Top 25 Countdown: No. 8 NC State

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 24-13, 9-7 ACC (t-4th); Lost in the Sweet 16 to Kansas

Head Coach: Mark Gottfried

Key Losses: DeShawn Painter, CJ Williams

Newcomers: TJ Warren, Tyler Lewis, Rodney Purvis

Projected Lineup:

G: Lorenzo Brown, Jr.
G: Rodney Purvis, Fr.
F: Scott Wood, Sr.
F: CJ Leslie, Jr.
C: Richard Howell, Sr.
Bench: Tyler Lewis, Fr.; TJ Warren, Fr.; Jordan Vandenburg, Jr.

Outlook: There may not be a more polarizing team in the country that NC State this season. I say polarizing because, on paper, this team looks great.

Lorenzo Brown has morphed into one of the best point guards in the country. There really isn’t anything he can’t do at the position. He’s always had the size and athleticism, and last season he showed that he can be a primary scorer and ballhandler. What he’s added over the summer, according to most reports from people that have seen the Wolfpack workout, is that Brown has added an elite understanding of what it means to be a ‘point guard’. And with plenty of talent around him this season, the importance of his ability to get everyone shots cannot be understated.

Brown isn’t the only star on the NC State roster, as CJ Leslie is primed to have a monster season. Leslie entered the NC State program as a lanky, athletic forward, but he’s developed his game to the point that it wouldn’t be shocking to see him average 16 or 17 points this year. Leslie still has plenty of doubters, but I think that it’s important to note that he’ll be the sidekick this year. This is Brown’s team, and part of what makes Brown so good and Leslie so promising is that Leslie is going to get eight or ten points a night simply by catching and finishing opportunities created by Brown.

The Wolfpack got huge news back in mid-September when it was announced that the NCAA had granted NC State’s appeal and freshman Rodney Purvis was cleared to play this season. That had been in question, and the talented two-guard didn’t make the trip to Europe with the team. The addition of Purvis is important because he’s talented enough to create his own shot and get 15 or 20 points no a night when Brown and Leslie are struggling. Having that third threat to score is important, keeping defenses honest. The same can be said for TJ Warren, a wing that will play a similar role to what Deshaun Thomas played for Ohio State his freshman season.

Tyler Lewis, the third talented freshmen that Gottfried brought in this season, will back up Brown at the point, while Scott Wood will be the designated floor-spreader. The 6-foot-7 Wood hit 40.9% from beyond the arc as a junior.

The biggest issue NC State has from a personnel issue will be front court depth. Richard Howell, who averaged 10.3 points and 9.2 boards as a junior last season, is back and will start alongside Leslie, but with Deshawn Painter’s decision to transfer closer to his southern Virginia home, the Wolfpack are lacking big men. 7-foot-1 junior Jordan Vandenburg will likely be the first guy off the bench for Gottfried, while sophomore Thomas de Thaey will see some emergency minutes.

There is plenty of talent here, but the questions that most have regarding this team are a) whether or not Mark Gottfried is the guy that can bring that talent together, and b) if NC State is being overrated because of a pair of wins that came in the NCAA tournament.

Gottfried had a respectable tenure at Alabama, winning a couple of division titles in the SEC and making the Elite 8 one season. But he was hardly considered an elite coach during his time there and even fielded a couple of talented-but-disappointing teams. After spending a couple of seasons sitting at a desk at ESPN and making a move to Raliegh, he’s all of a sudden supposed to be able to turn the talent on his roster into wins?

It’s not exactly like last season was a shining example of coaching acumen. The Wolfpack finished 22-12 in the regular season and 9-7 in a top heavy ACC, managing to grab one of the last at-large bids in one of the weakest NCAA tournament fields in recent memory. They went just 1-6 against NCAA tournament teams from the ACC, and their only two wins over tournament teams in non-conference play came against UNC Asheville and Texas, when Longhorn star J’Covan Brown got a technical and was ejected with eight minutes left, completely changing the course of the game. NC State was down 18 in the second half of that game.

Just because they won two games in March means we’re supposed to forget the rest of the season happened?

That’s why this team is doubted by many. And that’s why there are people that believe this ranking will be too high.

Predictions?: Me? I believe in this group. I think there are going to be plenty of kinks to work out. I’m not sure how well Purvis is going to accept being third or fourth fiddle offensively, and Warren coming off the bench could be an issue as well. Any foul trouble up front will be worrisome. As talented as Leslie and Brown as, neither one has really shown that killer instinct; NC State blew a lot of leads last season (most notably a 20 point second half lead at Duke), which is worrisome. But this is a new year, and there is talent on this roster. I think the Wolfpack, who have a cushy ACC schedule, win the conference and get to at least the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.