RALEIGH — Bobby Lutz and Orlando Early know the pressure facing North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried when he calls a play late in a tight game or tries to discern team morale after a tough loss.
The assistants have been there before as head coaches running their own programs.
With their experience on the Wolfpack bench, it's no coincidence the program is having its best season in six years. Lutz spent a dozen years as Charlotte's head coach; Early spent five years as head coach at Louisiana-Monroe.
Gottfried said both have been go-to assets in his first season here, even on something as simple as when to cut practice short to keep players fresh.
"You just see it differently once you've been a head coach," Gottfried said. "There are so many things each day where Bobby or even Orlando might have a suggestion where you say, 'You're right, that's exactly how we have to handle that situation.'"
Heading into Tuesday's game with No. 7 North Carolina, N.C. State (18-9, 7-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) already has its best league win total since 2006. That's also the last time the Wolfpack made the NCAA tournament.
The game against the rival Tar Heels will cap a three-game stretch against teams tied for the ACC lead. N.C. State blew a 20-point lead in the final 11½ minutes at Duke and lost 78-73 in the first, then lost to Florida State 76-62 on Saturday. Still, N.C. State enters the final four regular-season games within reach of an NCAA bid.
Considering the similarity to last season's roster — six players in the seven-man rotation are returnees from a 15-16 team — much of the credit has to go to the Wolfpack's coaching staff.
Hiring a former head coach as an assistant could be risky. He might struggle with returning to the ranks of being an assistant again after getting used to having the final say. Or he could be waiting to bolt for the next head-coaching opportunity.
But Lutz said this group has the right chemistry, including the fact that both Early and fellow assistant Rob Moxley served as assistants under Lutz at Charlotte.
"I think (Gottfried) just put together what he thought was the best staff for this job," Lutz said. "But you have to be confident and comfortable to do that. Some guys wouldn't be because a lot of coaches, they're paranoid: the refs are out to get them, the assistant coaches they don't trust. It's like any business. But Mark makes it easy, he really does."
Lutz was a widely respected coach who led Charlotte to five 20-win seasons from 1998-2010, winning three conference championships and leading his alma mater to five NCAA tournament appearances. The winningest coach in program history, Lutz also led the 49ers to five wins against top-10 opponents.
Early spent four years as an assistant to Gottfried at Alabama before heading to Louisiana-Monroe in 2005. He led a team affected by Hurricane Katrina in his first season, while his best season came in 2006-07 when he led the program to a share of a Sun Belt Conference division title and was named league coach of the year.
Early said his time at Louisiana-Monroe was an eye-opening experience as a first-time head coach. He told a story about how the office secretary tried several times to talk with him during a busy day and he kept putting her off. When they finally connected, she wanted to know what type of pencils he wanted to order — the kind of buck-stops-here moment that stays with him as he works alongside Gottfried.
"I'm like, 'I 'm trying to figure out recruiting, offense, defense — I don't care about the pencils,'" Early said with a chuckle. "But as the head coach, it's your program. And you have to tell her what kind of pencils you want."
While Early and Moxley are often on the recruiting trail, Lutz has taken the lead role in addressing the team on scouting reports.
"I remember coach Lutz when he was at Charlotte and I was coming out of high school, so I knew he knows what he's talking about," said senior C.J. Williams, a Fayetteville native. "His knowledge of the game, because he was a head coach, helps us now that he's an assistant coach. He kind of just teaches and we all accept what he says."
Both Lutz and Early said they'd like another shot at being a head coach again, though they also said they aren't in a hurry to leave behind Gottfried's rebuilding effort.
"Before this season started, no one predicted ... that we'd be where we are right now," Lutz said. "It's been fun, but there's still so much we have to do to get where we want to go this year. And it's not just a one-year deal. That's the bigger thing: it's all about building a program that can consistently be successful."
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary contributed to this report.