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Credit: NC State Athletic Media Relations

Howell is a force in the paint for State. (Credit: NC State Athletic Media Relations)

North Carolina State began the season as the trendy pick to win the ACC title.   Seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, the Wolfpack returned four starters from a team that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen last March.

After some early wobbles—most notably a 20-point neutral-court loss to Oklahoma State—NC State seems poised to make those predictions come true.    The Wolfpack have won 10 straight, including Saturday’s 84-76 win over top-ranked but wounded Duke.

The Blue Devils were playing their first game without senior forward Ryan Kelly, out indefinitely with a foot injury.  Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson moved up in the rotation and responded to the opportunity with 18 points and nine rebounds.

But neither came close to slowing down C.J. Leslie, NC State’s junior forward.  The pre-season ACC Player of the Year torched Duke with 25 points and six rebounds.

The 6-9 Leslie is a likely first-round draft pick this spring.  He’s an uber-athlete who can take over a game.  Mark Gottfried calls him “unbelievable.  Nearly unguardable.”

But I’m not convinced his classmate Lorenzo Brown isn’t a better NBA prospect.  The 200-pound Leslie has a power forward’s game in a wing’s body.  A position change likely looms at the next level.  But Brown is a 6-5 college point guard who’ll become a 6-5 NBA point guard.

Mark Gottfried rolled the dice when he moved Brown from wing to the point and the move has paid huge dividends.

Brown notched a career-high-tying 13 assists against Duke, after which Mike Krzyzewski called him “as good as anybody in the country in transition.  Their transition really won the game for them and he’s the reason.”

Wolfpack senior Scott Wood is one of the nation’s best 3-point shooters, while Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren are two of the ACC’s better freshmen.

Then there’s Richard Howell, the team’s glue.  Howell wasn’t completely under-the-radar when he came to Raleigh from Marietta, Georgia.  He was a consensus top-60 recruit. But he had knee and weight issues early in his ACC tenure.

Those are behind him.  The 6-8, 260-pound senior plays in the lane, below the rim. His next hot-dog play will be his first.  He doesn’t pout when plays aren’t called for him.  He doesn’t have to.  He just grabs the nearest errant shot and goes from there.

Howell dominated the second half of the Duke game, pulling down 14 of his game-high 18 rebounds after intermission and completely shutting down Duke’s second-chance game.  Gottfried said that he asked his team during a timeout if any of them were going to help Howell on the boards and he interrupted “don’t worry.  I’ll get them all.”

Howell played every second of the second half—more on that later—despite Gottfried’s desire to give him some rest.  “I kept thinking I gotta get him out,” Gottfried said.  “Then I said, ‘no, I ain’t doing that.’  It was grown-man’s game.  He made up his mind that he was going to get every rebound.”

He darned near did.

Coaches love players like that. Even losing coaches.  “Howell’s a beast,” Mike Krzyzewski said.  “Howell does this to everybody.  He’s one of the most unique players in the country.  He’s a kid that every team would want to start and be so easy to play with. He doesn’t need the ball long. He plays with a lot of maturity. He rebounds the heck out of the ball.  He has such a good demeanor.  He never has a scowl on his face.  He never gets frazzled.”

As well as State is playing right now, they might have an Achilles heel.  State essentially is a six-man team.  Seventh-man Tyler Lewis played two minutes against Duke.  Eighth man Jordan Vandenberg, a 7-1 Aussie, has been a healthy scratch three times in State’s last four games.  He’s scored 10 points all season.

There is no ninth man.  Attrition has reduced State to eight recruited players. That’s pretty scary in the best of circumstances.  What happens when someone gets hurt or gets into foul trouble?  No State player had more than three fouls against Duke.  Can you count on that?

Gottfried maintains that players that age don’t actually get tired and the four upperclassmen seem to have learned some valuable lessons about staying on the floor.  So, perhaps State can thread the needle.  But it’s a pretty tight needle.

Gottfried noted that this was just one game in an 18-game ACC marathon. “The four veteran players understand that.  They need to provide this knowledge.  My hope is that we’ll continue to deliver.”

At 3-0, State is atop—along with Miami-a conference season that shows a lot of one-step forward, one-step back.  Florida State got a great come-from-behind road win at Maryland, only to turn around and lose at home to an 0-2 North Carolina team that had just lost to a Virginia team that then lost to a Clemson team that lost to Duke by 28.

And so forth.

You get the picture.  Call it parity, call it mediocrity.  Either way, it may take some time to sort this out.

But Duke gets a rematch in the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 7, a game that should be a big part of that sorting process.  Keep the date.

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