ATLANTA – Even before Mark Gottfried said it on Friday, you could see it: North Carolina State is now more ready to win the games it needs to. They weren’t ready early in the season, when they had some opportunities, but they showed this weekend at the ACC Tournament that they are in a better place now and at a good time. That remains the case despite a tough 69-67 loss to North Carolina in the semifinals on Saturday.
“Early in the year, we played a great schedule, but we just sometimes weren’t good enough,” said Gottfried after the Wolfpack knocked off Virginia. “I think now, this team is learning how to execute their offense in late-game, tough situations, get a defensive stop at a tough time.”
You can see the growth overall, and a lot has to do with their best player, C.J. Leslie. When he first returned from an NCAA suspension, he made an instant impact in the Legends Classic, although the Wolfpack came out of there with third place. As the season went along, he seemed to understand better that he was the best player on the team, and that meant at times he had to play like it. The staff worked on him in that respect as the season went along, and he delivered as they finished in a tie for fifth in the ACC. In the last four regular season games, Leslie averaged 20.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, posting three double-doubles.
Leslie had a big double-double on Friday with 19 points and 14 rebounds. On Saturday, he continued it, leading them to a halftime lead with 15 points on 7-9 shooting. When North Carolina went on an 11-0 run to regain the lead, it was Leslie who would later put them back on top with a tough basket and free throw for a conventional three-point play.
“Great players take their teams to great heights,” said Gottfried. “He has lifted his game a level, which is impressive to me.”
That lead wouldn’t last, and Leslie fouled out with over eight minutes left, which would have appeared to put them in a lot of danger. But they were able to hang in there, with Lorenzo Brown making several big plays. While moral victories aren’t what a team with their NCAA Tournament profile needs, it was another sign of how much this team has improved during the season.
“We knew we had to step it up the best way we could,” said Brown, who had 16 points and six assists on the afternoon.
In non-conference play, North Carolina State knocked off the teams they were supposed to, for the most part, but couldn’t break through in the best opportunities – Vanderbilt, Indiana, Stanford and Syracuse. Their win over Texas was good, but after that the next best win was probably over Princeton. The good thing for them is that they avoided a bad loss, and for the most part they did that in ACC play as their worst losses were against Georgia Tech (home) and Clemson (road).
As ACC play wore on, the Wolfpack managed to win a couple of games they needed to finish 9-7 in the conference, their first winning mark in the conference since 2005-06. They beat fellow bubble team Miami twice and nearly knocked off the Virginia team they beat on Friday. Although they ha a four-game losing streak late, they came against Duke, Florida State, North Carolina and the aforementioned loss at Clemson. They responded to that with two wins before the ACC Tournament.
In the end, it was enough for an NCAA Tournament bid, as the Wolfpack are the No. 11 seed in the Midwest region. In a year with such a weak bubble, they were a possibility despite striking out in non-conference play as they did. In many other years, they wouldn’t get much consideration. They went 7-10 against top 100 teams, but had just one win against a top 50 team (Virginia entered the week just outside the top 50, so that was not one of them).
Before the ACC Tournament, the at-large candidacy of North Carolina State was an unknown. After three games in Atlanta, it was not that much clearer, but they got in – and now they hope to do something with it given their improvement over the course of the season.