GREENSBORO - NC State will have a clean slate going into the 60th annual tournament.
The Wolfpack players probably never imagined having to play in one of Thursday's games, and rooted on Maryland hard to defeat Virginia last Sunday. The Cavaliers rallied to win in overtime, sending the Wolfpack to the No. 5 seed and a matchup against Virginia Tech at approximately 2:30 p.m. Thursday at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.
"I think you just got to be yourself," NCSU coach Mark Gottfried said. "You got to find ways to keep your guys fresh if there is an opportunity to do it, but at the same time you got to make sure that you're giving your chance to win every single night. If there is an opportunity to rest some guys we certainly will, but at the same time we are going to approach each game like potentially it's the last."
What NC State accomplishes in both the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament will help define the season. NC State wishes it had a better record than 22-9 overall and 11-7 in the ACC, but the past will need to be put behind them this week.
"This is something we've all been looking forward to," NCSU freshman shooting guard Rodney Purvis said. "There have been a lot of ups and downs throughout the season. I feel like we are coming together at the right time. I feel like we can make a run in the tournament right now."
Star junior point guard Lorenzo Brown called this season "shaky" due to some losses that weren't expected to occur.
"It's how it goes sometimes," Brown said. "You can't be mad about it or anything. You have to keep playing.
"Every team had problems and a different course. We have a mutual sight, so it should be easier."
NC State seniors Richard Howell and Scott Wood, and redshirt junior Jordan Vandenberg both played in a pair of ACC Tournaments in Greensboro. The Wolfpack fell in a tight one 57-54 to Georgia Tech, which featured future first-round picks Derrick Favors and Iman Shumpert, in the tournament semifinals in 2010.
NC State was one and done in 2011, with a 75-67 loss to Maryland in coach Sidney Lowe's last game. The ACC Tournament moved to Atlanta last year, where the Wolfpack defeated Boston College and Virginia before falling 69-67 against rival North Carolina. The effort ensured the Wolfpack would make the NCAA Tournament.
NC State isn't being labeled a "bubble team" this season, but NCAA Tournament seeding is on the line. The NCSU/Virginia Tech winner faces Virginia on Friday. Wood said the team didn't perform up to the standards they had for themselves.
"I don't really see us as a bad team, but we sometimes have some bad decisions and there are times when things aren't going your way," Wood said. "You mentally have to stay strong and stay focused on the task at hand and not get down on yourself when things don't go well.
"You ask anybody in that locker room and they'd be lying to you if they didn't expect to win the conference. We got some things to prove. We want to go home with some rings, whether it's the regular season title or the tournament title."
Gottfried added that the Pack had a "good, not great" season.
"I wish it had been better," Gottfried acknowledged. "It falls on me. It's my responsibility. We had some games where I felt like we certainly could have won that we didn't.
"At the same time, we did win 11 games, and we got a new season starting now. There's some good, no question. It's probably not as good as I believe we wanted it to be."
No ACC team has ever won four games in four days, which is what the Wolfpack will have to do to win the league tournament title. Many of the players Wednesday likened it to when they played shoe-sponsored traveling team ball in their prep days.
"I really don't think it's that hard," Wood said. "Everybody has grown up playing AAU basketball, and playing three games in a day."
Purvis said the players are used to that kind of day-in, day-out format, and defense will be the catalyst to achieving their goals.
"All of us played AAU, so it's in our blood," Purvis said. "We all want to win and we are tired of taking losses we should win."
NC State needs Leslie at his best
NC State never anticipated the question of whether C.J. Leslie or Calvin Leslie would be playing this week for the Wolfpack - 31 games into his junior season.
NCSU coach Mark Gottfried started calling Leslie by his given name of Calvin Leslie Jr. last year in an attempt to give him a clean break from the past. The notion has created the vibe of when Leslie plays well, he is Calvin, and he when he doesn't, he's C.J.
Leslie struggled in the regular season finale loss against Florida State last Saturday. He had five points and three rebounds in 18-foul plagued minutes, which included a costly first-half technical.
Gottfried and Leslie met following the game to try and get back on track.
"Your play has to do your talking," Gottfried said. "He and I have talked about that this week. He needs to step his game up."
Leslie is averaging 14.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this season, and shooting 53.1 percent from the field. The road might have bumpy at times this season - he earned third-team All-ACC - but a strong push from Leslie could help define the Wolfpack's season.
"Definitely Calvin," said NCSU freshman shooting guard Rodney Purvis on which version of Leslie will show up this week. "He's a big-time player. He definitely will show up this week. I can promise you that. He's been working harder and pushing himself more. He's always been a good worker and a good teammate."
Leslie averaged 17.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game, and shot 70 percent from the field (23 of 33) during last year's ACC Tournament. The strong finish last year in the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament helped Leslie be picked the preseason ACC Player of the Year by both the coaches and media.
"He knows he is a big piece of our puzzle," NC State senior wing Scott Wood said. "Any time he is playing well, we are moving [forward]. It's a lot of pressure on his shoulders, but at the same time, he's a great player and is very capable of doing it."
Senior center Richard Howell, who is Leslie's roommate, and junior point guard Lorenzo Brown have been teammates with Leslie dating back when he was a sophomore in high school with the Worldwide Renegades traveling team. Few trios in college basketball have as extensive history with each other.
"It's coach's and our jobs," said Brown on keep Leslie focused. "He is like family to us and we try to keep his head focused as much as possible.
"We need him 100 percent these four games if we get that far."
Howell, who only uses the name Calvin to get underneath his teammates' skin, knows Leslie's impact is needed for the team to live up to its potential.
"We know the talent he has, the ability he has and I feel like there isn't a kid in the country that can stop him when he goes to the basket," Howell said. "That is something he has to show when he's on the court."
Wolfpack freshmen ready for big stage
NC State freshmen Tyler Lewis, Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren, have watched friends play in the ACC Tournament throughout the years, and Warren's father, Tony Warren Sr., played in the event for the Wolfpack in the late 1970s. Now, it's their turn to step on the court in Greensboro and play in the tourney.
Warren has moved into the starting lineup and is averaging 12.2 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 61.3 percent en route to being named to the All-ACC freshman squad. Purvis is the new sixth man is shooting 39.5 percent from three-point land and contributing 9.0 points per contest.
Lewis is the X-factor off the bench, whose playing time usually depends on how others are doing. He is averaging 3.6 points per game and has 44 assists versus 18 turnovers this season.
"I'm just happy and blessed to be part of the tournament," Purvis said. "Not many kids from where I'm from get the chance to play in the ACC Tournament. I'm from North Carolina, so it's a big deal to me. I really hope we can get things together and just go out there and play basketball and have fun."
Purvis grew up in Plymouth, N.C., which is in the Eastern part of the state. He remembers the anticipation to watch the ACC Tourney each year.
"We definitely paid attention to the ACC Tournament," Purvis said. "Your predictions were never good because somebody would always sneak up and win the ACC Tournament. It's going to be a fun time and I'm looking forward to it."
Lewis grew up near the Triad in Statesville, N.C., and his family always gathered to watch the ACC Tournament. He'll also be thinking about his older brother this week, Colby Lewis, who is senior for Charlotte and facing Richmond at noon Thursday in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Lewis used to get out of school early due to the ACC Tournament.
"This is very important because it's something that I grew up watching, and I came to it almost every year they had it," Lewis said. "I know kids will be doing the same thing to come watch us play, so it's a very important experience."
Lewis doesn't expect any nerves when he plays at the Greensboro Coliseum on Thursday.
"We've been playing all year, so probably no butterflies," Lewis said.
Pack players reflect on All-ACC honors
For the first since 1991, NC State had three different players selected on the All-ACC teams. Highlighting them was senior center Richard Howell, who was the Pack's first first-team All-ACC pick since Julius Hodge in 2004.
Howell though is not taking time to reflect on the honor.
"I want to get a ring," Howell stated. "It's my last year, and the personal accolades are all right, but I want team accolades. I feel like the ring is the biggest one, so that's my goal.
"It's definitely a huge honor, and I appreciate all the accolades. I want the team accolade."
Preseason player of the year Leslie, a junior forward, was selected third-team all-ACC. Although Leslie was in the top 10 in the league in scoring (14.9 a game), rebounding (7.5) and blocked shots (1.2), his season had been considered a disappointment by some especially considering the preseason expectations by others for him.
"That doesn't matter to me," Leslie said. "It serves no purpose. I'm not worried about it at all. I'm not even thinking about it. It means nothing going into this postseason."
Bobby Lutz's impact felt
One of the chief men behind the scenes for NC State is assistant coach Bobby Lutz. The former long-time Charlotte head coach is often seen frantically shouting out instructions from the Wolfpack bench.
Leslie noted that he has become the go-to guy for the players.
"His knowledge of the game, he's studied this game so hard," Leslie noted. "I don't think I've seen anyone more motivated than he is as far as knowing his staff. You can ask him anything and he can give you anything at the snap of the finger in any situation. That's big. He's taught me a lot this year."
Gottfried concurred that Lutz is "a great basketball guy" and a "great coach." Gottfried also noted that Lutz's approach to his position has helped, especially considering Lutz was a successful head coach.
"Some [former head coaches] have a hard time being assistant," Gottfried stated. "He's a guy that has no ego. He pours everything he's got into our team. He's been a huge valuable asset to us."