CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 26: Reggie Bullock #35 of the North Carolina Tar Heels foul C.J. Leslie #5 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack during play at the Dean Smith Center on January 26, 2012 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
I was really excited to be in town this time around for Wake-State so I could reach out to Derek Medlin and get his thoughts on the game. Medlin is one of the best minds around when it comes hoops, and you can find his work in a number of places, including over on Pack Pride. His twitter is right near the top of my must-follow ACC list.
So I shot some questions over to Derek that he was kind enough to answer, and I answered some for him. I'll link to that as soon as those go live, but for now, enjoy his half of the conversation.
We talk Gottfried, recruiting, Calvin (and "C.J.") Leslie and more after the jump...
Talk a little bit about what Mark Gottfried has been able to do at N.C. State in his first year. How is the team faring compared to Sydney Lowe’s last year in Raleigh?
Considering what Mark Gottfried stepped into in April (a team/program that had gotten used to losing), I'd say he gets an A for what he's been able to do in his first season with the Wolfpack. NC State has been competitive in almost every game this season (see UNC game to explain almost) and has already matched its number of conference wins from 2010-2011 with more than a month left in the season. Gottfried has energized the fan base and, more importantly, the returning players that he's coached to 16 wins. It's essentially a night and day difference from the last season of the Sidney Lowe era, and it was evident from the first time this team stepped on the court.
Gottfried has gotten a lot of positive attention for the class he is bringing in for 2012. What makes him effective as a recruiter, and what are some realistic expectations for the talented freshmen?
Gottfried's ability to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail when he arrived last year was pretty impressive to watch. He almost immediately solidified point guard Tyler Lewis' commitment and then went on to other players, trying to build things quickly in Raleigh. If the class stayed where it is right now (PG Tyler Lewis, Combo guard Rodney Purvis and SF T.J. Warren), you would have to call it a huge success.
And Gottfried and company are still out there trying to secure commitments from other players. They don't want to be done with the 2012 class, and I wouldn't be surprised if they aren't. The thing I've heard over and over from players since April is that NC State's coaching staff is "working hard" and "recruiting hard" on the recruiting trail. There are numerous players that NC State wasn't recruiting before Gottfried's arrival that quickly took notice.
You hear lots of "yeah, NC State has been on me hard" from recruits. That's a good thing. It means the staff is beating the pavement and trying to build relationships. So far, it's paid off.
One of the biggest storylines for the Pack has been the development of C.J. Leslie. What is he doing differently this year as opposed to his freshman year, and how has the sophomore matured?
It's Calvin, not C.J. Or at least that's what Mark Gottfried would like everyone to think. To put it simply, Leslie has been a smarter, more engaged player in his second season in Raleigh. There are no longer constant questions about effort and whether or not he actually cares, which is refreshing after his freshman year. He's also become a smarter player, for the most part. He still takes some bad shots, but who doesn't?
At this point, the running joke is that the person taking a terrible 18-footer over John Henson is "C.J." and the guy getting to the rim and the free throw line is "Calvin." He did have a little snafu during practice leading up to the first meeting with Wake, which earned him a role off NC State's bench that day, but other than that he's had no issues with his new coaching staff. Now, if they could only get him to stop cramping.
Although N.C. State has been playing at a much higher level from a year ago, with a nice victory over Texas and notable increases in offensive and defensive efficiency, the team is still suffering from a lack of signature wins. What do the Wolfpack have to do better in the second half of ACC play to get over that hump?
The "signature win" column, at least in my view, is still empty this season. But it hasn't been for a lack of chances. State had second-half leads on both Indiana and Stanford in the first month of the season and was up on No. 1 Syracuse during the first half of a game in Raleigh Dec. 17. The Pack lost all three of those games, convincingly in the case of Syracuse. I
t's continued in conference play, as NC State got run out of the building in Chapel Hill last week and lost a game it probably should have won Saturday against Virginia. Getting a win in one or two of those games (I nominate Indiana and Virginia) would have been huge for State's resume, but the team just hasn't quite been able to clear the "let's close a game out" mental hurdle.
And while that's frustrating for fans to watch, it's not exactly surprising for a group that is still, for lack of a better phrase, learning how to win basketball games.
The positive for NC State here is that the Wolfpack will have several more opportunities to pick up a signature win or two in the last month of conference play. State will visit Duke and play host to Florida State and North Carolina during a brutal six-day stretch in mid-February. This includes a 9 p.m. trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday night followed by a 1 p.m. Saturday start against the, um, bruising Seminoles. Winning one of those three would be a major coup.
Aside from that, NC State has road games at Clemson and Virginia Tech. Yes, I know, those don't sound that glamorous, but they are road games that NC State teams in the last five years would not win. And if this team wants to continue talking about the NCAA Tournament, winning games against the bottom half of the league -- even on the road -- is something it has to start doing. If I'm picking a signature win in the last month, I'd say it will be Feb. 18 against Florida State in Raleigh.
The Pack absolutely emasculated the Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem on both sides of the ball. What makes the team such a matchup nightmare for Wake Forest? Is there any concern for a letdown game or a lack of focus (i.e. the idea that State can just walk all over the Deacs again the second time around)?
The funny part about the first game is that it was actually quite close midway through the first half. In fact, Travis McKie made it a seven-point game with 6:02 to play in the first half on his only bucket of the night. Then, the wheels just fell off for the Deacons and everything went right for the Wolfpack. State closed out the first half with a run and never looked back, scoring 43 second-half points and turning it into a laugher by the first media timeout of the second half.
I'm not sure I'd call it a matchup problem so much as I'd call it "one of those games." State shot the ball well, played decent defensively and held Wake's two best players to 12 points. Any time a team shoots 29 percent from the field and 2 of 20 from three-point land, the opponent should feel pretty good about not only its chances to win but chances to dominate.
That's what happened in Winston-Salem that day, but I still don't think Wake is nearly as bad as they looked that day. For that reason, I don't think you'll see a letdown tomorrow in Raleigh. State looked horrible in Wednesday's win over Boston College, which probably means the last couple of practices haven't been fun. Could be a bad thing for the Deacons Saturday.
Who is the x-factor in this one? What player outside the usual suspects should we be keeping our eye on?
Keep an eye on backup point guard Alex Johnson. He's had an absolutely brutal stretch in the last week (he missed two wide open layups in transition against Virginia, causing an "I'm at rock bottom" tweet after the game) and will be looking to get his mojo back. State needs that to happen if the idea of getting a couple signature wins actually has a chance of happening.
Prediction time. How do you see this game playing out? What’s your final score?
No way this is another 36-point beat down, but the Wolfpack should win by 10 points or more. That said, if State comes out flat like it did against the Eagles Wednesday, Wake will have plenty of chances to make a game of it. I'm thinking we'll have a 74-61 type of game.