North Carolina State was a consensus preseason top-10 choice, the favorite to win an ACC recently dominated by neighbors Duke and North Carolina. Rarely, if ever, has the Wolfpack looked more the part than the past two days at the conference tournament.
“I think they’re the most offensively talented team in our league with the five on the floor at most times,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said Friday after a 75-56 quarterfinal loss to the Wolfpack.
All five State starters average at least 12 points a game, and although All-ACC forward Richard Howell struggled Friday with six points, his four running mates combined for 67 points. Scott Wood provided the perimeter punch with seven 3-pointers, while T.J. Warren and C.J. Leslie battled inside for 18 and 17, respectively.
The Wolfpack was more balanced in Thursday’s 80-63 dusting of Tech with Howell scoring 22, Leslie 15, Wood and Warren 13 each. The ACC’s assists leader, Brown had 18 in the two games.
State dropped recent road games at North Carolina and Florida State and tied Virginia for fourth in the ACC standings at 11-7. But its last six victories have been by at least 13 points.
“I think our team is beginning to find, you know, that ‘groove,’” Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said Friday. “I like to use that word. I think we’re gettin’ in a good spot.”
N.C. State (24-9) did the same last season. After deadlocking with Virginia for fourth, the Wolfpack advanced to the ACC semifinals and NCAA Sweet 16.
That was State’s lone defeat in 17 home games.
“They have proven from start to finish that they have been the best team in the league so far,” Gottfried said. “We have a lot of respect for them, they’re big inside. With the three big guys [Johnson, Julian Gamble and Kenny Kadji] in there, they’re not just tall, they’re thick.”
Shane Larkin, Miami’s All-ACC point guard, “had a phenomenal year, and he’s dangerous to guard at the top of the key, or wherever he may be,” Gottfried said. “They have guys that can make shots, and they have guys that are built to win. Very few teams end up with that many veteran players at one time who are that good and Jim (Larranaga) has done a great (coaching) job with them.”
Larkin and Brown are the ACC’s two best pure point guards, and Miami wing Durand Scott, the league’s defensive player of the year, figures to check Wood. Toss in Johnson/Kadji/Gamble versus Leslie/Howell and you get a compelling matchup that produced one of the regular season’s finest games.
But Howell took a knee to the thigh against Virginia and played in pain for much of the second half.
“Not really,” Gottfried said when asked if he’d seen Howell play with such discomfort, “but he’s a tough, tough guy, and he plays through about everything, and I asked him a couple of times if he was OK, and I knew he wasn’t, but he didn’t want to come out of the game, and he battles like that.”
State has little depth, and if Howell is compromised, Miami figures to rule the interior.
Saturday marks Miami’s second ACC semifinal in nine years of conference membership. The Hurricanes have never reached the championship game.
N.C. State’s most recent final was 2007, where it lost to North Carolina. The Wolfpack’s last ACC championship was 1987 under the late Jim Valvano.
Saturday is State’s third game in as many days, but Gottfried insisted fatigue will not affect his team.
“No, that’s a rule we have, you’re not allowed to get tired,” he said. “Our guys will be fine.”
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