When NC State upset top-seeded Villanova in the round of 32 in March, the Wolfpack's victory was hailed as a stunning result. NC State was up-and-down all year in the ACC by failing to show a consistent ability to defend good offenses. The team barely made it out of the opening round in a tough 8-9 matchup against LSU two days earlier.
NC State teams with more star power had failed to win an NCAA Tournament game in each of the previous two years. This wasn't supposed to be the program that knocked out the tournament's first No. 1 seed.
What was jarring about NC State's win wasn't just the final score, but how they did it. Mark Gottfried's team looked bigger and faster than 'Nova, and had more dynamic shotmakers in Anthony Barber and Trevor Lacey. If you only watch college basketball during the tournament, it would be impossible to recognize which of these teams was the No. 1 seed.
If you look closer, there really wasn't much of a talent disparity. Both teams played six players who were ranked as top 100 recruits entering college by ESPN. NC State's uneven regular season was more a symptom of playing in America's toughest conference, and learning how to do it without departed NBA lottery pick T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack might have had a No. 8 next to their name, but they always had the pieces for a Sweet 16 run:
The scary thing about what Gottfried is doing is that he may just be getting started. NC State added the final impact recruit of the 2015-16 season on Sunday when shooter Maverick Rowan announced he'll reclassify from the high school class of 2016 to 2015, making him eligible to play this season. He picked the Wolfpack over Louisville, St. John's and more, putting an end to one of the year's more wild recruitment stories.
Rowan -- originally a Pitt commit -- is a 6'6 shooter who should be an immediate impact player for NC State. He chose the Wolfpack in part because he wanted an opportunity to play for a tournament team right away, and the graduation of Ralston Turner and surprising decision by Lacey to turn pro meant NC State was missing both of its starting wings from last season.
Rowan was ranked No. 30 overall by ESPN in a class of 2016 that had 27 five-star prospects. He may have just missed elite status, but his size and outside shooting ability should pay dividends quickly. He should slide in next to West Virginia transfer Terry Henderson and former top 100 prospect Caleb Martin on the wing.
Rowan is Gottfried's second commit in the class of 2015, joining Shaun Kirk. Kirk -- a bouncy 6'7 wing -- is a classic late bloomer who wasn't ranked by any major scouting service, but did enough this spring before reclassifying to earn a scholarship offer from Kentucky. Still, Kirk chose NC State, and if Gottfried has it his way, he'll be bringing two of his grassroots teammates to join him one year from now.
Kirk played with Team Loaded NC this spring, a team led by two of the top recruits in the country in Dennis Smith Jr. and Bam Adebayo. Smith is widely considered the best of a loaded point guard class, and is ranked as high as No. 4 overall in the 2016 class by major services. Adebayo is a wrecking ball of a power forward at 6'8, 220 pounds. He's a high level above-the-rim finisher and great rebounder. Right now, he's ranked No. 8 in his class by ESPN. He could be the type of player many were expecting Cliff Alexander to be a year ago when he entered Kansas.
While Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum have rightfully received the most attention for a possible "package" deal that would send both players to Duke (Tatum has already committed), Smith and Adebayo aren't far behind in terms of the immediate impact they can have at the college level. Both players are strong NC State leans according to 247 Sports, with Smith's "Crystal Ball" giving the Wolfpack a 95-percent chance and Adebayo's installing NC State as a 65-percent favorite.
With Smith and Adebayo, NC State could be looking at one of the best teams in the country in 2016-17. Rowan will still be around, Barber will run the offense as a senior and the frontcourt would still be loaded with BeeJay Anya and Lennard Freeman as seniors and Abdul-Malik Abu as a junior.
Obviously, it's tough to ever project anything in college basketball a year out. For all we know, Smith could choose to play professionally overseas, Adebayo could commit to UNC and Barber could go pro after his upcoming junior year. This is the most fluid sport there is. But if it works out, Gottfried will have built a national power with steady recruiting gains every year before nabbing the big fish in Smith and Adebayo.
NC State has a built-in advantage because both Smith and Adebayo are North Carolina natives. They also play on the adidas grassroots circuit, and NC State is an adidas school. That could mean everything or it could mean nothing, but at least it gives NC State and its fans hope that a team as talented as any Duke or UNC is throwing out could be on its way.
Gottfried is rarely considered among the game's great recruiters, but he's done a nice job consistently hitting on top 100 players since arriving in Raleigh. It could be one long set up for grand slam in 2016-17. If it happens, just remember Gottfried didn't build it overnight.
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