Despite what announcers think, N.C. State made the right move firing Mark Gottfried

My college team is North Carolina State and if you know anything about college hoops, you know it’s been a tough year for Wolfpack basketball. In short, never has someone done so little with so much. And as you might expect when reality doesn’t match expectations, State made the decision to fire its basketball coach.

In somewhat of a surprise, Coach Mark Gottfried requested that he be allowed to coach the remainder of the season. Since the season had long gone down the tubes, and no one on the staff was a realistic replacement, it was an easy request to grant. Gottfried looks somewhat heroic and if he can coax the team to a few wins, maybe it helps him land his next job.

What’s certainly come out of this is the opportunity for the announcers that cover the State games to go on and on about what a fine man that Gottfried is, with the implication being that the powers that be at State were too quick to get rid of a guy who led the program to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and two spots in the Sweet 16.

Those are absolutely part of Gottfried’s record at State. So are a record number of transfers, two straight losing seasons and the fewest home wins in conference play in school history. Somehow the announcers fail to tell that part of the story.

Before joining the Wolfpack, Gottfried was an analyst at ESPN. Undoubtedly, it’s hard for broadcasters to criticize one of their own. That would be okay if they just reported on his firing and his desire to continue coaching. But when they go into editorializing and saying that somehow he got a raw deal, well then it’s a problem.

Saturday, the announcers went on and on how Gottfried was coaching hard. He allowed himself to be mic’d up for the game – the snippets they replayed for the audience were nothing more than rah-rah stuff – and he stood for most of the contest and gesticulated wildly. His team also lost by 15 points at home on Senior Day against a team that had lost four straight, twice failing to crack 50 points. They scored 70 against Gottfried’s club.

Gottfried has always been an offensive coach, one who once famously said, “Hey, they’ve got to guard us, too, pal.” He made those Sweet 16s by utilizing the UCLA high post offense and featuring multiple guys who could score from various places on the court.

But this year’s team (last year’s, too) had no resemblance to that offense. Instead, there was a lot of standing around, with a bunch of passes around the perimeter and then either a contested 3-point shot or a reckless drive to the basket with the hopes of getting bailed out by the officials. The high post offense turned into the clogged toilet offense.

And with seemingly no emphasis on defense, the result has been one blowout after another. In State’s last 17 games, they’re 4-13 with eight of those losses coming by double digits and five of those by 20 or more points.

They’ve been primarily a man-to-man team under Gottfried and this year any ball screen by any team anywhere on the court results in a wide-open jump shot. They tried to play more zone this year and the results were predictably horrible. The zone didn’t eliminate the open shots but on the rare occasions the other team missed, it led to way too many offensive rebounding chances.

Gottfried has been an excellent recruiter at State and this year landed point guard Dennis Smith. It was understood that Smith was a one-and-done guy, an elite talent projected to be a lottery pick before he played a single game in college. Smith put up two triple-doubles earlier in the year, a testament to his broad range of skills. Lately all he does is play one-on-one because he has no confidence in any of his teammates. Saturday he was torched on defense by a freshman reserve with a man bun. We’ll be charitable and say Smith hasn’t progressed at all since suiting up at State.

Another high-profile recruit was 7-footer Omer Yurtseven, another assumed one-and-done and lottery pick. Yurtseven was suspended the first handful of games because of irregularities with his former club in Turkey. He looked lost from Day One and the idea of him playing in the NBA is laughable. In Saturday’s game he never left the bench. Yurtseven should have been the focal point of the high-post offense. Instead he’s completely broken and it’s hard to imagine a more complete coaching failure.

A step below those two guys but still a highly-regarded freshman was Ted Kapita, a big man with a motor. Kapita was instrumental in State’s upset win over Duke, as he logged 14 points and 10 rebounds. Two games later he played all of six minutes in an overtime loss. Kapita played 20 minutes, scored eight and grabbed six boards in State’s win over Georgia Tech. Their next outing he played just two minutes in the 15-point loss to Virginia.

Gottfried had a team this year that was legitimately 10 guys deep, with quality players at every position. But he insisted on playing guys 35 minutes or more a night. This team should have been like Louisville, aggressively playing defense all 94 feet, substituting regularly to keep guys fresh. Instead they played a brand of defense equivalent to what you see at the NBA All-Star game and guys never knew from game to game what to expect minutes-wise.

So, we have non-existent defense, an unimaginative offense, screwed-up substitution patterns and not one player appreciably better at the end of the year than he was at the beginning. And the talking heads want us to believe that the Administration is giving Gottfried the short end of the stick? Hey pal, you’ve got to give us something, too.

Hopefully director of athletics Debbie Yow will hit a home run with her new coaching hire. She’s done an outstanding job bringing in quality people in the non-revenue sports but her hires in both the basketball and football programs have drawn criticism. The last couple of coaching searches for basketball have been far from smooth and the national media are bending over backwards to predict that few will want to take the job.

State has retained Parker Executive Search in Atlanta to assist in the process of hiring a new basketball coach. A third-party can contact coaches to gauge interest and also do background checks and save State’s Administration a lot of time in narrowing down the list of suitable replacements while also (hopefully) eliminating any surprises.

There should be no illusions that the State job is an easy one. But it’s also an extremely high-profile job with top-notch facilities that should draw interest from anyone with a desire to prove himself the best. In a way, it’s similar to Theo Epstein in Chicago. Win here and you become an instant legend.

The new coach will have to stem the tide of transfers out of the program. It’s the new reality in college basketball and while it may not be realistic to expect zero transfers with a coach leaving, hopefully the damage here will be minimal. Center BeeJay Anya, the school’s all-time leader in blocks, and a guy who publicly cursed out Gottfried this year, will have used up his eligibility. Terry Henderson is applying for another redshirt season, but he’s likely gone, too.

Smith is off to the NBA. Malik Abu put his name in the NBA Draft last year but came back for his junior year. It will be a surprise if he’s back. The new coach will have to convince Yurtseven to stick around as well as point guard Markell Johnson, who should take over for Smith. Those two and Kapita would be a nice foundation for the new coach, should he be able to keep all three.

The other player who may move on is Shaun Kirk, a little-used reserve who should have been seeing 15 minutes per game this year. Kirk is long and lean, hustles all over the floor and can jump out of the gym. This year, in what little we saw of him, he developed a nice baseline jumper. He had an offer from Kentucky but chose to stay in state and play with the Woflpack. Assuming the new coach doesn’t insist on playing four guards, like Gottfried has done the second half of the year, there should be playing time available. Hopefully Kirk has enjoyed his non-basketball time at State and will stick around.

Maverick Rowan can fill it up from the outside but has been hurt tremendously by the clogged toilet offense. It was also a giant mistake by Gottfried to play both Henderson and Rowan at the same time, two guys with identical skill sets. If they’re not hitting jumpers, they’re simply not helping you at all. Rowan was also miscast as a power forward. A new coach could come in and get great use out of Rowan with better utilization.

The other key returnee is Torin Dorn, who transferred to State from UNC-Charlotte. He’s not a star but he plays hard and can score if needed. His best fit is probably to act as a defensive stopper on a wing player. If coached to focus his energy on the defensive end, he could be a nice asset.

If everything breaks right, the coach would have six guys who saw court action this year. Plus Lennard Freeman would be back for his senior year after taking a medical redshirt. Freeman is a decent rotation big man, perfectly fine if he only has to play 15 minutes a night. Also, the Pack has signed combo guard Thomas Allen, who has already confirmed his commitment after the news about Gottfried being fired broke.

It’s not quite the talent that Gottfried had this season but clearly the cupboard isn’t bare. And if Herb Sendek could recruit when he was in Raleigh, whoever the new coach is should be able to bring in quality newcomers, too.

2 comments for “Despite what announcers think, N.C. State made the right move firing Mark Gottfried

  1. TexasGusCC
    February 27, 2017 at 12:37 am

    Wow Brian, just wow! I’m beginning to realize that you love to write. I don’t know what you do for a living, but Sports Illustrated could use you. I used to coach basketball and this write-up was better than any of your baseball work that I’ve read, and I know you know football.

    As for the content, I recall the glory days of Jim Valvano and how State has always been one of the more successful schools in the basketball hotbed of North Carolina, with Duke and North Carolina leading the way. I don’t follow as closely as I used to, but there’s much to be said about using your entire team during the season and pairing the rotations down for the playoffs. However, if the next coach is announced quickly and he’s pretty good, say smaller but successful program somewhere, most of these guys will stay. First, for 98% of these players, making the NBA isn’t a given and so to transfer and start from scratch isn’t good. Second, with change there’s always hope; be it blind or not, there’s hope. So, the kids will stay and support the school they’ve embraced and their friends who are telling them not to leave. Third, it should be an easy sell for the new coach to tell them that next year will be different and he will give fair competition for playing time. Every player just wants a chance.

    NC State will be back and these hypocrite announcers will just be gushing about how the new coach turned it all around. Like every announcer, they all want to romanticize the story and sound like they’re Vin Scully. Then tell themselves what great guys they are. What it really is, is pity. But, you can’t blame Gottfried for wanting to market himself a bit so the circus plays on.

  2. February 27, 2017 at 6:11 am

    Thanks Gus! When you only write one article a year, it’s a little easier.

    We had such high hopes this year, ones which didn’t come close to fruition. Hey, that happens. But then when the school makes the right choice and then gets blasted for it, well, it’s a little tough to take.

    There are two, maybe three games left in the Gottfried era. Hopefully Pack alum Archie Miller comes over from Dayton to take the job.

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