March 25, 2008
RALEIGH With the smoldering wreckage of the 2007-08 season now safely in the rearview mirror, it's time to take a look at the road ahead for N.C. State basketball.
It's not exactly smooth sailing.
Leaving: Gavin Grant, J.J. Hickson.
When coach Sidney Lowe made his periodic comments about the lack of leadership on the Wolfpack squad, it was hard not to interpret it as a shot across Grant's bow. If Lowe hoped to light a fire under Grant, it didn't work. He ended his final game on the bench. Grant's departure shouldn't be too damaging.
As for Hickson, this one isn't official yet, but unless he somehow plays himself out of the NBA first round during upcoming tryouts, Hickson's time in Raleigh is likely done. Given how quickly after the end of the season word leaked out that Hickson was putting his name in the NBA draft, it's clear that he wasn't exactly agonizing about whether to stay with the Pack.
Will he be missed? That's the $64,000 question. He was clearly the most talented player on the State team, but making Hickson the centerpiece of the Wolfpack attack came at a dear price.
Ben McCauley, who flourished as an undersized center last season, struggled mightily at the power forward position, where he didn't have enough speed. Brandon Costner had similar issues, going from a matchup problem for power forwards to (at times) a small forward with a major quickness deficit.
Perhaps with Hickson out of the picture, Costner and McCauley can redevelop the on-court chemistry they had in 2007. Either way, it's doubtful that State could do much worse than the way it closed out this season. In that sense, at least, Hickson's departure may not be such a bad thing.
Returning: Eight of State's top 10 players.
In the same vein, is it good to have most of the team back when that team wasn't very good? It depends on which season you consider to be the aberration Lowe's first, when State out-executed opponents, or Lowe's second, when he seemed to have a tin ear when it came to the rhythms of his team.
Costner and McCauley already have been addressed. Courtney Fells? It might be time to accept that Fells is a phenomenal athlete who just doesn't have the basketball instincts to be an elite player. Dennis Horner? His jump shot disappeared, and his minutes plummeted. He would appear to be a prime transfer candidate. Trevor Ferguson? With his late-season surge in minutes and production, the one-time bench warmer appears to figure into State's future plans. Plus, he can shoot, a valuable commodity right now for the Wolfpack.
Javier Gonzalez? Marques Johnson? Farnold Degand? That trio brings up the biggest question for the Pack moving forward. With a system that is clearly point guard-dependent in place, will anyone be able to run Lowe's offense to his liking?
Coming in: Julius Mays and C.J. Williams.
That may be where incoming combo guard Julius Mays fits. The bad news is that he hasn't exactly blown away the scouts with his natural ability the way, say, junior prospect John Wall has. The good news, though, is that Mays scores high in areas such as leadership and savvy. State was woefully lacking in those categories this season.
Still, if Lowe turns the keys to his offense over to Mays over Gonzalez or Degand who will be trying to return from a torn ACL State could face the same issue it had this year: trying to break in an inexperienced point guard at the highest level of Division I basketball.
Expect that to be a bumpy process. Don't expect Wolfpack fans to have much patience unless top juniors such as Wall and Lorenzo Brown already have signed with Lowe come November.
O'BRIEN EYES REGIONAL RECRUITS
Only one known commitment came out of N.C. State's Junior Day on March 15, High Point (N.C.) Central linebacker Ricky Dowdy. But the early indications are that the Wolfpack made a very good impression overall.
Consider these comments:
"I'm starting to like it a whole lot better." That was Clinton Simpkins, a linebacker from Virginia, to http://Packpride.com.
"I like their facilities a lot. They are top-of-the-line." That was Justice Cunningham, a defensive end from South Carolina, to The State newspaper.
"N.C. State had a lot more than I expected." That was Nigel Mitchell-Thornton, a linebacker from Georgia, to http://Packpride.com.
It's also worth noting that all of those players are from outside North Carolina. Don't assume, though, that this is some sort of change in strategy for coach Tom O'Brien. After talking about making in-state recruiting a priority at his introductory press conference, O'Brien set about backing up those comments. State's 2008 class indicated that the coaches quickly made solid contacts locally.
Phase Two, then, is to branch back out beyond North Carolina. It's a delicate process that can blow up in a coach's face if it's not handled correctly (see Amato, Chuck), but every Division I-A school in North Carolina knows that it must supplement each recruiting class with quality, out-of-state talent.
The Sports Journal has written before about linebackers coach Andy McCollum and his Georgia connections, which have made the Wolfpack a player in the Peach State. In addition to Mitchell-Thornton, other Georgia targets for State include Toney Williams, a running back from Alpharetta, and Izaan Cross, a defensive end from Flowery Branch.
The signing of quarterback Mike Glennon was a clear signal that O'Brien is intent on getting back into Virginia, a state he recruited very well when he was a UVa assistant. That's continuing with the pursuit of Simpkins.
It also appears that State will take a page out of O'Brien's old Boston College playbook and continue to use his contacts with Catholic schools in the Midwest. Thus, the recent offer of a scholarship to Cleveland St. Ignatius linebacker Dan Fox.
Also on the Wolfpack recruiting board are numerous top prospects from South Carolina, including Cunningham.
It's a pretty simple, logical approach. Go to the areas within driving distance of campus (always an important factor in recruiting), then branch out to areas where the staff has personal contacts. For now, at least, that means Florida is much less of a priority than it was during the Amato era.