Steve Megargee Rivals.com College Basketball Staff Writer
RALEIGH, N.C. - The comparison is too obvious to ignore.
After Georgia Tech finished in the ACC basement in 2008-09, the emergence of the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class helped the Yellow Jackets advance to the second round of last season's NCAA tournament.
So now that the fifth-ranked recruiting class from 2010 has arrived on North Carolina State's campus, could the Wolfpack end the ACC's longest NCAA tournament drought?
"They definitely made a big impact on Georgia Tech's team last year," North Carolina State senior forward Tracy Smith said. "They were at the bottom of the ACC and went to the tournament the next year. Freshmen can have a lot to do with it, especially good freshmen.
"We've got three good freshmen. I think it's going to be the same as [it was] with Georgia Tech."
Smith has plenty of cause for optimism.
As a team that went 20-16 and reached the NIT last season, North Carolina State isn't nearly as far down the ACC pecking order as Georgia Tech was before its revival. The Wolfpack's 2010 recruiting haul is almost as highly touted as the Georgia Tech 2009 class that featured NBA lottery pick Derrick Favors.
"There's no question about it," Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe said. "You look at teams that bring in top freshman players who can get it done - you can do it, but you still have to do it. You have to play better and get the job done. You still have to go out and do it.
"Just because you have a good class doesn't mean you're going to make a jump. Those guys have to be taught and have to go out and do it."
Lowe's future at North Carolina State could depend on whether the Wolfpack make a Georgia Tech-style leap this season.
The Wolfpack haven't reached the NCAA tournament in any of Lowe's four seasons on the job after getting there under Herb Sendek in each of the five seasons before his arrival. North Carolina State is 20-44 in ACC competition during Lowe's tenure, though it has reached the NIT in two of the past four seasons.
North Carolina State's geography makes its recent history even more troubling. North Carolina State is less than 30 miles from the campuses of the two most recent national champions - Duke and North Carolina.
North Carolina State is counting on the arrival of the nation's fifth-ranked recruiting class to help earn the school's first NCAA tournament bid since 2006. Here's a look at each member of the class, along with their recruiting ranking.
G Lorenzo Brown (6-5/186) The buzz: Brown, the No. 36 player in the class, originally signed with North Carolina State in November 2008. He went to high school at Roswell (Ga.) Centennial and spent last season at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va. He is rated as the No. 10 point guard in the 2010 recruiting class.
G Ryan Harrow (6-1/156) The buzz: Harrow, the 19th-ranked player in the class, averaged 31.4 points as a senior at Marietta (Ga.) Walton and was named Georgia's Gatorade state player of the year. He also averaged 27.8 points, 6.0 assists and 3.1 steals as a junior. He is rated as the No. 6 point guard in the 2010 recruiting class.
F C.J. Leslie (6-8/206) The buzz: Leslie, the No. 14 player in the class, pulled down a team-high nine rebounds in the McDonald's All-American Game after a stellar career at Raleigh (N.C.) Word of God, which is where John Wall went to high school. Leslie committed to North Carolina State in the summer of 2007, but he re-opened his recruitment in the spring of 2009. He signed with North Carolina State in April 2010 after visiting Kentucky and Connecticut.
The Wolfpack can't avoid hearing about their lack of success in relation to their two most heated rivals. Heck, they even discuss it among themselves.
"It's definitely something we talk about in the locker room," Smith said. "When we're working out, we'll be in there talking. Duke and North Carolina, they won it. We're right here. We've got to be next."
While NCSU doesn't have the look of a title contender, the Wolfpack have enough pieces in place to earn their first NCAA bid since 2006.
Smith ranked seventh in the ACC in scoring (17.7) and ninth in rebounding (7.3) last season. Javier Gonzalez gives the Wolfpack steady senior leadership at point guard. Scott Wood returns for his sophomore year after making the second-most 3-pointers of any freshman in school history last season.
But it's the freshman class that has generated most of the preseason buzz. Lowe signed three of the nation's top 36 prospects in 6-foot-8 forward C.J. Leslie (No. 14), 6-1 guard Ryan Harrow (No. 18) and 6-5 guard Lorenzo Brown (No. 36).
"I like the way the guards complement each other," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "With Harrow, you have a really dynamic scorer who's shifty and quick with the basketball. He has some deficiencies defensively because he's so small, but Lorenzo Brown is a big physical guard and sort of has the attributes Harrow doesn't have. He can score as well. I think they'll be a dynamic backcourt. And C.J. Leslie's probably the best frontcourt athlete coming out of this class. He's going to make plays just based on his athleticism, and his skill game is getting better. I expect him to be a very good college player. I don't know if right off the bat his skill set will allow him to be a dominant player, but I think eventually he can [be].
"I think those three guys can sort of propel North Carolina State. It's hard to predict to what level, but I think there will be a significant improvement on the court. They're three guys who are ready to play."
They also are versatile enough to give Lowe many more options. Never before has Lowe had so many guys who could play multiple positions, and that flexibility should make his job easier.
"When you look at our roster now, we have Lorenzo Brown, who can play the one, the two and maybe some three," Lowe said. "Javi Gonzalez can play the one or two. Scott Wood the two or three. C.J. Williams the two or three. C.J. Leslie can go three and four. We have guys who can play multiple positions.
"When you look at our guards, with Ryan Harrow, Lorenzo Brown and Javi Gonzalez, we have three guys who can create opportunities for themselves or for other people. We didn't have that type of backcourt in the past."
Of course, all that versatility won't help much unless the Wolfpack's nine returning players - including three starters - mesh with the three incoming freshmen. When a team doesn't show much improvement after signing a heralded freshman class, chemistry problems often are the cause.
The upperclassmen don't see that as an issue. The Wolfpack's returning players already have grown to like the freshmen.
"They're definitely some characters," Wood said. "Ryan's pretty funny. Lorenzo was really, really quiet during the recruiting and everything, but now he's getting out of his shell a little bit. C.J.'s always been loud. They all bring a different character, and they're all really fun to hang out with. It will be a fun year."
The upperclassmen understand their roles could change and their playing time could diminish. But they also know that this freshman class could improve the team's postseason prospects. As far as they're concerned, there's too much at stake to get caught up in personal agendas.
Left out of the dance
North Carolina State hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since Sidney Lowe took over as coach before the 2006-07 season. Here's the Wolfpack have fared during Lowe's tenure.
NIT second round
Two NITs, no NCAAs
"I think everybody's coming in this year like a team player," Smith said. "Nobody's selfish. Nobody's going out for themselves. Whatever it takes to win, everybody's going to do their part to make it happen. There have been a couple of teams I've been on where I felt like people were just going out and being themselves, just trying to get where they want to go and doing what they want to do. I think this team right here is probably the most unselfish team we've had."
Unselfishness alone won't earn the Wolfpack an NCAA bid. After ranking last in the ACC in rebound margin last season, North Carolina State must do a better job of crashing the boards. The Wolfpack also must improve their basketball IQ.
"We were a tough team defensively [last year]; we just didn't always play smart," Wood said. "We would turn the ball over when we didn't need to turn the ball over. [We were] taking bad shots at bad times. Just little things like that.
"I think if we can make smart decisions and play good, smart basketball, we're going to be a hard team to beat."
The players want to win for themselves because they've grown tired of remaining at home for the NCAA tournament. They also want to win for their coach.
Lowe heads into his fifth year occupying one of the hottest seats in college basketball, though he insists the high expectations surrounding this season won't alter the way he goes about his business.
"The pressure for me doesn't make me work any harder," Lowe said. "I try to work as hard as I can every year. We just go out and play. You've got to prepare your guys to go out and play. That's all you can do."
Lowe, who was a starting guard on the Wolfpack's 1983 national-title team, has the backing of his players. They trusted him enough to sign with North Carolina State. They say he's not to blame for the Wolfpack's recent struggles.
"I don't think the players are going to let him down," Smith said. "Everybody's in the gym every day working hard. Everybody wants to reach their goals and try to get to the NCAA. It's all people are talking about. When we play pickup games, if something's not going right or someone's being lazy, one of the players will tell him, 'That's not what we're trying to do this year. Pick it up. Go hard. We're trying to go to the NCAAs this year.' "
The Wolfpack's chances of reaching that goal rest on whether the veteran nucleus and the heralded freshman class jell quickly. It happened at Georgia Tech, so why not at North Carolina State?
"I don't want to say just because you have a good freshman class, you'll automatically be in the Sweet 16 or make the tournament. But it certainly gives you a chance," Lowe said. "I've seen it oftentimes where a school has a good freshman class and they do make a big jump and make the tournament. Some go far in the tournament.