Taking back Tobacco Road

MARK GOTTFRIED MINGLES. Gliding through his own backyard, the basketball coach shakes hands, passes out beers and talks hoops -- North Carolina State-by-god Wolfpack hoops. His guests, for the first time in a long time, are drinking up their pride in the Pack program with as much enthusiasm as they throw back the beer. It has been a while. Not since they've had a drink but since they've been able to discuss State basketball without apologies, excuses and then a drink. It is late summer. Gottfried's second season in Raleigh is nearly two months away, but buzz from the Pack's unlikely run to the Sweet 16 and the program's first 24-win season since Jim Valvano's 1987-88 squad continues at a low hum. And Coach has been busy.

He is still tweaking his new up-tempo offense (well, new to the Pack) that helped put NC State into the NCAA tournament, and he persuaded his best players, guard Lorenzo Brown and forward C.J. Leslie, to put the NBA on hold and stick around for one more year. That means NC State brings back four starters. He also signed three McDonald's All-Americans -- the most in school history. All of this has led to near-ridiculous expectations. The Wolfpack rank among the top 10 teams on most preseason lists and sit atop the ACC coaches poll as the favorite to win the school's first conference title since that same Valvano squad. What's more, Leslie is the ACC preseason player of the year, and guard Rodney Purvis is preseason freshman of the year.

The attention is overwhelming, but it comes at a time when there is also an overwhelming enthusiasm for the opportunity to take back Tobacco Road -- or at the very least to become relevant again. "We have the potential for a great future," Gottfried says. "But we still have work to do. To get there, we need to do a better job of embracing our past and the people who got us here. Those blue schools down the road have always done a great job of that. Now we will too." And that institutional knowledge, and the chance to tap into it, is what has him glad-handing in the backyard.

At 6'2", Gottfried is not a short man. But here on his own turf, just a few minutes from campus, his head barely reaches the shoulders of most of his 70-plus visitors -- essentially every former Pack player who has ever mattered. He has called them home to Raleigh to make a promise, to tell them that they can trust him to rebuild their program and their pride, but only if they're willing to circle the wagons and help out.

There's 7'2" Tommy Burleson, who battled Bill Walton before winning the 1974 title. There's
6'11" Thurl Bailey, who boxed out Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1983. From David Thompson to Tom Gugliotta to Julius Hodge, the legends look down on Gottfried and slap him on the shoulder with a "Keep it up, Coach."

"Thanks, guys," Gottfried replies to each and every alum, then follows with his familiar refrain: "But we still have a lot of work to do."

"There's a pride in this program that's never left," Thompson says with a marked intensity. "But for a long time, we've had to hang that pride on the past. Now, in just one year, Mark has given us a great present and hopefully a future that we can be just as proud of."

Then the original Skywalker, who was just named to NC State's inaugural Hall of Fame class, softens his eyes and smiles. "He's turned it around so fast, honestly not a lot of people know how. Everyone wants to ask him, but they also don't want to bother him. They know he has a lot of work to do."

THE WORK IN question takes place each day in the newly overhauled Dail Basketball Center. The building's interiors, like Gottfried's backyard barbecue, embrace the program's past. "That area by the front desk, that used to be the coffee station," Gottfried says as he walks toward his office. "I like this view much better." He pauses to look at a floor-to-ceiling museum case packed with several of NC State's 17 conference championship trophies. Many of those gold cups had vanished, stashed away in storage closets. Gottfried found them and sent them off to a trophy shop to be polished and to have the gold basketballs refastened. "It's a great feel around here," says associate head coach Bobby Lutz,
a North Carolina native and one of three assistants with head coaching experience. His office walls, like his co-workers', are adorned with framed photos of both the current team and red-and-white-draped superstars of teams gone by. "It's all very Back to the Future, isn't it?"

It is. So are the game plans drawn up in those offices, then run ad nauseam on the practice floor below. Last season's much-ballyhooed offensive jolt -- the one that generated 72.9 points per game, with all five starters averaging double digits -- is regarded among many NC State loyalists as a groundbreaking, forward-thinking, fast-break-based approach. Perhaps that's because they spent so many years mired in a stay-in-your-lane, fingers-up, run-the-play offense. Like every year since 1910.

"Oh yeah, that's all me. My genius as a basketball coach," Gottfried says with a chuckle. "No, we're running the same offense that's worked for half a century now. It's the UCLA high post. Guy named Wooden came up with it."

Gottfried knew John Wooden. Very well. He was an assistant in Westwood from 1988 to 1995, winning the '95 national title as a lieutenant to Jim Harrick, who learned the high post as a UCLA assistant under Gary Cunningham, who learned it from the Wizard himself. The core principles of the system have never changed. It still relies heavily on a two-guard set, and it still spaces out all five players, drawing the defense away from the basket. The high post -- preferably a forward instead of a true center -- shifts atop the lane to the elbows of the foul line, and the perimeter shifts with him. Behind him the lane opens to a seemingly endless series of options, from two- and three-layer cuts and screens to simply taking a shot from deep. "It's very democratic," Lorenzo Brown says. "Everyone gets a touch, and everyone gets a say."

As a freshman in the pro-style half-court offense of former coach Sidney Lowe, the guard averaged 9.3 points and 3.7 assists. Last season with Gottfried, those numbers jumped to 12.7 ppg and 6.3 apg. "It takes the pressure off of one guy to run it all," Lutz says, referring to the traditional role of the point guard (Lowe's position on the 1983 national title team). "Everyone on the team has multiple reads on every play. In a standard half-court offense, you signal your play and you run it no matter what the defense gives you. In this system, everyone is thinking like a point guard. What do you see? What are they giving you? What are they taking away? Make those reads and then go."

Go could mean a pass or a shot. If the offense shifts to one side, the high post might step up to set a screen, a rub, then pop out to take the ball back from the guard he just freed up and shoot. Or he might drive. Or he might send it back. Or kick out to the wingman who made the initial entry pass and set a second screen. The movement never stops. Neither does the brain.

In this offense, there are no wrong answers, just wrong results. It's creativity and trust placed in the hands of the players. And those players like that idea. A lot. As Gottfried says with great frequency: "It's fun, and everyone gets to shoot. Who doesn't like to shoot?" That's why the veterans bought into the new system so quickly and why high school blue-chippers once owned by other stops along Tobacco Road are suddenly signing on at State. "It's hard work because there is a lot of information to digest," Leslie says. "But we started small, then eased into it."

The forward struggled with his central high-post role early on, but it all clicked by February. He scored in double figures in each of the final 16 games of the season, a stretch that included NCAA tournament upsets of San Diego State and Georgetown. He scored 18.3 ppg over the final 11. Now coaches are bragging on the junior as one of the players helping them teach the offense to the five-star newcomers. "It was almost like we stretched the court as the season went on," Leslie says. "We started half-court, then three-quarters, then we were all out from baseline to baseline."

That's where the modern Harrick-to-Gottfried high post reveals its evolutionary additions from the Wooden-to-Cunningham model. The old guard certainly was not afraid of a fast break. But 2.0 doesn't just incorporate the break, it feeds off it. Not all the time, of course, but when the rhythm needs to be picked up. Or perhaps when it needs to be disrupted. But when those prolonged stretches of attack show up, defenses are forced to upshift from methodically maddened to frantically frustrated. "That's a product of what kind of athletes these kids are now," Lutz says. "The kind of explosive moves you used to see from guys off the baseline on an entry, or a guard blowing through the lane off a post rub, now you see them taking place over the length of the court in a split second. They are so big, so fast and so smart, they can back up and run a play like that using the entire floor. You see a defender settle in on a guy like Lorenzo at midcourt, and then wham, he's gone."

When Gottfried started bringing his staff up to speed on the team's new style, he broke out video of his 11 years as head coach at Alabama and also from his teams at UCLA -- the Ed O'Bannon coast-to-coast fast breakers. But with the players themselves, he rarely dips into the DVD collection. Instead of saying, "This is how Tyus Edney did it, so you should do that too," he emphasizes self-ownership of each role in the system. "They have confidence in us to take on responsibility for what happens," senior forward Richard Howell says. "You hear the coaches just preaching reads, reads, reads. That's what it's like all the time. You watch Peyton Manning play quarterback, and he's just reacting all the time. Changing the play all the time. It keeps the defense guessing. We're changing the play all the time. The more comfortable we get with it, the more uncomfortable they're going to be."

The 6'8", 257-pound Howell, one of only two scholarship seniors, also sees time at the 5 spot in the high post. But when he grabs a defensive rebound -- he led the team with 9.2 boards per game last season -- he becomes the catalyst for starting the first fast reads that start the fast breaks that lead to fast points. Under Lowe, those breaks were traditional: Players moved into their lanes and stuck to their guns no matter what defense they saw. Now, though, they go one, two, three layers deep in their thought processes, reacting to defenses and changing plays on the fly. And they do it in fractions of seconds. "I was totally overwhelmed in the beginning," Leslie admits as Howell nods in agreement. "But it's like anything else. The more we ran it in practice and in games, it started to slow down in my mind. Just reps. Reps until we got to where we just started doing it instead of thinking about it."

IF YOU ASK the players if there was one moment when they realized they finally had a grip on the new offense, no one hesitates to answer.
It was Feb. 16, 2012. A prime-time date at Cameron Indoor Stadium. From the opening tip, the Pack attacked effortlessly in both styles -- half-court and the break. Brown had his national coming-out party, masterfully driving the lane within the high post and leading the transition game with multiple one-man, floor-length drives. Three-quarters of the way into the game, they had a 20-point lead over fifth-ranked Duke. "You looked around and thought, Okay now, we're getting this. This is going to work," Lutz recalls, nodding his head as he talks. "At halftime it was kind of like, Do you see this? Do you see all the stuff from practice working? They did. But then you know what happened, right?"

They lost, succumbing to a sobering Seth Curry 16-point barrage over the final 11 minutes. And by season's end, they were 0-4 vs. Duke and UNC -- three losses to the Tar Heels on top of the heartbreaker in Durham. Two of those Carolina losses were romps. The third was a two-point nail-biter in the ACC tourney semifinals. "They are still the measuring stick," Gottfried says of his in-state rivals.

This he knows firsthand. Between the Alabama job, from which he resigned in 2009, and his arrival in Raleigh, Gottfried spent two years as an ESPN TV analyst. He traveled the nation weekly, and as part of every pregame preparation, he had lengthy, guard-down conversations with both teams' coaching staffs about how they'd built and run their programs -- their mistakes and triumphs, offensive and defensive philosophies and evolution. The kind of talks you simply can't have with an opponent, or around the hotel bar at coaching conferences and summer leagues. He saw their campuses, toured their facilities and got closed-door looks at how other programs go about their business. That tour included "those blue schools down the road," so Gottfried knows exactly what his targets are made of. He has made his reads. And that's why he has had the offices repainted and has dug all those old trophies out of the closet.

But he also knows that restoring tradition never lasts if you stumble while trying to carry the torch. And he knows that slap-on-the-back preseason expectations, whether from writers or a backyard-size Wolfpack, will vanish as soon as the first loss goes up on the board. "They've won the big games," Gottfried says, referring to Duke and UNC. "We haven't. We haven't done anything yet. Like I say all the time, we still have a lot of work to do." (Yes, we've heard.)

For their parts, Leslie and Howell have been living and breathing the reforms. From Raleigh to Spain, where the team toured during August, they spent the summer working with the recruits on the high post. Then in October, roaming the halls of ESPNU in Charlotte, they shook hands with other pairs of ACC players. Like a scene out of a SportsCenter ad, everyone hung out in the newsroom in uniform, waiting for their turn in the studio. Mascots roamed the halls. So did coaches, from Gottfried to Roy Williams to Coach K. Each made a point to stop and shake the hands of the State players, who politely accepted congrats on their preseason honors, then looked at each other as the luminaries walked away. "It's been a long time since guys in these uniforms were the center of attention," Howell says with a smile. "It feels good.

"Now we have to prove we actually earned it."

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