NC State's nucleus all have winning backgrounds as prep players, but it's taken this year's run in the NCAA Tournament to rekindle old feelings.
NC State's seven-man rotation features two players who won state titles in high school, plus four runner-up finishes. The Wolfpack play No. 2-seeded Kansas at 10:17 p.m. tonight in St. Louis. Many of the players said they had to go back to high school to remember playing such meaningful games.
First-year NCSU coach Mark Gottfried has pushed the right buttons in bringing out the winning backgrounds of his players. The Wolfpack went 51-45 the last three years under previous coach Sidney Lowe.
"Winning always helps you," Gottfried said. "That is the one thing that always builds confidence, is when you win. We've won, we've won on the road and we've won away from home. We've lost some tough games."
Gottfried inherited seven Rivals.com top 150 players coming out of high school, but he needed to build up their confidence.
"It's my job to convince my team we are good enough," Gottfried said. "We have to become good enough. It's not smoke and mirrors and something we can just talk about."
Junior center Richard Howell is one of two players on the roster that won high school state titles. Howell and Mareitta (Ga.) Wheeler High fell 57-54 to Norcross in the 2008 AAAAA state title game his junior year, but then won the title the next year against Alpharetta (N.C.) Milton High in 2009.
"The feeling is great," Howell said. "Coming from Wheeler High School, where we won a state championship my senior year, and we were in there my junior year. It's definitely a great feeling. When you make that transition of not even coming close to something like that, it's a type of feeling you want to get back, no matter how much work we put in.
"Every day in the summer, we were sweating and were saying, 'This better pay off.' It definitely has with us in the Sweet 16, but we aren't satisfied. We know what it feels like to win."
Sophomore power forward C.J. Leslie also knows the excitement and frustration of winning and losing a state title. Leslie teamed up with future Washington Wizards point guard John Wall to win the NCISAA 1A state title for Raleigh Word of God in 2008.
Leslie scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half to lift the Holy Rams to an 85-71 victory his sophomore year. Leslie spurred on Word of God's second half comeback in the 1A title game his junior year. With Wall struggling, Leslie erupted for 12 of his 21 points in the second half, and added 14 rebounds and six blocked shots against United Faith.
Future Florida State guard Ian Miller hit a controversial game-winner at the buzzer from well beyond the three-point arc to lift United Faith to a 56-53 victory. Leslie and Word of God didn't get out of the quarterfinals his senior year.
"Winning means a lot and this is a real big stage," Leslie said. "There is a lot of excitement to this tournament. We are in it and have a chance.
"This is up there and probably the happiest. We are on a great stage."
Sophomore point guard Lorenzo Brown went 97-23 during his four years at Roswell (Ga.) Centennial High, including 25-5 his senior year before falling 79-77 to Snellville South Gwinnett High in the second round. He followed with an outstanding post-graduate year in reaching the final four of the 2010 national prep school tournament at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va.
"[Coach Gottfried] told us he wasn't a losing kind of guy," Brown said. "Once he said that, that gave us a push to win these games and help this school out and put us back on the map.
"Playing as a team [is most important]. If you have one selfish person on the team, it's like a bad egg. You don't need that. I don't think nobody on our team is like that."
Junior small forward Scott Wood played for the title his junior year alongside former NCSU guard Julius Mays at Marion (Ind.) High. Wood appeared to have made the game-winning jumper with 2.1 seconds left, but future Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward won it at the buzzer for the 4A state title for Brownsburg High in 2008.
Marion went 24-5 during Wood's junior year, and 21-4 and a spot in the 4A regional title game his senior year.
"You want to win, but at the same time Coach Gottfried has done a good job of putting in his system and utilizing everybody's strengths to get us back on our winning ways," Wood said. "I think we knew how to win, but we had to figure out how to do it with five people on the court at a time.
"It's a tough transition coming from high school where you get 20 shots and you are the man, and always have the ball coming through your hands. Here, you have to make sacrifices."
Junior center DeShawn Painter also has a winning background at Hargrave in 2009, finishing second in the national prep school tournament. Brown followed him a year later at the traditional power.
Fifth-year senior point guard Alex Johnson transferred to NC State this year, but also knows the ups and downs of college basketball at his previous stop at Cal-State Bakersfield, where the Roadrunners went 25-61. Johnson was part of a powerful Grassroots Canada squad in traveling team basketball.
Senior shooting guard C.J. Williams feels like he's going through some déjà vu this year. He didn't have a lot of playoff success his first three years at Fayetteville (N.C.) Britt, but had a memorable senior year run, that ended in a heart-breaking 45-44 loss to Apex (N.C.) High in the NCHSAA 4A East Regional final. Then sophomore post player Weston Murphy hit the game-winner for Apex with 6.4 seconds left in the game. Jack Britt finished the season 27-5.
"At Jack Britt, I lost in the first round my first three years," Williams said. "That was tough and then I made myself refocused, get into the playoffs and then make a run. This definitely brings back memories again."
Williams felt the brunt of the won-loss record the last four years as the only senior that was part of each team.
"It's all worth it," Williams said. "I learned a lot from those years. We might not have won games, but I wouldn't have learned how to win if we hadn't of lost before.
"When Coach Gottfried came in, we sat down and talked about how I wanted to win right away. I didn't want to do the whole rebuilding thing. We've won on the high school level, but he's won on the college level. He came in and told us exactly what it takes to win at this level."