Gottfried delivers program building victory
Raleigh, N.C. ceased to be a destination for big-time college basketball coaches in 1990.
More than two decades have passed since N.C. State made the decision to fire Jim Valvano, but wounds still linger from the ending of an era that represented the proudest chapter of the school's athletic department. A quarter-century later, perhaps even Valvano was looking down at the sea of red Saturday with a smile upon his face as students rushed the court at PNC Arena following the win over previously-unbeaten Duke.
In the 25 years since its last Atlantic Coast Conference Championship — followed quickly by Valvano's dismissal — N.C. State has been through a number of coaching changes. None have ignited the Wolfpack fan base and changed the culture quite like current head coach Mark Gottfried, who is in his second year at the helm.
What Gottfried has managed to accomplish in his brief tenure thus far at State is not unprecedented. The Wolfpack has won two National Championships and the school defeated then-No. 1 Duke back in 2004, but it is the first time in more than two decades a win against the Blue Devils means so much for the program.
Although Saturday marked only the third conference game of the season, it allows N.C. State to reclaim its preseason status of favorite to win the school's first ACC Championship since 1987. It is widely accepted that the league is in the midst of a two-team race for the title. Unlike previous seasons, however, it is between Duke and that "other" team from Tobacco Road.
A win over Duke ensures at least a split with the Blue Devils, most likely meaning the race becomes a battle to determine which squad can go into Chapel Hill and win a second game against North Carolina. If the Wolfpack can finish at 5-1 or better against conference rivals within the state, it appears likely it can enter the tournament as the league's top seed.
C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell and Lorenzo Brown make up an experienced core of veteran players who give Gottfried's group what it takes to compete with the Blue Devils. It may be the freshman talent in Raleigh that makes it likely the team will get better as the year wears along and players such as Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren mature.
Scott Wood gives the Wolfpack an offensive weapon at the wing few teams in the country can match. All are reasons why N.C. State should be considered not only a conference contender, but a force to be reckoned with nationally in March. It may seem odd to think Gottfried's group could be dancing in Atlanta, but keep an eye on the Pack as the 30-year anniversary of Valvano's 1983 National Championship squad approaches.
Typically, the road in the ACC runs through Durham or Chapel Hill. That will again be the case this year, but this time it will be the gang from Raleigh doing the running.
Staff Writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 888-3575, or firstname.lastname@example.org.