No. 6 NC State starts year as ACC favorite

No. 6 NC State starts year as ACC favorite

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) North Carolina State went from rebuilding to Atlantic Coast Conference favorite so fast that coach Mark Gottfried is already having to manage expectations in his second year.

It could be the biggest challenge for the sixth-ranked Wolfpack in a potential-filled year.

``That's the one thing I tell our guys that we can control: we can control how driven we are every day,'' Gottfried said. ``It's easy to talk about it, it's a little bit harder to do it at practice. I can't control a lot of things nor can our guys, but we do have the ability to control that, so that's what we're trying to do each day.''

It's been a stunningly fast rise for N.C. State, which hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2006 before Gottfried's arrival last season. The Wolfpack (24-13) had a late-season surge and took eventual finalist Kansas to the final seconds in loss in the NCAA round of 16, ending the program's winningest season in 24 years.

Now Gottfried has four returning starters to go with a recruiting class of three McDonald's All-Americans, making the Wolfpack the preseason ACC favorite for the first time since the 1974-75 season. N.C. State's No. 6 ranking is the program's highest since reaching sixth in December 1983.

It's easy to see why expectations are soaring amid a rabid fan base hungry to challenge heavyweights Duke and North Carolina for control of the league despite the fact the program hasn't finished in the top three in the ACC since 2004.

``I'll go around town and people will say to me, `Wow, coach, what a great year last year,''' Gottfried said. ``And the truth of the matter is, it wasn't a great year. It was a great finish. We had a really fun finish. And it was exceptional for our group. But our year wasn't great. We were just OK. So we have to be a lot better than we were, not just at home, but start to finish.''

Then again, this is also the same coach who announced during a public scrimmage this month that the program's goal is to ``play on Monday night in April.''

``I don't want to shoot myself in the foot and say, `We're going to go out there and do this,''' senior forward Richard Howell said. ``I just feel like we have the right pieces to reach whatever goals we feel that we need to. ... I feel like we definitely have enough to finish stronger than we did last year.''

Everything starts with juniors C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown.

Leslie, a 6-foot-9 forward, made huge gains with his ballhandling and shot selection last year to average about 15 points and seven rebounds. He decided to return to school instead of entering the NBA draft and was the ACC preseason player of the year.

Brown thrived in his first year at the point, averaging 13 points, five rebounds and six assists.

Howell (11 points) gives the Wolfpack some toughness and rebounding, while senior Scott Wood (12 points) is a career 40-percent 3-point shooter.

That experienced group will likely ease the burden on the incoming freshmen, who are led by hometown star Rodney Purvis - the preseason pick for ACC rookie of the year.

Wolfpack fans were so excited about the guard's decision to play for Gottfried that they made a habit of attending his high school games at Raleigh Upper Room, where he went on to become The Associated Press men's prep basketball player of the year in the state.

Forward T.J. Warren and guard Tyler Lewis round out the recruiting class, giving the Wolfpack plenty of depth along the perimeter.

While 7-foot reserve Jordan Vandenberg is back from a shoulder injury that cost him most of last year, N.C. State is thin up front behind Leslie and Howell - who battled foul trouble in several key games last year. N.C. State lost DeShawn Painter to Old Dominion via transfer for family reasons, robbing the Wolfpack of a reliable post defender and rebounder.

The losses of veterans C.J. Williams and Alex Johnson also means the Wolfpack must replace oncourt leadership - something that will be critical for a team that isn't used to wearing a bullseye on its back.

Until then, at least, Gottfried won't let his players get overwhelmed by it all.

``He tells us all the time: `How do we deal with this?''' Leslie said. ``We practice hard. We ignore (outside expectations) and we do all those things that great teams do to be great. ... We've got to listen and we've got to be focused and jump on it from the start.''


AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary contributed to this report.

Quick Links

3 reasons the Caps beat the Red Wings

3 reasons the Caps beat the Red Wings

Not much separated the Washington Capitals and the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday. A late 2-on-0 goal for Brett Connolly proved to be the difference.

Here's why the Caps ultimately walked away with the 1-0 win.

A first period goalie interference call

Andreas Athanasiou thought he had given the Red Wings a first period lead, but Barry Trotz challenged the call for goalie interference. The review showed that Tyler Bertuzzi clipped Philipp Grubauer in the head with an elbow right before the shot went in. Given how long it took the Caps to get going in this game, it is fair to say an early deficit would have been hard to overcome.


Killing off a full two-minute 5-on-3

Two man advantages are hard to kill. Killing off a full two-minutes at 5-on-3, that's a tall task. With the game still scoreless in the second period, T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller were both assessed penalties giving Detroit two-full minutes at 5-on-3. The Red Wings managed four shots on goal, but Washington was able to successfully kill off the penalty and keep the game scoreless.

Philipp Grubauer

There were few players who had strong efforts on Tuesday, but Grubauer was phenomenal. Even when the game felt sleepy in the first two periods, Detroit still managed 28 shots on goal, all of which were turned aside by the German netminder. When Washington finally took the lead in the third, the Red Wings woke up and began pushing the offense, but Grubauer was in the zone at that point and could not be beaten. His best save came in the third period when he stared down a breakaway from Athanasiou and extended the pad to deny the shot.


Quick Links

Tarik's 3 stars: Grubauer, Caps shut down the Red Wings

Tarik's 3 stars: Grubauer, Caps shut down the Red Wings

It wasn’t pretty but the Caps eventually got what they needed in Detroit: two points.  

After a sleepy first 40 minutes, Brett Connolly scored midway through the third period and then Philipp Grubauer made sure it stood up at Little Caesars Arena, where Washington eked out a 1-0 victory Thursday over the scuffling Red Wings.


Tarik’s three stars of the game:

1-Philipp Grubauer, Capitals

For much of the game, Grubi was left to fend for himself. Good thing for the Caps he was up to the task. The German netminder, who has been one of the NHL’s top goaltenders since Thanksgiving, turned aside 39 shots, including three stops on a pivotal 5-on-3 penalty kill in the second period.

2-Brett Connolly, Capitals

The Caps didn’t get many Grade-A opportunities vs. Jimmy Howard. But Connolly buried one of the few they got…on a 2-on-0, set up by Jakub Vrana in the third period.

Connolly’s goal was his 15th of the season in his 63rd game, equaling the career-high he set a year ago in 66 contests. Vrana, meantime, has three goals and five assists since getting scratched 12 games ago.

3-Lars Eller, Capitals

Eller didn’t record a point, but he was all over the puck in Motown. The veteran center finished with a game-high six shots on net. He also had a key backcheck against Darren Helm, on a shorthanded breakaway, in the first period.

Eller was good in the dot, too, winning eight of 12 faceoffs.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.