January 9, 2007
RALEIGH Some things about N.C. State's season so far have been predictable and understandable, given the limitations this team has with its youth and lack of depth. One thing has surprised first-year coach Sidney Lowe.
This team has broken the mold in the sense that it has a tendency to get off to bad starts and then has been good at settling down and playing better as the game wears on.
The examples are numerous already. Most recently, State dug a 30-15 hole at home against Boston College and trailed by 18 at halftime before outscoring the Eagles in the second half and actually making a surge to get back into the game at one point.
In the game before that, State had to rally from a halftime deficit and trailed by double digits midway through the second half before rallying to beat UNC Greensboro in overtime. State didn't pull away from UNC Wilmington until the second half in the game before that. It trailed East Carolina by 15 in the first half before rallying.
Only once at Cincinnati has State lost after leading at halftime.
Lowe coached some young teams at Minnesota, Vancouver and Memphis in his NBA career, but this trend is something he hasn't seen from his previous teams.
"It's new to me," Lowe said. "It's unusual to me to have a young team that kind of does it in reverse. We seem to get going in the second half. When we get down, we pick it up normally. When you're young, you come out excited and energetic, and you normally lose it down the stretch. That's been my experience in the NBA. But this team here, they just don't give up. They keep going and they dig and dig and find a way, but some days it's not enough."
There are perhaps two plausible explanations for this.
When senior point guard Engin Atsur missed nine games because of a strained hamstring, State was short-handed above and beyond its regular depth issues, and Lowe had to change roles and responsibilities.
The start of the first half is a feeling-out period for players who may be out of position, and they're naturally going to be more hesitant and less assertive as they try to settle in. If and when they fall behind, the sense of urgency sets in and Lowe makes some coaching adjustments, and the aggressiveness and assertiveness generally increase.
Also, with Lowe limited to either a six- or seven-man rotation during Atsur's absence, there likely was a thought in the backs of the players' minds that they had to pace themselves, that they had to stay out of foul trouble and go the distance. Sophomore forward Ben McCauley and junior guard Gavin Grant played all 45 minutes in the overtime win over UNC Greensboro, and sophomore guard Courtney Fells played 39. Grant played all 40 minutes against BC, and freshman forward Brandon Costner 39.
Lowe stresses to his players that they have to be aggressive from the start. But that's easier said than done when it's important not to take unnecessary risks that might result in foul trouble, or when the referees are still establishing a flow and a pattern for what they will and won't call.
It's easy to see why Lowe would expect the opposite from his NBA experience, because in the NBA veteran opponents ease through the early stages against young teams and then turn up the heat in the fourth quarter, and pull away then. That's when young NBA teams get frazzled and make their biggest mistakes, because they haven't found the key to winning close games.
This is inherently different, because college opponents are throwing solid punches from the start in an effort to set the tone for the game. And this is inherently different because NBA teams always have eight- or nine-man rotations, more fouls to give, and more flexibility and ways to rest players.
The return of Atsur should help dramatically in that regard, even though he was rusty in his first game back (against BC), and his inability to hit the open shot was part of the reason State fell behind so quickly. Eventually, he'll give State more steadiness, more experience, more depth, and his teammates will be back at their normal positions in their familiar roles.
Another thing that could work in State's favor as the season progresses is that Lowe already is proving to be pretty good at spotting problems and limitations, and adjusting accordingly.
There were questions about how he'd handle the Xs and Os in the college game, since he had been in the NBA for so long. But through the first half of his first season, he has not been a bad bench coach in the least. In fact, some adjustments and some nifty game-planning helped State get back into games or stay in games that some coaches might not have been able to keep close.
O'BRIEN BRINGING BC OFFENSE
Tom O'Brien's football staff may look familiar to ACC fans. Four offensive assistants and two other aides who were with him at Boston College have been hired, and they will make up the bulk of the new Wolfpack staff.
The hiring of the offensive assistants, including coordinator Dana Bible, was a pretty good hint that O'Brien plans to run the same traditional, pro-style, hard-blocking offense he utilized with the Eagles.
The only thing missing right now is the jumbo linemen BC produced with such amazing regularity. But this offense should be a good fit for State running backs Andre Brown and Toney Baker BC's L.V. Whitworth and Andre Callender rushed for 1,424 yards combined this season and it could maximize the talent at the quarterback position.
As with most coaching changes, there will be open competition in the spring at quarterback, among Daniel Evans, Justin Burke and Nebraska transfer Harrison Beck. Any of the three could flourish in the new system. BC quarterback Matt Ryan completed 61.6 percent of his passes and threw for an average of 245.2 yards a game for O'Brien and Bible in 2006.
The players are no doubt in for some culture shock as they adjust to O'Brien's strict, regimented style on and off the field, but the transition to the coach's Xs and Os could be a relatively easy and positive one.
The six assistants who will join O'Brien from BC: Bible, Jim Bridge (tight ends), Don Horton (offensive line), Jason Swepson (running backs), Jerry Petercuskie (recruiting coordinator, special teams) and Keith Willis (defensive line). Horton, Petercuskie and Willis were widely regarded as the Eagles' top aides, along with defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani and linebackers coach Bill McGovern, who stayed in Chestnut Hill.