January 27, 2003 RALEIGH About half of Wolfpack Nation might not care to read this: It includes praise of Herb Sendek.
Now, there are things for which the coach can and probably should be criticized: playing a weak schedule; failing to win important games on the road this year; maybe even having the personality of a carbuncle.
But take a look at what Sendek, who seemed to be shadowed by moving vans less than a month ago, did with the Wolfpack after his team lost three out of four games in early January. He ended his personal 13-game losing streak to Duke, beating the No. 3 Blue Devils 80-71 at home. He extended his winning streak over North Carolina to three games, with an 86-77 win on Super Sunday. That represented the longest win streak over the hated Tar Heels since David Thompson led the Pack to nine straight wins in the series.
In fact, the Wolfpack headed into a Thursday night game against Maryland with a 4-1 record in the ACC, the team's best start in conference play since 1988-89, the last time State won the regular-season conference championship.
Coming on the heels of last year's third-place finish in the ACC and a runner-up finish in the ACC Tournament, it was hard to believe that it was only weeks ago that the talk was starting up again about who the best successor might be for Sendek. All along, though, Wolfpack athletic director Lee Fowler said his support of his coach never wavered.
Some of the fans' speculation might have been justified, especially after the Wolfpack had another terrible road performance at Georgia Tech and then lost at home in similarly bad fashion to Boston College. There seemed to be little Sendek could do to salvage a decent season, with Ilian Evtimov out for the year with a knee injury and the rest of his team falling apart around him.
There appeared to be some internal strife between Sendek and star sophomore Julius Hodge, who was benched the final 11 minutes of the game against the Yellow Jackets for not properly participating in the Wolfpack offense. Hodge said there was no bad blood between him and the coach, but there clearly were some philosophical disagreements.
But here is where Sendek should get some credit: He took control of his team. He and Hodge mended any broken fences they had. Sendek pried junior Marcus Melvin's head from whatever tunnel it was in. And he let senior Clifford Crawford, once known only as the Turnover With Tattoos, step into the role of leader that had been filled last year by another player who had never lived up to his potential until his senior season, Anthony Grundy.
The turnaround was remarkable. After Melvin missed all seven of his field goal attempts against Boston College, he played key roles in the wins at Florida State and over North Carolina. Crawford had a career-high four three-pointers against Duke, scoring 21 points, and he played fantastic defense on Duke's J.J. Redick and North Carolina's Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton. Hodge, after his 11-minute sit-down, averaged 22.8 points in his next four games, including a career-high 30 points against North Carolina on a career-high five three-pointers.
Sendek said he didn't make any big changes, other than to make sure everyone on the team performed their assigned duties. But it was pretty obvious that everything suddenly clicked, just as it did last year following the team's home loss to Massachusetts.
Guys have kept working, Sendek said. There are really no magical answers. There are no potions. We showed up every day. We tried to positively evaluate ourselves, learn from every experience and keep working.
What Sendek didn't do was listen to the chirping going on behind his back, with his seemingly week-to-week ratings with a significant portion of the Wolfpack faithful.
I hope this means they will leave him alone, said Melvin, following the win over the Tar Heels. They need to. Just let him live.
And, Melvin said, let the players play, with support.
Mostly, the turnaround was because of us not wanting to fail, he said. A lot of people were with us through the summer, because we went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a long time. We don't want to let our fans down. We want to win games for the program.
Right now, the Pack is fulfilling that mission.
Amato Executes Smart Maneuvers
Chuck Amato is a very smart football coach, and his move to trot out his seven new recruits for an early January press conference was exceedingly wise.
The event kept the Gator Bowl champion Wolfpack in the local papers and on TV for a few more days, it was a great opportunity to show off blue-chip prospects Mario Williams and Derek Morris, and it was a good start on what could be the best recruiting class in school history.
By most accounts, Amato is plowing new terrain in bringing in so many new players at the mid-semester break, especially since five of those newcomers Williams, Yomi Ojo, Ernest Jones, Garland Heath and Lamart Barrett joined the team in time to practice for the Gator Bowl. One veteran recruiting analyst said he'd never seen anything like it.
Amato added two more, Morris and Demarcus Tank Tyler, just after the team returned from beating Notre Dame in Jacksonville. Six of those seven will count as part of last year's recruiting class, which had only 19 members officially. The other recruit it doesn't really matter which one will count as part of this year's class.
The coach hit a grand slam by convincing quarterback Philip Rivers to enter in January 2000. Things haven't worked out well for others who enrolled in January, notably Tramain Hall.
Amato joined all seven of this year's new players in a press conference to talk about their arrival. That gave them a day to shine in front of the media. Now, when the real signing day (Feb. 5) rolls around, the media will focus on other interesting story lines. As always with Amato, there are likely to be plenty of them.