CHARLOTTE — For the first time in nearly four decades, North Carolina State enters the season as the Atlantic Coast Conference favorite.
The Wolfpack, with four starters back from a team that reached the NCAA round of 16, earned 26 of 53 first-place votes Wednesday from media members at the league’s annual “Operation Basketball” media day.
It is the first time N.C. State has been picked as the preseason favorite since the 1974-75 season, while it marked only the second time in 16 seasons that neither Duke nor North Carolina were picked to win the league race.
Duke was picked second and UNC third. Clemson was picked to finish eighth.
In addition, N.C. State junior C.J. Leslie was player of the year, teammate Lorenzo Brown was an All-ACC pick and guard Rodney Purvis was voted rookie of the year.
“It’s new territory for our team,” second-year coach Mark Gottfried said. “This is unchartered waters. And we have to learn how to accept that responsibility. It’s something I think our guys are in the process of doing right now. And when you start playing games, you have to understand that you’re viewed differently than maybe you were a year ago, so we’ve got to be ready for that.”
N.C. State hadn’t been picked first since the year after David Thompson helped the Wolfpack stop UCLA’s run seven straight national titles on the way to program’s first NCAA championship in 1974. The Wolfpack hasn’t won the ACC tournament since 1987 and last won a regular-season crown in 1989.
Wednesday’s vote came two days after the league coaches also picked N.C. State as the preseason favorite in their first-ever vote on an ACC finish or preseason awards.
“I feel like we have the right group of guys to go out there and handle it right,” senior Richard Howell said. “We practice hard every day. We don’t take any drills off. That’s something coach Gottfried preaches. So if we keep doing that, that’ll put us in the perfect position to do what we want to do at the end of the year.”
N.C. State had been picked to finish eighth or lower in four of the past six seasons, including twice being picked to finish last. But things have changed since Gottfried’s arrival, with the Wolfpack returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006 and reaching a regional semifinal before losing a tight game to eventual finalist Kansas.
N.C. State (24-12) finished with its best win total since 1988. Now Gottfried has an experienced core to go with one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.
Before Wednesday, Duke or North Carolina had been picked to finish first in the preseason every year since 2004-05, when the Chris Paul-led Wake Forest squad was tabbed the favorite.
Florida State’s Michael Snaer, North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo and Duke’s Mason Plumlee joined Leslie and Brown on the preseason All-ACC team.
Duke was second with 21 first-place votes and has four starters back from a team that finished second in the league before falling to 15th-seeded Lehigh in its NCAA opener.
North Carolina was third after losing NBA first-round draft picks Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller. The Tar Heels have won the ACC regular-season title and reached an NCAA regional final the past two years.
Reigning tournament champion Florida State was fourth and got the other six first-place votes.
FSU guard Michael Snaer, who joined Leslie and Brown on the preseason all-ACC team, said he wasn’t worried about the focus on N.C. State, Duke and North Carolina instead of paying attention the the Seminoles following their first ACC tournament title — a run that included wins against the Blue Devils and Tar Heels.
“I don’t think we sent that message obviously because people aren’t thinking that we’re going to be as good as we’re going to be,” Snaer said. “Yeah, teams can have all the talent. I mean, when has that affected us? We play teams with talent all the time but our defense is still the same.”
Miami was picked fifth, followed by Maryland, Virginia, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Boston College.
North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo and Duke’s Mason Plumlee joined Leslie, Brown and Snaer on the preseason all-ACC team.