NEW YORK -- North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried had just the slightest trace of a smile on his face Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. His Wolfpack had just held off Connecticut for a 69-65 victory in the Jimmy V Classic.
For the first time in a while -- safe to say the first time in four games -- Gottfried could feel better about his team and actually enjoy a victory. And in the final 20 minutes of that victory, the Wolfpack's secret to success became clear.
"Our team took a step forward," Gottfried said. "We did against Michigan the other day and now we've taken another step. I think we're improving and that's the most important thing."
If you think back to all the preseason chatter about North Carolina State, a 5-2 record in early December doesn't add up. Coming off a 24-win season that ended with a loss to Kansas in the Sweet 16, the Wolfpack became a favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference when C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown said no to the NBA and returned for their junior seasons. They were a trendy preseason top 10 pick, checking in as high as No. 4.
Senior forward Scott Wood hinted at a Final Four finish and other commentaries backed up his statement.
"Most talented Wolfpack team in decades."
"They've got some big-time, big-time opportunities."
"The door's open for NC State to win the ACC's regular season for the first time since 1989."
That's just a small sampling of what was written about Gottfried's team in the preseason publications. Through victories over Miami (Ohio), Penn State and Massachusetts, everything seemed to be functioning as planned. But the machine everyone seemed to fear malfunctioned Nov. 18 in the championship game of the Puerto Rico Tipoff. Unheralded Oklahoma State knocked the socks off then-No. 6 NC State, outrebounding the Wolfpack 45-34, holding the Pack to 28.6 percent shooting, and crushing them 76-56. Combined with the emergence of Duke as a national powerhouse, the preseason ACC script seemed to have flipped.
C.J. Leslie and the Wolfpack were picked by many to win the ACC.
It wasn't just the Oklahoma State loss that sent the Wolfpack tumbling. It was the way they lost. Gottfried ripped his own players for starting the game "casual."
"That was as poor a performance as we have had in a long time," he said. "I'm not sure we did a lot of things well."
The baffling thing was the visible lack of energy. With so much returning talent, joined by high-quality freshmen such as Rodney Purvis, T.J. Warren and Tyler Lewis, how could that happen? Chalk it up to a lack of chemistry and perhaps the search for a leader. Some teams –- Indiana and Duke would be good examples -– start the season with the proper chemical balance. Others need every non-conference game in November and December to find their formula.
After the loss to Oklahoma State, the Wolfpack dodged another upset bullet in an 82-80 escape against UNC Asheville and then fell respectably to No. 3 Michigan 79-72 in Ann Arbor during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
But in the world's most famous basketball laboratory Tuesday night, it became obvious to all that North Carolina State has a player who tends to be overlooked -- and that would be senior forward Richard Howell.
In the first half against UConn, Howell absorbed an inadvertent elbow from Leslie and staggered back to the sideline where the Wolfpack training staff put him through all the usual tests to see if he had a concussion. It turned out he did not. And in the second half Howell went from having a headache to being a headache for the Huskies, putting together a double-double after halftime, scoring 11 of his 13 points and grabbing all 10 rebounds to make the difference against UConn.
"I think his fingers were a little numb -- like a stinger," Gottfried said of Howell. "He said he was fine and I wasn't real sure. I watched him warm up and he said, ‘I'm good coach. I'm ready to go.' Then he just played phenomenal. He played with a tremendous amount of heart."
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Howell is a bit undersized at 6-foot-8, trying to play the role of center for the Pack. But when Gottfried arrived at State, Howell dropped 20 pounds and worked himself into the best shape of his career. He is the blue-collar guy the Wolfpack needs alongside all the gifted athletes. But they need him on the court. He averaged 27 minutes last season and fouled out five times -- four of the games were losses for State.
"We're a different team when he plays," Gottfried said. "The two games we've lost, he's played 16 and 19 minutes. When Richard's in the game, you can see what kind of impact he can have. ... He's become kind of a quiet leader. We don't have one dominant voice. He's a guy his teammates respect because he just goes about his business, works hard in practice and then in the game he competes. We all like to follow guys who compete."
Howell shouldn't have been a secret. He was third in the ACC in rebounding last season. In the NCAA tournament, he got the Wolfpack rolling by hitting 10 of 12 shots against San Diego State. And the loss to Kansas couldn't be blamed on Howell. He had 16 rebounds and 16 points against the Jayhawks.
If Howell had sat out the second half, NC State might have lost to UConn. And that would have brought out more critics questioning the validity of this North Carolina State team.
But as of right now, there's no doubt where the Wolfpack wants to go this season. And Howell just might be the guy who can take them there.