February 26, 2008
RALEIGH So what's the deal with Tracy Smith?
There are plenty of other questions surrounding N.C. State basketball these days, but this one popped up again recently, after Smith put in some impressive minutes in the second half against North Carolina.
He was energetic on defense, he rebounded well, and he showed a surprising amount of touch around the basket. In other words, Smith seemed to be exactly the sort of thing the Wolfpack needed.
So why, again, hasn't he been playing more? Like most issues with State these days, it's a little complicated.
The initial explanation was that Smith just didn't grasp coach Sidney Lowe's offensive sets well enough. So even though there were whispers that Smith was out-performing Brandon Costner in practice, Smith continued to sit.
But when Smith scored 13 points in just 20 minutes in a loss at Clemson, Lowe made it sound as if the 6-7, 232-pound freshman had broken through.
"I think you have to give guys an opportunity, to give them the minutes to really be productive," Lowe said. "Now that Tracy has continued to learn what we are doing and is getting better, he's shown that. Now he's starting to get more minutes."
Lowe then offered a comment that almost certainly was directed at one of Smith's teammates.
"The thing about Tracy is, you don't have to call a play for him," Lowe said. "He's a basketball player. He's going to get it off the offensive boards, and then, if you give it to him, he's going to score down there. But he doesn't necessarily need plays called for him."
It seemed like a thinly veiled shot at Costner, whose numbers have taken a major dip this season. Freshman center J.J. Hickson has become the focus of State's offense, and Costner hasn't adjusted well to a supporting role. It seemed like an indication that Smith would start getting some of Costner's minutes.
It wasn't. Smith played just 29 minutes in the next nine games, before getting another shot against UNC. In 13 minutes against the Tar Heels, Smith scored eight points on 3-of-4 shooting from the floor.
Asked after the game if Smith had earned more minutes with his play, Lowe was emphatic.
"Absolutely," he said. "Absolutely."
Don't be so sure. It's not that Lowe is being disingenuous. It's just that he's still intrigued by the versatility Costner offers. If Costner is on, he's a matchup nightmare, as he showed while pouring in 90 points in four games at the ACC Tournament last year.
Plus, if Hickson turns pro after this season as is widely expected then Costner likely will return to the primary option role, where he flourished before. No sense burning a bridge to him this season by cutting his minutes dramatically.
But it's been so long since Costner has been "on" for State. This year, he's yet to show the willingness to go inside that made him an inside-outside threat last season.
And while Lowe's keeping the peace with Costner by keeping his minutes steady, what about Smith, who's allegedly been out-practicing Costner and still can't get on the floor much? It makes you wonder if, during the offseason, we'll be asking the same question: What's the deal with Tracy Smith?
SCHOLARSHIP BIND HITS PACK
The recent commitment of 6-6 junior Scott Wood, a teammate of Wolfpack signee Julius Mays at Marion (Ind.) High, gave State something it sorely lacked: a dead-eye shooter from three-point range.
But it also raised questions about the trio of juniors Raleigh point guard John Wall, Georgia swingman Lorenzo Brown and Georgia center Derrick Favors the Wolfpack has been pursuing.
As it stands, State definitely will have two scholarships available for the Class of 2009 those of juniors Ben McCauley and Courtney Fells. The high probability that Hickson will opt for the NBA by then gives the Wolfpack a third scholarship for current high school juniors.
In order for State to have a shot at bringing in Wall, Brown and Favors, as well as Wood, the Wolfpack would need to free up another scholarship.
The most likely candidate to leave the program appears to be sophomore forward Dennis Horner. He was the last of coach Herb Sendek's recruits and has seen his playing time steadily dwindle.
The next two possibilities sophomore guards Trevor Ferguson and Marques Johnson come with a big problem. Both Ferguson and Johnson already have burned their redshirt seasons by transferring, so they would lose a year of eligibility if they transferred again.
Ferguson, who seems to be overmatched at the ACC level, could transfer to a Division II school and play immediately. But all indications are that he's happy at State and not too bothered by his spot at the end of the bench.
O'BRIEN SEES BIG PICTURE
N.C. State football coach Tom O'Brien continues to do the little, subtle things to get an edge in the recruiting game.
For the second straight year, national recruiting analyst Tom Lemming was invited to come to State's Junior Day to get photos of the top recruits in the state of North Carolina.
If you were a top junior in the state, wouldn't you want your picture to run in a national recruiting publication? The move ensured that anyone who's anyone in the junior class in North Carolina would be in Raleigh for Junior Day. The Wolfpack did this in 2007, and it paid off with an impressive in-state recruiting haul.
The future looks bright, as well. State landed the top offensive lineman in North Carolina in the Class of 2008 when it signed R.J. Mattes. If it pulls off the same feat this recruiting season, it will have landed one of the top offensive linemen in the nation.
Xavier Nixon, a 6-6, 285-pound tackle from Jack Britt High in Fayetteville, already has received offers from traditional powers such as Ohio State, Florida, LSU, Alabama and Miami. But the Wolfpack has a shot at keeping him close to home.
A few factors are working in State's favor. Nixon is apparently a very close friend of C.J. Williams, a teammate on the Britt basketball team and an incoming basketball recruit for the Wolfpack. Both of Nixon's parents are in the Army, which should make O'Brien's background as a Marine a plus. And, of course, O'Brien and line coach Don Horton have that extensive list of NFL offensive linemen they helped develop at Boston College.