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After Ugly Debacles, Some Tough Choices

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  January 3, 2005 RALEIGH — This was supposed to be relatively easy. It looked as if all coach Herb Sendek needed to do in November and December was work Tony Bethel into Scooter Sherrill's old spot, develop freshman big men Andrew Brackman and Cedric Simmons, and leave the rest to star senior Julius Hodge and a group of experienced veterans. But it hasn't been that simple. In fact, Sendek probably had more questions going into the start of ACC play than he had at the start of the season. The recent four-game road trip, starting with a narrow defeat at Washington and ending with an embarrassing blowout loss to St. John's at Madison Square Garden, was a step or three backward in the team's development. An 82-69 home loss to West Virginia on Jan. 2 didn't help, either. At the start of the season, it was a given that this team would play smart and together. That's no longer the case. At the start of the season, it was a given that certain veterans would step up and be solid, maybe really good. That's no longer a given, either. And while it is probably true that the three-pointers will start falling eventually, they haven't yet. Throw in problems that were anticipated, such as rebounding, and Sendek has his work cut out for him if he's going to have his team ready for a vital stretch in mid-January. That's when State plays Duke, Georgia Tech and Maryland at home and Virginia Tech on the road in a 10-day period. Sendek has several dilemmas. He figured that most of his personnel decisions would work themselves out over the first two months of the season, and that he would be zeroing in on a set rotation by the start of the ACC slate. It's vital in his system to have specific players in defined roles, but that hasn't happened. Go right down
the line, and everybody has been inconsistent. Senior center Jordan Collins had some big games early against some stiffs, but he's done nothing lately. Bethel battled a cold at the Holiday Festival, but he's been up and down all season, usually down in the bigger games. Senior forward Levi Watkins is off to a terrible start. Junior forward Ilian Evtimov clearly hasn't recovered from two offseason knee surgeries yet. Sophomore guard Engin Atsur has been largely silent. Brackman played like gangbusters for a four-game stretch, then disappeared again in New York. Simmons is about to the point of being written off as a project, still too raw to help against ACC opponents. Even Hodge has some personal demons to overcome, particularly at the foul line. If anyone gets kudos at this point of the season, it's junior swingman Cameron Bennerman, who is establishing himself as a nice sixth man. The last thing Sendek wants to do is go into each game not knowing whom he can count on and whom he can't. He can't waste the first half each night trying to figure out whom he needs to play the second half. That means he may have to make some corporate decisions soon on whom to commit to, and whom to risk losing. Again, the dilemma. Collins and Watkins have started all season, and if lineup changes or drastic cuts in minutes are in order, they're the ones (especially Watkins) who likely would take the hit. But how would Collins and/or Watkins react to demotions, and can Sendek afford to lose one or two seniors at this point of the season? Chemistry, morale and leadership issues are important considerations, especially when things are going bad. Anybody familiar with Evtimov's career knows that he's a really, really nice player who fits perfectly into Sendek's system — when he's healthy and playing well. But Evtimov is a shell of the guy who was so dominant late last season. Does Sendek have to make the corporate decision to let Evtimov play his way back into form, even at the possible expense of a game or two now? Similarly, should Sendek commit more minutes to Brackman to speed up his development, regardless of how he's playing on a given night, or does he continue to play musical big men? Key: Aberration Or Dysfunction? The biggest dilemma may involve Hodge. In recent weeks, and especially after the St. John's loss, he has talked about the need to be more selfish offensively. Some of that's coming from frustration, and there's a natural desire to want to take his game to a new level as a senior. There's no doubt that he needs to be this team's leading scorer. But unless Sendek completely abandons a system and philosophy he believes in, which is extraordinarily unlikely, putting matters completely in Hodge's hands is not the answer. Establishing roles and fitting into them is an absolute must for this system, and selfishness is usually counterproductive. Plus, Hodge is best when he's playing an unselfish, all-around game, not when he's auditioning for the NBA and proving he can score. Where this team winds up going is anybody's guess at this point. Maybe the St. John's game was an aberration that will serve as a wake-up call. Or maybe it showed just how dysfunctional this team is. Maybe it'll just take a little longer for the offense to mesh. Maybe Bethel just needs a little more time to fit in and get his confidence, and Evtimov just needs a little more time to regain his form. Maybe Brackman just needs a little more game experience. Maybe Watkins and Collins will dig deep and step up their games. Maybe the shots will start falling, and the confidence will pick back up, and a good win in a big game will get this team going again. Or maybe not. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing right now is that there seems to be a disconnect of sorts, however you want to define it. State was the best free throw shooting team in the ACC last season, and down the stretch of tight games, almost everyone was automatic at the line. This year, the free throw shooting has been below-average by anyone's standards, terrible for State's. There's no killer instinct when the team gets a lead. It doesn't often look like anyone's having a lot of fun. But the fact is, Sendek's teams annually have bad stretches, and then they get things worked out and play their best during the ACC season. State fans can only hope that's the case again this year.