It will be interesting to see if the expectations that followed Gottfried’s maiden run to the regional semifinals with the Wolfpack surface again over the coming summer.
After NC State lost to Kansas in St. Louis to end the 2011-12 campaign, the excitement was palpable. It then slowly built into gaudy prognostications by the media and a team that had lost 13 games was picked to win the ACC, along with being placed in the top-10 in most polls, despite losing C.J. Williams, DeShawn Painter and Alex Johnson.
Among those who received significant playing time, the Wolfpack will only lose Ralston Turner and Desmond Lee. Terry Henderson will be eligible after transferring from West Virginia and all of the returning players, buoyed by the success in this season’s NCAA Tournament and the wins against top-tier programs during the regular season, will be a year older.
It is set up for expectations to be high next season.
There will be some need for pragmatism but with the end of the season still fresh it is hard not to be excited for the future. It was difficult to replace sharpshooter Scott Wood after the 2012-13 campaign but Turner filled that role admirably. Gottfried faces the same issue next season. NC State players, saddened by the loss to Louisville on Friday, spoke of brighter days.
“It hurts us that [Turner is] gone, but there's always next year,” Cat Barber said after the game. “We have Terry [Henderson] coming in and he can shoot the ball just like Ralston."
Gottfried will hope Henderson, who has drawn raves from NC State observers during practices this season, will plug into the gap left by Turner’s departure.
The sensational play of Trevor Lacey in his first season with NC State left open the chance that he would limit his stay in Raleigh to one season. It seems likely he would stay but stranger things have happened.
His answer to the question after the loss to Louisville did not quite quell doubt as he only promised to be open with Gottfried about any decision during the next few weeks.
"Me and coach, we talk,” Lacey said. We talked about [potentially leaving] before the season. If I was to do anything I'd make sure he knew first. There's no surprises."
Kyle Washington, who has seen his playing time limited recently, scored 11 points in only nine minutes of action against the Cardinals. The sophomore spoke afterwards of the success of the freshmen this season and he also sees more wins in NC State’s future.
“We had a great recruiting class with the [Martin] twins and Malik,” Washington said. “Our core group, we're very close. You have Terry coming in next year. We're going to be a good team."
Gottfried’s next step is to push through the barrier of the first and second weekends of the NCAA Tournament, along with reaching the pinnacle in the ACC regular season and Tournament.
In Pittsburgh, he spoke of how some schools reach a limit and expectations for more do not really exist. As he enters the next stage of his tenure in Raleigh, Gottfried wants to put his stamp on the program by adding to the collection of banners in PNC Arena.
It will not be easy.
Reaching the Sweet Sixteen, as NC State has twice in four years, is not a birthright. Top teams do not always make it. Second-ranked Villanova was one highly ranked team that was unable to reach the regional semifinals, thanks to the Wolfpack, and college basketball history is littered with great squads that had its postseason run ended before it seemed to begin.
Gottfried was happy with his team this season as, like three years ago, it exceeded expectations and generated enthusiasm in Wolfpack Nation. Playing Louisville, a team NC State had defeated on the road, represented a great opportunity for the Pack to reach the Elite Eight for the first time in 29 years, but the head coach hopes the loss will serve as an impetus for hard work and togetherness over the summer.
“The guys coming back for our team, this [loss] should be something that motivates them to work extremely hard in springtime and summer,” Gottfried said. “We tasted it. We tasted what it's like to be in this situation, and now it's got to be one of those where they should want it more. They should make him work extremely hard this spring and summer.
“A lot of good things on the horizon for us. I'm really, really proud of them. Extremely happy for these guys.”
The Wolfpack had a magical season that should be appreciated and remembered fondly. Now it is time for NC State to do the work required to push past the final barrier and return the basketball program to the elite status that it seeks and its fans deserve.