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March 15, 2012

Maturation of NC State's sophomores spurs tourney bid



One of the old adages in college athletics is that you make your biggest improvements from your freshman to your sophomore season.

NC State sophomores C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown are starting to deliver on the potential that made them top 40 prospects coming out of high school. The Wolfpack basketball program has greatly benefitted by improvements and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.

NCSU (22-12) earned the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Regional and squares off against No. 6-seeded San Diego State (26-7) at 12:40 p.m. Friday in Columbus, Ohio.

Leslie and Brown both went through the usual ups and downs during their freshman years. Some players are standouts right away in college basketball, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

For every elite freshman such as Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of Kentucky, there are top 12 recruits such as power forward Khem Birch, who quit the team at Pittsburgh and transferred to UNLV, or point guard Josiah Turner, who experienced multiple suspensions at Arizona and didn't play in the Pac-12 Tournament.

Rivals.com ranked Leslie the No. 14 overall player in the country in the class of 2010 out of Raleigh Word of God. Brown checked in at No. 37 in the class of 2009 at Roswell (Ga.) Centennial High, before having to do a one-year stint at Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy. The duo along with No. 19-ranked point guard Ryan Harrow were expected to be the saviors of the program under former coach Sidney Lowe, who is now an assistant coach with the Utah Jazz.

The expectations proved too much to swallow the freshman trio, and Harrow eventually transferred to Kentucky. The learning experiences didn't help turn around NC State last year, but they paved the way for what was to come this season.

"I don't think it's easy for any freshman to come into college basketball playing their best," Brown said. "I think you need some kind of leadership and someone you can look up to and have that positive output on you.

"Last year, we really didn't have that kind of leadership on our team. This year, we have leaders like [seniors] Alex Johnson and C.J. Williams. With them helping us out and being positive toward us, it helps us on and off the court."

Leslie admitted the jump from high school is harder than expected in retrospect.

"College is way different than high school," Leslie said. "It's a big jump, but I thought we did really good coming in our sophomore year. We were definitely better than our freshman year. That is all you can ask."

What Leslie and Brown experienced isn't surprising. Current NC State freshmen Thomas De Thaey, Tyler Harris and Jaqawn Raymond, have been deep reserves this season. Williams and junior small forward Scott Wood also remember how hard their first year at NC State was.

"Things are not going to go your way the first year," Wood said. "I think even Zo [Brown] had a lot of up and down games last year. You just had to tell them, 'Hey, it's going to be tough and it's not going to be an easy ride.' It's extremely difficult.

"A lot of people say the speed of the game changes a lot, and it does. I would say the biggest thing is just strength and mental toughness. Those are the two main things that really kind of change."

The maturation of Brown and Leslie helped Williams and Johnson achieve their long-awaited goal of playing in the NCAA Tournament.

"They are playing at a high level right now," Williams said. "That's good for us as a team. Now teams really have to guard and that opens it up for the rest of us to get good shots and get opportunities to get out and run.

"You have to be a sponge and learn as much as possible. They've done a great job of that this year in learning more on how to play."

The one-two punch of Brown and Leslie could end up being a difficult matchup for the Aztecs.

"We know any time they bring that energy to us, they are a big asset to our team," Wood said. "They are extremely hard to guard and they are both menaces on the defensive end. When you put both of them on one team, it's going to be tough to stop them."

Leslie had a solid statistical first season at power forward in Raleigh, averaging 11 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game, but had it sullied by a suspension at Duke and other issues down the stretch amidst the impending resignation of Lowe.

First-year coach Mark Gottfried has been able to get the best out of Leslie this season, and he's improved in every key statistical category. The 6-foot-8, 209-pounder is averaging 14.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per contest, but most importantly, he's shooting 53.2 percent from the field and is saving his best for the end of the season.

"I do think he's improved a great deal this year," Gottfried said. "I'm excited for where he is with his game right now. I see so much more room to grow still."

Leslie has had six double-doubles for points and rebounding over his last 10 games, and was a rebound away in two others. He has responded well to his benching against Wake Forest on Jan. 14, which resulted in a scoreless effort.

Leslie and the Wolfpack have won four out of their last five games, and he's gone 37-of-52 from the field during that stretch (71.2 percent). The late-season push helped him earn first-team All-ACC Tournament honors and second-team all-league for his play during the regular season.

"He's matured a whole lot, and I think the only thing he needed to do was mature," Brown said. "He's always had the talent. He just needed to mature a whole lot. Once he got his head on right and when he settled down a little bit, he was going to be unstoppable. He's one of the best power forwards in the nation I believe."

With Leslie dominating the interior, Brown is starting to find his comfort level at point guard. He also has increased his statistics in every key category this season and enters the NCAA Tournament with 11 straight games in double figures. In five of those contests, he had at least six assists.

The smooth 6-5, 189-pounder is averaging 12.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game and earned third-team All-ACC this season.

When NC State needed a basket in the eventual 69-67 loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament semifinals last Saturday, the expectation was that Brown would make a play.

"Each game he had in the tournament, I thought his numbers were really good in all three games - assists and points - and we all make some mistakes here and there, and he had a few, but outside of those, he was really good," Gottfried said. "Zo was terrific."

Brown was hoping to tie the game on a few occasions over the last minute of the game. He wanted the ball in his hands badly and expected to score. Would Brown have had the same mindset when the season opened against UNC Asheville on Nov. 15?

"To be honest, no," Brown said. "I was still learning at the time. Now, I just feel like unstoppable at times."

Brown and Leslie will be able to impart the lessons they've learned to the next crop of touted NC State signees. Point guard Tyler Lewis of Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy, shooting guard Rodney Purvis of Raleigh Upper Room Christian Academy and small forward T.J. Warren of Wolfeboro (N.H.) Brewster Academy, were all named McDonald's All-American's and Rivals.com top 60 recruits.

Williams expects the class of 2012 to go through similar experiences.

"No matter who you are, you have to make a transition, some sort of transition," Williams said. "High school basketball is not like college, and college is not like the NBA. Whenever you go to a new level, you are still starting over pretty much."

Gottfried looks forward to seeing what Brown and Leslie could achieve in the future. If either makes the same kind of jump in their games like they have over the last year, the program will greatly benefit.

"I think they both have improved greatly, and playing their best when their best is needed," Gottfried said. "That is always important.

"I still think they can improve a lot more. I'm hard on those guys. I think they've done a great job."


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