The N.C. State Wolfpack entered this season still riding the tailwind of their improbable Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament run eight months ago. Gone is senior leader C.J. Williams, but joining four returning starters are highly touted freshmen Rodney Purvis, T.J. Warren and Tyler Lewis. As a result, the Wolfpack started the season ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in five years.
That ranking plummeted from six to 16 after Sunday’s 20-point loss to a physical, athletic Oklahoma State team inside the cozy confines of the Coliseo Ruben Rodriquez in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. What was most disconcerting about the loss wasn’t the breadth of the point differential. It was the manner in which the Wolfpack’s team leaders met their first adversity of the early season. Preseason ACC Player of the Year C.J. Leslie’s 2-point, 17-minute night ended with back-to-back personal and technical fouls less than three minutes into the second half. And for a six-minute stretch in the second half, Lorenzo Brown took up station next to Leslie on the bench, the duo striking sullen poses that harkened back to the forlorn countenance commonly seen during the Sidney Lowe years.
Meanwhile, the three freshmen continued to scrape as best they could. By game’s end, none of the four upperclassmen surpassed single-digit points; the only Wolves who did were Purvis with 16 points and Warren with 15. Indeed, through four games Warren and Purvis lead the team in points and field goal attempts. They are also third and fourth on the team in minutes played, ahead of Leslie and Howell.
Let me be clear: there is no suggestion at this point of a Pack divided. But while the upperclassmen undoubtedly see this year as “their time,” the trail has been blazed for freshmen integration. Mark Gottfried surely shares a strong rapport with his juniors and seniors, but there’s always a difference between the way a coach feels about the players he inherits versus the ones he recruits. Even Gottfried’s predilection for referring to Leslie by his given name, Calvin, can be seen as the coach’s perhaps subconscious way of distinguishing the player he didn't coach—C.J.—from the one he is.
On the other hand, Gottfried and AD Debbie Yow have repeatedly asserted to the media that this team has “six starters,” a locution that might be designed to spare Warren the sixth man designation. After the rout of Miami of Ohio in the home opener, four Wolfpack players were made available to the media: upperclassmen Leslie and Brown, and newbies Purvis and Warren.
This isn’t to say N.C. State can’t have the successful season many predict. Roy Williams won a national championship in 2005 with the mutinous players he blamed for the ouster of his old friend and protegé Matt Doherty. Still, it will be interesting to see whether the Wolfpack’s old guard matures into the role of consistent team leaders—through times both good and bad—particularly now that upstarts are being given the time in the limelight they’ve earned.