Inexperienced Wolfpack aiming to surprise
North Carolina State went from making an unexpected run to the NCAA tournament's round of 16 in coach Mark Gottfried's first year to falling far short of expectations as Atlantic Coast Conference favorite the next.
The core of those teams is gone now, leaving Gottfried to teach an inexperienced group he hopes will grow up quickly.
"This is going to be a completely different environment now," Gottfried said. "You've got a lot of guys that have not played at this level."
True, so much so that Gottfried joked during the team's preseason media day that it's hard to make a highlight film of the returning players since there are only three.
Of that trio, sophomore forward T.J. Warren is expected to take the lead scoring role, sophomore point guard Tyler Lewis will bring backcourt experience and 7-foot-1 senior Jordan Vandenberg will provide depth.
Beyond that, the roster is filled with players who have never played major Division I basketball. LSU junior transfer Ralston Turner, who sat out last year, is the only other player with significant experience,
Compare that to last year, when the Wolfpack had four returning starters — including ACC preseason player of the year C.J. Leslie — and a No. 6 preseason ranking. N.C. State (24-11) beat rivals Duke and North Carolina at home, but ended with a one-and-done whimper in the NCAA tournament.
Of the core group Gottfried inherited, Leslie and Lorenzo Brown left early for the NBA draft, while Scott Wood and Richard Howell departed as seniors. The Wolfpack also lost guard Rodney Purvis, who decided to transfer to Connecticut after one year.
This year's N.C. State's roster heavy on potential, with six freshmen led by McDonald's All-American point guard Anthony "Cat" Barber and junior college transfer Desmond Lee.
Gottfried has said it would be a "tall order" to reach the NCAA tournament for a team picked to finish 10th in the 15-team ACC. But he said his players are excited by the challenge of exceeding outside expectations.
"You've got to compete at every level, but I don't think it's the type of competing where we just come in here trying to outplay somebody for a position," Barber said. "We're coming in here to work and play as a team and work hard."
Here are five things to watch during North Carolina State's basketball season:
TARGETED WARREN: Warren made scoring look easy last season as he averaged 12 points on 62 percent shooting, but that was as the team's fourth or fifth option last year. Now the 6-foot-8 forward, who slimmed down about 20 pounds, heads into the year as the primary focus of opposing defenses. "He's so versatile," Gottfried said. "He can go inside. I can put him at the forward position. I can put him at the wing."
STRONGER LEWIS: While Warren lost weight, Lewis added about 15 pounds after having trouble with physical play last year at 157 pounds. Warren said the added weight has helped Lewis better absorb contact from screens and aggressive perimeter defenders in practices. That could help keep Lewis fresher, a must for a team that could use his oncourt leadership.
WING SCORING: Lee and Turner will have to provide some perimeter scoring punch to make up for the losses of Lorenzo Brown and Scott Wood. Turner averaged about 11 points during two years at LSU and practiced last season with the Wolfpack, while Lee averaged 20 points at New Mexico Junior College.
BARBER'S TRANSITION: Barber was the jewel of the Wolfpack's recruiting class and came to Raleigh expecting to start. If he's ready for a big role right away, that will certainly help the Wolfpack's chances of growing up fast. Gottfried has even talked about using Lewis and Barber together in the same backcourt. If Barber gets off to a slow start, it could trickle down to the entire team.
INSIDE PRESENCE: N.C. State has plenty of bodies up front with BeeJay Anya (6-9, 325), Kyle Washington (6-9, 225) and Lennard Freeman (6-8, 245). The question is who will be ready to provide an inside presence and replace some of the rebounding production lost with the departure of Howell, a double-double machine.