N.C. State victory over No. 6 San Diego State far from a true upset
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On Friday morning, the North Carolina State players were watching television and heard analyst after analyst pick them to be the first upset of the day.
"Turn that off," Richard Howell told Lorenzo Brown. "I don't want to hear the hype."
And then Howell went out and made the analysts he didn't want to hear look very smart by scoring 22 points, 15 in the first half, to lead N.C. State to a 79-65 victory over San Diego State and into Sunday's game against Georgetown.
"He lit up like a Christmas tree," said coach Mark Gottfried.
On paper this was an upset, a No. 11 seed knocking off a No 6. But on the floor, the game didn't have the feel or look of an upset. N.C. State was far bigger and stronger and the Wolfpack easily outmuscled the four-guard lineup of the Aztecs, outrebounding San Diego State and disrupting shots.
Just about everyone who filled out a bracket, from the President of the United States to the talking heads on television, had N.C. State advancing.
That didn't put any more pressure on the Wolfpack, especially since Gottfried made sure his players understood the science behind such lofty predictions.
"You've got to remember I was two years in that business," said Gottfried, who worked as an analyst for ESPN after resigning from Alabama in 2009. "I was on TV and what you learn is none of us knew much about anything anyway. We were just saying that."
"I told them have fun with all that stuff, but the game is about what happens on the floor."
What happened on the floor was a whole lot of 6-foot-9 Howell and 6-8 C.J. Leslie, combining for 37 points for N.C. State. When the Aztecs were able to effectively double sophomore Leslie, Howell stepped up. When Howell got into foul trouble in the second half, Leslie came through. It was too much for the Aztecs, who relinquished the lead with 5:47 to play in the first half and never led again.
Though San Diego State came into the contest as the more experienced team, they didn't resemble the squad that made it to the Sweet 16 a year ago. Four of those starters were gone, either to graduation or the NBA.
N.C. State, in contrast, had little tournament experience -- the Wolfpack's last appearance was in 2006. But rather than being overwhelmed or nervous they seemed very much at home. Gottfried said that on Friday morning they were a little bit anxious but mostly giddy.
"They were excited," he said. "I wasn't going to curb that. I want them to be excited."
The lack of nerves was a function of their challenging schedule. The Wolfpack played seven ranked teams in the regular season, including then-No. 1 Syracuse. They lost all of those games, and weathered a late-season tailspin losing four straight ACC games, but gained invaluable experience and seasoning. In last week's ACC tournament, N.C. State knocked off Virginia for their 22nd win and led North Carolina in the semifinal before losing by two points.
That was expected to be enough to get into the tournament but it was no sure thing. When the Wolfpack was the last team named on Selection Sunday, they celebrated with a kind of joy rarely seen on Tobacco Road. Their neighbors, Duke and North Carolina, greet such news with a yawn and an expectation to reach the Final Four.
N.C. State has two national championship banners hanging in its own rafters but haven't been a sure bet in the tournament for years. Wolfpack fans are demanding, their neighborhood exclusive. Gottfried is trying to turn those elements into a positive.
"It raises the bar for everything," he said. "Our neighbors have been very good and for us it's a challenge to raise [the bar] higher. We've got a hungry fan base. ...I think all those things work in our favor."
N.C. State is the underdog that doesn't look like one. Or play like one. And may be around for a while.