Still trying to mesh some talented freshmen with four returning starters, North Carolina State's lengthy homestand may have come at the right time.
The 25th-ranked Wolfpack return from a week off and look to keep improving on the defensive end Saturday night when they meet Norfolk State in the second of six straight home games.Preseason favorites to win the ACC, the Wolfpack (6-2) were ranked sixth and opened 3-0 before a poor end to their November schedule. They lost by 20 to Oklahoma State in the Puerto Rico Tipoff championship and fell 79-72 at third-ranked Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. In between, they barely slipped past visiting North Carolina-Asheville 82-80 on Nov. 23.North Carolina State, though, rebounded to defeat Connecticut 69-65 on Dec. 4 and Cleveland State 80-63 last Saturday in its annual game back at Reynolds Coliseum, where the team played from 1949-99."We're learning that for the most part when you do have some attention around your program, you better bring it every night because teams are going to play better against you," coach Mark Gottfried said.While offense hasn't been a problem for Gottfried's team, which ranks second nationally in field-goal shooting at 52.1 percent, defense had been a big concern before solid efforts in the past two games.The Wolfpack had allowed at least 76 points in four straight games before holding UConn and Cleveland State to an average of 64.0 on 42.0 percent shooting. Their previous two opponents each hit 50.0 percent from the field.North Carolina State forced 18 turnovers and had a season-high seven blocked shots last Saturday.Forwards C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell have keyed the Wolfpack's explosive offense, each recording three double-doubles in the past four games. Leslie, a junior, is averaging 16.3 points and 10.5 boards in that span while Howell has averaged 16.3 and 10.0, respectively.Howell, shooting 68.1 percent from the field to rank second nationally, is one of two seniors among the seven regulars in Gottfried's rotation."I thought I needed to step up and fulfill that (leadership) role with this being my last year," Howell said. "I feel like we can go far but leadership is something we lacked."T.J. Warren, one of the team's freshman additions, isn't far behind Howell in field-goal shooting at 67.1 percent to rank fourth in the country. He returned to a reserve role last Saturday after starting the previous two games but came through with 16 points.The Wolfpack might have a tough time getting open looks against Norfolk State (6-6), which has held opponents to 34.3 percent shooting over its last four games.The Spartans, who shocked No. 2 seed Missouri in the first round of last season's NCAA tournament, will make another upset bid after nearly knocking off 10th-ranked Illinois on Tuesday. They were within three with less than two minutes left before losing 64-54, snapping a four-game winning streak."We really have to work on finishing basketball games because we had opportunities down the stretch," coach Anthony Evans said.Pendarvis Williams (12.0), Malcolm Hawkins (11.7) and Rob Johnson (10.1) lead six players averaging 7.0-to-12.0 points for the Spartans. Hawkins and Johnson, though, combined for 14 points on 5-of-21 shooting against the Illini after totaling 76 points in the previous two contests.Norfolk State has averaged 74.3 points and shot 47.0 percent in its six wins, compared to 56.0 points on 36.4 percent shooting in six losses.North Carolina State won these teams' only meeting -- 81-63 on Feb. 14, 1998 -- and is 28-0 all-time against Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference opponents.