It all started clicking down the stretch of last season for the N.C. State Wolfpack and first year head coach Mark Gottfried as they advanced to the Sweet 16, narrowly missing out on the Elite 8. N.C. State rolled over Miami (OH) in its opener showing why the team is considered the ACC favorite.
The Wolfpack brings back its top-four scorers from a year ago and also welcome in three McDonald's All-Americans, so talent won't be an issue. The frontcourt combination of Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie complement each other nicely. Howell brings physicality and strength inside, while Leslie is an athletic freak with insane leaping ability. He does need to improve his jump shot to live up to his NBA Draft lottery potential.
Versatile freshman forward T.J. Warren has some Leslie to his game. Warren is a great athlete capable of playing either forward position and should see major minutes right away. I'm intrigued by seeing a potential frontcourt of Warren, Leslie, and Howell.
Lorenzo Brown stepped in nicely last season as the full-time point guard. At 6-5, he brings good size to the position. Brown is an okay shooter, but is at his best when attacking the basket or creating for his teammates. Rodney Purvis, the second of the three McDonald's guys, is a fearless slasher who also has a nice touch on his jumper. The simplest way to describe this backcourt is that I really, REALLY like this duo.
Freshman point guard Tyler Lewis is the lone reserve in the backcourt and is a capable three-point threat as well as a great distributor. He should be able to play effectively in the same backcourt as either Brown or Purvis.
Though the least talented of the starting five, Scott Wood brings experience and a much needed shooter to the lineup. He connected on 41% of his triple tries in 2011 and should benefit from the drive and kick ability of both Brown and Purvis.
If there is one Achilles' heel for N.C. State this year, it is the team's lack of depth. Three players transferred out over the offseason, leaving Gottfried with just nine scholarship players for 2012. Lewis and Warren will log quality minutes off the bench, while 7-1 Jordan Vandenberg and Thomas de Thaey add some size inside.
The Wolfpack is using a 10th scholarship on LSU transfer Ralston Turner. He is a capable wing scorer who must sit out this season, but will have two years of eligibility remaining in 2013-14.
Gottfried has quickly changed the culture of the N.C. State program, ending the team's 5-year absence from the NCAA Tournament last season. Even more is expected in 2012-13, and there is good reason why the Wolfpack was picked to upend traditional powerhouses Duke and North Carolina to win the ACC title. That feat cannot be accomplished unless this team stays healthy though since it just doesn't have the bodies on the roster to sustain a major loss.
Player to Watch: Lorenzo Brown, PG
The junior playmaker was a member of my preseason "All-Boy" Team in which I pick my five favorite players of the year. He does a little bit of everything on the floor and really has superstar potential. N.C. State will need Brown to tap into that if the Wolfpack is truly going to be a top-10-caliber team this season.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/15 vs. Penn State (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)
11/16 vs. UMass/Providence (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)
11/18 vs. Tennessee/UNC-Asheville/Oklahoma State/Akron (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)