March 1, 2005
RALEIGH Herb Sendek maintained into March that N.C. State's late-season improvement resulted from the return of guards Tony Bethel and Cameron Bennerman from injuries, plus the fact that the Wolfpack finally was back to full strength.
That was true, no doubt about it. But there also were several other significant factors, including one Sendek probably would just as soon leave unmentioned. After three months of pushing all the wrong buttons with his big men, Sendek finally hit on a formula to get at least adequate production out of the post.
He went back to starting senior Jordan Collins, and he gave more and more time to freshman Cedric Simmons. He also spotted freshman Andrew Brackman at times for a spark. They're still not what you'd call a three-headed monster, but they have become at least serviceable as a group, and Sendek (save Brackman's odd disappearance against North Carolina) seems to have gotten a grasp on mixing and matching the minutes, and milking the one who plays best each night.
That wasn't happening early in the season, and it surely wasn't happening in the stretch when State lost nine of 12 in January and early February.
The biggest key has been the development of Simmons, a wiry 6-9, 216-pounder with long arms and great athleticism. He was State's most highly touted recruit coming into the season and was expected to be a significant addition, especially as a rebounder and shotblocker.
Simmons has shown his defensive talents recently, with four blocks each against UNC and Wake Forest, and three against Maryland. Despite averaging only 11 minutes a game through 23 games, he surged to seventh in the league in blocked shots. He also showed more confidence offensively, scoring 16 against Virginia and 11 against Carolina.
Of course, Simmons' development raised a valid question: Why wasn't he playing more earlier in the season? He played a total of 97 minutes in State's first 18 games, which was fewer than he played in a recent four-game stretch against Clemson, UNC, Virginia and Wake.
Supposedly, Simmons had a hard time understanding Sendek's system in the early going, and that's why he played only nine minutes against Elon, nine against East Carolina, one against Manhattan, five against Brigham Young and one against Columbia.
But wasn't that the time to get Simmons some low-pressure PT, to give him the experience necessary to develop to where he would be a contributor once the ACC season heated up? Wasn't that what scheduling the likes of New Orleans, ECU, Elon, Campbell, Manhattan, Liberty, Louisiana-Lafayette and Columbia was supposed to be all about?
Collins, a 6-10, 242-pounder, was getting the bulk of playing time in that stretch, and he had some good games early, with 17 points against New Orleans, 11 against Campbell and 13 against Manhattan.
But this was like fool's gold. All it did was encourage Collins to shoot more often, and that inevitably backfired in several ways. It disrupted the offense, especially when Collins drifted out to launch three-pointers, and it kept a defensive liability on the court. State's early season rebounding woes, even against weak opponents, started with having a poor rebounder in the pivot.
Part of Sendek's reasoning for going with Collins early was justified. Sendek preaches that seniors must step up and have the best seasons of their careers, and after toiling on the bench for three years and overcoming a variety of setbacks, it was important to stack the deck for Collins to get off to a fast start. The hope was that he would gain confidence early, show some leadership, and go on to have a nice year.
It didn't happen that way, though, and only recently did Collins settle into the role he probably should have been playing all along.
Brackman, Evtimov Bouncing Back
Brackman, a 6-10, 205-pounder, added to this perplexing equation. He came to State more heralded as a baseball pitcher and wasn't supposed to be a big part of Sendek's plans right away. But he clearly was farther along than Simmons in the preseason, and he got significant playing time in the early going.
Brackman had several big games in late December and early January scoring 20 against Louisiana-Lafayette, 14 against Washington, 19 against West Virginia, 16 against Miami and it appeared that he would emerge as State's best inside player.
But Brackman didn't just hit the wall in late January, he barreled into it and knocked himself out. State went through an extended stretch where it got basically nothing out of him. Only recently did he catch his second wind, regain his confidence and start to produce again.
The obvious question, Part II: Had Sendek divvied up the minutes differently early in the season, would Brackman have hit the wall as hard as he did?
Perhaps the happiest guy to see the big men finally jelling was forward Ilian Evtimov. He was the one Sendek turned to whenever things broke down in the middle throughout the first half of the season.
Evtimov has the grit, determination and smarts to battle with anyone, but at 6-7 and 232 pounds, he was at a tremendous size disadvantage while trying to guard the likes of Duke's Shelden Williams or Wake's Eric Williams in the pivot. That's unfair to anyone, especially a guy coming off knee surgery and looking to regain his confidence. It had to affect Evtimov's mindset on the offensive end, too.
Now Evtimov is back to playing his natural forward position, he is getting his confidence and spirit back, and for the most part a couple of games notwithstanding he is playing his best basketball of the season.
Sendek, of course, doesn't have a history of developing big men. Josh Powell was coming along nicely by the end of his sophomore year, but then he turned pro, and he hasn't been heard from since.
Many N.C. State fans argue that the Princeton-style offense has something to do with the problem. It is hardly geared to the traditional big man. It forces some of them to try to do some things they're not capable of doing, and it often leaves them in spots where they're naturally out of position to rebound or make plays.
Maybe that won't change, at least as long as Sendek is in Raleigh. Or maybe the coach's newer recruits will be a better fit for a system he installed just three seasons ago. Either way, State's big men have had to adjust and find their niches and find ways to be contributors instead of liabilities. That's exactly what they've done reasonably well lately.