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March 14, 2012
The emotions of the last week have been wild for the NC State men's basketball team.
The Wolfpack entered the ACC Tournament in Atlanta last week with a perceived albatross that they had to win at least two games in order to reach the NCAA Tournament. NC State is now a trendy pick to reach the Sweet 16 in the Big Dance a week later.
NC State (22-12) faces a stiff challenge against No. 22-ranked San Diego State at 12:40 p.m. Friday in Columbus, Ohio. The Wolfpack coaching staff has years of experience in preparing teams for the expectations of this week.
"We have had a lot of good things, and Sunday night was big for our program," NC State coach Mark Gottfried said. "Our players enjoyed that night. They earned their way in and I really believe that. After a couple of days, it's exciting, and now you have to get your mind back where we go back to work and get ourselves ready to play."
The Wolfpack had the video of their reaction to earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament make the rounds this week. The players were all hugging and jumping up and down, while fifth-year senior point guard Alex Johnson broke out his dance moves.
College basketball experts and media talking heads took note of how well NC State played in nearly beating North Carolina in the ACC Tournament semifinals last Saturday.
The newfound attention has been a stark contrast to what the program has received in past years. NC State junior small forward Scott Wood half-joked that the Wolfpack fan base has increased this week.
"I'm sure a couple of people have jumped on the bandwagon," Wood said. "I guarantee once we lose, they'll be off because that is the way fans work. When you are winning, they love you. When you play well, they love you. When you aren't making shots and you are losing, [fans say] 'He sucks,' and that is the way it works."
Wood usually can tell the mood of Wolfpack Nation when he checks his Twitter account. He's been a little busier this week than normal.
"When you play well, all the 12-to-15-year-old girls go, 'Oh, Scott, retweet, retweet,'" Wood said. "When you have a bad game and get on there, there are no retweets. That is the way it works."
The players are welcoming some of the new distractions, but know what is most important going into Friday's game.
"It feels real good," NC State sophomore power forward C.J. Leslie said. "We know what we need to do. We need to come in with our heads focused and come in for a good game, and prepare for a win."
NC State senior shooting guard C.J. Williams had to fight back tears after learning he would get to play in his first NCAA Tournament. The Wolfpack have returned to the Big Dance for the first time since 2006.
"I was actually praying," Williams said. "I was asking the Lord to please give us an opportunity to get us in the tournament. Just have our name popped up. I was so excited."
Williams has noticed the shift in perception of the program over the last week.
"They [media personalities] are definitely talking about us, and that's good for us as a University, first of all, and as a team," Williams said. "A lot of people weren't talking about us in the beginning. Now, people are talking about us at the end of the year.
"San Diego State is a very good team and they didn't win all those games for no reason. We have to come out and perform at a high level."
Wood is also cognizant that not everyone is gung-ho about NC State's chances this week. He doesn't worry about the differing opinions, good or bad.
"I'm sure there are a lot of people that still hate us," Wood said, "It's a little bit of everything. I don't think Hubert [Davis of ESPN] likes us too much. I know where he went to school [UNC]. You have to respect people still, and not say, 'Oh, they suck.'"
Wood doesn't buy into the fact that the 11th-seeded Wolfpack are the favorites against a San Diego State squad that went 26-7 and won a share of first place in the Mountain West Conference regular season.
"Everybody isn't out there saying, 'NC State is awesome! They are going to win the NCAA Tournament.'" Wood said. "If I look at it, we got an 11th seed and they got a sixth seed."
"It gives you the mentality that we have nothing to lose. We still feel like we have a lot to lose. We are representing your University and the ACC."