A year early? NC State is here now
ST. LOUIS -- Mark Gottfried's first few months as North Carolina State's basketball coach were spent hobnobbing with boosters and speaking to alumni groups across the country. This past fall, despite his fear of heights, Gottfried even offered to jump out of a plane before a football game to bring attention to his program.
Nothing like skydiving to generate a little publicity.
"It was raining that day," Gottfried said, "so they pulled the plug on me."
Still, for all the things he was willing to do to make the 2011-12 season a successful one, there was a certain task Gottfried completely ignored.
Every minute of the previous season was available to dissect on screen, but Gottfried and his staff refused to watch any of it.
"We told [the team] it was a new start for everyone," assistant coach Bobby Lutz said. "If we would've had preconceived ideas about certain players, it wouldn't have been a fresh start. So we never watched any game tape from last year."
Gottfried, after all, wouldn't have had a very high opinion of the Wolfpack based on their 2010-11 performance. Poor shot selection, lackluster effort on defense, pouting when things went wrong. NC State had talent, to be sure. But the little things kept it from reaching its incredibly high ceiling.
Now things have changed.
With Duke losing to Lehigh and North Carolina preparing to play without star point guard Kendall Marshall, NC State, of all teams, appears to be the Triangle's healthiest, most confident team entering the Sweet 16.
The Wolfpack, the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region, take on No. 2 seed Kansas on Friday in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. That North Carolina State is still in the NCAA tournament hardly comes as a surprise to its players -- and its opponents.
"They've always had the pieces," North Carolina forward John Henson said. "But Coach Gottfried came in and pulled it all together. On offense, they're more assertive and more confident. On defense, they're tougher. That's all it takes."
A month ago, NC State hardly boasted the résumé of an NCAA tournament team after losing four straight games. With only one quality nonconference win (against Texas), Gottfried's squad appeared destined for the NIT.
But regular-season victories against Miami and Virginia Tech were followed by a pair of ACC tournament wins over Boston College and Virginia. After a near-upset of North Carolina in the semifinals, it was clear the Wolfpack deserved a bid.
NC State, which is 24-12, was the last team to hear its name called Selection Sunday. The NCAA tournament appearance is its first since 2006. It hasn't advanced beyond the Sweet 16 since 1986.
The Wolfpack players said Gottfried deserves much of the credit for the quick turnaround. NCSU was 15-16 last season.
"It took a while," forward Richard Howell said. "It's difficult for a new coach to come in and work with players who were recruited by another coach. But he's a cool person, a people-type of person.
"His confidence in us is unbelievable, and that's one of the major things we need in a game like this. When you have confidence you can do something, if you set your mind to it, you can definitely achieve it."
Speaking of confidence, Gottfried needed plenty of it to take over a North Carolina State program that has long played second fiddle to the Tar Heels and Blue Devils in the ACC. Still, while the situation scared off coaches such as VCU's Shaka Smart and Memphis' Josh Pastner, Gottfried looked at it and saw an opportunity.
Gottfried, the former Murray State and Alabama coach, knew North Carolina State had a passionate fan base that was itching for a return for greatness. The Wolfpack, who won the NCAA title in 1974 and 1983, averaged 13,779 fans per game in 2010-11 despite having a losing team.
"And that's not fake attendance," said Lutz, the assistant coach. "That's actual butts in seats."
Gottfried also inherited a roster that was full of talented players such as forward C.J. Leslie, sharpshooter Scott Wood and point guard Lorenzo Brown, who at 6-foot-5 creates a matchup problem for almost any opponent.
Former coach Sidney Lowe had recruited a strong team. It was Gottfried's job to get it to play together.
"We just seemed to be very disorganized," Gottfried said. "We didn't have great direction. Our accountability was down.
"We just needed to tighten everything up. Our staff has done a great job with these guys as far as building good relationships, building trust, giving them a system they can believe in."
Exciting as North Carolina State's run has been, continuing it won't be easy. In Kansas, the Wolfpack will be facing a team that has won more games the past 10 years than any other program in the country. The Jayhawks tout a national player of the year candidate in forward Thomas Robinson and a fourth-year starting point guard in Tyshawn Taylor.
Kansas, though, struggled in last week's 63-60 victory over Purdue and was whipped by Baylor the previous week in the Big 12 tournament. With NC State playing as well as it has in years, there's no reason the Wolfpack can't upset the Jayhawks and advance to play perhaps ACC rival North Carolina on Sunday in the Elite Eight.
What a story that would be.
"No one thought we'd be here," Lutz said. "They thought it'd be next year."
Because of the unlikely run, Gottfried was asked Thursday whether he felt like he and his team were playing with "house money."
"I don't see it that way at all," he said. "In that frame of mind, [it sounds] like we're not supposed to be here. I think our team feels like we have earned the right to be here, just like anybody else.
"We certainly feel like we belong."
Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.
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