March 7, 2006
RALEIGH -- For the past five seasons, N.C. State coach Herb Sendek has been wedded to an offensive philosophy that, for lack of a definitive, all-encompassing term, has been called a Princeton-style offense.
He is about to go to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in those five seasons, with a 20-win campaign already secured for the fourth time in those five.
For those who see the glass as half-full, it is really more than half-full. Sendek was 86-74 overall, 26-54 in the ACC, never went to the NCAA and never finished higher than fifth in the ACC regular-season standings before he brought in assistant Larry Hunter and installed the offense before the 2001-02 season. With this offense for the past five seasons, State has gone a combined 104-56 overall, 46-34 in the ACC, and has finished fourth or better in all but one of those seasons.
But those who see the glass as half-empty suggest that the offensive philosophy has prevented the record from being even better, and has been the root of State's problems when it has faltered. One common thread throughout this season has been extended scoring droughts, often at precisely the wrong times.
There were two scoreless stretches of eight possessions or more in a three-point loss at Iowa. State went scoreless over the last 3:10 at North Carolina, when UNC scored the final 13 points of the game to win by 13. State scored three points in the final five minutes at Duke, and Duke finished with a
16-3 run to win by 13.
Other examples of extended droughts are numerous, and not just in losses. State went the final 6:18 without a field goal in a win at Virginia Tech, and wound up having to rally after blowing a 22-point second-half lead. Even State's most impressive road win of the year, at Boston College, included a dry spell in the second half before State regrouped and pulled away again.
Sendek attributes these swings to the nature of college basketball, and the current location of the three-point line. One could sum it all up with the adage, "Live by the three-pointer, die by the three-pointer." State was 10-of-17 from three-point range in its win at BC and 12-of-18 in a home win over Miami, but it was 4-of-29 from three-point range in a loss to last-place Wake Forest and 14-of-45 combined in two losses to UNC. In State's 10 ACC wins, it averaged 11.1 three-pointers and shot 47.0 percent from beyond the arc. In State's six ACC losses, it averaged 7.1 three-pointers and shot 29.8 percent from beyond the arc.
That's what raises so many issues about the offensive philosophy in general. Any Princeton hybrid is going to be perimeter-oriented, reliant on outside shooting. And although Sendek insists that the offense is constantly being tweaked to utilize the team's strengths, statistics don't always bear that out.
After sophomore center Cedric Simmons served notice with a 28-point, nine-rebound, seven-block performance against Duke senior Shelden Williams in Durham, when he was 11-of-18 from the field, the focus remained on the perimeter. Simmons has not attempted more than nine shots in any game since, and he averaged 5.9 field goal attempts over State's last 12 regular-season games.
That leads to the ultimate issue facing the program once this season ends. Will Sendek feel the need to re-examine this philosophy and change the offense significantly over the summer, or will he remain steadfast in running a system that has been fairly good to him?
There's obviously no reason to think anything will change in the ACC Tournament or the NCAA, which means that State probably will go as far as its outside shooting will take it.
Maybe State will run into an opponent or two in the NCAA that hasn't seen much of this offense, and State can add some backdoor cuts to the long-range shooting. But ultimately it will run into an opponent that is prepared to shut it down, and at that point the threes better be falling. It's probably no coincidence that State's most damaging droughts have come against some of the country's best coaches.
SENDEK FACING CRUCIAL DECISIONS
Sendek will have several things to consider during the offseason, as he draws up his offensive blueprint for 2006-07.
Gone will be the bulk of the perimeter players who have made the offense work: Tony Bethel, Cameron Bennerman and Ilian Evtimov.
Returning will be a core that may not be so well-suited to this offense, even if Sendek insists that he recruits to fit the style, not vice versa. Engin Atsur has played three years in this system and is a long-range bomber, and Andrew Brackman seems suited for the offense as a big man who can go out to the perimeter. But this offense doesn't play to Simmons' strengths in the low post, and the only other returnees will be Gavin Grant, Brandon Costner, Courtney Fells and Ben McCauley.
One must wonder if Simmons' status could hinge on next year's offensive philosophy. He at least will ponder jumping to the NBA after this season ends, even if another year in college would benefit him greatly in theory. If he perceives that he won't be able to develop his offensive skills to the fullest in this system, or he feels destined to more nights when he doesn't get many shots, it might be tempting to take the money and bolt.
Simmons wouldn't be the first State big man to come to that decision. Josh Powell wasn't ready for the NBA after his sophomore season, but that didn't stop him from jumping off the Princeton-offense ship. He went to Europe to improve his game and is now with the Dallas Mavericks, with a nice contract and no regrets.
Something else to consider: Hunter, who introduced Sendek to guru Jim Burson five years ago and who was instrumental in installing the offense, is long gone. It didn't make sense for Sendek to junk the philosophy this season, with so many veteran perimeter players returning, in the first year without Hunter. In Year Two post-Hunter, under the circumstances, it could make sense.
This has been a sore subject with Sendek for much of the season. He mocked media members for putting labels on the offense in December, apparently angered by comments from former coaches now serving as television analysts. Although Sendek never acknowledged it, there was speculation that the "Princeton" label might be hanging over his head in recruiting. And it clearly gave the anti-Sendek element of State fans something tangible to complain about. The cloud of dissent that forms the moment things go bad, at least from a segment of the fan base, weighs on players and drags down the program.
So it'll be time for Sendek to make a corporate decision this summer. Keep this offense and live with the results, good and bad? Or tear things down and go in a different direction?
Necessity is the mother of invention. Sendek was nearing the breaking point five years into his stay at State when he made the call to Hunter, who made the call to Burson, and the result was the dramatic philosophy change to this offense. Remember, Sendek has not been wedded to this philosophy for his entire coaching career. He won 63 games in three seasons at Miami-Ohio before coming to State, and he didn't run it then.
The thing nobody knows yet, though, is whether Sendek really truly feels the glass is half-full, or if it's time to pour something more into it.