February 14, 2005 RALEIGH N.C. State already had slipped to the point where it will have to win the ACC Tournament in order to get an NCAA Tournament bid. But now there are some other embarrassing issues to deal with, too. Coach Herb Sendek benched star senior Julius Hodge for the first 10 minutes of an 86-75 loss at Wake Forest on Feb. 10, in a move that virtually guaranteed a loss. Hodge came on to score a season-high 27 points, but it was still too little, too late.
Afterward, Hodge revealed that he had been punished for missing a shooting practice earlier in the week. But he claimed that he missed the appointment because of "academic obligations" and insisted that he had communicated "to the right people" beforehand why he would be absent.
Pressed for confirmation, Sendek called the issue a "team matter" and then clammed up completely.
Since then, all sorts of off-the-record claims and innuendoes have come out of the State athletic department, most designed to make Hodge out as the bad guy. According to several sources, Hodge's public explanation after the Wake game left out huge chunks of the truth, but Sendek understandably didn't think it would be a good idea to set the record straight in a public forum at the risk of further alienating Hodge.
Regardless, this is a recipe for disaster if it isn't cleared up quickly. It's a potential lose-lose-lose situation for Sendek, Hodge and the future of the program.
Any time there's a suspension or punishment dished out, it's bad. Any time the team's best player and senior leader is the one involved, it's really bad. Any time the player spills the beans and sets the coach up to look bad, it's really, really bad. Any time the inside forces turn on the player behind the scenes, it's really, really, really bad.
And in this particular situation, because it involves Hodge and Sendek specifically, it's magnified even more.
Hodge has been the face of Sendek's program for the last four years, a savior-type recruit out of New York City four years ago and the ACC's player of the year last season. So a war of words and an ugly ending to his career clearly would be a lose-lose situation for both parties.
Hodge's senior season, by all standards, has been a huge disappointment. He lost his touch at the free throw line early in the year, and it affected his entire game, much of which is based on driving and getting to the line. His confidence was shaken after a heralded December trip to Madison Square Garden turned into a flop, and the losing that followed shattered his confidence completely. He pressed, and when he tried to step up and single-handedly rally the team, he couldn't do it.
In that time, he has gone from a possible late first-round NBA draft pick remember, only one team has to like you to a very marginal draft pick at all. According to NBA sources, Hodge now is likely to go no earlier than the middle of the second round, and even that is debatable. One pro scout estimated that three-quarters of the teams in the league have no interest at all in Hodge's unique but limited skills package.
The situation with Sendek can only hurt his draft status even more. There were doubts about him already, and this episode is additional baggage. And beyond that, Hodge doesn't deserve to go out like this, not after such a productive career.
As far as Sendek, the last thing he can afford at this point is a running feud with Hodge. One has to believe that his job is safe for now, despite the passions of the Fire Herb crowd, but if he were to lose this team completely the rest of the way, who knows what might happen? From a public-relations standpoint, there's little question whom the public is going to side with in a case of he-said, she-said.
And remember, Hodge was only Sendek's second elite, top-tier recruit during his time with the Wolfpack. The first, forward Damien Wilkins, left after his sophomore season, amidst all kinds of controversy. State's powerful spin machine effectively laid all of the blame on Wilkins' father Gerald and his uncle Dominique, who were openly critical of Sendek. The public generally sided with Sendek on that one, imagining how tough it must have been to have two former NBA stars second-guessing the coach's every move.
But if Sendek's relationship with Hodge sours, too, does that make a pattern? Is that worth noting for the next blue-chip recruit? Are you watching, Brandon Costner?
And how will the rest of this year's team react? As ugly as it has been at times, with home losses to the likes of Virginia and Florida State and road disasters at St. John's and Virginia Tech, imagine how ugly it could get if this team totally packed it in down the stretch. Again, that sounds like a lose-lose situation for everyone.
Bethel, Simmons Making Progress
If there is such a thing as a bright side for the Wolfpack at this point, junior swingman Cameron Bennerman and junior point guard Tony Bethel are back after extended layoffs, and freshman center Cedric Simmons seems to finally be coming around a little bit.
Bennerman was having a solid season until suffering an elbow injury, as a high-energy guy capable of scoring points in bunches. If State doesn't implode completely, he could play a key role the rest of the way, especially with his passion and ability to make things happen.
Simmons was a highly touted recruit, but (as advertised) he was so raw early in the season and so far behind fundamentally that Sendek chose to give the bulk of the early season post minutes to senior Jordan Collins and fellow freshman Andrew Brackman instead. Simmons' recent emergence probably has been the result of him picking up the system better, Brackman hitting the wall, and Sendek realizing that he has to bite the bullet and start bringing Simmons along at some point anyway.
The play of Bethel since his return from a series of ailments first the flu, then problems resulting from a stomach bacterial infection has been inspiring. He needs to finish strong to lift his spirits, if nothing else, and set the tone for a good senior season in 2005-06.