Ostensibly, Jordan Vandenberg is about the only tangible thread linking N.C. State’s team this season with its team in 2012, and Vandenberg only played seven games before redshirting that year. The Australian 7-footer and walk-on Staats Battle are it.
There are so many differences between the two teams even beyond the roster turnover – one had a new coach and old players, the other has an old coach and new players – and yet they are inextricably linked by their unexpected paths to the NCAA tournament.
Both entered the season with low expectations. Both showed steady improvement over the course of the winter, particularly later on. Both needed big runs in the ACC tournament, and both feared they may have fallen one win short with a narrow loss to a local rival.
Both were rewarded by the NCAA selection committee for deliberately playing difficult nonconference schedules, the deciding factor as the Wolfpack slipped ahead of Southern Methodist into the 36th and final at-large spot Sunday.
Somehow, Mark Gottfried has taken the Wolfpack to three straight NCAA tournaments after a five-year drought under Sidney Lowe, a task of no small import. This was unquestionably the best coaching job of the three, with massive roster changes, a back-and-forth point-guard rotation and three freshmen big men assuming varying roles.
The reward was a spot in the First Four against Xavier on Tuesday, playing for the 12th seed in the Midwest and a potential trip to Orlando, Fla., where St. Louis awaits the winner.
Even if this team’s progression mirrors that of its predecessor two years ago, can it match its postseason performance? Sometimes, it has less to do with talent than circumstances.
So many things went well for the Wolfpack in the tournament in 2012. For one thing, N.C. State didn’t have to go to Dayton, Ohio. The Wolfpack had no guarantee it would make the tournament, and the committee and CBS made N.C. State sweat out all 68 picks before it was finally revealed, but it somehow avoided the First Four.
It was also gifted a very winnable subregional in Columbus, Ohio, with a talented San Diego State team that happened to match up very poorly with N.C. State, followed by Georgetown, everyone’s favorite NCAA tournament opponent, “Hoya Saxa” apparently being Latin for “early exit.”
The Wolfpack finally ran out of steam against Final Four-bound Kansas, although even that was a competitive effort in a very pro-Jayhawks environment in St. Louis.
N.C. State’s performance at last weekend’s ACC tournament, with T.J. Warren dominating and significant contributions coming from Ralston Turner, Cat Barber and Vandenberg, raised hopes that this team can make the same kind of run, although it will have to make an extra stop in Dayton.
Had Warren not understandably run out of gas in the second half against Duke – so active in the first half moving without the ball, he wasn’t nearly as difficult to guard in the second half of his third game in three days – the Wolfpack might not have had to go to Dayton at all.
That’s where the Wolfpack will start, though, against a Xavier team that lost three of its past four coming into the tournament but playing only 45 minutes from home. N.C. State is familiar with the arena as well, having lost its opening game to Temple at the same site last year.
If N.C. State can advance, the stout defense of the Billikens will pose a significant hurdle, potentially followed by defending champion Louisville.
In many respects, the draw doesn’t appear to be as favorable for the Wolfpack as it did in 2012. The Wolfpack’s development over the course of the season, though, appears very similar. And that could prove just as favorable.