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Friday, July 11, 2014

Hungry Wolfpack awaits KU in St. Louis

By RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle

Mark Gottfried had no sooner become North Carolina State’s 19th basketball coach last April than he was challenged by one of his players.

“I don’t want this to be a rebuilding year,” junior Scott Wood told him. “I don’t want to play just to get better. We’ve got the talent and the pieces that we could be a dominant team.”

No one is calling N.C. State a dominant team now. But after the lowly 11th-seeded Wolfpack upset No. 3-seed Georgetown 66-63 Sunday in Columbus, Ohio, they are surprising plenty of folks as they advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005.

N.C. State (24-12) will meet Kansas, a 63-60 winner over Purdue in Omaha, on Friday at St. Louis’ Edward Jones Dome.

In addition to Wood’s warning shot, senior C.J. Williams said he was looking to transfer. Gottfried, nephew of former KU football coach Mike Gottfried, reflected on it all Sunday night.

“We just needed more time to get to know our guys individually,” Gottfried said in the news conference after Sunday’s victory. “We encouraged them to come upstairs and talk to us.

“If I’m a player, I’m thinking: ‘How does my game fit into your style? Do I fit? Do you still want me?’ More than anything it was about getting time to build relationships and trust.”

It hasn’t always been pretty for N.C. State this year. During one February stretch, the Wolfpack lost 6 of 9 games and they finished in a three-way tie for fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference at 9-7.

But N.C. State has won six of its last seven games going into its match with the Jayhawks. And they’re doing it as a team.

All five starters average in double figures ranging from 10-plus to 14-plus. That’s also how the Pack did it in beating Georgetown. Wood, Williams and sophomore forward C.J. Leslie scored 14 points each, guard Lorenzo Brown added nine 12 and forward Richard Howell had nine.

“We share the ball,” Wood said. “Coach has taught us to play together.”

N.C. State fans haven’t had much to shout about since the glory days of the 1974 and 1983 national championship teams. The Wolfpack has been taking a back seat to Duke and North Carolina along Tobacco Road for a long time.

"We always talk about how we have such a great history at N.C. State," Gottfried said, "but…it’s also time to build some things in the present rather than going all the way back to ’83 or ’74. Our players know that."

After coaching for 10 years at Alabama, his alma mater, Gottfried spent the last two seasons as an ESPN analyst. He said it gave him time to step away from the game and gain a new perspective.

“I’ve always been about relationship with players,” he said. “During those two years (with ESPN) I grew to understand how much I missed it and how important those relationships are.”

He replaced former Wolfpack player Sydney Lowe, whose five-year tenure ended last spring with a 15-16 finish.

The Wolfpack looked down and out when it lost its fourth straight, going down 72-69 at Clemson on Feb. 25.

“It was our backs completely against the wall,” Gottfried said. “The window was closing and we needed to respond. And to their credit, they did.”

N.C. State isn’t big inside with a pair of 6-foot-8 starters, Leslie and Howell, but it is big on the perimeter with Brown and Williams both 6-5 and Wood at 6-6.

“We have big hearts, though,” Gottfried said. “A good thing about our team is I think they’re a hungry bunch. I don’t see a satisfied group at all in our locker room.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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