A year ago, North Carolina State was having a bear of a time simply finding someone to take over the reins of their struggling basketball program.
Now, the Wolfpack is still riding a wave of momentum from an unexpected Sweet Sixteen run, and, as of Wednesday, has the look of an ACC preseason favorite as it heads towards its second season under Mark Gottfried.
6-foot-8 sophomore and former McDonald's All-American C.J. Leslie, who led the Pack in scoring (14.7 ppg) and was second on the team in rebounding (7.3 rpg) last season will be returning to Raleigh for his junior campaign.
This means that on top of landing a trio of McDonald's All-Americans in the 2012 class, Gottfried will also bring back his top four scorers from a team that won 24 games. He'll have one of the nation's deeper, more balanced rosters to work with in year two.
At season's end, it truly appeared to be a 50-50 call as to whether Leslie would make the leap to the next level. He was the Pack's unquestioned centerpiece, and improved immensely on the offensive end from his freshman year to this season. After scrapping together 11 points per game as a rookie, he bumped his field goal percentage from 43.3 percent to 52.5 percent as a sophomore, tapping into his immense potential while utilizing his elite-level athleticism with more control.
Individually, there's still some room for growth, and this year's NBA draft pool is already loaded with depth at his position. A year form now, he'll have a better chance to stand out leading up to the draft, and there's also plenty of work still left to be done in terms of again making N.C. State one of college hoops' elite programs.
Wake Forest won the ACC regular season title back in 2003, marking the last time that Duke or North Carolina didn't at least grab a share of the crown.
N.C. State appears to have a legitimate chance to end that run in 2012-13. The Tar Heels lost a wealth of talent to the NBA Draft, and next season will be playing with a mix of role players from the 2011-12 campaign, guards coming back from season-ending knee injuries and unproven freshmen. Meanwhile, Duke has plenty to prove after a season in which its defense leaked profusely and it was ultimately victim of a monumental upset in its NCAA tournament opener at the hands of 15-seed Lehigh.
A couple of programs — such as Miami and Maryland — could make a push toward the league's upper crust, but there will once again likely be a visible divide between the handful of real contenders and the rest of the pack in 2012-13.
With Leslie's return, it solidifies N.C. State as a member of that exclusive club, if not the odds-on preseason favorite.