After winning a Georgia state championship at Wheeler High School as a senior, Howell came into college expecting to pick up right where he left off in high school. Winning was all he had ever done and all he had ever known, but unfortunately it is not something that happens over night at the college level. Upon arriving at N.C. State, Powell went through a 20-16 season that saw the Wolfpack finish tied for ninth in the ACC, a long way from the top. While that season was frustrating for him, where the frustration really set in was as a sophomore.
Despite a disappointing 2009-10 season, coming into 2010-11, N.C. State was loaded with talent. Looking back on it, that team had four potential NBA players – Howell, Ryan Harrow, C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown – yet they finished with a losing record. Plagued by chemistry problems and the uncertain status of head coach Sidney Lowe, the Wolfpack significantly underachieved, and ultimately Lowe resigned after the season. For Howell, the most frustrating part was looking around at the talent and not seeing that translate into wins.
“I think that was one of the most frustrating parts of my sophomore season,” Howell says. “I feel like we had enough talent to go out there and do a lot better than we actually did. It is definitely frustrating to be with a group of guys, who you know what they are capable of doing but it just doesn’t click on the court. That was really hard. And losing in general was just hard, I don’t want to say I ever adapted to losing but it was just frustrating to lose that much especially when you are so used to winning.”
After the season, N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow went on a national search for a head coach, being repeatedly turned down by candidates like Sean Miller and Shaka Smart before finally hiring former Alabama head coach and then ESPN broadcaster Mark Gottfried. At the time, it would have been easy for Howell to transfer and follow the footsteps of teammate Ryan Harrow, who left the program for Kentucky shortly after Gottfried’s hiring. It would have been understandable if Howell wanted to jump ship, escape the losing and start over somewhere new. His team had just finished 15-16 and lost arguably their best player, but Howell says a transfer never crossed his mind, in part because of his previous relationship with Gottfried.
“Me and Coach Gottfried had a previous relationship from when he was at Alabama and I was in high school,” he says. “He was recruiting me during that time so we knew each other but the first thing he said to me when he got here was ‘We are going to get you right, your mind, your body, everything’ and that is one of the things that me and him really worked on doing together. We put a lot of focus on transforming my body with strength training and he told me what he needed from me, and gave me a path to become the player the team needed me to be.”
The player the team needed him to be was its enforcer. Gotffried insisted on getting Howell stronger, both mentally and physically, so he could provide a physical presence on the low block for the Wolfpack. Before the season started, Howell was up to around 250 pounds, most of which was solid muscle. With his transformed body and a new coach, things were looking up for Howell and the Wolfpack. But there still weren’t many expecting them to do much more than maybe make the NIT.
However when the season started, the Wolfpack played well, winning their first three games even without star player C.J. Leslie (suspended). In their fourth game, they had a tough 86-79 loss to Vanderbilt in the Legends Classic. Howell scored 16 points to go along with nine rebounds, before rebounding to beat Texas in the second game of the tournament after coming back from a double-digit deficit in the second half. Those two games showed people that maybe N.C. State might be better than originally thought, and they finished up the non-conference season with a 15-6 record, equaling their win total from the previous season heading into ACC play.