Twenty-five years ago Jim Valvano supervised installation of “The Room of Dreams” in a little-used conference space at the Case Athletic Center on N.C. State’s Raleigh campus.
Acting in his dual capacity as head basketball coach and director of athletics – a marriage of sometimes-conflicting interests soon banned within the state university system – Valvano spent $125,000 on a multi-media experience that immersed a visitor in the historical glories of Wolfpack basketball.
Despite Valvano’s claims the extravaganza was university-oriented, it was clearly a basketball recruiting tool. The room’s crowning glory was a 17-minute video accompanied by original rap music and synchronized spotlights that fell on championships trophies and rings. It culminated with Valvano peering from a huddle and intoning toward the camera, “You will take the last shot. You will win the game.”
Of course nightmares are dreams, too. Only now is N.C. State waking from its long slumber in the land of the competitively irrelevant, thanks in no small part to Valvano’s methods in seeking championships.
That 1988-89 season was the last time the Wolfpack ended the regular season atop the ACC standings. Probation, four coaching changes, and a parade of disappointments followed as the program fell off the national radar.
All that began changing last March, thanks to a talented core recruited under Sidney Lowe, the point guard on Valvano’s 1983 national championship squad, and the guidance of Lowe’s successor, coach Mark Gottfried and his staff.
Now, following an emphatic 84-76 home victory over wounded but top-ranked Duke, there’s no arguing N.C. State belongs among the elite, not just in the ACC but nationally.
“Today was a good one for our program,” said Gottfried, a controlled blend of realist and cheerleader. “I don’t know that it validates anything.”
Certainly the win validated the unwavering support of one of the game’s more devoted fan bases. The final buzzer precipitated a raucous post-game rush by the third capacity crowd this season, filling the PNC Arena court with celebratory fans and beaming Wolfpack players. Containing the stampede did not seem a pressing matter; the PA announcer blandly urged departing attendees to “Please drive carefully.”
The Pack’s prowess was widely forecast prior to the 2013 season. N.C. State returned four upper-class starters – Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell, Calvin (C.J.) Leslie, and Scott Wood -- who averaged double figures on a Sweet 16 squad. The team was bolstered by a trio of McDonald’s All-Americans.
That marriage of talent and experience, the latter an increasingly uncommon commodity in college ball, earned the Wolfpack virtually unanimous recognition as a team to beat in the ACC.
“Here’s what you’ve got to bank on right about now, on the fact that we have four veteran players,” Gottfried said after beating Duke. “They get it. They understand it.
“We lost four in a row at one time last year, and we were a game away from putting a fork in us because we were just about cooked. But we didn’t, we didn’t fold the tent. Our players, those four guys collectively need to provide that leadership within our ranks.”
Two early losses this season caused quick leaps from the N.C. State bandwagon by fickle national observers. But the top field goal percentage in Division I and 10 consecutive victories after a November defeat at Michigan restored any lost luster.
The Duke win secured a 3-0 start in the ACC, the program’s best since that ’89 season.
Brown had 13 assists, matching his career high. Howell also provided indisputable evidence he is an all-conference performer with rare rebounding skills.
The oft-overlooked senior contributed 16 points on 7-12 shooting and led the Pack with two steals against the Blue Devils. More notably, Howell -- who sports a Lord’s Prayer tattoo on his right bicep and his daughter’s name on his right forearm -- had a game-high 18 rebounds.
“Howell is just a beast,” said an admiring Mike Krzyzewski. “He’s one of the most unique players in the country, Howell. He’s a kid that every team would want and (would) start and would be so easy to play with. He doesn’t need the ball long. He plays with amazing maturity, and he rebounds the heck out of the ball.”
Admittedly “infuriated” the Devils held an edge on the boards at one point, the 6-8, 257-pound Howell grabbed more rebounds in the second half (14) than the entire Duke squad (13). Six of his rebounds in the game came in attack mode; with 316 in his N.C. State career and at least 17 games remaining, the nimble post player projects to become the modern school leader in offensive rebounds.
As satisfying as the victory was for N.C. State, it was hardly definitive.
For the third straight year, a foot injury handicapped the Blue Devils. They lost Kyrie Irving for all but 11 games in 2011, dropping from superlative to merely formidable en route to 32 wins. They lost forward Ryan Kelly on the eve of the 2012 postseason, and spiraled to two losses in three outings, the last a shocker in an NCAA opener against 15-seed Lehigh.
Kelly’s importance as a defensive presence, and in stretching opposing defenses with his perimeter shooting (52 percent on threes this season), is clearer now that he’s again on the sideline wearing a protective boot.
Other than Seth Curry, himself injured in the late going after scoring a team-best 22 points, Duke was 1-10 on 3-pointers against N.C. State.
“We’re not a great team with Ryan, we’re a really good team,” Krzyzewski said. “But we’re better than our parts when we have all our parts together.”
Senior sharpshooter Scott Wood, one of five N.C. State players in double figures, cast a similarly sober eye on the outcome.
“This is why I came here – to turn it around, to win some games like that,” the veteran said of toppling No. 1. Still, he regarded the victory as less momentous than others made it out to be.
“It’s tough to say the greatest, the best win” of his career, Wood said. “Obviously if we want to finish number one in the ACC, you’ve got to go through Duke. It’s definitely a huge win and it’s up there, but at the same time I’d like to play them (when Duke is) 100 percent. You want to play against the best, and a couple of them weren’t out there.”
Come Feb. 7, N.C. State visits Cameron Indoor Stadium, where it painfully blew a 20-point, second-half lead last season. There’s no guarantee Kelly will return by then, meaning what the Wolfpack saw this past weekend may be the best the Blue Devils can muster.
No matter. Outcomes in the realm of dreams have their own logic. After waiting nearly a quarter-century, why quibble with success?