Now, after a rousing performance to take down No. 1 Duke, the duo has put the Wolfpack back on everyone's radar.
Leslie scored 25 points, including six straight during a key second-half run, to help NC State beat the Blue Devils 84-76 on Saturday.
Howell added 16 points and 18 rebounds in a relentless performance for the Wolfpack (14-2, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) in a matchup of the teams predicted to finish 1-2 in the league.
"Coach (Mark Gottfried) said in the locker room: Nobody's going to give us anything and we've got to take it," Howell said. "That's the mindset we came out with. We've got to take everything ... and that's what we did."
NC State was picked for the first time in nearly four decades to win the league, though two early losses drained some buzz.
No longer. Any lowered expectations are gone along with Duke's perfect record.
"I thought our guys, they accepted the challenge," Gottfried said. "It's one of those (games) where it comes to a point where mentally you say, 'I'm going to get it done' and they're not going to go away. ... They're not going to lay down for us. Our guys mentally showed a lot of toughness."
Seth Curry scored 22 despite missing the final minutes with a left ankle injury for Duke (15-1, 2-1), which shot 45 percent and hung around early by crashing the boards for second-chance baskets. But the Blue Devils had no answer after halftime for Leslie and Howell, a duo that helped the Wolfpack lead all second half.
With Duke's loss, No. 2 Michigan (16-0) is now the nation's last unbeaten team heading into Sunday's game at No. 15 Ohio State.
"I thought we played our butts off," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Our kids played with a lot of heart, their kids played with a lot of heart, and they were a little better than we were."
Fittingly, Howell hauled in the rebound on Duke's final shot, then passed the ball to Brown as Leslie began jumping around near midcourt to celebrate. Brown flung the ball high into the air as the horn sounded while students and Wolfpack fans stormed to the court -- the charge led by a fan in a wheelchair -- to celebrate.
Fans soon lifted Leslie and Brown on their shoulders amid the sea of red-clad jubilation.
"I saw the whole court and I couldn't see a bit of court," Leslie said. "I couldn't see one part of the floor. It was just people everywhere. So that's going to be a remembrance that we'll never forget. We'll always keep this in our minds."
This was the kind of moment Wolfpack fans long hungry to challenge perennial heavyweights Duke and North Carolina atop the league have been hoping for all season.
NC State entered the year as the preseason ACC favorite for the first time since the 1974-75 season, while its No. 6 ranking to start the year was the program's highest in nearly 29 years. But the Wolfpack lost to Oklahoma State and Michigan in November to slide down the rankings.
Meanwhile, the Blue Devils made it to Saturday unscathed despite playing a schedule that included Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State and Minnesota -- all of which have spent time in the Top 10 this season -- to reach No. 1.
But the Wolfpack certainly rose to the occasion Saturday, whether it was Leslie performing to his status as the preseason ACC player of the year or Howell attacking the boards and scoring on second-half putbacks that seized momentum.
NC State shot 51 percent to earn its 10th straight win and its first 3-0 start in ACC play since the 1988-89 season, which was also the last time the Wolfpack won the ACC regular-season crown or had a winning streak this long. The Wolfpack also made 20 of 23 free throws, a season-high 87 percent.
It didn't help that Duke was without starting forward Ryan Kelly, who is out indefinitely with a right foot injury. He was on crutches on the Duke bench while Leslie and Howell went wild.
Junior Josh Hairston started for Kelly and had eight points with five rebounds, while freshman forward Amile Jefferson -- who chose the Blue Devils over the Wolfpack -- had 10 points before fouling out to mocking cheers by the rowdy sellout crowd.
"We know that no team is perfect," Hairston said. "Every team has flaws. One thing that this team is not going to do is use Ryan's injury as an excuse. ... We're going to adjust."
With his team protecting a 58-57 lead, Leslie went to work, knocking down a jumper then getting past Hairston in the lane for another bucket. On the next possession, he muscled the ball up between two defenders, and soon the Wolfpack pushed their biggest lead to 67-57 with 7:44 left.
The Blue Devils twice got as close as four, though Leslie scored over Mason Plumlee inside to answer the last push with 1:41 left. The Wolfpack closed this one out confidently, hitting eight straight and 9 of 10 free throws in the final minute.
The Blue Devils played the final 3-plus minutes without Curry, who crumpled to the court after slipping on a wet spot. While Quinn Cook (17 points) and Plumlee (15 points, 11 rebounds) performed well for the Blue Devils, top rookie Rasheed Sulaimon managed just four points on 0-for-10 shooting.