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March 19, 2009

Heralded class to boost Wolfpack in 2009-2010

The goal for the 2008-2009 season was for North Carolina State to turn things around and lay a foundation for future success.

The Wolfpack went 15-16 two years ago, but improved modestly to 16-14 overall and 6-10 in the ACC (10th place). A postseason berth eluded NCSU for the second-straight year, but some encouraging late-season signs lead to hope that coach Sidney Lowe will be turning the corner next year in his fourth season.

NC State played together and more competitively in each game, and were a few plays away from winning more games this past season.

One of the keys to turning the corner is avoiding some of the late-season struggles, which struck the Wolfpack the last two years. NC State lost nine straight games to close out the 2007-2008 season, and lost five of its last seven games this past season. Both years ended with first-round losses in the ACC Tournament.

NC State says good-bye to three-year starters Ben McCauley, a 6-foot-9 center, and 6-6 shooting guard Courtney Fells, along with reserve 6-6 forward Simon Harris. However, experienced players with starting experience include redshirt junior power forward Brandon Costner, sophomore point guard Javier Gonzalez and sophomore power forward Tracy Smith.

NC State also returns reserves such as redshirt junior point guard Farnold Degand, freshman point guard Julius Mays, freshman wing C.J. Williams, junior forward Dennis Horner and redshirt junior shooting guard Trevor Ferguson, who all earned starts last season.

Redshirt freshman small forward Johnny Thomas showed he could be a factor in the future after recovering from a difficult knee injury that wiped out his 2007-2008 season.

The nucleus of veteran players will be joined by the arrival of the No. 17 recruiting class by Rivals.com, which features three players ranked in the top 130, with potential room for the group to grow this spring with a couple more additions.

Combo guard Lorenzo Brown, power forward Richard Howell and wing Scott Wood II, each bring something different to the Wolfpack.

Brown is a gifted player from Roswell (Ga.) Centennial High who makes it look easy on the court with his smooth gliding style. His trademark on offense is the ability to pull up for the mid-range jumper, or go to the basket and finger-tip roll his way in for a layup.

Brown can play both backcourt spots, but will likely team with one of the three returning point guards to give the Wolfpack a dual point guard attack, which is something Lowe has been hoping for once he got the proper personnel.

The 6-4, 175-pound Brown, who Rivals.com ranked as the No. 43 overall player and No. 7 point guard, will also be a factor on the defensive end. He has a knack for playing the passing lanes and blocking shots from other guards.

Joining Brown from the Atlanta area is power forward Richard Howell, a 6-8, 230-pounder from Marietta Wheeler, where he helped lead the Wildcats to the AAAAA state title.

Howell, who is ranked No. 51 nationally by Rivals.com and No. 15 at power forward, has the ability to play inside and outside, and has shown a deft passing ability. Howell's ability to drive to the basket helped him draw fouls in bunches on the high school level, and he has shooting range out to the three-point line. He is also a solid rebounder and smart positional defender.

Wood rounds out the recruiting class and is one of the best jump shooters in the Class of 2009. The Marion (Ind.) High standout was the first of the three players to give his verbal commitment when he first broke it to The Wolfpacker on Feb. 8, 2008. An unknown on the national scene at the time, Wood went on to have an impressive spring and summer on the traveling team circuit and worked his way up to No. 126 overall by Rivals.com and the No. 29 shooting guard.

The 6-6, 170-pound Wood showcases deep range on his jump shot, an improved off the dribble game and earned valuable experience at point guard his senior year for the Giants, which will pay off with his decision making with NC State.

All three newcomers will be fighting for minutes in what should be a competitive roster.

The 6-9, 231 Costner led the team in scoring with 13.3 points per game and was second behind McCauley with 6.0 rebounds. He shot 46.2 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from three-point range; both markedly better numbers from his redshirt sophomore campaign.

Costner played both power forward and small forward, moving to the latter position to make room for Smith in the lineup. Consistency eluded Costner down the stretch, scoring 41 points over the last six games of the season. However, the inside-outside threat recorded four double-doubles, three of which included 11 or more rebounds, and he even had 10 assists against Towson on Dec. 31. He topped 20 points in seven games, including a season-high effort of 25 against North Carolina Central on Feb. 3.

Smith emerged as one a difficult matchup in the paint once he broke into the starting lineup following the Boston College game Jan. 24. He averaged 11.9 points per game over the last 14 games of the season. He averaged 10 points and 4.5 rebounds in 18.2 minutes of action, shooting 54 percent from the field, but 59.3 on free throws.

Smith's back to the basket game helped him draw fouls - 14 games with five free throws or more - and he had the rare statistic of grabbing 75 offensive rebounds compared to 61 defensive. The 6-8, 240-pounder also had a team-high 22 dunks, showing his explosiveness down the stretch.

Horner rounds out the trio of returning post players. The 6-9, 218-pounder averaged 6.4 points and 2.8 rebounds, but brought an outside dimension that helped him log time at both small forward and power forward. He shot 45 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from three-point range, including three games where he went 3 for 5 from beyond the arc.

Horner scored in double figures in six of the last eight games, including a season-high 13 in the loss at North Carolina.

All three point guards return for NC State - Gonzalez, Mays and Degand - with Gonzalez the returning starter going into the offseason.

The 5-11, 172-pound Gonzalez went through an up-and-down campaign due to injuries and also falling out of the rotation. He worked his way back into the starting lineup, and started the last 10 games. He averaged 10.4 points, 3.7 assists and 3.3 turnovers per game over the last 10 games, shooting 19 of 41 (46.3 percent) from three-point range during that span.

Gonzalez averaged 6.6 points, 2.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game overall for the season, starting 16 of the 22 games he played in. He scored 19 points and went 5 of 8 from three-point range at Miami on March 7, and he went 7 of 8 from the field and hit all four three-pointers for 18 points at North Carolina on Feb. 18.

The 6-3, 185-pound Degand earned 11 starts out of 24 games and struggled off and on with his surgically repaired knee. He played his best with a 14-point effort with four assists and three steals in the upset win over Wake Forest on Feb. 11. The game against the Demon Deacons was one of five double digit games in points for Degand this season.

Mays earned three starts in 22 games, but fell out of the rotation down the stretch, playing one minute during an eight-game stretch. He got a second chance in the ACC Tournament with Degand sitting the game out for disciplinary reasons, and Mays took advantage of it against Maryland on 74-69.

Mays lit up the Maryland zone defense for 18 points in 24 minutes, going 7 of 15 from the field and 3 of 9 from three-point range in the March 12 contest.

The 6-2, 188-pound Mays also hit the game-winning overtime three-pointer to top Miami 84-81 on Jan. 27, and had 13 points in the loss to Florida State on Jan. 13 for his first of two double-digit games.

Williams will also be challenging for a starting spot with Fells' departure. The 6-5, 203-pound shooting guard started eight games out of 25 contests, and played well at times down the stretch.

Williams scored a season-high 16 points on 6 of 8 shooting, including 4 of 6 from three-point range in a 86-65 win at Georgia Tech on Feb. 14. It capped a four-game stretch where he went 9 of 15 from beyond the arc and averaged 10.8 points per game. He also ended the season well with eight points and two three-pointers in 21 minutes against Maryland's zone defense.

Williams averaged 3.7 points and 1.2 rebounds per game overall, shooting 42.9 percent from the field, 36.4 percent on three-pointers and 58.8 on free throws.

Like Mays, both Ferguson and Thomas also fell out of the rotation down the stretch, but both could be factors next year.

The 6-5, 190-pound Ferguson started eight games, and before hurting his finger against Marquette on Dec. 22, he shot 16 of 36 from three-point range for 44.4 percent. After coming back from the injury, he shot 6 of 24 from beyond the arc. He scored a season-high 14 points against Lipscomb on Dec. 20, and cracked double digits in four games.

The high-flying 6-5, 203-pound Thomas played in 14 of 30 games, with his best effort when he scored nine on 4 of 6 shooting in 17 minutes against North Carolina Central on Feb. 3.




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