NC State’s Sweet 16 Journey
RALEIGH, NC — Mark Gottfried’s successful approach with C.J. Leslie has been well-documented. But it didn’t begin and end with the 6-foot-9 budding star.
Hired last April to replace Sidney Lowe, Gottfried inherited a group that had done more than its fair share of losing and seen plenty of disappointment. But Gottfried had a ready-made group of veterans – a senior and two juniors – that could help him win right away as he rebuilt NC State.
Senior C.J. Williams and juniors Scott Wood and Richard Howell had been through plenty of bad times, and they didn’t want to spend the rest of their time in school rebuilding a program only to see the fruits pay off after graduation.
And so the question became how quickly would they buy in, if at all?
“First thing that had to happen with all these guys is they needed to get to know me and I needed to get to know them,” Gottfried said. “Until there’s a level of trust, players sometimes, they build a wall and it’s hard to break that wall. Who is this guy? Why do I need to listen to you?”
The toughest of the three was Howell. The 6-foot-8 (on a good day, per his head coach) forward is an imposing physical presence despite his lack of size relative to his competition. Post-practice sweat dripped steadily off of the end of his beard and he stared straight ahead as he talked about learning to trust Gottfried.
“It’s very hard for a coach to come in here and just click instantly with a player, especially a player who had been here two years and had been through the worst possible times,” Howell said. ”The main thing is just trusting him. He tells us every day, nobody wants us to do better than he does and that’s something that we’ve bought into. That’s something that we’ve trusted and it’s got us this far, so we’re going to keep continuing to trust him.”
Getting through to Howell was a unique obstacle for Gottfried, particularly on a personal level. ”There was a hard wall there that was hard to penetrate – not just on the floor, but away from the game,” Gottfried said of Howell. “If we sat down and just talked about his family or life, there weren’t a lot of times he wanted to let us in, let me in. Over time, that began to break down a little bit more.”
Even with Williams, a well-respected team leader, acceptance didn’t happen overnight. Williams had seen his playing time fluctuate wildly in his previous three years while capable Wolfpack teams never came close to reaching their potential.
When Gottfried was announced as the new head coach, the first thing Williams did is look up the new coach’s records his first year at Murray State and Alabama. He liked what he saw, but neither of Gottfried’s first-year teams made the NCAA tournament. His future teams did, and often: in 1997 and 1998, Murray State made the tournament and from 2002-06, Alabama did as well.
Williams, though, had just one more shot to make the NCAA tournament. So he went to Gottfried days after his hiring and let his feelings be known. “I said, ‘Coach, if you’re for this rebuilding stuff, I can’t do that. I’m a senior. I need to win right now. I’ve always had a dream of at least playing in the NCAA tournament’,” Williams said.
“‘I need to know that that’s what you want to do.’ He straight up told me, ‘C.J., I’m trying to win right now. I’m not trying to do the rebuilding. I don’t want to waste time.’”
While no other player could pinpoint a specific “aha” moment, Scott Wood did. It was less than two weeks after Gottfried had been hired. Wood went up to what he called the war room above the Dail Center to meet with Gottfried and assistant coach Bobby Lutz.
“He showed me the offense and what he likes to see, and then he put it into the picture that this is where everybody’s going to be,” Wood said. “It let me see into the future of how it was going to work, and it really made me realize that this could be a good thing for us.”
Williams said Gottfried watched tape of each player from the previous year to evaluate what they could do. He let each player know what he expected of them individually, and each player had to buy into that before they could win as a team.
“He watched tape of us from last year and what we can do,” Williams said. As a coach, he just kind of coached us from that point, seeing what we did as a group and then taking it like, ‘Okay, now I see what you do. This is what I expect out of you.’
“The accountability that we have as individual players has helped us build this team environment.”
Williams recalled Gottfried showing the team tapes of his Alabama teams to give them an idea of what the offense would look like. “Each of us was like, ‘Oh, okay, so this is where my shot is going to come from and this is where his shot is going to be.’ We all saw that everybody is going to have an equal opportunity to score their points,” Williams said.
And they have. All five NC State starters averaged between 10 and 14 points in the regular season, which has held up in the postseason as well. Even after coming up short in a crucial three-game stretch in late February, which included a blown 20-point lead at Duke and home losses to Florida State and North Carolina, the Wolfpack managed to inch forward.
Their offense has been among the most efficient in the league all year, even as players like Wood and Williams went through slumps. They’ve returned to form, and both have hit huge shots in big moments in the NCAA tournament. Among the more recent improvements is a defense that has been downright dominant at times. That’s a far cry from where it was in November, or even December.
“(Gottfried’s) confidence is unbelievable in us. He tells us if we go out there and play hard, the sky is the limit to what we can do,” Howell said. “It definitely shows, not only on the offensive end but especially on the defensive end as well. I felt like that was something we were lacking last year.”
Howell’s progression has been part of the journey as well. He has a propensity to pick up silly fouls, and NC State isn’t the same team when he’s not on the floor, throwing his body around to fight for every available rebound. But he has stayed out of foul trouble for most of the last two games. He was dominant in the first round with 22 points against San Diego State and against Georgetown, he struggled to score but drew two fouls in the first 5:40 on the Hoyas’ star center Henry Sims.
State has always had Sweet 16 talent. It just had to believe that. The Wolfpack’s collapse at Duke and a disappointing close loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament called into question their ability to finish against good teams. Gottfried kept telling his team they were improving and they just lost to some good teams. But NC State ended the regular season without any great wins.
Now, the Wolfpack has two NCAA tournament wins over teams that spent most of the year in the top 25. Gottfried told his team all year that they were good enough to play with anyone in the country. Finally, the Pack and the nation have proof.
“It’s my job to convince our team that we are good enough, and we have to become good enough. It’s not smoke and mirrors. It’s not something you can just talk about,” Gottfried said. “You have to get better, and we did get better. But at the same time, I think this particular team needed – and still does – to believe that they’re good enough. And I do think that they believe that, so that’s exciting.”