With a ton of returning talent and a pair of promising freshmen coming in, North Carolina State entered the season with huge expectations.
While it hasn't exactly been smooth sailing for the Wolfpack thus far, they showed signs of coming around their last time out.
No. 25 North Carolina State looks to build on its latest win Saturday when it hosts Cleveland State.
After reaching the regional semifinals of last season's NCAA tournament, the Wolfpack (5-2), led by Richard Howell, C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and Scott Wood, figured to become all the more formidable with the additions of T.J. Warren and Rodney Purvis.
North Carolina State got off to a good start by winning its first three games but has split its last four. The Wolfpack, who fell 76-56 to Oklahoma State in the Puerto Rico Tipoff title game Nov. 18 before avoiding a monumental upset by sneaking past UNC Asheville 82-80 at home five days later, went on to lose 79-72 at No. 3 Michigan on Nov. 27.
North Carolina State, though, bounced back with its first noteworthy win of the season Tuesday, beating Connecticut 69-65 in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. Leslie had 16 points and a season-best 13 rebounds while Howell added 13 and 10 for the Wolfpack, who held the Huskies to 40.3 percent shooting.
"I think this was a gutsy win and I thought we really defended better in the second half," said coach Mark Gottfried, whose team has dropped 19 spots in the AP poll after opening at No. 6. "First half, (Connecticut's) rebounding killed us. We were not rebounding the ball nearly as well as we can."
While there's no debating the Wolfpack's offensive prowess, it's their defensive efforts that have proven make or break. North Carolina State is 4-0 when holding teams to under 41.0 percent shooting and 1-2 when it doesn't - with its lone victory coming over one-win UNC Asheville.
The Wolfpack have posted a 38.6 opponent field-goal percentage in taking 14 of 15 home games against unranked, non-conference foes, a trend they'll look to continue Saturday against Cleveland State (6-2).
The Vikings are coming off back-to-back wins, 69-63 at Ball State on Nov. 28 and 78-73 over Toledo last Saturday. Sophomore Charlie Lee scored a career-high 22 points to go along with seven assists for Cleveland State, which closed Saturday's game on a 7-2 run.
"I give this team such a heads up because they're fighting with all types of odds out there every game," said coach Gary Waters, who is one win away from 300. "They're young, they got players down, all kinds of things are happening to them but they're never quitting, they're fighting back every time they get an opportunity."
Cleveland State's biggest injury concern surrounds sophomore Anton Grady. The 6-foot-8 forward, who averages 13.7 points and 5.5 rebounds, has missed the last two games with a knee injury and is expected to be sidelined the rest of the month.
The Vikings also played Michigan - their only other matchup of the season with a ranked opponent - and couldn't keep up, falling 77-47 on Nov. 13.
Cleveland State had dropped its first 20 road games against Top-25 foes before going 3-4 over its last seven, most recently winning 71-58 at then-No. 7 Vanderbilt on Nov. 13, 2011.
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