December 4, 2007
RALEIGH Funny, when Sidney Lowe became N.C. State's head coach last year, everyone's top concern about his adjustment to college basketball was how he would handle recruiting.
Now, in year two, Lowe's success on the recruiting trail (i.e., landing stud center J.J. Hickson) actually has helped create a bigger adjustment issue dealing with the fragile egos of 19- and 20-year olds. Clearly, there's a learning curve here that Lowe still has to climb.
In the NBA, starting a first-year player such as Hickson from day one wouldn't raise any eyebrows. At that level, it's "What can you do for me now?" and the best present talent gets on the floor, regardless of past contributions. At the college level, particularly in a case such as N.C. State's, it's never that simple.
You probably wouldn't get much debate that Hickson is a better post player than junior big man Ben McCauley. But McCauley was a key contributor to last year's overachieving squad. In fact, he was a Lowe favorite, a guy Lowe frequently declared "would run through a wall" for the team.
So when Hickson got the start in the season opener over McCauley, it seemed to send an unsettling message to the team. Coaches are always preaching that players need to work hard and take advantage of their opportunities when they arrive. McCauley had done that, and his reward was a return to the bench as soon as Lowe found a better alternative.
This sort of thing happens all the time in college basketball, including just down the road from N.C. State. UNC's Roy Williams repaid Bobby Frasor's solid freshman campaign last year by installing rookie Ty Lawson as his starting point guard. And Duke's Mike Krzyzewski hasn't been shy about proclaiming that freshman Kyle Singler is his best all-around player.
The key difference is that both coaches recruited all of those players. Lowe, with a roster still over half-filled with Herb Sendek holdovers, is in a much more delicate political situation. He got buy-in last season, when a non-existent bench guaranteed playing time. Lowe seems to have assumed, incorrectly, that the good will would continue.
McCauley's moping drew the most public attention early. "Is he sick? Or just upset?" was the great debate for the first two weeks of the Wolfpack season. But the bigger potential problem is what to do with fellow forward Brandon Costner.
Costner has made no secret of his plans to leave for the NBA after three seasons in Raleigh, and he seemed to be well on his way after blowing up in the ACC Tournament last year. Instead, Costner has come back for this decisive season only to discover that Hickson will be the No. 1 option in the Wolfpack's half-court attack. Though Costner has been getting more minutes than McCauley, his moodiness also has been apparent and occasionally destructive.
In the aftermath of N.C. State's stunning home loss to New Orleans, Lowe made a passing reference to a couple of late-game offensive sets that the team did not run correctly. Some believe that on one of those plays, Costner ignored the edict to get the ball inside to Hickson and instead looked for his shot. That's a hard charge to prove, but if true, the issues Lowe and his coaches face aren't easily resolvable.
To his credit, Lowe hasn't run from discussing the problems publicly. He's acknowledged that it will take time for players who played a ton of minutes to adjust to reduced roles this season. And he's laid out a pretty simple basis for his substitution patterns.
"I'm going to play the guys that are getting it done. That is the bottom line," Lowe said. "One of the luxuries of having depth is that you can do that. You can play the players that are out there getting it done. It really doesn't matter. For them, it is them understanding that."
That was Lowe's approach at The Old Spice Classic in Orlando. In a fortunate twist, Hickson broke a team rule before the opening game against Rider, allowing Lowe to put McCauley back in the starting lineup. McCauley started all three games in the tournament. In game two, against South Carolina, senior swingman Gavin Grant played only 20 minutes, while reserve forward Dennis Horner logged 22 minutes and stayed on the floor during crunch time. In the title game, Costner played just 20 minutes, though foul trouble was a contributing factor.
It seemed as if all was well in Raleigh, but it might have been an aberration. After getting off to a slow start in its road game against Michigan State, the Wolfpack did a frighteningly good impression of a team that had quit. Things with Costner may have come to a head in East Lansing. He was yanked from the game with more than 12 minutes remaining and never left the bench the rest of the night.
Will Lowe's message get through? Or will the Costner situation bring back bad memories of Damien Wilkins? Can Lowe figure out a way to weave in the new talent he's brought in with the players who gave him so much last season? Can he get McCauley to stop trying to squeeze last season's production into this season's minutes?
It's a daunting to-do list, but there's no reason to think Lowe won't be up to the task. But despite his pro experience, he's still learning on the job as a college coach. Expect a few more bumps in the coming weeks.
IS FOURTH-STRINGER QB ANSWER?
Normally, everybody loves the backup quarterback. Hardcore N.C. State fans though, love the fourth-string signal caller. That would be true freshman Russell Wilson, and rumors of his impressive practice performances have been circulating for some time.
Given the up-and-down performances of Daniel Evans and Harrison Beck this season, and the fact that redshirt freshman Justin Burke was never a factor in the quarterback race, it's not unreasonable to think that Wilson might have a shot at starting next season. His case is helped by the fact that star recruit Mike Glennon won't be on campus until the summer.
Two factors, though, are going against Wilson. First, he's a talented baseball player who wants to play on the Wolfpack team this spring. That's fine, but if that cuts into spring football, Wilson probably will find himself at defensive back.
"If he wants to compete for the quarterback job, he has to make every practice in the spring," N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said.
Second, Wilson will need that spring practice time to stay on O'Brien's good side and to grow more accustomed to taking snaps under center. He worked out of a shotgun spread in high school, and the transition from that system to a more conventional style can be bumpy.
"He'll have to execute our offense," O'Brien said. "If he's the guy, we'll have to adjust things to fit his skills."