Mark Gottfried gathered his team around the NCAA logo at midcourt after a free-spirited practice on Wednesday at the sparkling Amway Center in downtown Orlando.

N.C. State was all smiles, from the team managers to star T.J. Warren to Gottfried, for the impromptu team photo. The snapshot is a nice keepsake, a digital postcard. If you look close enough at their faces you can see the pride of a season that has already crossed any realistic expectation of success.

The moment was also symbolic of how Gottfried helped a young team find itself and a place in this NCAA tournament.

“He has always tried to get us to see the big picture,” junior guard Ralston Turner said.

That hasn’t been easy for Gottfried, in his third season, but first with an almost completely new group from last year’s 24-win, NCAA tournament team. There have been humbling blowout losses and crippling near-misses but Gottfried has kept his young team focused on the big prize.

The 12th-seeded Wolfpack, fresh off Tuesday’s win over Xavier in Dayton, Ohio, will play fifth-seeded Saint Louis in a round of 64 matchup in the Midwest Regional. Gottfried, who has won 70 games in three seasons, credits the team’s success to the players’ spirit and resilience but the players say there’s a reason they’ve been so buoyant during the learning process.

“He never quit on us,” freshman guard Cat Barber said. “You’re going to lose some games but he never got down on us and we never got down on ourselves.”

Talent, but little experience

This is where Gottfried has always wanted to be, in the NCAA tournament — for the 10th time in 17 seasons as coach — in what he calls “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He wasn’t always sure he could get this N.C. State to this point.

Gottfried, who shouldered most of the blame for last year’s disappointing finish, a round of 64 loss to Temple, knew he had a chance to start over this season, and with a talented group of players, but one he knew they lacked experience.

According to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, N.C. State ranks 330th (out of 351 teams) in player experience. Four of the regulars in the rotation are freshmen, two are sophomores and two more are junior transfers who didn’t play last season — and in the case of Desmond Lee, didn’t have any Division I experience.

Gottfried, who turned 50 in January, has a propensity to pump the brakes on expectations, started the season by comparing this N.C. State team to his second at Alabama in 1999-2000.

That Crimson Tide team finished 13-16 with a 6-10 SEC record. His comparison point was that team was young, and it took its lumps, but two years later it won 27 games and an SEC title.

This N.C. State team, led by ACC player of the year T.J. Warren, has found a way to fast forward through its growing pains.

“I feel good about what has happened because of where we started,” Gottfried said. “You think about how much we lost from last year. I think about some of our early games in November and the uncertainty in how we were going to play.”

N.C. State showed signs early of being a good team, especially during a seven-game winning streak from the middle of November until the end of December, but it has suffered excruciating losses, starting with an overtime home loss to N.C. Central in November and up until the overtime home loss to North Carolina on Feb. 26.

“They haven’t given up and they could have thrown in the towel a number of times,” said Chris Corchiani, a former N.C. State player who remains close to the program and Gottfried.

“Mark has motivated them to the point where they believe they can beat anybody. And they’ve played harder as the year has gone on, which is really difficult to do after some the tough losses that they had.”