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Can Mark Gottfried fix NC State's defense?

6/14/2011

The challenges faced by new NC State coach Mark Gottfried -- well-publicized and frequently debated -- are many.

Gottfried has to rebuild a roster filled with youth and inexperience. He has to convince recruits NCSU is worth a second look. He has to manage the expectations of a long-suffering, win-hungry fan base. And he has to do all three with the monoliths that are Duke and North Carolina -- the powerful national kingpins NC State fans so desperately want to unseat -- just a few miles down the road.

Those are all long-term goals, though. In the immediate future, Gottfried's task is far more clear-cut. He has to get his new, young team to play something resembling defense. That may be easier said than done.

Of course, it's not as though the Wolfpack were particularly brilliant on offense in Sidney Lowe's final season. Still, despite some ugly shooting woes, the Pack managed to score about 1.08 adjusted points per possession, per Ken Pomeroy. Star freshman C.J. Leslie flashed some athletic interior talent, especially on the glass. Sophomores Richard Howell and Scott Wood were surprisingly efficient scorers (the two most efficient on the team, in fact) and freshman Lorenzo Brown demonstrated promising ability as a distributor.

(It would be nice to have touted freshman point guard Ryan Harrow back in the fold -- one of the team's most frequently used players, Harrow decided to transfer to Kentucky after Gottfried was hired -- if only to give the Wolfpack a true point guard in the post-Javier Gonzalez "era." But we must all play the hands we're dealt.)

It is fair to assume all of these players will improve their offensive games in 2011. Assuming Leslie develops a consistent low-post game to complement his athleticism, he's almost certain to be better. The real question comes on the defensive end, where NC State was woeful and where Gottfried might achieve his biggest short-term gains.

Anyone who saw this team semi-frequently knows why the Wolfpack were bad. It didn't take a basketball savant to decode. They were bad on rotations, awful on the glass and rarely pressured opponents into turnovers. Whether it was a lack of effort (maybe), lack of experience (probably) or lack of talent (probably not) is up for debate. One thing's for sure: The Wolfpack defense rarely seemed engaged. Their opponents, superior and otherwise, scored accordingly.

This is the first fix. It's easy to diagnose and -- at least theoretically -- it's easy to fix. Here are the fundamentals, guys. Execute them. It's a low-barrier, high-reward sort of problem. If NC State gets even marginally better on defense and the offense merely stays so-so, you've got a much more competitive ACC team.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? Problem is Gottfried's experience as a coach doesn't exactly lend itself to some sort of drastic defensive turnaround. In the seven years of data Pomeroy has about Gottfried's time at Alabama, the Crimson Tide never had a defense ranked inside the top 50 in adjusted efficiency. Rather, Gottfried seems to be a distinctly gifted offensive coach: Only one of those seven teams -- the one that immediately preceded his departure from Bama -- ranked outside the top 50 in adjusted offensive efficiency. In the previous six seasons, the Tide averaged 1.15 points per possession. The problem was never the offense.

In other words, it looks as if NC State is about to get much more interesting on the offensive side of the floor. There's all that expected young improvement, for one, and there's Gottfried's expertise on the matter, too. But it seems the quickest short-term fix with the biggest marginal return for the Wolfpack would be defense. Can Gottfried buck his late-tenure trend at Alabama? Can NC State begin defending with something resembling gusto?

If not, another mediocre season is on the way. But if so, athletic director Debbie Yow's hire -- greeted by a collective "hmm, we'll see" from NC State's rabid fans this spring -- could quickly turn into excitement, encouragement and the promise of even greater things to come.