March 24, 2003 RALEIGH Here's the problem with the way N.C. State's basketball season ended: It left too much room for the overdone debate among some of the school's most passionate fans about coach Herb Sendek's future with the Wolfpack.
There was much press given to post-game locker room spoutings about possible coaching mistakes made by Sendek in the final minutes of the season-ending loss to California in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Much of the venom came from sophomore Julius Hodge, who has been known to let his emotions guide him over the edge, both on the floor and off. Some people find Hodge's emotional outbursts annoying and intensely dislike him for it. Others find his honesty a refreshing alternative to the stiff corporate shirt represented by Sendek and so many other coaches and players.
Hodge's emotions clearly were working overtime after the loss to the Bears, as he made broad-brush assertions that hardly hid his contempt for the way things ended. He believed the Wolfpack should have been getting the ball inside to sophomore Josh Powell, the guy who carried the Pack during their run to the ACC Tournament title game.
What was working, in Hodge's estimation, was dropping the ball inside to Josh. They have to double-team him, and he kicks it back out. It seems simple. Every time we did it, it worked. Then came the clincher: We know what was working. (But) we're playing. We ain't coaches.
Hodge was similarly disappointed devastated, really last year when the Wolfpack was eliminated by Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Washington. He used that disappointment to have a break-out season, one that earned him first-team All-ACC honors. But for the good health and wonderful play of Wake Forest senior Josh Howard, Hodge probably would have been the ACC player of the year.
The tone of this year's comments, however, projected more of a destructive influence than the positive influence last year's ending turned out to be. One of the reasons it was most destructive was that Hodge seemingly jumped on the bandwagon that had been rumbling through Wolfpack-land for the last three or four years: Sendek can't coach, so why keep him around?
N.C. State has some of the most passionate fans anywhere. It also has some of the most unreasonable fans on the planet, folks who have the counter-intuitive ability to want success so badly that they will tear down something that is pretty good right now in the hopes of getting something better later on.
That approach worked out extremely well when the school made the decision to switch from Mike O'Cain to Chuck Amato in football. But the parallels between O'Cain and Sendek aren't as perfectly similar as some people try to make them.
Sendek's program has, except for the 2000-01 season, steadily improved during his seven seasons. He's taken the Wolfpack to the ACC title game three times in seven years. No other current coach in the conference, besides reigning dean Mike Krzyzewski, has won an ACC Tournament title or been to the championship game more than once.
Wolfpack fans were perfectly happy when their team advanced to the title game by beating top-seeded Wake Forest in the semifinals, the third time (Duke in 1997, Maryland in 2002, Wake Forest in 2003) in seven years that Sendek has led his team to a win over the No. 1 seed in the tournament. But what the 2002-03 season will be remembered for is the many missed opportunities the Wolfpack had, from its ugly losses against Gonzaga, Massachusetts and Temple to the NCAA Tournament game against California. So many of those games were there for the taking, but the Pack was unable to deliver.
Not all of those losses can be blamed on the coaching staff, which certainly deserves some credit for the individual improvements of Hodge, Powell and others. The Wolfpack was emotionally dead in the three regular-season road losses to non-conference opponents. They missed shots. How many easy layups did the Pack miss against Cal?
Here's the thing: N.C. State has gone 9-7 for two years running in the ACC, which has been in a rebuilding mode over the last two years. It's a good measuring stick for the future, one the Wolfpack nation should appreciate. That's because a 9-7 record isn't likely to get a coach fired, but it's not a record that's going to get the fan base fired-up, either.
Next Season Appears Promising
So what's the Wolfpack's future?
Well, Hodge is a first-team All-ACC player, and Powell played like one in the ACC Tournament. Marcus Melvin has all-star potential going into his senior year, if only because he creates such serious matchup problems. Fellow junior Scooter Sherrill had some huge clutch performances this season and appears poised for a strong finale. Ilian Evtimov, perhaps the biggest key of all, returns from the knee injury that kept him out of action all season. That certainly looks like an ACC contender and an NCAA Tournament team.
If Sendek can be criticized for any specific thing this year, it would be not developing his bench more than he did. With more depth, the Pack may have had a few more victories, and more players might be ready to step in and contribute early next season.
Sophomore forward Levi Watkins was hampered by injuries, after returning from the knee surgery that cut his freshman season short. He showed flashes at times but ended the season as a seldom-used reserve because of a groin problem. Sophomore center Jordan Collins got some floor time after he recovered from a broken hand, but he was largely a liability in most circumstances, used only because Powell was frequently in foul trouble. Collins is the player most often mentioned in postseason transfer scenarios.
Of the four freshmen Sendek welcomed in a mediocre recruiting class, only swingman Cameron Bennerman made a significant contribution. He earned his way on the court by playing good defense and making key shots when needed. But point guard Dominick Mejia was a forgotten soul at the end of the season, and both seven-foot center Adam Simons and shooter Justin Flatt spent the season as redshirts.
Sendek has only two players coming in next season, the unknown quantity of Turkish player Engin Atsur and unheralded point guard Mike O'Donnell from Florida.
As it stands now, the Wolfpack should be one of the best teams in the ACC next season. Regular-season champion Wake Forest and tournament champ Duke both will be talented but hardly invincible. Maryland will have to totally revamp itself after losing four more seniors. Georgia Tech is a team to be feared, at least if Chris Bosh stays around, and North Carolina could be too. But Virginia appears in disarray, and Clemson and Florida State probably won't be factors until their programs are better established.
So the Wolfpack has the opportunity to be at or near the top of the league. There are still things to accomplish in being a nationally prominent program, things that can be helped by playing a more challenging preparatory non-conference schedule. But fans who spend the offseason wringing their hands about the program's poor position in the ACC are mostly just wasting their time.
The N.C. State administration made its most difficult Sendek decision two years ago, and nobody who's following NCAA rules (as Sendek does) gets fired after back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. The only way the coach would leave now is if he voluntarily departs for another job. While there's constant speculation about potential openings at Pittsburgh and elsewhere, there's no evidence yet of a two-way romance between Sendek and another school.