December 7, 2005
RALEIGH -- N.C. State came into the season knowing it had a lot of nice players. It also knew that some of those players would have to step into bigger roles than they were accustomed to in the past.
Through six games, that definitely was the case with sophomore center Cedric Simmons, and perhaps a couple of others. But it was not the case with some, including two of the players this team needs desperately to have great years: guards Engin Atsur and Cameron Bennerman. They have put up very average numbers so far.
Atsur has averaged 10.8 points, playing just under 30 minutes a game, and barely has more assists (22) than turnovers (17). And that's counting a 17-point night against Stetson and an 18-point night against The Citadel, in two early season blowouts against inferior competition.
Bennerman has averaged 7.2 points and is shooting 29.4 percent from the field. He found a way to get to the line six times and scored 12 in the win over Notre Dame in Indianapolis, but that's about it for the highlights.
This is not really about statistics, either. The biggest thing to come out of the first six games was that neither really had changed his stripes from the past, and perhaps they can't. At this point, they both appear to be older versions of what they always have been. They don't appear to be guys that coach Herb Sendek can rely on to move into dominant, take-charge roles when the team needs somebody to really step up.
Atsur is a solid player, and he has a nice outside shot. He is capable of getting hot and shooting State back into a game from three-point range. But he has the personality of a complementary player, even now in his third season as a starter. There were hopes that he would become more assertive as one of this team's most experienced veterans, but there hasn't been a significantly noticeable change in that area.
His play in the loss at Iowa illustrated that, especially since it was the one game so far that could be considered a barometer for how State may fare against ACC-caliber competition. Atsur committed two turnovers and picked up two silly fouls in the first 2:02 against the Hawkeyes, earning him a quick trip to the bench and in effect rendering him useless for the rest of the half. He had to play cautiously when he did return.
Then, in the second half, Atsur was in the game for two of State's extended dry spells. The Wolfpack didn't hit a field goal until its 10th possession of the second half, and then it went 12 possessions and almost seven minutes without scoring after it pulled out to a lead and could have seized control of the game.
Everyone was struggling. But those were precisely the types of situations where Atsur should have been one of the guys to fight through the adversity and find a way to rise up and get the team going. Then, on the last play of the game, when State needed a three-pointer to tie and ideally would have liked to go to its best outside shooter, Atsur found himself unable to get a shot. He had the ball, but he wound up passing to Ilian Evtimov, who had to launch a forced try hopelessly at the buzzer.
Bottom line: Atsur finished with four points, five turnovers and no assists on a night that this team's cream was supposed to rise to the top.
Bennerman has a different personality and is a different type of player. He's far more outgoing, more outwardly confident, more willing to step into a take-charge role. He's more athletic, more versatile offensively, more electric when he's playing well. He fits the profile of one of the guys who should be looked to when the team needs a spark to get going. He's a senior, and he has played some of his best basketball in the toughest moments, including in past ACC and NCAA tournaments.
Yet Bennerman has his own unique stripes, too. He was not allowed to suit up for the opener against Stetson for what Sendek termed failing to follow team rules. Even if it was a relatively minor issue, it was a terribly bad way to start the season.
Bennerman has been in and out of favor with Sendek throughout his career. Bennerman vowed that this year he would be a mature senior. And yet by game two he was already admitting he had to regain Sendek's trust and start proving himself all over again.
It's not necessary for Bennerman to step into the role of leading scorer on this team. But it is necessary for him to establish himself as something more than the enigma he's been for the past three years.
BETHEL, GRANT WORKS IN PROGRESS
Why should there be so much concern about Atsur and Bennerman, and their ability to step up, at this point?
Here's why. Granted, everyone needs to step up. Granted, everyone struggled at Iowa, outside of Simmons. But Atsur and Bennerman, because of their experience and talent, and because of the positions they play, are vitally important in the big picture.
It is clear that starting point guard Tony Bethel is going to have ups and downs because of his health for some time. He has been nursing a groin injury that has lingered for nine months now, and he's still a game-day decision sometimes. There's no reason to believe that he's suddenly going to show up feeling 100 percent and have all of his issues totally in the past.
Bethel shows flashes of being fine, and he helps the team in many ways when he's on the court. But under the circumstances, he cannot be counted on as the guy to step up and take his game to a higher level on a consistent basis.
It also is clear that sophomore swingman Gavin Grant will continue to be a work in progress, especially as someone capable of running the show. He did some nice things against the opening-week weak sisters, but he was overwhelmed in the Iowa game. That doesn't mean Sendek should or will change his long-term vision for Grant, but it does remind everyone to expect some inconsistency.
The way things looked in mid-December, Sendek's offense will continue to be perimeter-oriented, even when and if Simmons and/or Evtimov are playing well. Add that up, and Atsur and Bennerman are the ones who naturally emerge as the biggest X-factors.
Numbers alone won't tell the story as the season progresses. Most of all, it'll be about Atsur being assertive and Bennerman being dependable. If not, then Sendek will be down to hoping that Bethel gets completely healthy, or that Grant makes nothing but strides forward, or that Simmons turns into an absolute monster.