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Inside NC State's plan to bump UNC out of the ACC tournament


ATLANTA -- When North Carolina State beat Virginia 67-74 in the ACC quarterfinals Friday, Mark Gottfried and his staff had less than 21 hours to prepare for No. 4 North Carolina and play itself off the NCAA bubble. Here's an inside look at the Wolfpack's preparation:

Friday, 4:45 p.m. -- Gottfried is interviewed by former ESPN colleague Fran Frischilla moments after his team survived a tough challenge from Virginia. "Come on Joey, put us in the tournament!" Gottfried pleads to Joe Lunardi, the esteemed NCAA bracket expert who has had NC State on the outside looking in. Gottfried feels with the Virginia win, his team is in the tournament, but he's always ready to make his case.

4:50 p.m. -- Forward C.J. Leslie, the star of the Virginia win, is the last one in the NC State locker room after doing some on-court interviews. "We're going to beat North Carolina, ya'll!," the soft-spoken Leslie yelled as his celebrating teammates gathered around him. "We're going to keep things going and win this thing!"

4:55 p.m. -- Gottfried, point guard Lorenzo Brown and Leslie meet the media in the bowels of Philips Arena. After discussing the Virginia game, the topic turns to North Carolina. "We all have great respect for North Carolina," Gottfried said. "When we got on the plane, we came down here to win the tournament. It is a tall order, I know that. It is a great challenge, a great opponent. We'll be excited to play tomorrow."

7:15 p.m. -- Gottfried holds a staff meeting in his suite at the Hyatt Regency, a hotel that is housing Florida State and Virginia Tech as well as the Wolfpack. In room 2245, assistants Bobby Lutz, Orlando Early and Rob Moxley, plus director of basketball operations Jeff Dunlap and his assistant Levi Watkins, gather around a coffee table with Gottfried. Duke-Virginia Tech is on the TV, and the sound is muted. Lutz and Moxley lead the discussion on Carolina and what NC State needs to do to compete.

The topics center mostly around Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller. Marshall's increase in scoring is a worry, because NC State wants to double off the point guard to help with Carolina's big men. The staff debates whether they should stay with Marshall and double the low post with another big man. Lutz throws out the suggestion of using a box-and-one on Marshall to keep the ball out of his hands. The concern with Zeller is his ability to run the floor. Can NC State take a charge on him? Getting Zeller in foul trouble, especially with fellow big man John Henson questionable with a sprained wrist, is paramount for NC State to pull the upset.

"Transition and rebounding are the two musts tomorrow," says Lutz, who is the primary assistant on every scouting preparation.

Gottfried is taking notes in pencil, making bullet points he will use to address the team after an 8 p.m. dinner. "Mentally, we have to shift gears," he says. "This is great, but we came here to win this tourney."

The talk then turns to the bubble for the final 10 minutes of the meeting, with discussions ranging from Washington to Seton Hall to Oral Roberts to South Florida. "Temple lost. That's not good," said Lutz.

Gottfried turns up the volume when the NC State highlights appear, then the room gets a good laugh to close the meeting when Gottfried's shoutout to Lunardi is replayed.

8:25 p.m. -- After the players, coaches and their families have finished their dinners in a second-floor conference room, Gottfried stands in front of his team in a corner of the room. Each player has been given a single, two-sided sheet with information on UNC. Gottfried believes in concise scouting reports and limited video, especially in a tournament situation such as this against a familiar foe.

Gottfried goes over the main bullet points developed in his coaches meeting -- the importance of transition and rebounding, the approach to defending Marshall, Henson's questionable status, plus mistakes that were made in the last Carolina matchup -- an 86-74 UNC win. "We tied the game in the second half, and within three seconds [Reggie] Bullock came down and hit a three. You cannot celebrate at all against these guys."

Gottfried closes the 20-minute talk with a message for them to remember: "North Carolina saw us play today, and I guarantee they're not sure what to do about us. We're dangerous, and they know it."

9:05 p.m. -- Before going up to his room to watch NC State's game with Virginia and the last NC State-UNC matchup on his iPad, Gottfried sits down with NC State announcer Tony Haynes to tape "The Mark Gottfried Show", a 30-minute program aired each Sunday night. The timing this week is a little tricky, because the team has yet to play UNC, yet the show will air highlights of the game. The pair somehow comes up with a lead-in to the yet-to-be created highlights from the game. "I hope it was a win!" Gottfried says during the break. Asked if they were going to re-tape the show if the Wolfpack advanced to Sunday, he said, "Good question."

Saturday, 9:05 a.m. -- Gottfried arrives back in the International Ball Room South, coffee in hand. Last night's viewings of previous games reinforced what he feels his team needs to do to upset North Carolina -- get back in transition, rebound and have patience in the Wolfpack's offensive sets. He sits down to have breakfast with his wife and four of his five children, while the support staff also eats before the players arrive.

9:45 a.m. -- After the players eat with a tape of the previous day's North Carolina-Maryland game playing in the background, team managers set up chairs for the team to gather in front of the screen. Gottfried again reviews his bullet points for the day: Transition defense. "You can close your eyes and sprint back to the three-point line on the wing, and you'll meet [Reggie] Bullock and [Harrison] Barnes there. That's where they are going." Take charges. Rebound. Gottfried then shows about 10 minutes worth of clips, including one from the second UNC-NC State matchup that showed Bullock get a wide-open three from the wing off a made NC State basket. There are several shots of Zeller sprinting up the floor ahead of the defense for dunks, plus examples of how and how not to guard Marshall (with Duke being used as the 'how' example twice). Gottfried shows how NC State exploited Carolina's desire to get into passing lanes with backdoor cuts twice in the last game as the Wolfpack snuck in for layups.

The final emphasis is for NC State's big men to turn and attack Zeller, Henson and McAdoo when they get the ball in the low post. "We're quicker," he says. "We can attack."

A shot of Leslie turning to face Zeller appears, and somewhere in the room a 'See ya' is heard. Leslie blows by Zeller for a dunk, and the room has a good laugh. That's Gottfried's final clip. There will be time for a final pep talk at the arena. "Buses at 11:35," he says, and the players head back to their rooms.

1:01 p.m. -- A partisan UNC crowd at Philips Arena watches as the Tar Heels have trouble shaking the Wolfpack. NC State is executing the game's themes at the outset -- transition and rebounding, surrendering just one fast-break basket in the first half and playing the bigger Tar Heels even on the glass. NC State is attacking when it was there, but bleeding some clock when there was no break. The Pack take two first-half charges. The score is 34-31 NC State at the break, and while it was not successful in getting Marshall or Zeller in foul trouble, McAdoo has three and Henson couldn't play due to his injured wrist. Lutz wanted the game in the 30's at halftime. He got his wish.

In the second half, NC State builds a 46-39 lead as the big men are on the attack, but then the offense goes into a six-minute drought. Carolina re-takes the lead, then Leslie picks up his fourth and fifth fouls within 32 seconds, leaving the game with NC State trailing 58-52 with 8:03 to play. Improbably, NC State comes back with the same game plan, attacking inside with Richard Howell and DeShawn Painter. Ultimately, the game comes down to the final minute, when Marshall avoids a potential charge and hits a short bank shot with 10 seconds to play to give UNC a 69-67 lead. Wood tries to feed Painter in the lane with five seconds left, but Justin Watts breaks it up and saves the game for Carolina.

3:29 p.m. -- Gottfried address the media, saying how proud he is of his team's effort and continuing on his theme of his team's improvement. "This one's tough to take," he says. Twice, Gottfried is asked about the officiating, and twice he won't discuss a few borderline calls (including Marshall's game-winner and Leslie's fourth and fifth fouls). He makes his NCAA case when asked, saying "They are a No. 1 seed and we went toe-to-toe and had a chance to win. If you watched that game today, I hope you would be impressed with our team."

3:50 p.m. -- The Wolfpack board their bus for the short ride back to the Hyatt. There will be a 5 p.m. dinner Gottfried had set up the day before, so his team could get back to Raleigh as quickly as possible. Gottfried feels if the Wolfpack make the tournament, there is a good chance they will need to play in Dayton as one of the last at-large teams and travel on Monday. Until then, they will await their fate on Sunday night. And hope their next game preparation will be for an NCAA tournament opponent.