When Mark Gottfried was named head coach at N.C. State in the spring of 2011, his immediate task wasn’t restoring the program’s greatness – it was restoring its relevance. The Wolfpack had just come off a dismal five years under Sidney Lowe, during which they won a total of 25 ACC games and failed to play in a single NCAA tournament. Lowe’s firing was followed by even more embarrassment for the school, as big name after big name turned down an invitation to interview for the vacancy.
At the time, Gottfried himself was fighting to stay relevant. After being fired at Alabama, he had spent two years as an analyst at ESPN while trying to work his way back to the sidelines. He came to Raleigh with a pretty good pedigree, but his main qualification appeared to be his willingness take the job. It looked like a marriage of convenience.
Lo and behold, N.C. State became relevant a lot sooner than anyone expected. The Wolfpack reached the Sweet 16 in Gottfried’s very first season and then made the NCAA tournament in each of the next two. Last year, they were a surprise choice to appear in the First Four, where they beat Xavier before losing to St. Louis in the second round. Sure, the program is still a long way from reprising its past elite status, but it’s clearly on much better footing than it was three years ago. “We’ve been to three straight NCAA tournaments, but we’ve got to keep going,” Gottfried said. “At some point, you’ve got to break through for a deep run.”
Unfortunately, progress in college basketball can be maddeningly slow. Heading into the 2014-15 season, the Wolfpack must find a way to replace T.J. Warren, the sublime, 6-foot-8 sophomore who, as Gottfried was quick to point out, “made more field goals than anyone in the nation.” Beyond that, the personnel losses were minimal. Jordan Vandenberg, a 7-1 senior center who started all 32 games he played in, has graduated, while 5-11 sophomore point guard Tyler Lewis transferred to Butler.
It would have been nice for Lewis to provide some backcourt depth, but he was going to have a hard time getting major minutes next season – and he knew it. That’s because Anthony “Cat” Barber, a 6-2 sophomore who started 18 games last season and posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of slighlty better than 2-to-1, has a stranglehold on the position. Barber, who was ranked No. 27 nationally in his high school class by Rivals.com, was a big-time “get” for Gottfried, but he was primarily a scorer in high school, so it took him a while to learn how to play point guard in the ACC. Once he learned how to run the team (read: get T.J. the ball), the Pack made its late-season push. “He got better as the year went on,” Gottfried said. “You can’t teach his speed. He’s one of the fastest kids in the country.”
Barber will have a talented backcourt mate in Trevor Lacey, who averaged 9.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists as a two-year starter at Alabama. At 6-3 and 210 pounds, Lacey is big and strong for a college two-guard, and he can score in a variety of ways. “He’ll have a chance to be an impact player in our league,” Gottfried said. There are some good frontcourt options as well. Ralston Turner is a 6-5 fifth-year senior who transferred from LSU and ranked second on the team in scoring last year (10.5 ppg). Freshman Abdul-Malik Abu, a 6-8 forward, is a heralded prospect who chose N.C. State over Florida and UConn, among others schools. (He’s also the first player Gottfried has ever recruited from the Boston area.) Gottfried is also hoping to see improvement from another pair of sophomore forwards, Lennard Freeman and Kyle Washington. “They did a nice job for us by committee last year as a group,” he said. “Now they’ve got to be much better.”
The biggest question – literally – will be whether 6-9 sophomore forward BeeJay Anya is ready for his close-up. Anya ranked ninth in the ACC in blocks last season despite playing fewer than 12 minutes per game. Gottfried told me that at one point last year Anya weighed close to 350 pounds. He is down to 300 now, but his coach would like to see him shed about 20 more before the start of the season. “Last year, he would block shots and score around the basket, but he couldn’t sustain it because he was out of shape,” Gottfried said. “If he gets to where we think he can get to, we’re a whole lot better.”
In early August, I watched Anya compete with some of the top college players in the country at the Adidas Nations camp in Long Beach, California. He wasn’t dominant, but he did look slimmer and was able to play hard for long stretches. As long as he was on the court, he was effective. That is a hopeful sign going forward.
At 50 years old, Gottfried still enjoys the coach’s life, and he relishes the challenge of bringing this program back to relevance – and beyond. “I spent 11 years at a place where football dominated everything,” he said in reference to his time at Alabama. “This is a great basketball job, better than I anticipated. We have a lot to sell here.”
Maybe so, but as of now, Gottfried has not locked up any commitments from the current crop of high school seniors, partly because he is devoting his energy to recruiting elite 2015 prospects like Brandon Ingram, a 6-8 swingman from Kinston, N.C., as well as two consensus top-10 players in 6-3 guard Malik Newman and 6-10 center Diamond Stone. It might behoove Gottfried to lower his sights and go after players whom the blueblood programs (read: Duke and North Carolina) have passed on, but that is not going to happen. Gottfried is a gunslinger by nature, and he intends to aim high. “I’m not here to back down from anybody,” he said. “From a recruiting standpoint, we don’t shy away. We’re going to go toe-to-toe every day. That’s the only way I know how.”