January 31, 2005 RALEIGH Tony Bethel is back and producing again. Julius Hodge is regaining his confidence. Engin Atsur has his shooting eye. Herb Sendek is starting to make some significant adjustments. For those who want to keep the faith, there's reason to believe that N.C. State is getting its act together for the regular-season stretch run. Is it going to be enough to salvage an NCAA Tournament bid, something that was taken for granted at one point in the season? The answer at this point is a shaky maybe, because it might require a sweep of Wake Forest or something equally improbable.
The Wolfpack was 13-7 overall and 3-4 in the ACC after shooting the lights out in an 80-70 win at Clemson. But its RPI was over 100, its strength of schedule was in the 70s, and its only win over a top-25 opponent was its home triumph over Georgia Tech, which was struggling without injured guard B.J. Elder at the time.
Do the math, and the numbers don't look good.
State's remaining schedule has two games each with Wake, North Carolina and Virginia, plus home games with Virginia Tech and Maryland, and a trip to Georgia Tech. Give the Pack two wins over Virginia, and home wins over Virginia Tech and Maryland which isn't necessarily a given and that still gets State to only 17 wins. To get to 20, State would have to win those plus three of the five against UNC, Wake and Georgia Tech.
Some are calling State a "bubble" team right now, but it easily could find itself needing at least two (or maybe three) wins in the ACC Tournament. And if it continues to stub its toe now and then, say against Virginia or Maryland, it could find itself having to win the ACC Tournament outright.
That's the price you pay for playing a mediocre non-conference schedule, then losing to the likes of St. John's, Miami and Virginia Tech on the road, and not taking care of business against the likes of Florida State and West Virginia at home.
Any one or two of those losses wouldn't have been enough to do the Pack in, but collectively they may wind up spelling disaster. Of course, Maryland's march to the ACC Tournament title last year is a reminder that anything still can happen.
State seemed to be back on track after a solid win at Maryland, but then it gave that momentum away with a terrible home performance against Florida State. Then it bounced back again by shooting 62.8 percent from the field and 65 percent from three-point land at Clemson. The win over the Tigers didn't help the RPI much, but it created some optimism anyway.
Bethel, the transfer from Georgetown who was supposed to run the show this season, returned to form after a six-week battle with flu and stomach bacteria. He's State's best perimeter defender, takes care of the ball and plays fairly smart, and he's good for an occasional big scoring game. His mere presence is a significant boost to the team, especially after its dismal January, and once energetic forward Cameron Bennerman returns (soon), State finally will be back to full strength.
Of course, Bethel will start going up against the likes of Raymond Felton and Chris Paul the rest of the way, instead of Shawan Robinson, so he's not the cure-all by himself.
Hodge seemed to benefit from Bethel's return, however, and if he snaps out of his funk it could be the best thing that could happen to the Pack. Hodge started pressing during State's tailspin, made matters worse by trying to do too much, then freaked out because of his lack of success and saw his confidence hit rock-bottom. Bethel's return allowed him to go back to the wing, and it could help him to settle down and get back to being himself. The next challenge will be to solve his continuing problems at the foul line.
There were two other significant aspects of the Clemson win.
Sendek used freshman Cedric Simmons in the pivot for 26 minutes, with senior Jordan Collins playing only four minutes. Some of that was a reaction to the flow of the game, but it likely signaled a switch away from the veteran Collins to Simmons for the stretch run.
Simmons is still very raw, and his grasp of the offense remains limited, but he's so much more athletic and active than Collins that the move almost had to be made. State has been getting killed on the boards, and Collins has been a defensive liability in the low post all season. With Atsur getting hot and Bethel returning, Sendek can afford to sacrifice some offense for rebounding, defense and athleticism. And remember, when State turned to Collins for a big shot against FSU, he airballed a tying three-pointer with 11 seconds left.
The other encouraging sign? Sendek reluctantly switched to a matchup zone in the second half against Clemson, and it worked well. The only other time State has played zone for any extended period was in the first half at Miami, when it pulled out to a 10-point lead. Considering some of the defensive deficiencies and bad individual matchups State has at times, sprinkling in some zone from time to time has to help.
Of course, this team has proven that what it did yesterday is little indication of what it will do tomorrow.
There are signs that things are getting better, with the team finally getting back to full strength. But there's also a tremendous urgency to get it done now.
Trestman Brings NFL Background
The hiring of Marc Trestman as offensive coordinator means N.C. State football will have both an NFL influence and the West Coast offense next year.
Trestman has been an NFL assistant for 17 of the past 20 years, most recently with Miami. When former LSU coach Nick Saban recently took over the Dolphins, he did not offer Trestman the opportunity to stay. According to media reports, two members of Miami's staff asked that Trestman (the team's assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach) be fired during the 2004 season, but other coaches supported him and he completed the year with the team.
Trestman's recent pro career included many highs and lows, from his termination by Arizona after the 2000 season to his trip to the Super Bowl with Oakland in 2003. He held the offensive coordinator title with both teams, as well as with San Francisco and Cleveland in previous years. He left the NFL from 1992-94 to pursue a career in private business.
Trestman became a leading candidate in mid-January for the offensive coordinator position at New Orleans, a job likely to pay from $500,000-$800,000 a year. Instead, he signed a multi-year deal with the Wolfpack worth $175,000 annually, stating that lifestyle and family issues played a huge role in his decision.
"(Raleigh is) an unbelievable community to grow and raise a family," said Trestman, who estimated that he moved once every three years during his NFL career. "My wife and family wanted to try to make a change, and this was best for the family."
Trestman developed his West Coast coaching philosophy while with the San Francisco 49ers during the 1990s. It will be interesting to see how he handles Marcus Stone, the former prep All-American who will try to overtake incumbent Jay Davis (a rising senior) at quarterback this spring. Making quick reads and throwing pinpoint short passes both key elements in the West Coast offense have not been strengths for Stone through his first two seasons in Raleigh.
Trestman becomes Amato's fourth offensive coordinator in six years. The last time he coached in the college ranks, at Miami under Howard Schnellenberger in the early 1980s, Trestman worked with Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde. He was the quarterbacks coach on the Hurricanes' national championship team in 1983.