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At 47 years of age, Mark Gottfried can hardly be calledto borrow a moniker from N.C. State basketball lorea “Gray Fox.” Still, since 1945 only two menPress Maravich and Les Robinsonwere older than Gottfried when handed the reins to the Wolfpack program.

And that’s probably just the way Athletic Director Debbie Yow likes it. Although Sidney Lowe, a fabled N.C. State alumnus, is four years older than Gottfried, the essential ingredients missing in and around the Wolfpack program the last several seasons were a sense of stability and authority.

Gottfried brings a decorated 14-year head coaching résumé to Raleigh, beginning in 1995 when he led Murray State to three straight winning seasons and two NCAA Tournament berths. Follow that with a 10-plus-season stint at Alabama, during which the Crimson Tide compiled a record of 210–131 and made five consecutive NCAA tourneys.

Now, after a year spent plying his gift of gab on the ESPN family of networks, Gottfried digs his collection of crimson neckties out of mothballs and parachutes into a program trying to reclaim the on-court glory of the Jim Valvano era … without all the pesky off-court shenanigans.

Gottfried has already begun building for the future, landing a trio of highly touted recruitsfive-star standouts Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren along with Oak Hill point guard Tyler Lewisas part of what ESPN currently ranks as the third-highest recruiting class in the nation.

But before next season arrives, this season has just begun. Spearheading the 2011–12 campaign is a motley stew that includes only one senior who was on last year’s squad and a regular rotation featuring four 6′-8″ forwards, a 6′-9″ center and a graduate transfer as the backup point guard.

Still, Gottfried isn’t waiting to imprint his fast-paced offense onto the program. In winning four of their first five games of this season, the Pack utilized controlled fast breaks to outpace their opponents, with the understandable exception of the 60-58 win over rigidly half-court-minded Princeton. The most noticeable difference to regular observers of last year’s team, however, is that the Wolfpack is playing like a much more confident, disciplined squad. Indeed, they overcame an 18-point second-half deficit Monday night against a game Texas squad, a show of resiliency unimaginable last year.

What’s equally notable is that N.C. State won its first three games without the services of C.J. Leslie, who was suspended for minor NCAA violations dating back to last spring. Leslie now joins a formidable cast of forwards that includes a slimmed-down and more athletic Richard Howell, sharpshooter Scott Wood and freshmen Tyler Harris and Thomas de Thaey.

While Leslie is the team’s most high-profile player, Wood is the most valuable, as his limited minutes due to foul trouble against UNC-Asheville and injury against Princeton and Vanderbilt demonstrates. With Wood on the floor, opposing defenses must extend themselves to guard against his deadly three-point shooting, opening up space for the Pack’s interior game.

At center, 7′-1″ junior Jordan Vandenberg brings shot blocking, rebounding and little else to the paint. One early-season surprise, however, is the rejuvenated play of DeShawn Painter, whose strength and short-range shooting ability makes him an important member of the rotation.

Senior C.J. Williams is a team leader and an adequate shooter at the 2-guard position. The true point guards are starter Lorenzo Brown and backup Alex Johnson, a graduate student who transferred to N.C. State from Cal State Bakersfield during the offseason. Both Brown and Johnson bring tremendous ball-handling and passing skills to the position. However, to this point their shooting skills have been uneven at best.

Gottfried likes Johnson’s presence on the roster for other reasons.

“One thing [Alex] does is he’s a second true ball handler,” Gottfried observes. “When he comes into the game he can play point or the 2-guard. But Alex also gives us the poise of an older player … I think he settles our team down at times.”

While the ACC regular season is always a daunting gauntlet, N.C. State’s out-of-conference schedule stacks up rather favorably. The Wolfpack played two tough contests last weekend at a neutral site, but their only true away games are at Stanford (Dec. 4) and St. Bonaventure (Dec. 20). Otherwise, 11 nonconference matches are scheduled in Raleigh, highlighted by clashes against Indiana (Nov. 30) and Syracuse (Dec. 17).

The long grind of this season will eventually expose this N.C. State team’s true talent and character. Moreover, while Wolfpack partisans still loudly applaud Gottfried’s name during pregame introductions, all honeymoons come to an end. Ultimately, the question is whether Gottfried is the next big thing … or just next.