• © Sami Sarkis, Getty1

RBC CENTER/RALEIGH—There’s two sides to every story. Many might view N.C. State’s 78-44 romp over MEAC member Delaware State as a meaningless nonconference exhibition designed to beef up the Wolfpack’s record and statistics in advance of the ACC season, which begins this Sunday against Maryland. On the other hand, it was only a year ago that a Scott Wood basket with two seconds left gave N.C. State a 72-70 squeaker over these same Hornets.

In the same vein, there is a palpable air of confidence surrounding this N.C. State team entering conference play, a remarkable achievement considering these are essentially the same players that populated last year’s underperforming squad, sans Tracie Smith, Javier Gonzalez and Ryan Harrow but adding graduate transfer Alex Johnson. That said, last season’s team only lost four nonconference games, the same as this season, before going on to post a woeful 5-12 ACC record. In other words, the true measure of this Mark Gottfried-led Wolfpack starts Sunday night.

First, some housecleaning. N.C. State led from the outset against Delaware State, whose starting lineup included Brandon and Marques Oliver, fraternal twins who hail from Panther Creek High School in Durham (reserve guard Jordon Lawson, who played high school at Durham Academy, also saw 16 minutes of playing time). Indeed, it’s an interesting oddity that Delaware State’s roster lists six players from North Carolina, the same number as N.C. State (and only the two CJs, Leslie and Williams, see appreciable minutes).

However, the Hornets were without senior point guard Jay Threatt, the school’s career steals leader and third-leading career assist man. In truth, it likely would not have mattered, as this rabid Pack grabbed a lead that eventually grew to as much as 37 points in the second half.

CJ Leslie and Scott Wood paced the Wolfpack scoring with 14 points each — Leslie also contributed eight rebound and four blocks. The ever-improving Richard Howell notched his fourth consecutive double-double, posting 12 points along with 12 rebounds. While N.C. State shot only 45 percent from the floor, the Hornets obliged with an anemic 29.5 percent.

“I was proud that my guys focused on this game,” said Gottfried. “This time of year it’s easy to start thinking about ACC play, so the guys did a nice job of handling the situation tonight. Now it’s time to turn the page and get ready for the next step.”

Indeed, although the head coach savored another win, he began the process of puncturing the Wolfpack’s balloon lest it become too inflated. With 3:40 left in the first half, Leslie finished a fast break with a circus dunk that everyone in the RBC Center enjoyed except a face-palming Gottfried, who subbed off the hot-dogging Leslie 40 seconds later and did not reinsert him for the rest of the half. It was the second such incident in as many games, after Gottfried yanked Leslie from the Western Carolina contest and gave him an earful for a ball-hogging play.

When asked about these episodes after tonight’s game, Gottfried professed praise for his leading scorer … sort of.

“Calvin’s been very receptive all year,” Gottfried began.

“Most of the time, he’s played very hard. His shot selection has been pretty good, at times … like every player [he] may take one or two that maybe isn’t the best. But, I just want to keep him on track with that. His percentages are higher than they’ve ever been … and he’s doing a lot of things really well. I want to make sure he stays the course because he’s doing a lot of good things for our team right now.”

Even while exulting his team’s focus against the Hornets, Gottfried ducked a postgame question about the overall quality (or lack thereof) of the ACC this season and converted it into an opportunity to either dampen expectations for his team or—I suspect—challenge them.

“When the lights are on and the popcorn’s popping, it’s going to be difficult for our team to win a lot of games,” hedged Gottfried.

“We’re not a great team—we’ve been near the bottom of this league for a long time, so it’s a dogfight for us every night.”

The first dogfight will be fought this Sunday against the Maryland Terrapins; tipoff is 6 p.m. at the RBC Center.

*Postgame postscript: Gottfried announced that there is a “strong chance” that the team will redshirt junior center Jordan Vandenberg for the remainder of this season due to an ongoing shoulder injury. Vandenberg has not played since the Dec. 17 loss to Syracuse.