In 1983, the No. 6 seeded North Carolina State Wolfpack completed a dream season, when they beat a heavily favored No. 1 Houston Cougars team in the NCAA Tournament final, with the shot of head coach Jim Valvano running up and down the court since becoming iconic.
Twenty-two years later, with Valvano since passed on and the Wolfpack’s basketball program since undergoing multiple rebuilding phases, the team is finally set to make its first trip back to the Elite Eight since 1986. Even more incredible is that NC State, a No. 8 seed this year, is in the Sweet Sixteen after knocking off the No. 1 Villanova Wildcats in the Round of 32.
But now they may face an even harder test. NC State’s next opponent will be against the No. 4 Louisville Cardinals, a team that is just two years removed from a national championship, and has a Hall of Fame coach in Rick Pitino, not to mention also plays excellent defense and has great talent from top to bottom.
This game is going to be a dog-fight from beginning to end, and the Wolfpack could definitely have their hands full.
NC State plays in the ACC, a conference known for having teams that like to run and score a lot of points in short amounts of time. This makes the Wolfpack something of a black sheep of the group, as the team’s philosophy is more of an isolation offense and tough on-ball defense, to go with a strong rebounding game.
But, what a strong black sheep the Wolfpack were this year, despite finishing the regular season with a modest record of 19-12 (10-8 ACC). Not only did they defeat the legendary then-undefeated Duke Blue Devils on January 11, but they also beat the same Louisville Cardinals they’re set to face on Friday in a game back on February 14, and in Louisville too!
Moreover, in the latter game, NC State outrebounded the Cardinals 47-37, which speaks to the team’s ability in that department as a whole. The Wolfpack ranked 31st in the nation in rebounding this season, and their patient and balanced attack on the offensive side of the court is what helped them defeat a Villanova team that tried to shoot its way out of trouble last weekend.
Now the team is in the Sweet Sixteen for the second time under head coach Mark Gottfried, and a disciplined game is a must against a Louisville squad looking to avenge a tough home loss from February.
Head Coach Spotlight: Mark Gottfried
After playing at Oral Roberts and Alabama, Mark Gottfried went into coaching and manned the sidelines at Murray State and Alabama, before being tasked with taking over an NC State program that hadn’t seen any glory years since the Jim Valvano years, with the lone exception being a trip to the Sweet Sixteen under former coach Herb Sendek in 2005.
Sure enough, Gottfried brought the Wolfpack back to the Sweet Sixteen in his first season at the helm in 2012. Thanks to his conservative offense and smothering defensive philosophy, NC State is slowly becoming an elite program again, and the team’s recent win over Villanova only confirms that.
Gottfried owns an overall record of 371-205 (92-51 NC State), and has been as far as the Elite Eight (2004 with Alabama) in his coaching career. I don’t know what it is about him, but he has a knack for connecting with his players and rallying them to the point where they are almost unbeatable, as their signature wins this season indicate.
So long as he keeps instilling that mentality in them with the game against Louisville fast approaching, the Wolfpack could soon have even more cause for celebration on the floors of Syracuse’s Carrier Dome.
Team Leader: Trevor Lacey
Trevor Lacey is special in that he has known Mark Gottfried for a good part of his life, so much to the point that he was offered a scholarship to Alabama in the eighth grade! Though he never played for Gottfried during his sole season with the Crimson Tide, his transferring to NC State to play for the man that recruited him is probably the best thing that could have happened to the program.
In his junior year, Lacey led the team with 15.7 points per game. He shot 44 percent from the field and 39 percent from three-point range, and while he does tend to get a little trigger-happy from beyond the arc (12.4 shot attempts per game, 5.7 from long range), there is no doubt that he is the best scorer on the team.
Lacey had 14 points in NC State’s regular season victory against Louisville, and scored 17 against Villanova last weekend. There is nothing to suggest that he won’t continue to be fed the ball and asked to put the team on his back as the leader of the Wolfpack’s scoring attack. More importantly, data suggests that Lacey is the best isolation player in college hoops today.
Given Coach Gottfried’s system, there is no better man to be the heart and soul of the team, so look for him to be fed the ball quite a bit against Louisville.
X-Factor: Abdul-Malik Abu
A freshman from Boston, Abdul-Malik Abu does not look like an x-factor on paper. He has decent size at 6’8″, 230 pounds, but only posted 6.4 points and 4.7 rebounds over about 19 minutes per game. Not at all terrible numbers for a freshman, but still not necessarily those one would expect from a difference maker.
That is, until he turned on the afterburners against Villanova. Playing a season high 31 minutes, Abu scored 13 points and tied another season high with 12 rebounds, repeatedly beating Wildcats veteran big men JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu.
It is all the more important that Abu continue to play well against Louisville, a team that ranked 22nd in the country in rebounding, and has a phenomenal young rebounder in junior Montrezl Harrell. Adding onto that, Harrell averaged 15.4 points and a team best 9.2 boards per game, and Nbadraft.net currently projects him as a mid-first round pick. Given his toughness despite relatively average size at 6’8″, 240 pounds, not that much bigger than Abu, that projection is realistic.
Granted, Abu will have some help in the paint from Wolfpack leading rebounder Lennard Freeman, but one man cannot do it alone. Defense is always the name of the game against Louisville, and Abu helping his teammate out in the paint in an effective manner is critical to NC State pulling off yet another upset and getting back to the Elite Eight for the first time since Jim Valvano was in charge.
Though the team beat Louisville during the regular season, the oddsmakers still have NC State as two-and-a-half point underdogs just three days before Friday’s game in Syracuse. This is likely because Louisville is a better team on paper, had a stronger regular season, more deep tourney experience, etc.
But let’s call a spade a spade. Despite their fairly modest record, the Wolfpack are a GREAT team. Were they in any conference BUT the ACC, they probably would have a stronger record and a higher seed in this year’s tournament. I’m not going to go so far as to pick a winner for this upcoming game, but I will say this much.
This tilt is going to be an absolute nail-biter from tip-off to the final buzzer. In all likelihood, it may very well not be decided until the final minute of action. Overtime is a great possibility.
That all being said, here’s the final thought: do NOT miss this game under any circumstances, because it could very well end up being the best in all the tournament from a watching standpoint.
*Section Photo credit to Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to David Manning, USA Today Sports