a collective job.
“It was to a point last year where I said you could just put 25 (points) down in the books, because T.J. was going to get that,” senior guard Desmond Lee said. “Everybody’s got to step their game up this year to another level, because T.J. is gone.”
That still leaves more questions than answers, and for most programs, that’s an uncomfortable situation. For N.C. State under Gottfried, it appears to put the coach in a position where he can do his best work.
That first season was masterful, molding together a team from clashing personalities and getting them to play a system they weren’t recruited to play. Everyone bought in, and the Wolfpack rode the wave all the way to a Sweet 16 loss to Kansas.
A year later, with almost that entire team back, the Wolfpack crumpled in the face of championship aspirations. Those same personalities clashed. No one bought in. Talent rose to the surface many nights, but not enough, and the season came to a merciful end with an opening-game NCAA tournament loss.
With all the departures, last season wasn’t expected to offer too much. Not only was Warren far better than anyone could have imagined – and people could imagine quite a bit – but the Wolfpack was also far better than anyone could have expected.
The ending was rough, but the Wolfpack won an NCAA tournament game and the season was a resounding success amid modest hopes.
Which brings us to Year 4, another largely blank slate and another set of largely moderate expectations.
“We’re going to be better than what we get credit for,” Lacey said.
Lacey didn’t play last year, but he watched enough to know this is exactly how the Wolfpack seems to like things.