RALEIGH, N.C. -- It’s Martin Luther King Day, and on the first floor of the Dail Basketball Center, N.C. State’s two leading scorers are discussing Alabama football. Junior Trevor Lacey, who averages 16.5 points a game, is trying to name the Crimson Tide head coaches who preceded Nick Saban. He gets Mike Shula and Mike Price -- who was fired in 2003 before ever coaching a game -- but who came before them?
Senior Ralston Turner, the Wolfpack’s No. 2 scorer at 13.4 points a game, has the answer: Dennis Franchione. Lacey nods and laughs, knowing Turner is right.
It might seem out of the ordinary to hear two basketball players in the heart of ACC country chatting about SEC football, but to Turner and Lacey, it’s what they know and a part of who they are.
"I’m not going to say that they don’t really care about basketball,” Lacey says, “but football is what it’s been and what it always will be.”
The pair know what they're talking about because they're both from Alabama – Lacey is from Huntsville while Turner is a native of Muscle Shoals. They go way back, having first faced each other on the court in youth league play when they were about eight years old. Turner’s team always won, and Lacey says it’s because they had the best players. Turner doesn’t disagree.
Both initially started their college basketball careers in the SEC, the heart of college football country. Though older by just 21 days, Turner was in the Class of 2010 and Lacey was a year behind. Turner, who ranked No. 100 in the RSCI top 100 (a composite of all the various high school rankings), chose LSU. Lacey, a five-star recruit who ranked No. 36, picked Alabama, turning down offers from Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky and N.C. State, among others.
Over his two seasons in Baton Rouge, Turner started all but one game he played in, averaging 10.6 points and shooting 34.6 percent from three-point range. But when head coach Trent Johnson left the Tigers after the 2011-12 season for the same position at TCU, Turner felt he too needed a change of scenery.
“I wanted to come somewhere where I’d have a chance to play,” he says. “I thought at the time when I came here and I looked at down the road that I’d have a chance to log some minutes. Also this being the ACC was appealing.”
It was a similar story for Lacey. He was also a starter and his numbers his first two seasons -- 9.4 points per game and 34.6 percent from three -- were comparable, if not identical, to Turner's. But he didn't feel his talents were being maximized under head coach Anthony Grant and he wanted to put himself in a better position for the future -- i.e. more exposure, which meant playing in a league like the ACC.
Lacey thus set his sights on ACC schools, looking at Pittsburgh and Miami before deciding to join the Wolfpack in June of 2013.
Lacey didn't talk to Turner before picking N.C. State, but like his friend, he had long been familiar with Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried, who had taken over in Raleigh in May 2011 after being the head coach at Alabama from 1998-2009. Gottfried's oldest son, Brandon, had been AAU teammates with Turner, and Lacey got his first scholarship offer from Gottfried when the coach was still in Tuscaloosa.
“I feel like he lets you play your game,” Lacey says. “You don’t have to look over your shoulder if you make a mistake. As a player, you’re going to play hard for a guy like that who lets you be yourself out there.”
After sitting out a year due to the NCAA’s transfer rules, Turner was back in action for the 2013-14 season. He averaged 10.5 points per game, a distant second on the team to the 24.9 points put up by All-America and NBA lottery pick T.J. Warren, but he had his share of big games. Turner scored 23 points in a mid-January win over Maryland, went for 22 (including 5-of-8 on three-pointers) in an ACC tournament victory over Miami and then had 17 points in the Wolfpack's First Four win over Xavier in the NCAA tournament.
“T.J. scored every night,” Turner said. “When he was leaving one of the things I was thinking about were ways to make up that difference. Obviously [Lacey and I are] not the players that T.J. was. I don’t think anybody’s trying to be T.J. With that being said, that was the lesson we learned last year. With him here, we were able to achieve some things. Without him we can achieve some things too, but we just have to figure out how to make up that contribution.”
Though Lacey never played with Warren in a game, they have pushed each other behind the scenes. While sitting out his transfer year last season, Lacey was unquestionably the best player on N.C. State's scout team in practice, where he had to defend Warren. Even now that he is playing for the Phoenix Suns, Warren stays in touch with Lacey and gives him tips from afar on how he can improve.
With Warren off to the pros (and Lacey now eligible to play), it was time for the Alabama Boys to go to work this season. Turner, a senior, is shooting almost 41 percent from outside and has already had five games of 20 points or more, including dropping 33 in a December win over Tennessee. Lacey, a junior, has scored double digits in all but three games this season and is shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc, adding 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.
When Turner hits a big shot, it drives Lacey to do the same. If Lacey is drawing extra defensive attention or has gone cold, Turner takes it on himself to make something happen.
“It’s about understanding the moment,” Turner said. “If Trevor doesn’t have it going, or he gets in a situation where he hasn’t hit a shot, then it’s my turn. And vice versa. If he does have it going, let him do his thing. That’s my role. I just play off other people."
The Wolfpack are most dangerous when the two are both playing well. When N.C. State opened ACC play by beating in-state rival Wake Forest, the pair combined for 36 points on 13-of-23 shooting. And in the Wolfpack's 87-75 upset of then-No. 2 Duke on Jan. 11, they had 37 points on 12-of-22 shooting, including 9-of-14 from three-point range.
Even now that they've found a home on Tobacco Road, arguably the nation's most prominent college hoops hotbed, the two stay are never far from the preferred sport of their home state thanks to their competitive NCAA Football 14 match-ups. There's only one rule: Neither can play as Alabama. “It’s cheating,” Turner says.
Both know that football rules in their home state and have embraced playing in a place where basketball dominates the conversation year round. "It’s not comparable,” Turner said. “I don’t mean to be rude, but the teams you play and the coaches in this league and the places you play, it’s one of a kind. No disrespect to the SEC, but you don’t have to go to Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Syracuse and now Louisville in the SEC. It’s the same thing if you ask anybody here who plays [ACC] football. You don’t have to go to Alabama, Auburn or LSU. It’s a different dynamic.”
The drawback to such a loaded league, of course, is that it makes winning games more difficult. Since that upset of the Blue Devils, N.C. State has lost three of four games -- all to teams currently ranked in the AP poll -- by a combined 10 points. But despite having remaining games against No. 2 Virginia, No. 10 Louisville and No. 13 North Carolina, N.C. State's schedule actually lightens up a bit. Six of its final 10 games are against teams behind it in the ACC standings. At 13-8 and 4-4 in the league, the Wolfpack can't afford to stumble against lesser competition if they hope to get back to the NCAA tournament.
For most Alabama natives, a ticket to the Big Dance is often less important than performances in a spring football game. The ACC offers not only an opportunity to play deep into March, but to do so at schools where basketball is king. For Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner, that's what brought them to the state of North Carolina in the first place.