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Taking Next Step Is Key for North Carolina State in 2015-16

Since Matt Gottfried took over the reins at North Carolina State in 2011, the Wolfpack have been one of the most interesting programs in the country. Not necessarily because the team has dominated their conference or exploded onto the NCAA Tournament scene, but because the program has been really good, but not great or elite in Gottfried’s tenure.

When Gottfried arrived in Raleigh, the NC State program was not in a great position to say the least. The Wolfpack had missed the NCAA Tournament during the five previous seasons and during Sidney Lowe’s entire tenure, their best achievement may have been an appearance in the NIT Quarterfinals in Lowe’s first season with the program. Needless to say, Lowe’s performance was not going to meet expectations and Gottfried was tapped as the next guy to lead the program.

Year One of the Gottfried Era brought a great deal of excitement not only in the regular season, but in the postseason as well. The team was able to beat a really good Texas team in non-conference play, recorded 20 regular season wins, a win over a quality Virginia team in the ACC Tournament, and most importantly, two wins in the NCAA Tournament to secure the program’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 2005. Maybe it wasn’t a “banner” type of season, but it was one that would turn heads, especially during a coach’s first season.

Thanks to the team’s massive improvements in Gottfried’s first season, the Wolfpack received a great amount of preseason hype and ended up being ranked in the Top 10 in the preseason polls for 2012-13. Unfortunately, despite putting up a 24-11 overall record during the season, the team simply never lived up to the hype. Ultimately, the team ended the season on a 2-3 skid including a loss to Florida State to end the regular season and a loss to Temple in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament.

NC State had a similar season in 2013-14, just without the preseason hype. They were a quality unit and qualified for the NCAA Tournament, but just never had the consistency in conference play to get over the edge. They were able to score beat Xavier in the “First Four,” but fell to Saint Louis in overtime of the Round of 64.

Of course, last season may have been the most entertaining of all. After jumping out to a 6-0 start to the season, the team fell flat to close non-conference play and failed to win two games in a row for over two months. In fact, after losing at home to Virginia in February, the Wolfpack were sitting at 14-11 overall and 5-7 in the ACC. Things were looking dire, but the team won five of their next six games including wins over Louisville and North Carolina and qualified for the NCAA Tournament. There, they beat LSU in one of the best games of the Round of 64 and pulled off the biggest upset of the first weekend by taking down #1 seed Villanova. Unfortunately, they fell to Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen.

The Wolfpack

Can the Wolfpack get over the hump this season?

There’s no denying that Gottfried has done a great job at NC State. Having said that, the question has to be there on whether the program is primed to finally get that consistent play fans want and elevate the team to the next level. It’s not often that you see a coach take a team to the NCAA Tournament for four straight seasons, make the Sweet Sixteen twice, and yet, still have a 39-31 overall record in conference play. It just seems like the sporadic play has limited this team.

Again, this isn’t meant as a criticism on Gottfried, but more of an observation on the Wolfpack’s unusual path to its recent success. Just consider last season and the discrepancies between the team’s wins and losses.

2014-15 North Carolina State Performances:

  • Marquee Wins: Boise State, Duke, Louisville, LSU, Louisiana Tech, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Syracuse, Tennessee, Villanova
  • Bad Losses: Boston College, Clemson, Wake Forest, Wofford

Every team is going to have a few upsets and tough losses, but it’s incredible to think that a team that beat two eventual #1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament also lost to Boston College and Wake Forest. Just imagine where the team could have been seeded in the field had they taken care of business against some of these lower rated teams and possibly beaten another good, but not great team like Cincinnati or Miami (FL).

Just think about this.  During the last three seasons, NC State has beaten at least one team rated in the Top 10 according to KenPom and in Gottfried’s first season, the team beat #16 rated Georgetown. The data’s already there to show that the Wolfpack can play spoiler under Gottfried and compete against the nation’s best teams. If they can simply take that next step, avoid upsets, and beat the solid to good teams more often, the program could truly become a national contender considering how well they have performed against top teams.

So, could 2015-16 be the year this finally happens?

On paper, this team looks a lot like the teams of the last two seasons. Most of the starters should be back and the team also adds a sharpshooter in Terry Henderson that could fit right into the starting spot left by graduating senior Ralston Turner. Plus, there are several frontcourt players that could be primed for a breakout highlighted by Abdul-Malik Abu. If Abu can improve, there are easily enough pieces to not only think this could be a Top 25 team, but a player in the ACC and national conversations.

The talent and pieces are there and though many of these players are somewhat proven commodities, whether they can take the next step is a huge question. Particularly, it’s players like Abu that have to reach that next level. He proved himself to be a quality starter last season, but if the team truly is going to become an ACC and national contender, he has to be more than just a quality starter. If he and other similar players can take that next step possibly combined with some increase in play from a bench that wasn’t all that great, there’s a lot of room for growth.

Gottfried had done a great job with NC State, but if the Wolfpack is truly is going to go from that Top 30-50 level and into the Top 25, the team needs to show the consistency to win the games it should and compete against the solid and good teams on a regular basis. If so, Gottfried has the potential to truly create something special in Raleigh.

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