By John Delong
Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal
November 22, 2005
RALEIGH -- It is Year No. 10 for Herb Sendek at N.C. State. It is Year No. 1 for the Wolfpack in the post-Julius Hodge era. It is a year, to be sure, to find out exactly where the program stands.
Hodge has graduated to the NBA, but virtually everyone else returns from last year's 21-14 NCAA regional semifinalists.
If State proves to be an ACC contender and winds up in the Big Dance for the fifth straight year, then the program will be at the level of consistent success for which Sendek has been striving. If State slips, then Hodge may well go down as the basketball program's version of Philip Rivers.
The hunch is that the former will wind up happening, and that State will prove to be a top-25 team that will battle for second place in the ACC behind clear-cut favorite Duke. But there are so many variables and unknowns that getting a valid take on this team is almost impossible.
Variables and unknowns? There's Tony Bethel's health. There's Gavin Grant's status with U.S. immigration officials. There's the enigma known as Cameron Bennerman. There's Andrew Brackman's stamina. There's Cedric Simmons' learning curve. There's Ilian Evtimov's head, shoulders, knees, toes and anything else that might get re-injured. There's also the departure of Larry Hunter, Sendek's top assistant over the last four years. And, as always, who knows how those heralded recruits will pan out?
One sure thing is that Sendek still isn't Jim Valvano with the one-liners, even though he truly has tried to loosen up a bit lately. Ask him about this team's strengths, and you may get a sermon.
"I think the thing I like most about our team is character," Sendek said. "I think we have really good guys. That doesn't mean we don't have to go to church on Sunday. That doesn't mean we don't make mistakes and do things we shouldn't. We do. But we have good guys. That's a good starting point. And from there you have a fighting chance."
State showed character down the stretch last season, without a doubt. It lost nine of 12 in one stretch to fall to 13-10, and it was perilously close to seeing its season fall apart. But it won four of its next five, then beat Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament to secure an NCAA bid. It staged a dramatic rally to beat Charlotte in the opening round, then upset No. 2 seed Connecticut in the second round before losing to Wisconsin in the Syracuse Region semifinals.
This team wants to take two lessons from that. One, it can't afford to dig itself any kind of hole this season. Two, it is capable of even more if it has its act together.
"We talked about that all offseason," Bethel said. "We showed great character last year to bring it back to where we needed to be. But we don't want to get in a hole like that again. We've got to get off to a good start."
It's hard to imagine that Bethel can start fast at this point. He basically did nothing all summer while rehabbing a groin injury suffered in the ACC Tournament. He was held out for the first four weeks of fall practice, except for shooting and some conditioning drills, and still is being eased back in. Bethel is confident he'll be fine eventually, but this has a disconcerting ring to it. Even after he returns to form, if and when that happens, he'll have to hope he doesn't re-injure himself.
State's backcourt looks good on paper with Bethel, Bennerman and Engin Atsur, but without Bethel, Sendek would have to change some roles and sweat about backcourt depth. Atsur can handle the ball, but he's better playing off the ball and spotting up for open three-pointers. Bennerman? He's better at dunking over Shelden Williams than running the show in a Princeton-hybrid offense.
How valuable is Bethel at the point? State was 16-5 when he started last season, 5-9 when he didn't. And that was with Hodge around to help with the ball-handling and playmaking.
Bennerman and Atsur aren't slouches, though. They're both serious offensive threats. Bennerman's problem is that he needs to play enough defense to stay out of Sendek's doghouse. His minutes fluctuated last season, but he finished strong and showed that he's capable of playing good defense by shutting down Charlotte's Brendan Plavich in the NCAA Tournament. Atsur has gone through some shooting slumps, but he has 59 career starts and should be primed for a good season.
The frontcourt has different kinds of issues. Evtimov has played solid and smart basketball throughout his career, and now he's a senior. He's healthy and maybe in the best shape of his life, after losing 15 pounds in the offseason. There shouldn't be any worries there, except for his history of bad luck in the injury department, so he should provide the consistency inside.
Brackman and Simmons weren't consistent as freshmen. Brackman hit the wall big-time after starting with a bang, and he had to catch his second wind to finish strong. He dumped his summer plans to play baseball and wound up taking an extended break, and the hope is that his endurance will be significantly better. But he'll be playing a lot more than the 18.7 minutes he averaged last season.
Simmons was raw when he arrived and made strides as last season went on. Some believe he made more strides than anyone over the summer. He'll be State's best shotblocker, and Sendek likes his passing for a big man, but he must prove he can handle more minutes consistently.
Two freshmen, Brandon Costner and Ben McCauley, add depth to the frontcourt. Costner has more talent, but McCauley also has the look of an early contributor. If Brackman and Simmons are solid, the youngsters can develop without much pressure. Historically, Sendek has taken a methodical route with his young big men.
Grant, who was discovered to be in the United States illegally shortly before fall practice began, apparently is fine to play until his immigration hearing, which may not take place until next year. He and freshman Courtney Fells are the closest things the Wolfpack has to Hodge in terms of size and style. They'll play on the wing.
Sendek has made it clear that he isn't looking for a Hodge clone. He'll tweak the offense this year in hopes of getting more production all around.
"My philosophy on a departure, whether it's an injury or graduation, has always been you don't go down the hall and get his identical twin," Sendek said. "You do that collectively. We don't have anybody who's Julius Hodge right now. We have people who are different. So we have to make up for things he gave us in different ways, and we have to do so collectively."
Collectively means it's a year to gauge the program. Bethel understands the issues and the possibilities.
"I see us being very good," he said. "Us making it as far as we did last year was a great experience, and we want to do it again. Everybody's got to step up, but I think we will. Ced's gotten so much stronger, and he's got so much confidence now. So has Andrew. Ilian wants to have a great senior year, and so do I, and Cam. So we're a very motivated team. I think we have a chance to do something special."
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 3-13 (9) 15-16 None
1997 4-12 (8) 17-15 NIT 2nd Round
1998 5-11 (8) 17-15 NIT 2nd Round
1999 6-10 (5) 19-14 NIT 2nd Round
2000 6-10 (6) 20-14 NIT Final Four
2001 5-11 (7) 13-16 None
2002 9-7 (3) 23-11 NCAA 2nd Round
2003 9-7 (4) 18-13 NCAA 1st Round
2004 11-5 (2) 21-10 NCAA 2nd Round
2005 7-9 (6) 21-14 NCAA Sweet 16
x - won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Cameron Bennerman 6-4/205 WG Sr.
Tony Bethel* 6-1/185 PG Sr.
Ilian Evtimov* 6-8/222 C Sr.
Engin Atsur* 6-4/200 WG Jr.
Andrew Brackman 6-10/235 BF So.
Gavin Grant 6-7/212 WF So.
Cedric Simmons 6-9/233 C So.
Brandon Costner 6-8/230 WF Fr.
Courtney Fells 6-5/194 WG Fr.
Ben McCauley 6-9/235 BF Fr.
* - returning starter
Ilian Evtimov, steady as a rock and perfect for Herb Sendek's system, is lighter after losing 15 pounds and now a year removed from his third knee surgery. He doesn't have to score a lot to have an impact, but count on some big nights anyway. Engin Atsur enters his third year as a starter and could wind up as the leading scorer. He's definitely the purest shooter. It'll be interesting to see how much he steps up without the shadow of Julius Hodge. Tony Bethel, like Evtimov a fifth-year senior, has faced his share of adversity, including a groin injury that still lingers. His health may be the biggest of all the questions around this team. If he plays well, this is one of the most experienced backcourts in the ACC, and one of the best.
OTHER KEY RETURNEES
Cameron Bennerman can light it up offensively when he's hot, and when he's not in Sendek's doghouse. This soap opera already is off to a rousing first act; Bennerman was benched for the opener. Andrew Brackman is the best of the big men, bulked up after spending the summer in the weight room instead of on the mound. He'll get the important points inside and won't be afraid to step up in tight situations. Cedric Simmons supposedly improved more than anyone over the summer. But his offensive skills remain limited mostly to dunking, and his instincts must improve if he's to hold his own against top big men. Gavin Grant has the same style and prep background as Hodge but is still developing.
All three freshmen can play and will. That will make Sendek's bench deep and should keep the veterans on their toes. Brandon Costner, the most touted of the trio, is probably the best scoring big man after Brackman. Ben McCauley is farther along than some anticipated and could get even more time than Costner, because of his ability to rebound and defend. Courtney Fells is an athletic wing player with a good feel for the game, but he'll likely have to pay his dues behind the upperclassmen.
ALSO WORTH NOTING
The offense will be tweaked with Hodge gone, but it's already apparent that plenty of threes will still get launched. Evtimov, Atsur, Bethel and Bennerman all have great range, and Sendek is even letting some of the big men let it fly. ... Brackman will follow a similar routine to last year as far as mixing hoops with baseball. He'll get allotted time to throw throughout the winter. ... Grant clearly improved his passing skills over the offseason, and he seems to have much more court awareness. ... The additions of Costner and McCauley, and the improvement of Brackman and Simmons, should allow Evtimov to play outside more. Evtimov previously was forced to muscle inside against bigger opponents. ... State's often-creampuff schedule has some early tests, with Notre Dame, Iowa and Alabama all on the road in the first six weeks. ... The bench will have a nostalgic look to it, with Archie Miller elevated to assistant coach and Levi Watkins and Jordan Collins as administrative interns. One change: Larry Harris moves into Larry Hunter's old seat as the top assistant.
Chart By: The NCSU Insider