NC State's seniors embrace freshmen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At last week's ACC media day, NC State easily could have pushed aside its veteran players and brought with coach Sidney Lowe the two or three freshmen who will be the presumed game-changers for a program desperate for an NCAA bid.

No one would have scoffed if the Wolfpack had driven from Raleigh to Charlotte with forward C.J. Leslie and guards Ryan Harrow and Lorenzo Brown. These three highly regarded newcomers probably are the main reason the Pack were selected to finish fourth in the ACC behind Duke, Virginia Tech and North Carolina, a lofty prediction for a team that managed only five conference wins last season.

And it would be a difficult point to dismiss. No one will dispute the importance of Leslie, Harrow and Brown. Coaches all around the league have issued platitudes for this class.

But it is a pair of veterans, senior forward Tracy Smith and senior guard Javier Gonzalez, who could benefit the most from the freshman trio, and might ultimately be the difference-makers for Lowe's long-term security and the team's hopes for an NCAA bid this March.

Lowe said Smith and Gonzalez won't have to work as hard for buckets, and noted there won't be nearly as much of a burden on the back of the 6-foot-8 Smith, who led the Wolfpack in scoring (16.5 points per game) and rebounding (7.3 rpg) last season and was selected to the preseason all-ACC team.

"There's not as much pressure on him anymore,'' Lowe said. "There are other guys who can create shots for him. He doesn't have to catch it, make the move and score the ball. He's making the adjustment, get to the spot and have others create the shots. He hasn't had that in the last three years. He loves playing with those guys.''

Both seniors can't say enough about the additions. Players want to play with elite talent. Sure, they'd love to be the center of attention, but they also want to win.

"I'll take our chances to win more games now with the three freshmen coming in,'' Gonzalez said. "We've got guys who can play multiple positions now, and that's going to help us out a lot.''

"The expectations are higher, and we have to live up to them,'' Smith said. "But I don't think I'm going to get double-teamed as much anymore. C.J. is a slasher; Lorenzo and Ryan can shoot the ball like [returning sophomore] Scott Wood. Taking away the double-team will take the pressure off me. We'll just find the open man.''

Smith declared for the NBA draft this spring, but there was no fear of him actually leaving. Had he gone, the momentum of securing a highly rated class would have been stunted. It would have been a severe setback for Lowe, who already had experienced losing his best big man earlier in his tenure when J.J. Hickson bolted.

"I wasn't worried about him leaving,'' Lowe said. "We talked about it. He just wanted to get a feel for his position in the draft.''

The plan this season is to move Smith around, more at his natural power forward position than center. Lowe has options now in the frontcourt with Smith, Leslie and any of the sophomore big men: 7-1 Jordan Vandenberg, 6-9 DeShawn Painter and 6-8 Richard Howell.

I'll take our chances to win more games now with the three freshmen coming in. We've got guys who can play multiple positions now, and that's going to help us out a lot.

-- Senior guard Javier Gonzalez

Having players on the perimeter like Harrow, Brown and a slasher like Leslie to join Gonzalez means that if the Wolfpack are in an offensive funk, someone can get them a shot or at least create space to find Smith.

"Someone now can create a shot for somebody else,'' Lowe said. "I feel good about our team, our chemistry and our mindset, and about how they interact with each other. It's the first time [in his five years] that we have a group that does things off the court. That should tell you that they like being around each other.''

And they clearly have Lowe's back. Being the coach at NC State is a thankless gig. North Carolina is the state's most popular team, but the Wolfpack traditionally have more local fans than Duke, which has a national following and an alumni base that is heavy in the Northeast. With that legion of fans comes an expectation that the Pack should be in step with Duke and UNC.

It doesn't help matters that Wolfpack coaches have been much more reserved personally since the end of Jim Valvano's tenure. That makes it even harder to stand out in the Triangle when you're going up against giants like Dean Smith, Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski.

Herb Sendek was a quiet winner but didn't feel appreciated and left for Arizona State. Lowe is a beloved alumnus from the 1983 national title team, but there's no question that his inability to get NC State into the NCAA tournament has placed him firmly on the hot seat.

Lowe said he has a good working relationship with new athletic director Debbie Yow, but it's no secret that Yow and coach Gary Williams had their moments of contention during her tenure at Maryland. Lowe said Yow has been very supportive and told him she will do whatever she needs to do to help him win.

Nevertheless, the players are savvy to Lowe's situation -- especially the veterans who have lived through it.

"Coach always has pressure on him," Gonzalez said. "Every coach in the nation does."

But if there is one thing the three newcomers have done for Lowe and the two veterans, it is enhance their confidence that they can get to the NCAAs or even compete for an ACC title. This is, after all, a team that managed to upset eventual national champion Duke last season, without the highly touted recruiting class.

"I think we can be there with Duke,'' Smith said. "That's the confidence I have in this team. We're very good, and we beat Duke. It's not to say we can beat them this year. But if we play smart, we keep this team chemistry going -- which has been real good -- and everyone plays together, unlike before when they were out for themselves, then we can beat just about anybody.''

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.