Emily Dickinson wrote that "hope is the thing with feathers." I have no idea what that means, except I suppose in some poetic metaphorical sense that links the terms to provide some hazy image of an uplifting. But that's not the kind of hope that I'm looking for - or maybe it is, Dickinson was a lot smarter than me. Regardless, the type of hope I'm writing about is the kind currently felt by NC State fans, a real, tangible thing that they can hold on to. For five dark years the Wolfpack traveled through the Sidney Lowe era. He was a fanboy as a coach. Never mind the hiring fiasco that ended with him patrolling the sideline. Never mind the fact that he seemed like a genuine and nice person. Sidney Lowe, those Ferrari red suits, the four and five win conference seasons - those things are memories now. They've been pushed out by hope.
What happened last season: The Wolfpack, in a move which would pay off on Selection Sunday, played a challenging out-of-conference schedule. The beat Princeton, Texas and St. Bonaventure by a combined seven points, and lost to Vanderbilt, Indiana, Syracuse and Stanford. In the unbalanced ACC they managed to draw three of the top four teams a single time only, making their road through the conference the easiest of the league's 12-teams. They went 0-5 against the 1-4 seeds (UNC, Duke, FSU and Virginia) and 9-2 against the rest. But they finished with solid wins against Miami and at Virginia Tech, and entered the ACC Tournament playing their best basketball. In Atlanta they routed Boston College, got by Virginia, and then very nearly upset North Carolina in the semis. For this they were awarded an 11-seed, whereupon they advanced to the Sweet-16 by beating San Diego State, Georgetown and very nearly Kansas.
The first year of the Mark Gottfried era was a success. It was their first trip to the Sweet-16 since 2005.
What they lost: In keeping tabs on the NC State roster the emphasis was focused on CJ Leslie. Would he jump to the NBA? In the end he decided to return, and NC State fans rejoiced. This meant that four of five starters were returning, with senior CJ Williams being the lone departure. Williams was a low volume but very efficient player, and was the best defending perimeter player on a relatively weak defensive team. The other senior was Alex Johnson, who surprisingly played 49% of the team's minutes. He was a turnover prone guard who didn't shoot the ball very well.
And that was it for the losses, at least until the transfer wires started humming.
There were three transfers in all, with front line depth becoming an issue after 6-9 DeShawn Painter left for Old Dominion, and 6-8 Tyler Harris left as well. Painter - a former consensus top-100 recruit - played half the team's minutes and was a reliable big body in the middle. Harris was a reserve, though he did earn three starts. The final transfer was reserve guard Jaqawn Raymond who ended up at Middle Tennessee.
What they have: All five starters averaged double-figures with CJ Leslie leading the way (14.7 ppg). Leslie improved significantly from his freshman season, but still posted the lowest offensive rating (102.1) of any of the starters. The primary issues are that he's a sub-60% free throw shooter, and that he can be a bit of a black hole. If he can follow the Michael Snaer model from Florida State and really break out as a junior then the Wolfpack ceiling is very high. Leslie is also a high level rebounder and blocked 5.7% of the shots when he was on the floor. Senior Richard Howell is the other returner in the post. He needs to get in better shape and cut down on his fouls (5.0 per 40 minutes) in order to stay on the court for longer periods. Scott Wood - who might be the best shooter in the ACC - returns on the wing for his senior season. As NC State's offense develops he should find more opportunities to spot up or find screens for threes. The final returning starter is 6-5 junior Lorenzo Brown who quietly became a top-flight ACC point guard as a sophomore despite being a natural 2-guard. He has great size and feel for the game. He needs to cut down his turnover rate and hit the three more consistently (35% as a sophomore), and ideally he'll get to play more off-the-ball minutes this year.
No one returns on the bench who played significant minutes. 7-1 junior Jordan Vandenberg took a much needed redshirt season. Freshman forward Thomas de Thaey played in 18 games. They also brought in transfer Ralston Turner from LSU, but he'll have to sit a year.
And then comes the thing which has NC State fans so excited: the 2012 recruiting class. It doesn't matter how you introduce them - by position, alphabetically, by height - they're all good, and they bring a combined level of talent that Wolfpack fans haven't seen of late. All three are consensus top-50 recruits.
The 5-11 Tyler Lewis (consensus No. 43) won't pass anyone's eye test, he inspires the most cliched of coachspeak, he has an ugly shot, and he wanted to go to North Carolina. Oh, and he a McDonald's All American. He's a pass-first point guard who has a knack for finishing in the paint. His stated goal is to break Bobby Hurley's assist record. Rodney Purvis (No. 17) is a local 6-4 2-guard who didn't hear much from NC State when Sidney Lowe was the coach. But with Gottfried, he committed, and he could have gone anywhere in the country. This summer he is refining his prodigious scoring ability with the U-18 Team USA. The final signee is 6-8 TJ Warren (No. 27). The forward can score from anywhere, and will provide much needed depth on the front line.
Where they're going: Already the Wolfpack have appeared in numerous early top-25s, and some top-10s. I'm not bullish enough on them to rank them in the top-10 (Run the Floor rankings will come out in October), but they have the talent to compete for the ACC Title.
NC State fans should expect another winning conference record. They should expect another NCAA bid. If those things don't happen then the season will be a disappointment.
But what about hopeful results? Is an ACC Title realistic? A National title?
In the conference they won't be the favorite, but it will be close. Much will be determined by the unbalanced schedule. Will they get the easiest slate for the 2nd straight season? No. But we won't know until the schedules are released. Regardless, a top-4 seed in the ACC Tournament seems reasonable.
In the NCAA's anything from a 5-8 seems about right. Not exactly National Title worthy, but strong. But if everything goes right the Wolfpack have the talent to earn a better seed. If Leslie breaks out. If Lewis can hold down the 1. If Purvis and Warren play like sophomores. If the team defends - then yes, the ceiling here is unlimited.