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Sendek Leaning On Proven Veterans, Unconventional Style

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Brett Friedlander
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer

November 17, 2003 RALEIGH — Since the end of last season, N.C. State's basketball team has:

  • lost its best big man to the NBA draft, even though he wasn't selected;
  • lost its second-best big man for the first semester because of academics;
  • had one of its recruits suspended for the first three games of the season for briefly playing in a professional league overseas and;
  • had one of its top shooters sidelined for six to eight weeks because of a broken bone in his hand.

Adversity? For some teams, maybe. For the Wolfpack, it's business as usual.

“Every year that I've been here, we've experienced some sort of adversity,” senior guard Scooter Sherrill said. “It's unbelievable how that keeps happening. But if anybody should know how to overcome adversity and make the best of the situation, it's us.”

Two seasons ago, coach Herb Sendek's resilient team overcame the early loss of forward Levi Watkins to earn its first NCAA Tournament bid in more than a decade. State got back to the tournament last year despite losing top forward Ilian Evtimov to a similar preseason knee injury.

By comparison, the Wolfpack's most recent setbacks were relatively minor.

Even without Josh Powell, whose ill-advised decision to turn pro left a huge void at center, State was picked to finish fourth in the ACC's preseason media poll. Factor in the returns of junior center Jordan Collins, freshman guard Engin Atsur and sophomore guard Cameron Bennerman — all by mid-December — and the Wolfpack again could be a scary team to play by March.

“I think we're going to get better as the year goes by,” Sendek said. “We don't approach it any differently than anybody else. We'll go out and try to give it our best effort. That's worked out fairly well for us.”

It could have been better. In each of the past two years, the Wolfpack has played itself onto the NCAA bubble by slumping late in the regular season. Both times it bailed itself out by advancing to the ACC Tournament final.

If State can find a way to build up to that strong finish without first losing seven of 12 leading into the postseason, as it did last spring, it would stand a much better chance of winning an ACC title and the national
respect it has lacked since the days of Jim

“For some reason, it seems like they're always trying to get a feel for each other and their individual games,” Duke point guard Chris Duhon said. “Come tournament time, they start realizing that they need each other, their chemistry gets a lot stronger and they become a better team. If they could come through and realize they need each other and play like that earlier, they could do some amazing things. They could be one of the top programs in the country. They've got the players.”

The best of them is junior guard Julius Hodge. A preseason frontrunner for ACC player of the year honors, the flashy 6-7 New Yorker began living up to his immense reputation last season by leading the league in scoring for most of the year. He finished third at 17.7 points per game, highlighted by a 31-point performance in the ACC Tournament semifinals against Wake Forest.

After spending his offseason working as hard on his erratic jump shot as he did trying to bulk up his matchstick-thin body, Hodge has proclaimed he's no longer “that skinny, brash New Yorker with the flat jump shot.” While he might not be as skinny and his shot might have a bit more arc to it, Hodge appears to be just as brash as ever — if not more so — when it comes to discussing his expectations for the coming season. Forget about ACC player of the year. He has his sights set much higher.

“How about national player of the year? I think that's a pretty good goal,” Hodge said at State's preseason media day. “I know a lot of guys, even from this conference, who were preseason All-Americans or this or that, and they didn't finish it off or play the way they were supposed to. I have to live up to the

So far, so good. In State's first preseason exhibition game, against EA Sports, Hodge was nothing less than spectacular. He scored 28 points, went 10-for-10 from the free throw line and pulled down 11 rebounds in an
81-67 victory.

But as talented as he is, Hodge won't be able to carry the Wolfpack by himself, especially against a more-difficult-than-usual schedule that includes non-conference tests against Boston College, Washington, South Carolina and Michigan.

The key to State's success this season likely will be the contributions of its supporting cast, particularly on the low post and at the point guard position.

The latter isn't as pressing a concern as the former, with Hodge and senior shooting guard Scooter Sherrill able to handle the bulk of the ball-handling duties until one of the younger players grows into the role. Senior forward Marcus Melvin, at 6-8, also is adept at putting the ball on the floor and shooting three-pointers.

The Wolfpack's biggest concern will be in the frontcourt, where Powell was beginning to emerge as a force late last season until deciding not to come back to school for his junior year. Now, especially without the 6-10 Collins until mid-December, Sendek will have to rely on Melvin, the 6-8 Watkins and a healthy 6-7 Evtimov to handle most of the dirty work inside and on the boards.

“We might be a little unconventional, we might not be as big as other teams, but I'm very comfortable with our guys,” Sendek said. “I like our team. We can't get hung up on size. We have some players who might not be aircraft carriers, but we've got some length. We have to go smaller and quicker, because we have no other alternative.”

Evtimov could be the key to making such a lineup work. Described by Sendek as the smartest and most versatile player on the team, the redshirt sophomore from Bulgaria averaged 7.1 points per game and shot 56 percent from three-point range in 2001-02 before blowing out his knee in a preseason game last year. He also is an adept passer from the high post, making him a valuable asset to State's complicated, Princeton-like offensive system.

“I'm just trying to help this team, and I have a lot of things I want to show, so I'm excited,” Evtimov said. “There's a special connection between Marcus, Julius, Scooter and me. We had started to develop that last year, but unfortunately I got hurt. Now we can re-start that again. Sometimes we just look at each other and we know what we're going to do.”

Especially in times of adversity.