If North Carolina State is going to make it back to the NCAA tournament once again, Mark Gottfried's club will have to do it in very different fashion than a year ago.
The Wolfpack hopped on the back of Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year T.J. Warren and made a late-season surge to return to the NCAAs for the third time in as many seasons under Gottfried. With Warren in the NBA, it's now on the returning supporting cast to step up with more scoring production and inside-out balance to get there again.
"Last year we had the luxury of having a player like T.J. Warren bail you out of tough situations, get you a basket if the offense broke down," Gottfried said. "He just had that ability to make life easy for your team.
"Without him, now you've got a number of players that need to step forward and be a whole lot better than we've been in the past."
Warren ranked third nationally in scoring (24.9 points) and accounted for 34 percent of the team's scoring and 32 percent of its shot attempts. That means the returnees and newcomers will have no shortage of opportunities for a team looking for consistent playmakers.
N.C. State (22-14, 9-9 ACC) returns senior guard Ralston Turner — who developed into a solid second scorer at 10.5 points per game last year — improving point guard Anthony "Cat" Barber (8.5 points) and senior guard Des Lee (8.4).
The arrival of transfer Trevor Lacey will help, too. He averaged about 11 points and started every game for Alabama in 2012-13, and Gottfried said he can play either guard position.
The most immediate question is whether N.C. State can find scoring inside among its young forwards to go with those perimeter threats.
"When you have an unproven team with a lot of players that have potential but yet are unproven, that makes it kind of fun," he said, "because it's fun to see what this group can become."
Here are things to watch with the Wolfpack for the 2014-15 season:
SCORING BIGS: Sophomores Kyle Washington, Lennard Freeman and BeeJay Anya played supporting roles last year up front. That group has more experience and adds 6-foot-8 freshman Abdul-Malik Abu. Is there a reliable scorer in that group? "We didn't really need to do anything other than rebound, set screens and defend the rim," Anya said of last season. "This year they're going to ask more of us on the block. We're all capable of scoring."
BARBER'S DEVELOPMENT: Anthony "Cat" Barber showed flashes of his McDonald's All-American talent and plenty of open-court speed last year as a rookie, but the offense flowed better when Tyler Lewis played more minutes at the point late in the year. Now Lewis has transferred to Butler, setting Barber up for a big opportunity.
LACEY'S LAYOFF: Trevor Lacey should bring some scoring, versatility and size to the backcourt. But the Alabama transfer will need some time to adjust to the speed of the game again after sitting out last year. If Lacey can get off to a strong start, that could speed up the Wolfpack's development.
DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT: Coach Mark Gottfried's focus isn't solely on offensive changes with Warren gone. His coaching staff spent the summer pushing the players to become better defensively. "Hopefully we can still score in the high 70s and 80s most nights," he said. "But if you can't, we have to be better defensively to help ourselves win."
BALANCED PRODUCTION: N.C. State is hoping to find some strength in numbers when it comes to scoring options. "I think we'll be well-balanced where it's going to be difficult for teams to guard all five players on the court," guard Trevor Lacey said.
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