After leading NC State to a deep run in the tournament, C.J. Leslie will return for his junior season.
Leslie struggled as a freshman, but lived up to his recruiting hype as a sophomore, averaging 14.6 points and 7.5 rebounds a game. NC State morphed from an apparently middling ACC squad, to an NCAA tournament bubble hopeful, to being the team that upset Georgetown in the second round. Their run ended when they pushed eventual national runner-up Kansas to a three-point loss. Mark Gottfried's first year at NC State couldn't have finished any better. And things are looking even more promising in Year 2.
Having Leslie back in the fold is hugely important, obviously, but pairing him with Gottfried's other returners, and a stocked first recruiting class, is the real source of optimism here. Gottfried will welcome three top-100 backcourt players in 2012: No. 5-ranked shooting guard Rodney Purvis, No. 8-ranked small forward T.J. Warren, and No. 5-ranked point guard Tyler Lewis, all of whom could compete for starting spots right away. Meanwhile, returning junior guard Lorenzo Brown will provide solidity and experience for that backcourt, forward Richard Howell will pair alongside Leslie, while one of the country's top shooters, Scott Wood, roams near the 3-point line. (Update: The first version of this post included forward DeShawn Painter on NC State; Painter transferred to Old Dominion this offseason. Apologies for the error.)
That is a very good, athletic team, one with talent in the backcourt, bodies in the frontcourt and an offensive centerpiece in Leslie, who in 2011-12 proved one of the nation's most adept mid-post and elbow scorers. His development should continue in 2012, and even for unbiased observers, it should be thrilling to watch.
Though not as thrilling as it will be to NC State fans, of course. The Wolfpack are a top-10 team to start the season, not to mention a worthy favorite to win the ACC. North Carolina lost Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson; Duke lost its most talented player in Austin Rivers and looks likely to struggle on the defensive end again this season. Both teams have the talent to compete again for the top spot in the ACC, to be sure, but would you take either of their lineups over NC State's? I wouldn't.
Which is why this is such a thrilling time to be a Wolfpack fan. NC State fans are among the nation's most dedicated and hungry for success. They've never accepted the role of third fiddle willingly, but for much of the past decade, as Herb Sendek decamped for Arizona State and Lowe fell astoundingly flat as his replacement, they've had to swallow an utter lack of success on a year-in, year-out basis. Now, with Gottfried reloading and Leslie returning, they may just be the favorite to win the ACC.
It's been a long time since we could say that. Relish it, Wolfpack fans. It appears, after so much misery, your time has finally come.