Jacey Zembal, editor of the WolfPacker.com on the Rivals.com network, spoke to Jayhawk Slant about Friday nights Sweet 16 Showdown between No. 2 seed Kansas and No. 11 seed NC State.
Jayhawk Slant: Having defeated No. 6 seed San Diego State and No. 3 seed Georgetown, what is the mood of the North Carolina State men's basketball program and the fan base?
Jacey Zembal: There was a quiet confidence about San Diego State, because they (NC State) matched up so well against them. San Diego State doesn't have a lot of size inside and NC State wore out that matchup. Georgetown was a little different story. You knew that was going to be a challenge.
They definitely had the size inside and you knew it was going to be a battle. The feeling right now, after playing close games Duke, UNC and teams like Virginia, is that they're probably learning what to do in the last four to five minutes of close games. That's what they did against San Diego State and that's what they did, for the most part, against Georgetown.
That's what probably fueled the tourney run more than anything. This NC State team is figuring out how to win at the end (of games).
JS: Despite four straight losses, (Duke, Florida State, North Carolina and Clemson in late February, including blowing a 20 point lead at Duke, North Carolina State responded by winning 5-of-6 games. How have the Wolfpack managed to build so much momentum after several heartbreaking losses and emerge as one of the final 16 teams left standing?
JZ: Basically, not every team in the ACC got the honor of playing Duke, Florida State and UNC back-to-back-to-back. Those are all three teams ranked in the top 15 or 16 at the time. I don't know if you remember, but NC State then lost an overtime killer to Clemson on a buzzer beater.
I think what got them through that stretch, more than anything else; they had something to play for. They still had work to do to make the NCAA tournament. So, they beat Miami-FL for a second time, they won at Virginia Tech and then beat Boston College, which is a very young team.
Then, NC State beat Virginia (ACC Tourney) for the first time this year. Those four wins basically got them into the NCAA Tournament. Without those four wins, there is no Wolfpack in the tournament this year.
JS: Clearly, everybody knows about NC State forward C.J. Leslie. Currently, he leads the team in scoring, blocked shots per game and is second in rebounding. However, what player not named Leslie should Kansas fans be aware of on Friday night?
JZ: Lorenzo Brown is the guy that drives everything for NC State. If he doesn't play well, it's going to affect everyone else. Brown is versatile, he can do-it-all and he's starting to shoot the three-pointer better. Sometimes he's a little loose with turnovers, but he seems to be better about that lately.
He was a top 35 recruit, too. Basically, Lorenzo shared the backcourt with Ryan Harrow last year and in the middle of the season, Harrow got sick, so he (Lorenzo) had to play point guard, and he flourished. Coming out of high school, Lorenzo was always a point guard.
Some people have this connotation that he's never played point guard before, but that's not really the case. He's always played point guard in high school, including the post grad year at Hargrave, and then he basically played point guard from the middle of the season on last year, after Harrow (who transferred to Kentucky) got sick.
JS: In your opinion, what is the key matchup on Friday night?
JZ: Well, I think the Richard Howell vs. Jeff Withey matchup is going to be intriguing. Howell is pretty good, but he gets into foul trouble. He's also probably a little bit closer to 6-foot-7, generously at 6-foot-8, where Withey is 6-foot-10 or 6-foot-11.
Withey, at 6-foot-10, or 7-foot-0, whatever he is, that's a lot of length that Howell has to battle through. I think that's a key matchup, because if Howell gets Withey into foul trouble, then I would guess the Kevin Young's or the Justin Wesley's of the world have to come in off the bench.
Now, it really becomes a very good matchup for the Wolfpack, with Leslie and Howell vs. backup big man and Thomas Robinson. You know, it's like which guy can get who into foul trouble? Both teams need those guys to stay on the court, I would think.
JS: When talking to his team in the days and hours leading up to Friday night's game, in your opinion, what approach will Wolfpack head coach Mark Gottfried when talking about NC State's matchup against Kansas?
JZ: I think Gottfried is the type of guy that tries to pump his team up. You know, confidence has kind of been the theme all year. The ebb and flow of being confident or not, and when you're making the NIT or going through losing seasons the last five years, like NC State did, the confidence just wasn't there.
On paper, it's a talented team. It's not like this is a team that didn't have players no one else wanted coming out of high school. It's a talented team but they just didn't have any confidence. Well, Gottfried supplied that confidence. He's formed relationships with the players and he knows what buttons to push to get them to play up to their potential.
That was probably the one thing that was lacking. I think Gottfried will tell his team that they belong on the same court as Kansas. I think he'll tell them that they've played teams just like Kansas this season, and then go from there.
JS:How do you see Fridays Sweet 16 showdown between Kansas and North Carolina State playing out?
JZ: I truly believe it's going to be a close game going into the last four minutes. Unless something weird happens, but if both teams play their normal game and guys are able to play their normal minutes, I think it will be a close game.
Basically, it's whatever team punches the most in the last four minutes. NC State just played Georgetown, and three of their four best players did not have good games. The one thing that NC State has shown in the first two games is they're not intimated on the court.
Kansas has played a brutal schedule. Kansas is as battle tested as it gets, and NC State has played UNC three times, they played Duke once, Florida State, Indiana, and Syracuse, so they've seen the best in the country.
My feeling is its going to be a pretty competitive game. I do wonder how many Kansas fans will be in attendance, and whether that makes a difference or not?
JS: Lastly, what type of NCAA Tournament experience does NC State have?
JZ: This group of players has one NIT run. They beat South Florida at the buzzer and were beaten badly by Mike Davis and UAB the next game. That was just the players who are juniors or seniors in the program now. That doesn't include Alex Johnson, who transferred in from Cal State Bakersfield.