January 24, 2007
RALEIGH There are times when things look downright ugly with N.C. State, and times when things get out of hand.
Home-court losses to Duke, Clemson and Boston College in January punctuated just how fragile this team is, especially without senior Engin Atsur to steady it at the point.
But everyone came to understand long ago that State was short on depth, particularly at point guard and at the power positions inside, and had very little margin for error.
All the while, first-year coach Sidney Lowe continues to inspire hope in the Wolfpack faithful, even if the hopes of a 20-win season or a return trip to the NCAA Tournament started fading long ago. There is disappointment and frustration throughout the RBC Center during and after any loss, but the culture and the environment already have changed significantly in the fan base and on the team.
That's worth examining, because one can only imagine the frustration level and the howling that would be going on right now had Herb Sendek not left for Arizona State last spring.
There would be a greater division among the fan base and more anger among the anti-Sendek crowd than the school ever faced during Sendek's 10 seasons in Raleigh, and that would have created a mess for the school in the stands, on the message boards and on the sports-talk call-in radio shows. And this team, playing for Sendek instead of Lowe but with Andrew Brackman gone and Atsur injured, no doubt would have had far uglier losses with dark clouds constantly hanging over it.
This team would have had a different roster, of course, because Sendek would have kept incoming freshmen Larry Davis and Dan Werner, who wound up backing out of their letters of intent and went elsewhere after Sendek departed. So Sendek wouldn't have faced some of the major depth issues that Lowe inherited.
But there is no reason to think that Brackman would have returned to play for Sendek, since his reasoning for devoting his attention full-time to baseball had little to do with Lowe. And there's no reason to think that Atsur wouldn't have gotten injured just as easily while playing for Sendek. There's nothing about Atsur's hamstring injury, suffered against Michigan on Nov. 27, that can be attributed to Lowe or anything about the way Lowe's practices or coaching style compared to Sendek's.
If there is any second-guessing to be done with Atsur, some wonder if he re-injured the hamstring in part because he was intent on playing against BC on Jan. 6. His parents had flown over from Turkey, and he was anxious to play while they were in Raleigh. Still, Atsur returned with medical clearance and everyone's blessing.
An Atsur-less Pack would have left it with no capable point guards or competent ball-handlers against pressure for either coach in Sendek's Princeton-style offense or Lowe's more up-tempo, pro-style system.
Sendek quickly would have found that freshman Trevor Ferguson wasn't capable of taking on the better point guards in the ACC, and the coach would have been relying on Gavin Grant, Courtney Fells and the like to run his offense, with every bit the odds of the ugly consequences Lowe has faced.
State averaged 13.6 turnovers per game last year in Sendek's offense, and that was with fewer average possessions and four ball-handlers who were upperclassmen Atsur and seniors Tony Bethel, Cameron Bennerman and Ilian Evtimov. Even with some of the turnover atrocities (32 versus Cincinnati, 20 versus Duke, 19 in a win at Wake Forest), this State team averaged 14.7 turnovers through 18 games and had a better assist-turnover ratio.
That one extra turnover per game certainly hasn't been the difference between winning and losing.
NOBODY FEELING LIKE "ROBOTS"
One of the trademarks of Sendek's recent teams was the inexplicably ugly performances. Even his best teams had nights when they just didn't show up, or went through long scoring droughts, or cracked at the wrong time.
That generally hasn't been the case this year under Lowe. State's losses have come against teams that were simply better, or at least favored. There have been some opportunities to win that State let slip away. It had a chance to upset Virginia on the road and led at halftime at Cincinnati until the turnovers mounted. But for the most part, it has won the games it should have won.
That can't be said about Sendek's State teams, and had this team lost to a Wofford or UNC Greensboro under Sendek, the wolves in the stands would really be howling by now.
Sendek, by the way, doesn't seem to be squeezing every ounce out of an outmatched team at Arizona State so far. He was 6-13 overall and 0-8 in the Pac-10 through mid-January, riding a nine-game losing streak. He lost early to the likes of Northern Arizona and Portland State.
And who knows what the morale would have been like had this group struggled under Sendek.
The veterans talk openly about how much more fun it is to play for Lowe, and how they don't feel like "robots" as sophomore forward Ben McCauley put it playing in Lowe's system. As frustrated as Grant is at times, having to fill in for Atsur at point guard, he's still under less stress and enjoying the game more playing for Lowe.
It's true that Lowe is enjoying the benefits of being a first-year coach in terms of keeping the fans' support and building hope for the future. Fans were going to cut Lowe some slack no matter what, in his first year making the transition from the NBA to the college game. They have been even more understanding because of the circumstances that Lowe has had to deal with defections that left him with little depth, and the injury to Atsur, his senior leader.
But beyond that, this really does appear to be far better for all involved than had Sendek stayed. Once it was determined that Cedric Simmons would go to the NBA and Brackman would concentrate on baseball, the program was destined to take a step backward this year, with or without all of Sendek's recruits.
Once Atsur got hurt, this team's shortcomings were magnified. Put that all together and imagine Sendek still in Raleigh, and things could have gotten really, really ugly, on the court and off.