Triangle basketball a three-horse race yet again this season

With hype building around Duke, UNC and NC State, this year has the makings of a special season for Triangle basketball fans.

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
North Carolina State Wolfpack forward Abdul-Malik Abu (0) and North Carolina State Wolfpack guard Terry Henderson (3) shake hands before the annual Red and White scrimmage during Primetime with the Pack in the newly renovated Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh

CHARLOTTE — Last year, NC State basketball dealt with its lowest point during the Mark Gottfried era. The Wolfpack finished below .500 on the year and a staggering 5-13 against ACC competition. It also went 0-5 against Duke and UNC, a number no NC State fan wants to see on the final tally.This year, however, brings a new sense of hope. While the Pack has been overlooked by most preseason polls — not even receiving a single vote in the Coaches’ Poll — it has a sense of bravado that comes along with having Dennis Smith in red and white.For a player like Abdul-Malik Abu, who went through the scouting process last year, returning for this season was a no-brainer. The lack of attention has been treated as a positive by the junior power forward.”I feel like it’s a good thing,” Abu said. “We’re not one of those teams where we need reassurance from anybody. If people don’t believe in us, that’s better. I don’t think anybody wants to wake up in the morning and play NC State basketball.”The Pack has put together special seasons under Gottfried, including two runs to the Sweet 16. However, it hasn’t quite matched the success of Duke and North Carolina, who have played in or won four of the last eight national championships.Still, having NC State competitive again is a huge asset to the ACC. Tobacco Road lacked some competition last year as both Wake Forest and NC State floundered to go 7-29 in the conference. With Abu and Maverick Rowan returning along with the addition of Smith, Terry Henderson and Torin Dorn (and possibly Omer Yurtseven?), the Pack is stacked with talent and a little depth.While the Carolina-Duke rivalry is the one often glorified by the national media, Abu believes having NC State in the mix only helps the in-state product.”It makes the Triangle that much more special,” Abu said. “I know my first year we beat Carolina and Duke. I don’t think many people expected us to even do that. I feel like NC State is a place where they sleep on us. But that’s an area where we thrive in.”Then again, Duke also presents a problem with freshmen like Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden. Having that talent in the Triangle puts pressure on every team when it comes to the Triangle rivalries.”I feel like with Duke and NC State, more of the hype coming from the freshmen coming in,” Berry said. “With us, it’s the same thing having Seventh [Woods], Brandon [Robinson] and Tony [Bradley], they’re expecting a lot from those guys. But the reason why people are getting excited for us is because of the run we made last year and the experience we’re bringing back.”Does Berry prefer the situation his team is currently in over NC State or Duke?”Yeah, I think so,” he said. “We’re looking at now, but I like to look down the road. With the experience we have and the freshman that we have coming in, there are already good players. … If we get to a point where it’s a tough game, with the experience, we know what we have to do in that time.”We already have that because we’ve been through it.”Duke may have young talent, but it certainly doesn’t lack experience. Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones are among the few left that won a national title two years ago. All three happen to play integral roles on this year’s team, whether it’s as a starter or added depth.Some of the hype building around Duke may come from the freshmen, but Jones’ experience with the ups and downs in Durham have helped him lead the way for the young class.”Just knowing how hard it is and how you have to come in each and every day and try to get better,” Jones said. “I can obviously draw on that situation, but at the same time I can draw on my freshman year when we lost in the first round. I can say, ‘Hey, that can happen as well.’ Drawing in on that as well keeps the guys humble.”A year after stumbling to its worst record in the Gottfried era, State has the talent to compete again. As for Duke and Carolina, it’s just another year with a top-10 program heading into the season. That has Berry excited for ACC play to start.”I think it makes the rivalry a little better,” Berry said. “And I think it just makes ACC basketball in general better. Whether it’s the Carolina-Duke game, to us it’s Carolina-NC State. I don’t know how Duke feels about it, but just to have that so close to each other is great for us.”