March 21, 2007
RALEIGH N.C. State's incredible postseason run in the ACC Tournament and the NIT lent itself to a natural question: "What if?"
What if senior point guard Engin Atsur had been healthy all season, instead of missing 12 games with a hamstring injury, then playing at less than full speed for most of the time after he returned?
It's easy to pick out a handful of games where a healthy Atsur could have made a difference, probably enough to give State a few more non-conference wins and then most certainly a few more ACC wins.
With its strong finish, a better league record and quality wins that included six over NCAA teams as it was one each over North Carolina, Duke and Virginia, plus three over Virginia Tech it's not a stretch to think that State would have been in the 65-team NCAA field.
But State's players refused to play the what-if game. That was for fans, media and others.
"Obviously, we would have been a better team with Engin all year. That goes without saying," junior swingman Gavin Grant said. "But there's no reason to talk about, What if?' We look at it more like it's sad that Engin didn't get to have the senior year he deserved. He's the best teammate I've had in my three years here, and we just feel bad that he went through so much and we didn't get to play with him all season."
Since the State players couldn't change the past, they chose to look at how what happened can pay benefits in the future.
Everyone except Atsur and former walk-on Bryan Nieman is eligible to return, and expected to return, next season. So the core will be the other four starters Grant, Ben McCauley, Brandon Costner and Courtney Fells with Dennis Horner and perhaps Trevor Ferguson also in the mix.
"You have to look at the positive instead of the negative," McCauley said. "We're not going to have Engin next year, so those 12 games we played without him, we were playing with the guys who will be back next year. There are a lot of things we learned in that period that we can put to use next year. We know it'll be different without Engin, and we know what we're going to have to do to be successful without him."
The encouraging part in that regard is that next season shouldn't require the patchwork that coach Sidney Lowe was forced to do when Atsur was out this year. The Wolfpack has no fewer than six players on the way who should eliminate the depth problems that plagued this year's team, including several who will be in the mix for playing time at the point.
On the way are transfer guards Farnold Degand, 6-3, who will be eligible from the start, and 6-5 Marques Johnson, who will be eligible after the fall semester, plus freshmen J.J. Hickson (6-9 center), Tracy Smith (6-8 power forward), Javi Gonzalez (6-0 point guard) and Johnny Thomas (6-6 forward).
GRANT, PROGRAM MATURING NICELY
There's one other way to look at Atsur's injury and absence. While it forced Fells and Grant to play out of position at times, and while it really shook their confidence when they struggled making the adjustment, it was an invaluable experience for both nonetheless. They should be better players for going through it all, no matter what positions and roles they play next year.
If and when they're forced into ball-handling and playmaking roles in the future, they will be better equipped to handle them. More than that, they unquestionably will appreciate being at their natural positions. And they will be better prepared to assume the leadership role that Atsur had with this team.
Before this season, it would have been hard to envision Grant as a team leader, even as a senior. He could be a take-charge guy on offense, maybe, but not a team leader in the true sense of the word. But Grant clearly made sacrifices this year, and Lowe somehow changed the player's mindset, to a degree.
Grant always will have stretches where he plays out of control, and he'll always have the confidence to want to take over games, but the strides he made in becoming more of a team player this year were amazing. This is a guy who came into the season talking about how many shots he was going to get. Late in the season, he was talking about what a joy it was to play alongside Atsur.
Give Lowe a lot of credit for that, for keeping Grant and the others going when they were out of position, and for pumping them back up when they got back to their natural positions, and for getting them to buy in throughout.
Lowe took a big-picture view of everything that happened in recent weeks.
It was a period when Atsur was able to go out with a fitting ending to his career. The entire college basketball world saw how valuable he was to this team, and was reminded of what a classy and resilient young man he is. Atsur had the respect of State's players and fans all along, but now he can leave with the admiration of everyone.
Beyond that, it was a period that served as a fabulous springboard into the future.
"I think what has happened is a great thing for our identity, more than anything," Lowe said. "I talked all year about the history and tradition of our school and playing in a league and in an area where basketball is so great. I think what has happened has driven that home even more. I think everyone understands we're N.C. State, and this is what we're all about.
"And two, what has happened is a great thing for our kids to experience, and we'll build off this going into next season. The attention they are getting is great, and they deserve it. They hung in there all season and never complained about anything, and they grew from everything they went through. And all their hard work was rewarded."