Gugliotta's star finally starts to shine Wolfpack forward is possible lottery pick

February 13, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. -- His father died right before his freshman season began. His coach resigned after his sophomore season ended. And as Tom Gugliotta winds down his basketball career at North Carolina State, his wondrous talents have been left virtually unsupported by his mostly inexperienced teammates.

Like Maryland's Walt Williams, Gugliotta is having the season of his life, but not the time of his life. Both players have little to show for their efforts except mounting frustration and losses.

"It has been tough, especially the last few weeks," Gugliotta said here last week, after N.C. State lost at Marquette and before the Wolfpack would lose to East Tennessee State at home. "When you're able to play with North Carolina, then go completely down, you just wonder."

Since upsetting the then-ninth-ranked Tar Heels in Raleigh on Jan. 22, N.C. State (9-12, 3-5) has lost seven straight going into tonight's game at Maryland (9-11, 2-8). And since scoring a career-high 36 points that night on 11 of 17 shooting, including eight of 14 three-pointers, Gugliotta has struggled.

It happens to the best of players, and the 6-10, 240-pound senior forward is among the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He leads the ACC in rebounding (10.1) and three-point shots a game (3.1), is second to Williams in scoring (22.3), is fifth in steals (45) and leads the Wolfpack in assists (70).

"He has elevated his game every year he's been here," said N.C. State coach Les Robinson, who replaced Jim Valvano after Gugliotta's sophomore year. "It's because of his off-season workouts. I don't think I've ever seen a player work harder at

getting better."

Gugliotta plays like a guard in a power forward's body, and for good reason. He was a 6-1 point guard as a high school freshman, and the skills he learned going against older players on Long Island -- including his two brothers, Charlie and Frank, both small-college stars during the '70s -- never left.

But when Gugliotta came to N.C. State as a nondescript 6-7, 205-pounder four years later, he was expected to be a role player at best, and likely a bench-warmer. Many believed that the only reason Valvano recruited him was as a favor to Gugliotta's father, a high school coach and a friend of the former Wolfpack coach's family.

After an unimpressive freshman season, during which Gugliotta was emotionally drained by the death of his father and physically intimidated by other players, he began to show flashes of a promising future.

In the Tournament of Champions at Charlotte, sophomore Gugliotta was named MVP as the Wolfpack upset Ohio State and Pittsburgh to win the title. It provided a badly needed boost.

"I don't think I had the confidence because of what people kept telling me, that I would only be a role player or that I wouldn't make it," said Gugliotta. "I think the Tournament of Champions showed me that I would not just be a role player, but eventually I could be a go-to guy."

Eventually, but not immediately. Last year, Gugliotta played in the shadow of senior guards Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani. But he was comfortable in his role.

"Teams concentrated on them," said Gugliotta, who averaged 15.2 points and 9.2 rebounds as a junior. "I came along at my

own pace."

Gugliotta doesn't have that luxury this season. The Wolfpack lost the team's other starting forward, Bryant Feggins, with a knee injury, before the season.

Though Gugliotta and N.C. State got off to a surprising start, things have deteriorated badly the past three weeks. The low point for both came last week at Marquette, when Gugliotta missed 15 of 20 shots, including all seven of his three-pointers, and the Wolfpack were humiliated by 24. Gugliotta is shooting 39 of 111 during the recent slide.

"I think he's keeping it in perspective," said Robinson. "But when it's over with, he'll look back at how it all worked out for the best."

Gugliotta has already come to that understanding. When his father died, a week before his first practice, Gugliotta said that his friends, teammates and coaches became his extended family. And he is smart enough to know what's in store.

Gugliotta is projected to be a first-round draft choice in June, possibly a lottery pick. A pro scout recently said of him, "He's Tom Chambers without an attitude."

"When you hear people in sports saying, 'He could be a very good NBA player,' it makes you feel good," Gugliotta said. "It makes you feel that all the hard work has paid off."

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