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NCAA tournament 2012: N.C. State back in the national conversation

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When North Carolina State’s basketball players returned to Raleigh, N.C., after toppling third-seeded Georgetown on Sunday for a spot in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16, they were met by hundreds of cheering students who snapped photos and recorded video as the team stepped off the bus.

And the triumphant Wolfpack players took pictures of them, equally eager to capture a moment they’d all heard about but weren’t sure would come again: The moment when N.C. State basketball mattered.

NCAA champions in 1974 and 1983, N.C. State hadn’t been relevant in college basketball’s month of madness since skimpy gym shorts were in vogue, long overshadowed by its talent-laden neighbors 30 miles away.

But under first-year Coach Mark Gottfried, the 11th-seeded Wolfpack outperformed second-seeded Duke (a first-round casualty) and heads to St. Louis for Friday’s clash with No. 2 seeded Kansas in arguably better form than its most reviled foe, top-seeded North Carolina, whose high-powered offense suffered a major blow the moment point guard Kendall Marshall broke his right wrist in Sunday’s win over Creighton.

“N.C. State does have a great basketball tradition, but we’ve been down,” concedes former Raleigh mayor Smedes York, 71, who played for the Wolfpack, served as chairman of the university’s trustees and led the search that recommended Debbie Yow, Maryland’s former athletic director, for the same post at N.C. State. “To see it get to this level — back to where we think it ought to be — that’s the exciting part.”

That excitement has been building all season.

N.C. State’s iconic bell tower is lit in red after each men’s basketball victory, with students gathering around to bellow the fight song. Gottfried’s team has lit that tower 24 times this season, a dramatic turnabout for a group that finished 15-16 the season before. Sidney Lowe, a member of Jim Valvano’s 1983 championship squad, then resigned as coach after five seasons at the helm.

When the Wolfpack clinched its first NCAA tournament berth since 2006 earlier this month, the din on campus was deafening, with students braying and car horns blaring. And when N.C. State stormed into the Sweet 16 last Sunday, the Technician student newspaper ran what was billed as “an open love letter to the N.C. State basketball team and Coach Gottfried.”

In it, junior Ahmed Amer, 20, describes Gottfried as “a bronzed god surrounded by golden light” and praised Yow for having made the hire that “turned out to be the best decision anyone has ever made, ever.”

Even the dead are celebrating in Raleigh, where the bronze statue of explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, for whom the city is named, is sporting a Wolfpack jersey this week.

To Mike Warren, a member of the 1983 NCAA championship team, it was always like this when he was a basketball-crazed youngster in Raleigh, worshipping David Thompson, Tommy Burleson and Monte Towe, the stars of Norm Sloan’s 1974 championship team.

“We didn’t know this hard-time stuff,” said Warren, 49, who now runs a financial-services firm.

After Valvano’s Cardiac Pack stunned Houston (and its all-Americans Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler) to win the 1983 NCAA title, the coach told his players that however happy they were then, the achievement would mean far more 20 years later.

“He was right,” Warren said.

Hardly a day has gone by, Warren said, that someone doesn’t bring up the 1983 NCAA championship in conversation. Everyone, it seems, remembers where they were when Valvano, scarcely believing the game-winning shot, raced around the court, looking for a player to hug.

Gottfried’s hiring last April, following the modest success of Herb Sendek and a disappointing run under Lowe, was hardly a slam dunk.

Even Yow implied he was a compromise choice, publicly claiming that Maryland Coach Gary Williams “has tried to sabotage the search.”

“When she first decided to hire Gottfried, no one was really excited,” said Amer, the N.C. State junior. “I hadn’t really heard of Coach Gottfried. I was kind of like, ‘I don’t know about this.’ But she proved us all wrong.”

Gottfried, a former head coach at Alabama and assistant at UCLA, set to work with vigor. He beefed up the Wolfpack’s nonconference schedule in hopes of toughening the squad and raising its national profile.

Having inherited a talented but underperforming roster, he shifted shooting guard Lorenzo Brown to point guard, urged 6-foot-8 forward Richard Howell to pare down and tone up and persuaded often inattentive C.J. Leslie, a McDonald’s all-American, to buckle down.

And to spark interest as the season neared, he vowed to skydive into Carter-Finley Stadium during an N.C. State football game in September. Bad weather scuttled the jump, but the bit of huckster-ism succeeded.

Today, the coach is hailed campus-wide as N.C. State’s “Gott-father,” revered for his bold tactics and bullish expectations.

“We always talk about how we have such great history at State,” Gottfried said after toppling Georgetown. “But it’s time to build some new history.”

Said Warren, the former N.C. State player: “What I like so much about what Mark has done, he has reminded these kids that they should have confidence. He has given them that confidence. They are good basketball players; there’s not one on that team that some other school didn’t want pretty badly. And he has reminded them of that.

“He has reminded them that not only are they capable, but they belong. And that’s the one thing that N.C. State, over the last 20-plus years, we sort of forgot that we belong. It’s good to be there again.”

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