RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State started the year as the afterthought behind Duke and North Carolina. Not anymore.
Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils are at home. Roy Williams’ Tar Heels are limping into the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 with injuries.
Meanwhile, N.C. State is healthy and surging into the tournament’s second weekend — and looking like the best team at this moment on Tobacco Road.
“We’re playing well at the end of the year,” junior Scott Wood said. “I think all it is really is who gets hot near the end of the year and we’re one of the teams that kind of got going.”
The 11th-seeded Wolfpack (24-12) faces No. 2 seed Kansas on Friday in the Midwest Regional in St. Louis. It’s the program’s first trip to the round of 16 in seven years and its first NCAA appearance in six, creating a buzz with a fan base starving for a return to past glory.
Everything started when athletic director Debbie Yow brought in Mark Gottfried last spring to replace Sidney Lowe after five seasons. Gottfried led Alabama to five NCAA tournaments and a regional final in 2004.
Gottfried talked all year about how there was a lot of work to be done to change the program’s fortunes, but the progress has been swifter than anyone could’ve imagined.
In fact, by leading the Wolfpack to the NCAA tournament this year, he earned an automatic 2-year contract extension through 2018.
“It’s my job to convince my team that we are good enough,” Gottfried said. “And we have to become good enough. It’s not smoke and mirrors, it’s not something you can just talk about. You have to get better. We did get better.
“But at the same time, I think this particular team ... needed to believe that — that they’re good enough. And I do think that they believe that, so that’s exciting.”
N.C. State’s 24 wins are the most for the program since going 24-8 under Jim Valvano in 1988. The Wolfpack won 15 in Lowe’s final season.
N.C. State looked like it might fall short of the NCAAs after four straight losses in February, with three coming against Atlantic Coast Conference leaders Duke, North Carolina and Florida State. But the Wolfpack won six of seven to get here, with the only loss coming on a late basket against the Tar Heels in the ACC tournament semifinals.
N.C. State upset No. 6 seed San Diego State and No. 3 seed Georgetown in the Midwest Regional last week.
“It’s good to see your team on TV a lot and them talking about you,” junior Richard Howell said. “Some people can let it get over their head and let it get to them. But us, we don’t want to keep going to that. We don’t want to be, ‘OK, they’re talking about us on TV, we’re good enough.’ We want to go out there and actually prove it.”
About a 30-minute drive from campus, North Carolina’s players seemed to enjoy their rival’s NCAA run, too. In fact, junior John Henson showed up for a news conference Tuesday wearing a black T-shirt and red shorts, joking it was in honor of the Wolfpack.
“Along with Florida State and Duke, I think it was one of our tougher games and it was good to see N.C. State go well,” Henson said. “It’s part of the ACC, so we kind of have to band together in the postseason and kind of flex our muscles ACC-wise and show what we’ve got.”
The Tar Heels are the top seed in the Midwest Regional and will face Ohio on Friday in the other semifinal in St. Louis. If UNC and N.C. State win Friday night, they’ll meet Sunday with a Final Four berth at stake.
The teams have met 222 times but never in the NCAA tournament.
While Howell said the team would love another shot at UNC, senior C.J. Williams is savoring this year’s run after making it to just one NIT in his first three years.
“I learned a lot from those years,” Williams said. “We may not have won games, but I wouldn’t have learned how to win if I hadn’t lost before. Knowing how things go when you’re not winning, now, I’m enjoying this to the fullest.”