January 5, 2004 RALEIGH Now that the ACC season has arrived, here are two playing-time issues that probably should be addressed by Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek: Sophomore forward Ilian Evtimov and freshman guard Mike O'Donnell should get fewer minutes, and junior forward Levi Watkins and freshman guard Engin Atsur should get more. It may be hard for Sendek to make those decisions, especially with Evtimov. He has gamely tried to return from the reconstructive knee surgery that forced him to miss all of last season. He has had setbacks along the way, including severe tendinitis in the injured knee during his rehabilitation. He still wears a bulky brace on his left knee, something he originally hoped to get rid of by the beginning of January. But Evtimov has shown only glimpses of the abilities that made him one of the ACC's most surprising freshmen in 2001-02. He's looked slow and aggressive on defense translation: too much foul trouble and he hasn't been able to run the offense from the top of the key, as he did so well two seasons ago. He's been given every opportunity to show that he can still make no-look passes on backdoor cuts, a primary weapon in Sendek's offense, but hasn't delivered often. With point guard problems, the Wolfpack can't afford to have another offensive liability on the court. Evtimov hasn't been an effective shooter, shooting 38 percent from the field and making only three of his first 14 three-point attempts on a team that entered the Virginia game ranked last in the ACC in long-range shooting. I don't think Ilian has played anywhere near his capabilities, Sendek said. That's not really a big shock, considering his injury. You don't just come back from that to be exactly like you were before. Watkins, who suffered a similar knee injury two years ago, knows what Evtimov is going through. Watkins struggled to contribute last year on his reconstructed knee, mainly because of inconsistent and erratic shooting. But he has been surprisingly good from behind the arc this season, and his athletic ability should allow him to give the Wolfpack a critical boost in its pathetic rebounding. Watkins has come off the bench in six of the Pack's games, averaging nearly 10 points and making about 40 percent of his three-point shots. For much of the early season, Sendek used O'Donnell as his starting point guard. He likes the 5-11 O'Donnell's gritty style of play, his dive-on-the-floor mentality and his ability to shoot from the outside. Despite all of that, O'Donnell has looked overmatched against the athletic point guards he's faced, and things will get more difficult for him as the Wolfpack continues against ACC competition. Atsur proved against Virginia that he is capable of playing point guard, a position he once handled on the Turkish Junior National Team. He switched to shooting guard after he decided he wanted to play college basketball in the USA. He's OK handling the ball, though both Julius Hodge and Marcus Melvin are better options against the press, and he's been very good on defense. Against Virginia, Atsur scored only four points, but he had five assists with no turnovers. On defense, he had two steals, took two charges and made 10 second-half deflections. To play like he did as a freshman in his first ACC game, Sendek said, is really a beacon of light for us. But the coach also said he had no intentions of giving Atsur more playing time over O'Donnell. I expect them both to be able to play, Sendek said. We have worked hard in order to have quality depth, and I think we are really moving in that direction. I think those guys can play together and spell each other. Troubling Transfer Cycle Continues Perhaps one day Sendek's program will be at a level where the coach won't have to take so many recruiting chances after he is unable to get the players he really wants. That's one big reason Sendek has had so many players transfer out of his program during his seven-plus years in Raleigh. The most recent departure was point guard Dominick Mejia, who left the program at the semester break, disappointed with his playing time. Mejia averaged only 2.8 minutes in the four games he played, as freshmen O'Donnell and Atsur moved into the regular rotation. Next year the Wolfpack's backcourt will get only deeper, as Georgetown transfer Tony Bethel and New York City signee Gavin Grant become eligible to play. Sendek signed Mejia after he was unable to seal a letter of intent from John Gilchrist, a player who had long stated his desire to play for the Wolfpack. Instead, Gilchrist signed with Maryland, so Sendek and his staff went scrambling to find someone else who might fit into his motion offense. Mejia didn't. He barely played last year, and he was getting even less playing time this season. So he joined the long list of transfers most recently, shooting guards Justin Flatt and Trey Guidry who essentially were falsely projected as ACC-caliber players. All but one (Damien Wilkins, now at Georgia) of the 13 players who have transferred away from N.C. State under Sendek's watch ended up at lower-caliber programs. Sendek continues to follow in the footsteps of Jim Valvano at N.C. State and Dave Odom at Wake Forest, coaches who regularly gave scholarships to players of non-ACC ability. Granted, Odom found Tim Duncan, and Valvano found Vinny Del Negro and Tom Gugliotta, among others. Sendek has had some success with Anthony Grundy and Evtimov, but the coach certainly has had far more misses than hits. Rivers Enjoys Classy, Joyful Finale It was the final classy act as a college athlete by one of the classiest young men ever to play ACC football. Philip Rivers stood on the stage with Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato, waiting to receive the fourth bowl MVP trophy of his career. After the Pack's 56-26 victory over Kansas in the Tangerine Bowl, Rivers was the inarguable choice after throwing for five touchdowns and a career-high 475 yards against a defense that might have had trouble stopping a Division I-AA offense. But Rivers wouldn't accept the award alone. He waited until his favorite target and one-time high school basketball rival in Alabama joined him on stage. Rivers and Jerricho Cotchery already had left the field together, as Amato left both in the game until Cotchery caught enough passes to join former Florida State All-American Peter Warrick as the only players in ACC history to reach 200 receptions and 3,000 yards in his career. With the TV hairdos nattering on about whether Amato was being classless in keeping Rivers in a game that obviously was decided long before, the coaching staff was in constant communication with the press box to find out just what Cotchery needed to get to 200 career receptions. He and Rivers left the field side by side, following a 27-yard reception. The two Alabamans were the most important recruits of Amato's tenure at N.C. State. Neither was considered a can't-miss prospect, though many forget that Rivers was a SuperPrep All-American and the Alabama player of the year as a senior. But they accomplished so much during their career that giving them some time to shine in a national spotlight and to finish off their record-setting careers with a few extra statistics was hardly worthy of criticism. Kansas coach Mark Mangino didn't have a problem with Rivers and Cotchery still being in the game late in the fourth quarter. Neither should anybody else.