For the first time that many NC State fans can remember, the Wolfpack are ranked ahead of both UNC and Duke heading into the 2012-2013 basketball season. The Coaches Poll ranks NC State at 6th while the CNN/SI and Yahoo!Sports both bring NC State in at #5 nationally. While half of the fan base is celebrating and already calling for Final Four expectations and the other half are somewhere between cautious optimism and signaling NC State’s doom, the one thing everyone can agree on is that NC State is far better than it has been in past 20 years and may finally be in a position where it can retake it’s place atop the ACC.
NC State’s appearance atop the preseason rankings is great for hype, publicity, and team confidence. It’s also great for boosting the confidence of key financial supporters of the Wolfpack Club. What it’s not good for is setting expectations for a still growing program at a hard-to-reach level. With the recent news that NC State is sweeping preseason honors, it places a program 20 years removed from relevancy in a position where it must turn one break-out season into a national title contending year. Last season, NC State made it’s way into the tournament by beating the teams it should have and earning a “key” win during the ACC tournament against Virginia. What it did not do is upset any major teams (and by major, I think we all know what I’m talking about). Going into the 2012-2013 season, those “big teams” are still going to be huge threats and while NC State may not enter the games as underdogs, they are going to have to prove that they deserve to be in the nation’s top 10.
So pushing aside critical additions of Purvis, Warren, and Lewis, NC State is entering the season with most of it’s team in tact, major loses being Alex Johnson and CJ Williams who are both off continuing their careers abroad (Painter’s gone to but… I don’t want to talk about it). The problem with last year’s squad can be summarized in the words “Wood” and “Fouls”. If Wood was cold, NC State lost it’s perimeter threat and was forced to play the short game. Conversely, fouls kept NC State from playing the tough, physical game it wanted to beneath the rim and forced the Pack to hang back when it didn’t want to. A good coach can work with these issues the way Gottfried has, but what a coach can’t control is walking into a squad in year one where he essentially has one guy who can nail 3′s consistently and one guy who can fight for baskets under the rim.
The “fouls” issue resolves itself by developing more ACC caliber players from the existing roster. Thomas de Thaey is just 13lbs lighter than Howell and has already proven he can ball in Europe. While his skills didn’t immediately appear during the 2012 season, 1 year to acclimate to the American game and to develop under Gottfried’s staff appears to have earned dividends given de Thaey’s early performances in Spain and in preseason scrimmages. The “Wood” issue (the basketball variety, not the pubescent “wood” issue) is eased by improvements in ball handling from both Lorenzo and Leslie. Leslie had become infamous for “never seeing a bad shot he didn’t like”, but in 2012 he held back his arm for slightly better shots (improving from 7-28 at the 3pt to 4-14). As with de Thaey, we can only expect good things out of Leslie and while he won’t be a 3pt leader, he will be able to support the overall “3pt threat” that NC State wants to be. The real game changer will be the improvements in Lorenzo Brown who has already improved over the last two seasons from a 0.298 3PT average to over 0.350. The days of waiting to see if Wood is hot to determine if we’ll win a game will be long gone by the time NC State tips off on November 9th.
NOW we can look at the freshmen. The freshmen add an interesting twist to the NC State narrative in 2012-2013 simply because many NC State fans feel they’ve seeing this movie before and we know it doesn’t end well. A promising season, some media hype, and a class of hot-shot recruits. Times are very different now than they were in 2010, but many just can’t shake the memories of losing 87-48 to a mediocre Wisconsin team in the year many were hoping beloved alumni Sidney Lowe would break out of his “I can’t coach” shell. It wasn’t to be and the rest is history. With a more competent coach, few are worried of a “2010 II: The Revenge Of Jimmy V’s Curse” showing in a theater near you, but they are concerned that we are placing expectations far to great on our fledgling little Wolfpackers. Teams like Kentucky are famous for taking in freshmen and farming them back out to the NBA, getting a champion season out of them in between, but NC State isn’t that type of program. We aren’t going to attract “one and dones” now and probably won’t in the future. A better way to think of NC State recruits would actually be to look at Carolina and Duke. They attract recruits who stick around for at least a couple of years before they head off to the big leagues. Of the 2-4 they bring in a year, usually one of them is an instant impact on the team while the rest have to develop and wait for their time to shine. By all early indications, TJ Warren looks like a player who feels comfortable on the court and adds some much-needed bulk (6′ 8″, 233lb) to the front court. However, if we want to place expectations on our recruits to earn us that #6 preseason ranking, we might want to start praying now. These kids are good, but NC State has never been in a position where it has a strong returning roster, an evolving high-post offense, and the addition of such highly touted players all in a single season. Before we face that first “tough” opponent against Michigan on Nov 27th, we may not know whether these kids are up for the task quite yet.
So, does NC State deserve to be ranked #6/5 in preseason polls? That’s debatable and the debate over what is the correct magical number isn’t necessarily useful. What is useful is acknowledging that NC State has a dynamite team coming into 2012-2013, but it’s always walking into a dynamite factor being expected to finish atop the nation’s best programs by season’s end. The worst-case scenario for NC State, at least the worst that might realistically occur, is that NC State finish somewhere between 20-25 with only 1 or 2 “impressive” wins and exit the NCAA tournament in the 1st or 2nd rounds. That places a still-growing NC State in a position where it failed to meet expectations once and risks losing the favor of the media, fans, and boosters. True, no one will be calling for a regime change (at least no one worth listening to), but it would be a harsh lesson in reality for a fan base that is owed a little time in the clouds.