- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: NC State.
1. Is this the year C.J. Leslie puts it all together? NC State fans are certainly hoping so, and with good reason. Leslie is by far the Wolfpack’s most talented returning player, an athletic and versatile 6-foot–8 big man who can score with either hand on the low block, and who cleans up on the defensive glass. But there’s reason to think Leslie is still just scratching the surface of his ability. There were times in 2011–12 -- which was a good season for Leslie individually, and a decent one for his team in general -- in which he still looked less than fully engaged on both ends of the floor.
When he’s on, he’s a force, particularly in the paint. According to Synergy scouting data, 24.4 percent of Leslie’s possessions came in the post, where he can score over his left shoulder or over his right shoulder, and where he oftentimes pivots and faces up against his defender before diving toward, and finishing at, the rim. And that’s just in the half court. Because he’s so athletic, Leslie was a major target for NC State in transition, where the Wolfpack played nearly 20 percent of their possessions, and finished ranked No. 87 in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo. Leslie’s second-most-frequent play types were transition finishes.
Still, despite having so many weapons in his offensive arsenal, Leslie finished the 2011-12 season with a just-above-average offensive rating of 102.1. Until a late push in February and through the ACC tournament, Leslie was often hit-or-miss. Now, as a junior, there are no questions about his talent, and about the role he'll be asked to play on an NC State team with designs on its first ACC regular-season title since 1989. The question is whether he can bring a high and efficient level of play not just game-to-game, but possession-to-possession. Because if he does, there are only a handful of players who can impact a game the same way. He'll be a star.
2. Will Rodney Purvis play? NC State coach Mark Gottfried brought in three talented prospects in his 2012 recruiting class: No. 5-ranked shooting guard Rodney Purvis, No. 8-ranked small forward T.J. Warren, and No. 5-ranked point guard Tyler Lewis. Warren and Lewis can be immediate contributors, most likely off the bench. But Purvis is the star of the class, a super-athletic slasher who can get “wherever he wants on the court, whenever he wants,” according to ESPN Recruiting Nation’s scouting report. The only problem? He may not qualify. Purvis’ high school, North Carolina’s Upper Room Christian Academy, is a new institution that hasn’t yet cleared all of its core classes through the NCAA Eligibility Center. That’s why Purvis -- who the NCAA has allowed to practice with the team and attend classes, but who hasn’t been cleared for competition -- may end up missing all of his freshman season as a partial qualifier.
As Gottfried has said this offseason, not only is Purvis a high-quality player -- he’s a high-quality player at a position where the Wolfpack don’t have much depth. What the NCAA eventually rules will have a big impact on the season, one way or the other.
3. If Purvis is cleared to play, NC State is the prohibitive favorite to win the ACC. North Carolina is just as talented, and Duke is just as experienced, but neither team would combine the two like the Pack. If Purvis’ arrival is delayed by a year? Well sure, it’s a blow, but I’d argue -- for whatever a preseason notion is worth (hint: not much) -- NC State still belongs at the top of the preseason heap.
Lorenzo Brown will provide savvy senior guard play (35 percent assist rate). Scott Wood is a lights-out shooter (124.9 offensive rating, 62.8 percent true shooting, 41 percent from 3). Forward Richard Howell is a beast on the glass, particularly on the offensive end (15.8 percent offensive rebound percentage, the 15th best in the country). The aforementioned Leslie has set a high baseline, one he could very well exceed (and then some) as a junior. And the non-Purvis freshmen, Warren and Lewis, do provide the backcourt depth that could be lost with Purvis’ absence.
This is a team that took its sweet time figuring it out last season, but did so just in time to (A) sneak in the NCAA tournament and (B) make an impressive run while there. Purvis or no Purvis, it is adding top-100 talent to an experienced core, with a bona fide star at its center. The future -- long-term and immediate -- is decidedly bright.
Update, 3 p.m. ET: On Monday afternoon, NC State coach Mark Gottfried told ESPN.com that Purvis had been fully cleared by the NCAA Eligibility Center. Huge news for the Wolfpack, huge news for their fans. It's going to be a big year.