By Dave Glenn and Staff,
ACC Area Sports Journal
February 16, 2004 Three years ago, Herb Sendek's job at N.C. State was hanging by a thread. Over the last two seasons, despite the team's back-to-back appearances in the ACC championship game and the NCAA Tournament, Wolfpack Nation remained bitterly divided over the coach's future in Raleigh. Nevertheless, expectations entering 2003-04 soared, with most observers ranking the Pack among the top four teams in the conference. With one month remaining in the regular season, N.C. State make that red-hot, second-place, NCAA-bound, media-darling N.C. State remains on track to meet and surpass even the most optimistic preseason projections. Marcus Melvin and Scooter Sherrill are playing like seniors. Julius Hodge is a leading candidate for ACC player of the year. Ilian Evtimov and Engin Atsur are doing a little bit of everything. And a certain embattled coach is leading the way. RALEIGH In the moments after N.C. State cruised to victory at Virginia on Feb. 7, a reporter asked Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek what it meant that the website calling for his firing (FireSendek.com) had ceased to exist coincidentally with a huge win against Wake Forest the previous week. Sendek fixed the man with a stare that belied neither amusement nor anger, nothing unusual considering his emotional swings always have been measurable only in microscopic units. After several seconds, the coach answered the question. I don't know what it indicates,Sendek said. It could be back up tonight. Same Coach, Different Results In his eighth year at N.C. State, Sendek knows that no matter how much success he has, he may never be fully appreciated by a nostalgic fan base that longs for the glory days such as they were of colorful coaches such as Jim Valvano and Norm Sloan. This is not to say Sendek seems to be affected in any way by the slights. He exudes milquetoast in victory and defeat. He plods along with the same catch phrases and platitudes, promising to honor the process and keep chopping wood to prepare for the next game, which by the way represents just 1/16th of the ACC schedule. Three days later, the Wolfpack spanked Florida State for its fourth consecutive ACC victory in a 10-day span. It remained undefeated at the RBC Center, strengthened its hold on second place in the ACC and set up its dramatic 78-74 win over No. 1 Duke. Swingman Julius Hodge, N.C. State's leader in scoring and emotion, painted a more hard-edged picture of Sendek, whom he characterized as more determinedthis season than in any other. You can tell in his body language, facial expressions,Hodge said. The guy wants to win more than anything. He's been doing a great job coaching us, and we've been getting it done on the court. Fans are the type of people for whom the halcyon days get better as the memories grow blurrier, and N.C. State fans are among the greatest amnesiacs of them all. Sendek has brought the Wolfpack basketball program to heights that somewhere else might have called for the commission of a statue, but his accomplishments have been terribly undervalued by impatient and unrealistic supporters. The Wolfpack is on its way to a third consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, something that has not happened in 15 years. The highly esteemed Valvano was the coach then, but even he never had three consecutive ACC records of at least two games better than .500. And Sendek has done all this without recruiting marginal characters or bringing NCAA infractions upon the university. Yet in the midst of all this, the aforementioned website sprung up in December and became a rallying point for the coach's critics. At the time, N.C. State was coming off another disappointing loss at South Carolina, and Sendek's ability to win on the road again was being questioned. Road Wins Lift Spirit, Respect The Wolfpack's subsequent journey to near the top of the conference standings can be traced to a Sunday afternoon game at Florida State. Although in recent years N.C. State has owned the Seminoles in Tallahassee, this was just the kind of occasion to which Sendek's squads would fail to rise. Coming off three straight wins against Virginia, UNC Wilmington and Brigham Young, the Wolfpack continued its momentum with a 58-53 victory. Florida State would go on to win its next three home games, against North Carolina, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. I think winning on the road really turned everything around for us,senior forward Marcus Melvin said. N.C. State finished the first half of the ACC season in second place, one of only two teams with multiple road wins. The climax was an 18-point comeback victory against Wake Forest, after which the fans at the RBC Center swarmed the court. Slowly, respect for the Wolfpack began to come back into vogue. It was characterized as the surprise team of the ACC, and the Associated Press poll ranked N.C. State in the Top 25 for the first time since late November. Praise for Sendek reached a crescendo when Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski defended his colleague in the days before the Blue Devils'visit to Raleigh, comparing Sendek's situation to his own in his first few seasons in Durham. It reminds me of when I was younger, and we had the Concerned Iron Dukes,'Krzyzewski said. What the hell were they concerned about? Well, they were concerned about me, because they didn't think I could do the job. Well, obviously they were wrong, and you never hear from them now. They are ashamed of their actions, and the same people who did that with Herb should be ashamed of their actions. Given the chance to agree with Krzyzewski, that he has been treated unfairly, Sendek sidestepped in typical fashion. I appreciate what he said,Sendek said. Thank you. Talent, Experience Mixing Well The Wolfpack's success should not be a surprise to anybody. Even though N.C. State lost center Josh Powell, its only real inside presence, to an ill-advised early move to the pros, it still came in with enough necessary ingredients to win games in the ACC. Indeed, in the preseason, the media picked the Pack to finish fourth in the conference. Start with Hodge, one of the favorites to be named the conference player of the year. More than the second-leading scorer in the league, Hodge has begun to realize the importance of involving his teammates more. Known for his emotional outbursts, he has kept such episodes this season within the boundaries of what helps the Wolfpack. Hodge, in my opinion, is the best player in the league,Virginia coach Pete Gillen said. He really makes the people around him better. As a junior, Hodge is still not perfect. There are times when he still tries to put too much on his slender shoulders. It happened at Duke in the first meeting, and N.C. State got blown out. It happened again when Georgia Tech came to Raleigh, but the Wolfpack responded with a victory thanks to its experience factor. N.C. State starts two seniors, Melvin and wing guard Scooter Sherrill. It might not seem like much, but these days two four-year players can give a team the kind of institutional knowledge necessary to survive a tough conference schedule. At 6-8, with ball-handling skills and a deft outside shooting touch, Melvin is one of the most versatile players in the ACC, but the criticism most often levied him is his aversion to rebounding and defending in the post. Melvin has quieted such talk by ranking fifth in the ACC in rebounding this season and showing the toughness that had eluded him for three years in college. When I first came here, I was able to lead, but I kind of had to respect the other guys,Melvin said. That's what I did, but now that it's my turn, I want to be the kind of guy that leads a little vocally. I think Scooter and I do a good job of playing hard and leading by example. Sherrill was dogged by rumors that he wanted to transfer for his first two years. A McDonald's All-American coming out of high school, he played little because of defensive deficiencies and was considered more of an offensive spark off the bench. Ironically, Sherrill has made his name this season as a defensive stopper. He put the clamps in consecutive games on Wake Forest's Justin Gray and Florida State's Tim Pickett, two of the most explosive backcourt scorers in the conference.
Notwithstanding his controversial comments about Duke guard J.J. Redick's sexual orientation prior to the game against the Blue Devils, Sherrill also has been a valuable asset in the locker room. He models himself after former Wolfpack guard Archie Miller, now an assistant coach at Western Kentucky. (Miller) is a great example of a leader in everything he did,Sherrill said. I try to imitate him. He's still giving me tips on what to do. Sherrill has become the Wolfpack's best at the backdoor cut, a staple of the Princeton-style offense Sendek and assistant coach Larry Hunter installed two seasons ago. N.C. State's deliberate offense, which relies on sharp cuts and screens, is an overlooked aspect of its triumphs. Because the Wolfpack has so many good outside shooters, it is able to create mismatches on a regular basis. At Maryland on Feb. 1, N.C. State put on a virtual clinic of backdoor basketball in its first win at College Park since 1989. North Carolina was almost helpless to stop the Wolfpack at the Smith Center until coach Roy Williams made some halftime adjustments. You know that's going to happen, and you have to be patient enough to be willing to play that defense for 35 seconds,Williams said. If you lose your patience and all of a sudden get antsy, do something you shouldn't do, then you get beat. They are very well-coached; they're very talented,Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. They have totally sold out to the offensive system. They're really playing in rhythm and in sync. They execute as well as any team in America. Successful In Every Language Things are only looking better as the Wolfpack's two foreign players, Ilian Evtimov and Engin Atsur, continue to improve. A redshirt sophomore from Bulgaria, Evtimov bounced back slowly from the knee surgery that forced him to miss last season. He is perhaps N.C. State's best passer, especially when he sets up in the high post. His effectiveness is limited less every day by the knee, and he would be yet another significant outside threat if he manages to break out of a prolonged shooting slump. Evtimov, who grew up in France and speaks four (Bulgarian, French, Spanish, English) languages, comes from a hoops family. His father, Ilia, and older brother Vasco, a former player at North Carolina, both play professionally in Europe. Sendek has called Ilian Evtimov the smartest young basketball player he's ever been around, and the coach is getting closer and closer to being able to call his versatile forward something else: healthy. Just watching it on film, I think (Evtimov) is moving with greater mobility,Sendek said. He seems to have a shade more quickness than he had at earlier points in the season. Atsur, a freshman from Turkey, has cemented his place in the starting lineup after sitting out the first three games because of the NCAA rules on amateurism that have affected so many international players. A reliable shooter and ball-handler, Atsur has yet to do anything spectacular, but he too has an advanced understanding of the game and bears the mark of a solid four-year ACC player. After returning to the team following academic problems, center Jordan Collins has worked his way into the starting lineup. He is no Powell, but Collins takes up enough space to give the Wolfpack a feeling of some comfort in the lane. At the forefront remains Sendek, who has been doubted at one time or another, it seems, by everybody but himself. That includes his own players. Damien Wilkins was invited to transfer before last season, after he and his father Gerald Wilkins questioned Sendek's tactics. Hodge blew up at his coach after some questionable offensive play-calling near the end of last year's first-round NCAA Tournament loss to California. Almost a year later, Hodge is a believer again, or perhaps he never stopped. Either way, he just doesn't want the Wolfpack's little secret to get out. We don't want to say we want to prove our doubters wrong, but Coach has been walking around with a chip on his shoulder,Hodge said. I hope you guys don't spread the word. I don't want any of that. I just want us to slip into the Elite Eight, and then everyone will say what a great team we are. Hodge will not get his wish, because so many of the doubters already have been converted. Some may never believe Sendek is the right man for N.C. State, but their voices are growing quieter and more inconsequential by the day.