|Wolfpack point guard Lorenzo Brown is a legit contender for ACC Player of the Year. (US Presswire)|
North Carolina State should be picked to win the ACC title this season.
For the first time since 1975.
Not so coincidentally, Mark Gottfried, you just got paid.
Things are about to get really irrational in Raleigh (and I love it). First, the good news, and that's Gottfried turning N.C. State around in his first year -- making his extension somewhat expected. He was the guy who was chosen after Rick Barnes and Shaka Smart ended up being Wolfpack pipe dreams. And initially Gottfried seemed a no-risk move, so it was a low-money/short-contract offer. This was an experiment for both parties. Now he's the third-highest paid coach in the conference.
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The bad news is he's going to have to keep reaching for the next rung on the ladder because, after all, this is State Fan he's coaching for. But State Fan is only going to get more and more excited about the season ahead -- and it's really going to turn out to be an unpredictable one. Win or lose, things are going to be as lively as ever for the Wolfpack. ACC basketball and the national scene will be better for it. Fan interest spins this sport's wheel as much as actual game results, and few programs have a fan base with more character and ability to interpret events through their personal pessimistic prisms than N.C. State.
Things have turned rather rosy for the Wolfpack in the past week. Earlier this month, the team was uncertain about whether stud recruit Rodney Purvis would be eligible. But he was fully cleared last week. That decision by the NCAA (the right one) makes N.C. State the favorite in the ACC.
The last time this was the case, Neil Sedaka had the No. 1 single in the United States. The 'Pack hasn't only had trouble earning preseason nods for the top spot; in the past two decades, N.C. State was projected to finish as high as the top 3 only twice, in 2003 and 2008. The last time the team took a second-place vote? All the way back in 1985.
So first came the Purvis news, then Gottfried's extension. Sources tell me the team also has at least two players who will make it onto CBSSports.com's Top 100 College Basketball Players list (coming soon!). All this speaks well of the program, its fans and its ability to reach six tournaments in the past decade. After reaching just one NCAA Big Bracket in the '90s, N.C. State never became fully irrelevant in the way Wake Forest is right now. (Not a shot, Wake fans, just the sad truth.)
That said, it's about time, N.C. State. We know North Carolina and Duke have been and will continue to be the cream of this conference, but this kind of drought for the Wolfpack seems fairly shocking. It's just been so long since this program was considered bona fide, let alone dominant. If you find the aforementioned 1975 stat surprising, how about the fact the Wolfpack haven't won a conference tournament championship since '87? Or a regular-season title since '89?
The fan base is starving for legitimacy and respect, both within the league and around the country. Now, at the very least, N.C. State is interesting again, undeniably talented and playing in a down ACC, which should only help its chances.
Still, State Fan isn't completely optimistic just yet, according to Joe Ovies. Few people know the team, the culture, the maniacal and manic nature of ACC basketball better than this WRAL radio host.
"Because of the Sidney Lowe era, the fan base, while thirsty for basketball, shifted over more toward football," Ovies said, "but immediately shifted back with a glimmer of hope last year."
That's because N.C. State is a basketball school. Always will be. The glimmer was the Sweet 16 appearance that ended in a loss to eventual national runner-up Kansas. Ovies also said there's a divide between national expectation and local perspective of the team. That's because when State fans aren't defensive about the team, they're persecuting it. So while some of us in the media now see a program blooming and on its way to big things, these particular N.C. State fans refuse to engage in such thinking just yet.
But, N.C. State fans, C.J. Leslie is awesome. You know this. And Lorenzo Brown could win the ACC Player of the Year. One N.C. State assistant told me Brown was the best player on the team last year. This team isn't super deep, but it's best seven amount to the most talent in the ACC.
Why won't State Fan buy in yet? Save the dread for January, for once!
"Yeah, there's a tendency to be irrational, but there's a lot of cautious people when there's national folks noticing the team," Ovies said. "In some ways, [N.C. State fans] are saying, 'Yeah, this is great,' but damn, it's the national media setting us up for a big-time failure.' "
That's self-persecution right there. But I give Wolfpack fans some credit for this. Reminder: Up-and-down team winds up in the Sweet 16. It's just two wins in a random assembly of opponents. It's not necessarily a harbinger of bigger things to come. If there's hesitation, I get it, but right now I think we should embrace a potential change of pace in the ACC. It's been too long and predictably blue in the No. 1 spot.