ST. LOUIS -- This wasn't supposed to happen at North Carolina State. Not this season. Not with this roster. Not with that coach.
But there were the Wolfpack on Friday night, playing in the Sweet 16 against a No. 2 seed that was heavily favored to win its 30th game of the season, and I'll be damned if the Wolfpack didn't almost deny Kansas that 30th win -- not to mention a spot in the Elite Eight. But the Jayhawks made a few more shots, grabbed a few more rebounds, had a few more blocks and ended up with a few more points, winning 60-57 to save their season and end N.C. State's.
Sad night for the Wolfpack? Sure, I guess. But what a future this program has, and what a long time this fan base has waited for this kind of optimism. N.C. State was good under Herb Sendek, good enough to reach the NCAA tournament five years in a row, but they never entered a season with the kind of optimism that should surround the Wolfpack in 2012-13.
How optimistic? Top 10 in the preseason. Something like that, depending on what the team's two potential early-entrant candidates do about the 2012 NBA Draft. Sophomores C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown will have decisions to make, and while the logical move is for both to return to school, who knows? The 6-foot-5 Brown could use another season or two in school to learn the point-guard position and refine his perimeter shooting, while the 6-8, 209-pound Leslie boasts NBA athletic ability but has neither the size to play power forward nor the skill to play small forward at the next level. Both should return to school. Will they? No idea.
I'm assuming Brown stays. Even if Leslie goes, though, the Wolfpack will be loaded next season. In all of college basketball, just one program signed three McDonald's All-Americans from the high school class of 2012. Know who? Hint: The first two letters are "N.C." And the second word rhymes with "great."
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Weird fact, huh? N.C. State is the only school to sign three McDonald's All-Americans, which means the Wolfpack will have more incoming star power than any school in the country. And that star power will be added to a program that returns three or four starters -- double-double machine Richard Howell (11 points, 9.1 rebounds per game), shooting savant Scott Wood (41.7 percent on 3-pointers, 90.7-percent foul shooter), Brown and/or Leslie -- plus beefy sixth man DeShawn Painter (6.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg). The McDonald's All-Americans are all guards, too, shoring up the weaker spot on this year's N.C. State team.
That top-10 projection for next season is starting to make sense, huh?
And again, this just wasn't supposed to happen. I mean, not this fast. N.C. State should be a national player in basketball, no matter what the "realists" in all their helpful condescension try to tell the Wolfpack, patting them on the head and reminding them that the Triangle already has two national powers, and it's just too much to ask that a third school join Duke and North Carolina in the national elite. For too many years the Wolfpack have been the third wheel on that bicycle, but no more. Not under Mark Gottfried, who was the most surprising hire of the last offseason -- and has been more surprising than anyone could have envisioned.
When N.C. State hired Gottfried last year, it smacked of desperation. The school had pursued some of the biggest names out there -- young, established or both -- and not made a hire before turning to Gottfried, who had been out of coaching for 2 1/2 years after leaving Alabama amid the 2008-09 season.
Mark Gottfried? Really? That was my thought. It's what I told the N.C. State athletic director, Debbie Yow. She nodded. Didn't look fazed. It was like she knew something I didn't.
Which she did.
She knew Gottfried still had the same fire that saw him lead a football school, Alabama, to its first (and still only) No. 1 ranking in men's basketball. Gottfried put together a dynamite staff -- a gifted strategist in Bobby Lutz, a monster recruiter in Orlando Early, and a combination of both in Rob Moxley -- beefed up a historically soft Wolfpack schedule, and installed a faster style of play.
All of which led to results on the court, in the RPI and on the recruiting trail. The Wolfpack won nine more games than it won last year, despite losing leading scorer Tracy Smith to graduation and point guard Ryan Harrow as transfer. How good was Harrow going to be? Well, he transferred to Kentucky. Counting current Wildcats freshman Marquis Teague, who will be a first-round NBA draft pick whenever he chooses, John Calipari's last four point guards have been first-rounders. Calipari accepted Harrow as a transfer because he thinks he could become the fifth.
Anyway, that's neither here nor there. Nor is Harrow. He's gone, but N.C. State reached the Sweet 16 anyway. Could happen again next year.
Won't be a surprise, either.