December 15, 2003 RALEIGH As long as the N.C. State basketball team stays close to home, whether it's at the RBC Center or historic Reynolds Coliseum, the Wolfpack at least looks like it's capable of being an upper-division finisher in the ACC. But as the Pack learned two years ago, when it finally broke the program's decade-long NCAA Tournament drought, it's what happens on the road that really will determine what kind of season Herb Sendek's eighth N.C. State team will have.
The first venture away from home was pretty futile. A mediocre-at-best Michigan team made the Wolfpack look offensively inept, as the Wolverines' athletic guards destroyed any chance State had to move the ball around effectively. They did it in much the same way several other teams have done it over the last four years, whenever State has cut the umbilical cord and left home. The Pack committed 19 turnovers and went nearly 10 minutes without a field goal against the Wolverines.
In mid-December, following two relatively easy wins during exams, the Wolfpack hit the road again to play Dave Odom's South Carolina team in Columbia, S.C. The Gamecocks won their first eight games, against a schedule that was Sendek-esque. In other words, it was chock full of overmatched mid-majors.
Sendek never had much luck against Wake Forest when Odom coached there, going 4-8 over five seasons. Odom, a native of Goldsboro who grew up going to games in Reynolds Coliseum, seems to relish wins over State, which wooed Odom when Les Robinson stepped down as the Pack's basketball coach after the 1995-96 season. At the time, the ACC office stepped in and said schools in the league should not be courting other coaches in the conference.
So, yet again, the Wolfpack will have to prove something on the road before the ACC season begins on Dec. 28 against Virginia.
The good thing is that there is still time. Two years ago, after losing at Ohio State and at Massachusetts, the Wolfpack bounced back with a decisive win at Syracuse, which was ranked in the top 10 at the time. It went on to record a 4-4 mark on the road in the ACC, its most wins away from home in the league since the 1974 NCAA championship team.
On the other hand, since the preseason prognostications (State was picked fourth) were made, things have changed in the ACC in a big way. The Wolfpack is one of the few teams in the league whose prospects have diminished, now that both Georgia Tech and Maryland have wins over No. 1 opponents. The Yellow Jackets were the league's biggest surprise, knocking off Connecticut early in the year, while the inconsistent Terps scored a win over No. 1 Florida.
Meanwhile, the Wolfpack was ranked No. 24 in the preseason poll but dropped out even before its loss at Michigan. If the Pack is going to stay in the upper division, it will have to find a way to get its offense going on the road.
Melvin Up, O'Donnell Down
If there was a positive development in wins over Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Hartford after the loss to Michigan, it was that senior forward Marcus Melvin finally came to life, scoring more than 20 points in both games. He even did some work on the boards, something the Wolfpack desperately will need as it gets into ACC play.
Melvin obviously was pressing early in the season, uncomfortable with his projected role as an inside player. That concern, among other things, led Melvin to quietly look into his status with pro scouts after last season, when Josh Powell's unwise decision to turn pro generally kept Melvin's inquiries out of the spotlight. The NBA feedback: Melvin is an outstanding shooter and a solid ball-handler for a 6-8, 230-pound player, but his package of skills wasn't good enough to make him even a second-round pick last year.
Melvin was, after all, about the Pack's only choice to play in the low post early this season, with Powell gone and center Jordan Collins sidelined until mid-December for academic reasons. But what makes Melvin one of the ACC's biggest mismatches is his ability to shoot from outside and bring the ball up the floor.
Melvin got back to those things in recent games, as Sendek experimented with various lineups. In mid-December, the coach still hadn't decided on a set rotation.
Freshman Mike O'Donnell started the Wolfpack's first five games at the point, but he was badly overmatched against Michigan, and he'll have a tough time playing against most point guards in the ACC. He made five three-pointers against Hartford, but it's hard to imagine him scoring much or even holding on to the ball against Raymond Felton, Chris Duhon, Chris Paul, John Gilchrist or Jarrett Jack
So Sendek used junior swingman Julius Hodge and freshman guard Engin Atsur to lead the offense. Hodge doesn't have a vision for much in the offense outside of his own shot, but Atsur has been a pleasant surprise. He's still learning to play the American version of the game, which is more physical than what he experienced in Turkey, and he's overcompensated with a lot of reach-in fouls. But once he gets adjusted, he could be a capable offensive and defensive player for the Pack.
One potentially troubling sign: Sendek left both Hodge and sophomore forward Ilian Evtimov out of the starting lineup for the Wolfpack's recent game against Hartford. The coach insisted it wasn't for disciplinary reasons, that both Atsur and junior forward Levi Watkins practiced better in the prior week, so he started them instead. But the move ended Hodge's streak of 69 consecutive starts, and Evtimov still is recovering from the serious knee injury that kept him out last year.
McLendon: A Pre-Bowl Surprise
It wasn't so much the fact that sophomore tailback T.A. McLendon was caught for speeding on I-40. It was the other circumstances that surrounded the citation that were cause for alarm and jeopardized McLendon's status for the Wolfpack's Tangerine Bowl game against Kansas.
McLendon, plagued by various injuries all season long, was cited for driving 90 miles an hour in a 65 mph zone on Oct. 22, just hours after the Wolfpack beat Duke in Durham. He sat out against the Blue Devils because of a knee injury.
The 19-year-old sophomore, whom many colleges stopped recruiting two years ago because of perceived character concerns and well-documented academic deficiencies, also admitted he had been drinking prior to the traffic stop. That was why he was cited for consuming an alcoholic beverage while under the age of 21. Even though his blood-alcohol level of .03 was well under the legal limit, as a minor, McLendon faces nearly the same punishment as being arrested for driving while intoxicated.
But the most troubling fact was that neither N.C. State coach Chuck Amato nor athletic director Lee Fowler knew about the citation, despite the fact that McLendon had a court date scheduled for early December.
If McLendon didn't tell Amato about it, he may have a lot more to think about in the offseason than the key fumbles he lost against Florida State and Maryland.