RALEIGH (AP) — North Carolina State struggled to handle big expectations as last season’s Atlantic Coast Conference favorite. Coach Mark Gottfried won’t have that problem in his third season.
Instead, he’ll be too busy trying to mold a young roster filled with new faces into a team that can contend for an NCAA tournament spot.
“You try to make a highlight film of the returning players and it’s three guys,” Gottfried said Monday during the team’s preseason media day. “You’ve got three guys in the tape, so our team is way different. But I think that’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s a challenge for our guys, and for us (coaches), so we like it.”
As practice opens Tuesday, N.C. State’s roster features six freshmen — led by McDonald’s All-American point guard Anthony “Cat” Barber — and a junior college transfer. That leaves the Wolfpack with only a few players who have even played major Division I basketball.
Sophomores T.J. Warren and Tyler Lewis, and senior reserve Jordan Vandenberg are the only scholarship returnees who saw action last year. LSU junior transfer Ralston Turner, who sat out last year, is the only other player with any significant experience.
That could make for some long nights in a newly configured ACC with the arrivals of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame alongside perennial league powers Duke and North Carolina.
Gottfried said the goal is to be in the NCAA tournament every year. Yet he’s also quick to say it’s going to be “a tall order” for this squad.
“You’re talking about a group of guys that are young, inexperienced,” he said. “They just don’t really understand yet how difficult it is to play in this league. Can that group become a team that can play in the NCAA tournament? Well, I’m not sure.”
Then again, the roster overhaul could be what the program needs.
After returning the core of a group that made an unexpected run to the NCAA round of 16, N.C. State started last year with a No. 6 national ranking and preseason ACC player of the year C.J. Leslie. The Wolfpack earned home wins against the rival Blue Devils and Tar Heels, but the players seemed spent as the season went along and rarely looked like they were having any fun late in the year. Despite winning 24 games for the second straight season, N.C. State bowed out with a one-and-done whimper in the NCAA tournament that left Gottfried frustrated.
Seniors Richard Howell and Scott Wood are gone. Leslie and point guard Lorenzo Brown were early entrants into the NBA draft. And McDonald’s All-American Rodney Purvis transferred to Connecticut after one season.
“Last year, I guess we did have a lot of expectations coming in and I think we took things for granted sometimes,” Lewis said. “I think we took teams for granted sometimes — we’re supposed to walk into the gym, they’re supposed to lay down and we’re supposed to win.
“This year, we’re a team that’s not going to be picked to win every game. And we’re going to have to be able to play hard every game, every play, even if we don’t execute well.”
Gottfried is counting on his “eager” and “anxious” youngsters to do exactly that.
“I think they like the fact that they hear and read the expectation’s for them not to be very good, quite frankly,” he said. “They like the challenge behind that. I think they are ready to go.”