The story so far in 2012-13 with North Carolina State is usually going to be told like this:
Mark Gottfried's team entered the season not only ranked No. 6 in the nation, but also picked by the ACC's coaches to win the league and finish above a certain rather well known duo of nearby storied programs. Fans in Raleigh were pretty excited, and indeed the enthusiasm surrounding NC State in the preseason was off the proverbial charts. But the Wolfpack stumbled early, losing to Oklahoma State and Michigan, not to mention beating UNC Asheville by just two points in Raleigh. Now Gottfried's team sits at 4-2, and they're ranked No. 25. What an incredible disappointment!
You could also, however, tell the same story like this:
The venerable program that brought us David Thompson, Jim Valvano, and the miraculous 1983 national championship game fell into a rut of mediocrity not so long ago and missed five consecutive NCAA tournaments between 2007 and 2011. Then Gottfried rolled into town. Suddenly recruiting is going great, NC State has a 2012 Sweet 16 appearance in its back pocket, and you'll currently find the Wolfpack sporting a Pomeroy rating that's higher than anything they've finished a season with since Julius Hodge's heyday in 2004-05. What an incredible turnaround!
As you've probably guessed, you can sign me up for version 2 of this story. My opinion heading into the season was that Duke is the best team in the ACC, but you know what? We haven't seen any ACC games yet, Richard Howell may be having a "breakout senior" season (if such a thing exists), and 6-8 freshman T.J. Warren has been fantastic. The expectations surrounding this team at the beginning of the season were out of line, but the key words there are "at the beginning of the season."
I therefore propose we start from scratch and take a fresh look at this team. Here's what I'm seeing:
The Wolfpack actually played like a top-10 team for half of their games.
Sure, the opponents were Miami OH, Penn State, and Massachusetts. So what? Indiana hasn't exactly been playing a Duke-variety schedule either, but we can still tell the Hoosiers are good.
In their three games against the RedHawks, Nittany Lions, and Minutemen (the last two of which were played on a neutral floor in Puerto Rico), NC State outscored their opponents by a borderline-absurd 0.33 points per possession. After seeing 120 minutes of basketball from these guys, there was nothing particularly outlandish in claiming that this was a top-10 team. I had balked at going that far based on what I saw from them last season, but clearly my hesitancy (or anyone else's) would have become moot if Gottfried's team continued to outscore opponents by fully a third of a point per trip.
So the question with NC State isn't whether they can play up to their preseason ranking. The question is why they stopped doing so.
Gottfried's No. 1 priority is better defense.
If I'm lavishing praise on the Wolfpack's performance in their first three games and the team is sitting at 4-2, you can gather where this is headed. Since starting the season 3-0, NC State has collapsed on defense, surrendering 1.14 points per possession over the course of three games to Oklahoma State, UNC Asheville, and Michigan.
There's no shame attached to losing by seven to the No. 3-ranked Wolverines in Ann Arbor, of course. But allowing three opponents to score 235 points in just 206 possessions -- particularly when 73 of those possessions were recorded in a home game against UNC Asheville -- does have to give Gottfried pause. Opposing offenses are suddenly getting into their sets in a near frictionless (and turnover-less) fashion, and hitting shots from both sides of the arc.
NC State doesn't project to have Division I's best defense in any event, but at least the building blocks are in place for an above-average performance. Gottfried's team is very good on the defensive glass, and as a group they do a pretty satisfactory job keeping opponents off the line. Then again there's at least one individual exception to this low-foul tendency....
NC State's too thin for Howell to get in foul trouble
The Wolfpack's performance on defense is worth fretting about, I need hardly add, because this is a very talented team that might score a few points this season. In particular, 6-8 senior Richard Howell has been as efficient from the field as it is humanly possible to be, hitting 74 percent of his twos. Will Howell be able to sustain that all season? Of course not. (If he does, he'll threaten a record that's 32 years old.) But a player that can do that over six games while functioning as an ACC offense's featured scorer is, I submit, a player to watch.
Now the bad news: Howell's been reliably foul-prone throughout his career, and that hasn't changed this season. Averaging 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes (as Howell is doing as a senior) would be one thing on a team with some frontcourt depth, but the Wolfpack have little margin for error here. DeShawn Painter transferred in the offseason to Old Dominion, and last week Thomas DeThaey announced his intention to return to his native Belgium. Howell is irreplaceable in two senses of the term. He's been unbelievably good, and there aren't a lot of other options anyway.
Not that Howell's been a one-man show, mind you. In fact 6-8 freshman T.J. Warren is keeping him company at the very top of the D-I field goal percentage rankings. Warren's drained 74 percent of his twos while going 3-of-7 on attempts from beyond the arc, and he's done so while carrying a large load on offense. Throw in C.J. Leslie's scoring in the paint, perimeter shooting by Scott Wood and Rodney Purvis, and Lorenzo Brown's assists, and you can see why a little defense from this roster could carry them a long way.
NC State hasn't started the season the way people expected, but those expectations were outside the Wolfpack's control, and, anyway, the season is young. This group still has an excellent chance to be the best NC State team we've seen in years.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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