Originally Published: October 19, 2012

The Buzz Is Back At North Carolina State

By Robbi Pickeral

CHARLOTTE, N.C.-- NC State forward Richard Howell has taken the same route to class since he was a freshman and never had any problem making it there on time.

Until now.

"I really can't walk to class without being late,'' the 6-foot-8, 257-pound forward said, shaking his head as he grinned. "You can leave 15, 20 minutes earlier and people are still going to stop you.

"Mainly, they want to talk about the NCAA championship. Most of them just skip over the ACC championship and skip right to the NCAA championship. … You really can't go anywhere in Raleigh without hearing about NC State basketball, but it's a good problem to have."

For the first time in a very long time, the Wolfpack are the talk of the Triangle (and ACC), ahead of Duke and North Carolina. With four starters back from the team that reached the NCAA Sweet 16 plus a heralded freshman class, NC State was picked by the league media as the preseason favorite for the first time since the 1974-75 season -- and it was only the second time in 16 years that someone edged the Blue Devils and Tar Heels out of the top spot (although they did rank second and third, respectively).

It's an exciting time for second-year coach Mark Gottfried, but he also knows he and his team have to keep things in perspective.

"We want to keep improving; it's important we continue to do that,'' Gottfried said. "I think our guys are very well aware that you get to January and the ball goes into the air and you've got two teams playing, that how you were picked back in October has very little relevance to anything. So we've got to go play. We know that. But I do like the fact that I believe our program is improving. We're getting better."

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AP Photo/John BazemoreNC State brings back C.J. Leslie and welcomes a strong recruiting class, ensuring Mark Gottfried's Wolfpack will have their say in the ACC race this season.

But how good can they be?

The Wolfpack are ranked No. 6 in the USA Today Preseason Coaches' poll, and much of the expectations are due to just how much the team excelled during the postseason. With 20 wins and a 9-7 league record entering the ACC tournament, NC State was balanced so precariously on the slippery NCAA bubble that it was the last team to be announced during the tournament selection show. An 11th seed, it knocked off sixth-seeded San Diego State, then third-seeded Georgetown before falling to Kansas in the Sweet 16.

But star forward C.J. Leslie's decision to return to school -- rejoining fellow starters Lorenzo Brown, Scott Wood and Howell, along with a heralded freshman class led by Preseason ACC Rookie of the Year Rodney Purvis -- just continued to build the March momentum during offseason. Leslie was named the league's Preseason Player of the Year by both the coaches and media, but Gottfried knows his players still have plenty to prove.

"It's new territory for our team,'' Gottfried said of the expectations. "This is unchartered waters. And we have to learn how to accept that responsibility. And when you start playing games, you have to understand that you're viewed differently than maybe you were a year ago. So we've got to be ready for that."

No matter how many times fans stop them en route to campus.

"I have class at 11:40, and the latest I've maybe gotten there is 11:53,'' Howell said. "It's not that bad, but when you're probably the biggest person walking into class and you're last [there], and everybody just turns around and looks? It's pretty bad."

Duke Could Still Shine Even Without A Star

By Andy Katz
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Duke doesn't have a star, but don't dismiss this team as an ACC contender.

NC State is the favorite. North Carolina is still as talented as any other team. Miami and Florida State legitimately could be standing atop the league in March.

And Duke? The Blue Devils may have one of the most balanced teams in the league. In what is a bit unusual for the Blue Devils, they don't have a lock for the first round of the NBA draft.

"I think the biggest thing that we don't have is a breakdown guy like Kyrie Irving or Austin [Rivers],'' said senior forward Mason Plumlee. "We will be setting a lot of screens. We have to be smart because we don't have a one-on-one guy.''

Plumlee likened the team to the 2010 national champs. Of course, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler were on that squad. But he wanted to draw the comparison that the team had to rely on Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas to set those screens. He said that team had to be balanced.

"We had to get each other open,'' said Plumlee. "We didn't have that one-on-one guy. … We'll be as balanced as any team. People say we don't have a 20-point a game guy, but we could have three guys who score 10-15.''

The Blue Devils enter the preseason banged up with Marshall Plumlee out for six to eight weeks with a foot injury and Seth Curry nursing a leg injury that has limited his practice time.

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Mark Dolejs/US PresswireMason Plumlee and the Devils are picked to finish second in the ACC.
"I'm working on fighting through it,'' said Curry. "But I've been in and out of practice every day.''

Duke was still picked second behind NC State in the preseason poll.

The Devils will have a new point guard in Quinn Cook, backed up by Tyler Thornton. A healthy Curry will be one of the best shooters in the country. Coach Mike Krzyzewski actually tabbed him as the top shooter in the country.

A healthy frontline of the Plumlees, Ryan Kelly and freshman Alex Murphy, as well as Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson, gives the Blue Devils depth.

Rasheed Sulaimon could be an X factor for this team if he reaches his potential on the perimeter.

So no one will weep for this team. Duke is still considered a possible champ, even if the Wolfpack got a lot of the attention in Charlotte.

"They can enjoy it,'' said Mason Plumlee. "But we don't play them until January. We all have good nonconference schedules. So we all have a chance to be hyped prior to the ACC.''

The Blue Devils were upset by Lehigh in their NCAA tournament opener last season. So no one is attempting to put Duke into the Final Four or even a deep NCAA run.

And the schedule is brutal. Duke plays Kentucky in Atlanta, drew Minnesota in the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis, hosts Ohio State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and plays tough teams Temple and Davidson.

The Blue Devils get NC State, UNC and Miami twice, with the one game against Florida State on the road.

Duke could finish first, but easily could slide down to fourth. The Blue Devils don't have the overwhelming talent, but they've immediately bought into the style of play that will make them win.

Miami Has Confidence to Beat Expectations

By Andy Katz
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The polls don't believe in Miami.

Do you?

Well, it doesn't matter all that much. Miami does.

The Hurricanes were picked to finish fourth by the ACC coaches. And the Hurricanes have every intention of fulfilling that place in the ACC in March -- at the very least.

The Canes are a confident group and they should be with a healthy Reggie Johnson inside, easily the toughest frontcourt player to move off the block in the ACC.

I watched all of the ACC players show our Jay Williams and Jimmy Dykes their money move on a basketball court outside the ESPNU offices. No one had as much command as Johnson. He called for the ball, created position and bulldozed his way to the basket.

Of course, it was against my colleagues, but the purpose for what he needs to get accomplished was evident.

NC State's C.J. Leslie was tabbed as the preseason player of the year. But no player may be as tough to stop as Johnson.

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Mark Dolejs/US PresswireReggie Johnson is one of many veterans returning to a Miami team that many expect to land in the NCAA tournament.
"I'm 100 percent ready to go, I'm good, 10 times better than last year,'' said Johnson, who missed the first nine games of last season -- Jim Larranaga's first as Miami coach -- with a knee injury.

"I couldn't move the way I can now or defend as well."

Johnson is 6-10, 292 and when healthy averaged 10 points and seven rebounds.

He could easily average 15 to 16 points a game and push 10 boards. He'll have more help next to him with Kenny Kadji, a healthy Julian Gamble and a loaded perimeter with the return of Durand Scott, Shane Larkin and Trey McKinney Jones.

Larranaga said the Hurricanes lack that 6-5, 6-6 player, the tough matchup for any team if the player is a true slasher.

But he's not worried about getting the ball inside or getting shots on the perimeter. Johnson said double-teaming him will be a problem with the ability of players like Scott to knock down open perimeter shots.

"You could see with the core of the healthy players that we had the potential to be very good,'' said Larranaga of last season's 20-win, NIT second-round, nine-win ACC season.

Larranaga said this team has good athletic ability. And while they need more size, he's confident the simplistic aspects of the game are set with Miami.

"You've got to do two things in the game,'' said Larranaga, who has struck the right balance of retaining Frank Haith's players and adding his own. "You have to be able to put the ball in the basket and stop people from putting the ball in the basket and we have the potential to do both. We have enough scoring ability and we have enough athletic ability so it's a matter of finding the right way for these guys to play this year. We'll be a bigger team and maybe not as versatile with no mid-size guys.''

The Canes are in a middle group in the ACC. If the Triangle does finish 1-2-3 with NC State, Duke and North Carolina, then 4-5-6 could be in any order Miami, Florida State and Maryland.

For Miami to live up to these lofty expectations, it must get momentum going into league play. The Canes have plenty of chances to prove they are top 25-worthy by playing Michigan State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, going to upstart UMass and navigating a few potential tough stops like at UCF and hosting La Salle, plus a trip to the Diamond Head Classic with games against Arizona, Ole Miss or possibly San Diego State.

The Hurricanes will earn their position, too, with one of the most difficult schedules in the ACC. Miami plays Duke, North Carolina and Florida State twice. The one NC State game is on the road in Raleigh while the lone Maryland game is at home.

"We got through a lot of adversity with injuries, suspensions and redshirting,'' said Scott. "We all feel much more confident and we're tight. Everybody is healthy. We're really looking forward to seeing what happens.''

Guards Should Give North Carolina A Great Shot

By Robbi Pickeral
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina's guards have become known for their good-natured shooting contests. If sophomore P.J. Hairston can make a shot from half court (backwards, which he has), redshirt junior Leslie McDonald wants to try to swish one from at least two feet farther back. If junior Reggie Bullock can make a trick shot while sitting on a table behind the basket, then surely senior Dexter Strickland wants to try it, too.

The bragging-rights competitions are all in good fun. But this season, with such an overflow of experienced wings on their roster, the Tar Heels are hoping that some of that outside shooting prowess carries over to games.

"I think it's going to be a big year for our wing players," said Bullock, the only remaining starter from the team that lost to Kansas in last year's NCAA regional final. "This year it's going to be up to the wings to be able to step up and knock down shots, because we don't have that powerful interior that we had."

Indeed, with four starters gone from last season's team -- including the frontcourt of ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller and ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson -- UNC's most experienced players perform mostly outside the lane.

To read the rest of this story, click here for Pickeral's North Carolina blog.


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