June 1, 2006
RALEIGH -- The biggest question surrounding the N.C. State basketball program finally was answered on May 6, when Sidney Lowe was introduced as the new coach.
But Lowe's hiring already has opened up several new cans of worms and has raised a new and really, really big question: Who will be playing for him next season?
Because he remained an assistant coach with the Detroit Pistons through the NBA playoffs, and because he still is finishing up his bachelor's degree, Lowe won't officially start at NCSU until July 1. And because he has yet to pass the NCAA's rules certification test and is prohibited from meeting with recruits until he does, he can't speed up the process of trying to keep the signees from Herb Sendek's 2005-06 recruiting class.
Once he gets through all of that, Lowe will have to do some on-campus recruiting, too, to ensure that those who are scheduled to return do in fact wind up on campus again this fall.
In the doomsday scenario, Lowe could lose all three of the high school recruits -- Larry Davis (already switched to Seton Hall), Dan Werner (looking around) and Dennis Horner -- then watch Cedric Simmons go to the NBA, Engin Atsur go home to play professionally in Europe, and Andrew Brackman stick to baseball permanently.
While it's hard to imagine all of that happening, some of it has and will. But nobody's sure how many departures there will be.
These are all huge issues, since a hot spotlight will be on Lowe as he makes his debut after spending his entire coaching career in the NBA. For a fan base that kept the heat on Sendek throughout his 10-year tenure, patience is a word that sounds good but in truth is not part of the win-now mentality.
Lowe could wind up having to "win now" with a lineup of Gavin Grant, Brandon Costner, Ben McCauley, Courtney Fells, Trevor Ferguson and whomever else he can convince to return. Then again, a best-case scenario would keep the remaining recruits in the fold, and if the upperclassmen returned, Lowe could put together a rotation that could be a top-tier ACC challenger and a bona fide NCAA Tournament team.
Of all the scenarios, the most likely is that Lowe will lose Simmons, who would have been his go-to scorer and defensive backstop. Simmons submitted his name for the NBA draft after averaging 11.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots as a sophomore. He said he would not hire an agent and thus retain the option of returning to State, but there have been virtually no indications that will happen.
Most pre-draft projections list Simmons as a late lottery pick, meaning he would go in the top 14. The allure of a multi-million-dollar guaranteed contract may be enough to make the decision by itself, even if there could be benefits in returning to State.
Another likely scenario is that another signee will end up elsewhere. Davis, Werner and Horner all waited curiously as the search for Sendek's successor dragged on for more than a month. With the coach they committed to play for (Sendek) jumping ship, it has been only natural that each would have second thoughts about coming to State.
Since the recruits can't meet with Lowe face-to-face until the coach is certified by the NCAA -- State has set no timetable for Lowe to take the test but is shooting to have it done well before the next recruiting period opens on July 6 -- the uncertainty continued into June.
The longer this drags on, the tougher Lowe's sales job will be, because the signees and their parents have made it clear that they want to talk to Lowe himself, and not just assistants Larry Harris, Monte Towe or Pete Strickland.
BRACKMAN FACING TOUGH DECISION
If Lowe gets even Werner (a top-100 prospect) to come to State, it might be his first significant victory in his new job. Meanwhile, the Brackman issue is a very, very practical matter that should attract the coach's concern as well.
Brackman's first love and best sport is baseball. He long has been considered a major league prospect, as a right-handed pitcher with a 95 mph fastball. By coming to State, he became ineligible for the baseball draft until the summer of 2007. But his 2006 season turned out to be a disaster on the diamond. Brackman pitched twice on off-days during basketball and was roughed up both times. Then his season ended prematurely because of a stress fracture in his left hip. He pitched his last game on April 21, finished 1-3 with a 6.35 ERA, then had eight weeks of rest and rehab to cut into his summer development.
The wording in State's press release about Brackman was interesting. It noted that Brackman first reported the injury on March 6, the day after he pitched against UCLA on a basketball off-day. It also said that since stress fractures normally occur over time and not because of sudden trauma, there was no way to pinpoint when the injury began.
Here's the bottom line on that story: Playing both sports, and trying to pitch on basketball off-days, took its toll and created a significant setback in Brackman's baseball development. At Lowe's press conference, Brackman insisted that he wanted to continue to play both sports. But now, with a huge signing bonus awaiting in baseball if he is a first-round pick, he'll have to seriously reconsider the ramifications of playing basketball in 2006-07, for the wear-and-tear factor alone. Another injury would cost him big bucks.
On the positive side, the players who met with Lowe and attended his introductory press conference seemed enthused about his hiring and impressed with his initial team meeting. Lowe is promising to make basketball fun for his players, and Grant in particular was outspoken about his desire to play a different style. Costner talked about a pact he made with his classmates to stick together and see their careers continue at State as a group.
Some of this could take weeks or even months to unfold. Another answer will come by June 18, the deadline for Simmons to withdraw from the draft, and others could come even sooner. Clearly, though, even when State gets some answers, more questions remain.