NC State is back in the tournament that it helped make famous.
The Wolfpack (22-12) finally snapped a five-season drought by being selected as a No. 11 seed in the Midwest to play against No. 6-seed San Diego State (26-7) on Friday in Columbus, Ohio. NCSU will be competing in the tourney for the 23rd time, which includes winning the national title in 1974 and 1983.
Former NC State coach Sidney Lowe resigned March 15, 2011, after a disappointing 15-16 record, and the new coach was expected to rebuild the Wolfpack into an NCAA Tournament squad and finish in the top half of the ACC.
Neither NCSU athletic director Debbie Yow or first-year coach Mark Gottfried expected that both big picture goals would get accomplished so soon. NC State achieved both by earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament and the Wolfpack also reached the ACC Tournament semifinals, falling 69-67 to North Carolina on Saturday in Atlanta. The bar has been raised for the program.
"I'm a optimist, so I think anything is possible," said Gottfried, who had his contract extended until 2018 for making the tournament in his first two years. "I felt like it would probably be a tall order this first year to be an NCAA Tournament team. I felt this would be quite an accomplishment if we pulled it off.
"I knew there was some potential with this group. We just needed to pull it together."
Gottfried wasn't sure if everything would come together as quickly as it has. He has participated in the NCAA Tournament, either as a player or a coach, 18 times in his career.
"I think when you have a new staff and a new system, and you are playing a difficult schedule — we played Vanderbilt and Texas, Indiana and Syracuse," Gottfried said. "There is a lot to learn and we threw a lot at them quickly. I really believed by the end of January or early February, we started to play really well."
NC State's last tournament appearance resulted in defeating California in the first round before falling to Texas on March 19, 2006. The five years in-between resulted in two NIT berths, but there is nothing like the excitement of the NCAA Tournament.
"They have accomplished so much this year, and they earned their way in," Gottfried said. "We just kept getting better. I think we are playing pretty well right now. I think our guys have a lot of confidence right now. Our guys can play anybody in the country."
Yow wasn't sure what this year would hold after her big coaching hire.
"I don't think anyone, including myself, expected us to be in the NCAA Tournament in year one of Coach Gottfried's tenure here," Yow said. "This is special for that reason alone."
Yow was knee deep in her coaching search at this time last year, resulting in Gottfried being introduced April 5.
"You think about life lessons, and I saw a life lesson play out here," Yow said. "[You] work hard, take care of business and you will be rewarded. Certainly not always, we all know that, but it's pretty special that they get rewarded for this, this time."
Senior guards C.J. Williams and Alex Johnson will get the taste of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their careers. Johnson previously played at Cal-State Bakersfield before transferring in for his last year, while Williams has been through the ups and downs of the program.
"I was just praying, 'God, just give us a chance to play in the tournament,'" said Williams about watching Selection Sunday on CBS. "Not winning as many games as we wanted to the last three years, you definitely kind of think that you are running out of chances. This year, I felt like we had the team and the discipline and basketball talent to make it."
NC State junior small forward Scott Wood said the players knew there was enough talent to reach the NCAA Tournament this season, but they needed to mesh together.
"We had to work together and put our personal goals aside and look at each other and say, 'Hey, we need to do this as a team,'" Wood said. "I think Mrs. Yow did a great job of bringing in Coach Gottfried and helping us gel that much more. It took us to the next level."
The players had grown weary about hearing how the program hadn't reached the tournament since 2006.
"One of the reasons I came here was I took it upon myself to try and turn this program around and get it back to where it needs to be," Wood said. "Just for us and our seniors, to get to the NCAA Tournament, where this team needs to be, where this organization needs to be, is just big."
Making the tournament in Gottfried's first season caught some of the players by surprise. Having something to play for down the stretch gave them added motivation.
"We are all happy and excited for it," NCSU sophomore power forward C.J. Leslie said. "We had a pretty good season and toward the end of the year, these last couple of games, we did real good. We started to see things change. We started to look at it a little bit more and think we can be in the tournament. It just kind of happened."
Leslie doesn't want his season to come to an end against the No. 4-seeded Aztecs, who are ranked No. 18 in the country and finished 26-7 this season.
"We played a very tough schedule," Leslie said. "Coming off a loss to Carolina, we played them real well, and that game came down to the wire. They were the No. 1 seed, and we feel like we can play with anybody."
The NC State players might not know too much about San Diego State, but some knew about their famous coach.
Coach Steve Fisher famously was named the interim coach at Michigan following Bill Frieder's departure for Arizona State. He guided the Wolverines to the 1989 national championship to earn the job full-time.
Fisher went to even greater fame with the Fab Five, which included Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, and went to the title game in both 1992 and 1993. He also added an Elite Eight finish in 1994.
Michigan won the NIT championship in Fisher's last year in 1997, but an impending NCAA probe resulted in being let go. He resurfaced at San Diego State and went 5-23 his first year in 1999-2000, but had the Aztecs in the NCAA Tournament in 2002. San Diego State became a national story last year in going 34-3 and reaching the Sweet 16.
"Steve Fisher has done an unbelievable job at San Diego State," Gottfried said. "The last couple of years, you have to look at the job that he has done with that program, it might rank up there with anybody in the nation."
Wood didn't know too much about San Diego State, but was familiar with Coach Fisher.
"They like to run and they are well coached, but we'll know a lot more things [this week]," Wood said. "He is a great coach and has a great program over there. They are a good team."
NC State could return all but Williams and Johnson for next season, and feature Rivals.com's No. 4-ranked recruiting class, which features Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy point guard Tyler Lewis, Raleigh Upper Room shooting guard Rodney Purvis and Wolfeboro (N.H.) Brewster Academy small forward T.J. Warren.
Gottfried hopes the expectations and standards for the program have been altered.
"What is says is that it's doable and you can accomplish it," Gottfried said. "The kids we are recruiting have to understand that we want to be a national player. You have to play in the tournament to say that. Now that we are involved in it, it gives everything we are doing here credibility."