By Dan Wiederer
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
November 22, 2006
RALEIGH -- For the better part of six months now, N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe has started each of his days with a simple task. He pinches himself.
Ecstatic to be back on campus, leading the program he piloted to the 1983 national title as a player, Lowe continues to radiate a contagious energy, infecting his players and a passionate fan base with his effervescence and championship dreams.
It matters little to the new coach that his first season back in Raleigh promises to be a bumpy ride, with the Wolfpack pegged by most observers to finish last in the ACC. For now, Lowe is taking the enthusiastic route.
"I'm the basketball coach at N.C. State University," he said. "How can I not be excited?"
Yet with that excitement comes a harsh reality, the idea that this year's State squad has few big bodies inside, little depth off the bench and a schedule that promises to batter the Wolfpack's confidence early and often.
So while Lowe's ultimate goal is to revive the glory he experienced as a player 23 years ago, the immediate path appears to have enormous obstacles. Quite simply, the Pack's roster is without the experience or the depth to survive in an experienced and deep ACC.
With Cedric Simmons gone to the NBA and Andrew Brackman choosing to focus on baseball, State's biggest weakness is inside. Sophomore Ben McCauley starts at center, a year after averaging just 2.1 points and 1.0 rebounds. Worse, the Pack may go only six or seven players deep for most of the season. That could lead to a fatigued team at the time the conference season heats up in January.
Even Lowe himself has plenty of learning to do as he gives his coaching career the old college try, after 15 years in the NBA. The new State leader admits it's been an adjustment dealing with the peripheral issues that go with the Xs and Os.
"Now you come to work and it's, 'Did the kids go to class? Does somebody else have a stomach ache? Is everyone OK?'" he said. "Then you add in the fact that you're playing in the ACC, and you have basketball tradition all around you, and the challenge in huge. I was aware of what I was coming into. But there are certain things you can't see until you've been in those situations."
How Lowe and his players handle their inevitable growing pains this season will go a long way toward determining the direction of the program. But starting out, the coach wants to make one thing certain.
"I want my guys to feel the joy when they win and the hurt and the pain when they lose," he said. "When we walk out of that arena at the end of the ball game, if we don't win and you're not hurting like you've never hurt before, you're in the wrong place."
It is that type of attitude that has energized State's fans, leading them to believe they finally have a coach who outwardly shares their passion for winning and isn't afraid to vocalize big goals.
That never seemed to be the case with Lowe's predecessor, Herb Sendek, who tied a school record last season by taking State to its fifth straight NCAA Tournament but often was skewered for a perceived inability to produce those landmark triumphs, criticism that led to his departure to Arizona State.
Many fans argue that had Sendek produced more statement wins -- he was a combined 3-27 against Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski and reached the Sweet 16 only once in 10 years -- his bland personality never would have been an issue. But Sendek's most vocal critics contend that his lack of charisma was the reason more milestone wins never happened.
With Lowe, there are no such concerns.
Said Wolfpack junior Gavin Grant: "Coach Lowe has a Wolfpack history. Our fans love him and they care for him. This is his alma mater. So this is not just a job for him, it's his passion. He loves to be here. And that should mean he'll be able to lead us in the right direction."
On the court, Grant may be the man doing most of the leading. He figures to carry the bulk of State's scoring burden, while asked to play mega-minutes and at least three different positions -- point guard, wing guard and wing forward -- for a very thin squad.
In the Pack's two preseason games, Grant totaled 78 minutes, 50 points and 15 rebounds, showcasing his attacking offensive game. What's more, the 6-7 swingman admits that he feels liberated playing in Lowe's up-tempo offense, which Grant sees as a refreshing change from Sendek's methodical system.
"I'm looking forward to having the ball in my hands a little bit more, getting up and down and being able to create," Grant said. "I just need a coach who will allow me to play. And I think I have that in Coach Lowe."
Grant also has a pair of talented backcourt mates in senior Engin Atsur and sophomore Courtney Fells.
Atsur, who spent his summer playing with the Turkish national team, battled an Achilles injury through the preseason. Last year, he averaged 10.8 points and 3.4 assists per game and ranked fifth in the league with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.68. He might be the most underappreciated player in the ACC.
Fells, meanwhile, appears to have the tools to become a star at some point down the road. He has freakish athleticism, explosive scoring ability and a 7-1 wingspan that makes him a defensive weapon.
Said Lowe: "I've talked to Courtney about trying to be the best player on the court. He has the athleticism and the ability to do a lot. So we've talked a lot about not wasting it."
In the same vein, the Wolfpack must do its best this season not to waste the learning experiences that will accompany what many believe will be the program's worst season of the 21st century.
The best news is that every major contributor but Atsur should be back in 2007-08 for a team that also will add a strong recruiting class led by Georgia center J.J. Hickson, a likely McDonald's All-American.
Aware that a tumultuous present may soon lead to a bright future, everyone within the Wolfpack program has talked about developing a culture that dares to think big.
"We're all very aware that we're in for some tough moments," associate head coach Monte Towe said. "But being back in that arena and that atmosphere of ACC basketball is something you have to be looking forward to."
Lowe certainly is. Despite questions about his lack of college coaching experience and an admitted loathing of losing, the new State coach knows for certain that he will not stay down long, even if he's knocked to the canvas often in his first season.
"I've never been a quitter," Lowe said. "Never. I always thought that the next day was going to get better, and so I got ready to go to work.
"You never know when it's going to click for your players. One day all of a sudden, they seem to get it, and now you're on a nice little roll. I always felt that it's going to happen."
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 4-12 (8) 17-15 NIT 2nd Round
1998 5-11 (8) 17-15 NIT 2nd Round
1999 6-10 (5) 19-14 NIT 2nd Round
2000 6-10 (6) 20-14 NIT Final Four
2001 5-11 (7) 13-16 None
2002 9-7 (3) 23-11 NCAA 2nd Round
2003 9-7 (4) 18-13 NCAA 1st Round
2004 11-5 (2) 21-10 NCAA 2nd Round
2005 7-9 (6) 21-14 NCAA Sweet 16
2006 10-6 (4) 22-10 NCAA 2nd Round
x -- won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Engin Atsur* 6-4/200 PG Sr.
Bryan Nieman 6-6/215 WF Sr.
Courtney Fells 6-5/194 WG So.
Gavin Grant 6-7/212 WF So.
Ben McCauley 6-9/235 C So.
Brandon Costner 6-8/230 BF r-Fr.
Trevor Ferguson 6-5/185 WG r-Fr.
Dennis Horner 6-7/200 WF Fr.
Bartosz Lewandowski 7-3/245 C Fr.
- -- returning starter
Engin Atsur started 90 games over the last three seasons and is the leading returning scorer. He has to make the move from wing guard to the point, however, so his senior year will be one of transition. If he can run the show and also score, State will benefit and Atsur will be more equipped to go home to play professionally in Europe. He has disappeared for stretches in the past. Gavin Grant is the athletic wing player who will have to score a lot, and he showed signs of doing that late last season. The key is to score a lot without taking too many shots, and he'll have to develop consistency and more of an all-around game. There will be some debate as to what Grant considers a good shot and what others consider a good shot, but for now he has clearance to launch. Ben McCauley is all there is in the low post, and that puts a huge burden on him to rebound, provide inside scoring and muscle up without getting into foul trouble. The problem is, at 6-9, he's a natural power forward who will have to play center out of necessity. If one or more of the building blocks struggles or gets hurt, this team will be in serious trouble.
Other Key Returnees
Brandon Costner was a highly touted recruit who got a medical redshirt after playing in five games and suffering a stress fracture in his leg as a freshman last year. He's the power forward, but he has been more of a perimeter player until now. Time to toughen up. Courtney Fells is athletic and talented and set at wing guard, but he'll need to grow up in a hurry. He showed flashes, but only brief ones, as a freshman.
The new guys who need no introductions are coach Sidney Lowe and two members of his staff, assistant Monte Towe and director of operations Quentin Jackson. All are former State guards. Unfortunately, defections left State with only one freshman who will be in the rotation, small forward Dennis Horner. Transfer wing Trevor Ferguson, technically a redshirt freshman, will be eligible in mid-December. He'll jump into the rotation immediately. The other rookie, 7-3 Bartosz Lewandowski, is a long-range project.
ALSO Worth Noting
Former walk-on Bryan Nieman impressed Lowe enough to earn a scholarship and could see a decent amount of playing time. He's a 6-6 senior swingman who once played at Gulf Coast Community College. ... Two transfers ineligible all season are Farnold Degand and Simon Harris, son of assistant coach Larry Harris. ... Lowe wanted to change the uniform style and bring back the traditional jerseys he wore in 1983 with STATE across the chest. But NCAA rules prohibited it, so NC STATE remains. There is one significant uniform change: The players' names are on the back of their jerseys. That was unfathomable to ex-coach Herb Sendek, because it suggested individuality.
Chart By: The NCSU Insider