In the aftermath of N.C. State's National Invitation Tournament loss Saturday at Alabama-Birmingham, Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe took inventory of the season.
Picked to finish last in the ACC, the Wolfpack tied for ninth among 12 teams. With two ACC tournament wins and a three-point loss to Georgia Tech in the semifinals, N.C. State nearly made its second ACC title game in four years under Lowe. Seven of its 20 wins came against teams in the NCAA tournament.
"No one would have ever expected that from this group," Lowe said. "No one."
That includes Lowe. Before the loss to UAB, Lowe acknowledged this team, which had to replace its three top scorers and watched its top recruit get detoured to prep school to shore up his academics, surpassed his own expectations.
Progress and hard work were the modest public benchmarks set by both Lowe and athletics director Lee Fowler before the season. At 20-16 with an NIT appearance, the Wolfpack topped last season's record (16-14) and returned to the postseason for the first time since 2007.
That's the tangible proof.
But the biggest sign of progress came in the team's effort and attitude. Save for a 20-point home loss to Virginia Tech on Feb.10, effort wasn't an issue for this team, which Lowe routinely praised for resiliency.
Secondly, the internal problems - poor chemistry and selfish attitudes - that plagued the previous two Wolfpack teams were nonexistent with this group, which won six of its final nine games after losing seven straight ACC games to start 2-10 in the league.
And there was plenty of opportunity for the locker room to sour. After knocking off then-No.7 Duke at the RBC Center on Jan.20, the Wolfpack went one month without a conference win.
"We went through a stretch during the middle of the season where we weren't playing too well," senior forward Dennis Horner said. "But the guys never quit. It's a great group of guys. Unselfish."
The final game, a 20-point loss to UAB, was not indicative of how the season played out, or even of how the ACC season unfolded. This team will be remembered as much for its close losses as it will for winning 20 games.
The 62-61 home loss to Florida on Jan.3 by a 70-foot buzzer-beater will live forever on YouTube and in star forward Tracy Smith's mind. The Gators' season ended in the NCAA tournament. N.C. State's season ended with players still trying to figure out how Chandler Parsons hit that shot.
As late as the regular-season finale March 7, Smith, who led the team in scoring (16.5) and rebounding (7.3), said Wolfpack players still pondered the effects of that loss.
There were other close calls - at Arizona, vs. Georgia Tech (twice) and vs. Clemson - and games that were lost despite N.C. State holding a second-half lead - home games against Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland.
By the end of the season, N.C. State started to turn the close calls into tough wins. The Wolfpack beat Miami by five on the road Feb. 27 to get out of last place in the ACC. Then came a two-point win against Clemson and a six-point win against Florida State during the ACC tournament.
The strong finish gives the program confidence and hope going into what should be another wide-open ACC race in 2010-11. In addition to Smith, a second-team All-ACC selection, N.C. State will return point guard Javier Gonzalez, shooting guard Scott Wood and promising power forward Richard Howell, whose freshman season was limited by injuries.
The loss of Horner, who was second on the team in scoring (11.9), and senior starter Farnold Degand, will be offset by the addition of highly touted guards Lorenzo Brown and Ryan Harrow.
"The (freshmen) are going to have some help," Lowe said. "We've got a good group coming back, and we're just going to add to it. All these guys that are coming back, they will remember what we're doing this year, and they will be excited for next year."