Lorenzo Brown And C.J. Leslie Raise North Carolina State’s Expectations Sky High

Midnight Madness is over, and with it went the smoke machines, dunk contests and laser shows that kick off the season. College basketball begins now, and while the excitement still remains it’s time to peel the hype back and see who the nation’s best truly are. That’s why Dime has you covered with individual previews of the nation’s top 15 teams and a few others just outside, all over the course of the next few weeks. Today, North Carolina State.

Let’s be honest: The famed North Carolina Triangle had flattened in the years since 2006, the last NCAA Tournament appearance by the Wolfpack. Until last season’s tourney trip to the Sweet 16 in Mark Gottfried‘s first season as coach, only two of the corners on Tobacco Road — yes, Duke and North Carolina — meant much for ACC and national relevance. It’s all different this season in Raleigh, where Final Four dreams may be a little too generous judging by early returns but altogether not unrealistic for a team that brings back four starters and brings in three McDonald’s All-Americans. With Duke trying to find its identity and North Carolina in one of its greatest seasons of uncertainty under Roy Williams, the ACC is ripe for the Wolfpack’s taking. They would hate that any evaluation of this team must arrive with a comparison to its neighboring rivals, but that’s the way it has to be if N.C. State wants to get the angle on its Triangle rivals.

This is the easiest “A” you’ll ever see, with C.J. Leslie, a 6-9 forward (14.7 points, 7.3 boards last season) and Lorenzo Brown, a 6-5 guard who transitioned to point duties a year ago beautifully, as the reasons why. It may be blasphemy in some circles to say this, but Leslie is as gifted physically as UNC’s James Michael McAdoo, considered a top-five pick next June. He is the preseason ACC player of the year and is a near-perfect fit for what Gottfried requires in his offense, where he places one of his two bigs at the elbow to catch the pass, look to pass on flare screens or backcuts first, and make a rim run if needed. One of those three McDonald’s selections, Rodney Purvis, is a 6-4 freshman guard who will start at shooting guard and can rise. His physical maturity will be a seamless transition into the ACC.
Grade: A

Scott Wood is as dangerous a shooter from three-point range as any in the ACC after making 41 percent of his shots there last season. The focus is on Brown and Leslie’s inside-outside game but Wood has the ability to stretch the floor ala Lee Humphrey during Florida’s back-to-back NCAA championships. On defense, Brown led the ACC with 1.8 steals per game and can turn on the on-ball pressure when Gottfried needs it to hamper teams getting into their sets — when he’s motivated. The loss to Oklahoma State this week put some of that motivation into doubt. In between the two, the rebounding is sound on the surface with Richard Howell returning to complement Leslie. Howell led the team with 9.2 boards per game last season. The loss of DeShawn Painter, a transfer to Old Dominion, robs experience and a 6-9 frame.
Grade: B+

No coach since Jim Valvano had won 24 games at N.C. State until Gottfried did it in his first season in the Triangle. That kind of milestone is underscored by the cohesiveness he fostered quickly — whether or not they clicked off the court, the Pack held together tightly on it — and one that should carry over into this season as well with four returning starters. Brown’s role as floor general helps most here, not to mention his 12.7 points and 6.3 assists average from a year ago. Only Purvis is new to the starting five. How the three immensely talented freshmen mesh into the team is a question, but find one team that doesn’t have that break-in period with elite newcomers.
Grade: A-

Purvis is the only new starter but he isn’t the player to watch closely, it’s his freshmen counterparts. Tyler Lewis is a point guard who led Oak Hill Academy to a 44-0 record last season and T.J. Warren is a 6-8 forward more comfortable playing on the wing. On paper both fit well into the five-high offensive set Gottfried runs as his default. As McDonald’s All-Americans their talent is unquestionable but their adjustment period unknowable yet.

Just a three-point loss to Kansas last season from the Elite Eight, the Wolfpack’s final surge could have been attributed to Leslie’s 18.3 points per game in his final 11 games alone. His spike was the marriage of confidence and understanding within a system on offense that can contort itself to its lineup’s needs like Cirque du Soleil. It was often very pretty just like that. This year has shown the other side, too — not a regression but evidence of what frustration can do to N.C. State. In its 20-point blowout loss to Oklahoma State on Sunday in Puerto Rico Leslie couldn’t get past his defender to the rim. Purvis and Warren became the leading scorers as the veterans’ energy fell with their missed shots. So which team shows up later in late-November battles against top-15 teams Michigan and UConn? It only gets harder in the ACC after that. This team has every piece necessary for a deep run, but its surge needs to kick in before February.

What do you think?

Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGreif.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.