February 7, 2006
RALEIGH -- As the 2005-06 season progresses, it is becoming even more clear that N.C. State's ultimate fate will be decided on the boards.
State has proven that it can be a good team even with mediocre rebounding, as shown by its 18-4 overall record and 7-2 ACC mark into mid-February. But if the Wolfpack wants to make a long run in the NCAA Tournament, it is going to have to get significantly better on the boards, or the night surely will come when rebounding leads to its demise.
State has been out-rebounded for the season, which is even more troubling considering that the full slate to this point includes opponents such as Stetson, The Citadel, Delaware, VMI, UNC Asheville and New Hampshire.
Before it out-rebounded Maryland by three in a 62-58 win on Feb. 5, the Pack was being out-rebounded by an average of 3.2 in ACC games, despite losing only two of those contests. Before the win over the Terps, State had been out-rebounded badly in two recent games, 41-27 in a home loss to Seton Hall and 49-31 in a home win over Wake Forest.
"It's something (Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek) stresses all the time," senior guard Tony Bethel said. "It's just a matter of being aware of it and putting a body on people and really making the effort to rebound better. We're playing good defense, and when you play defense like that, you have to rebound and not give up any second chances."
Adding to the concerns on the glass, State ranks last in the ACC in offensive rebounds.
Part of the problem is that State's two big men, sophomores Cedric Simmons and Andrew Brackman, have not developed into consistent rebounders. Simmons leads the team in rebounding at 6.9 per game, but that's paltry for a center with All-ACC hopes. Brackman is averaging 4.0, which is not even as much as reserve guard Gavin Grant's 4.9.
Some wonder if State's system, which often has Simmons trapping on the perimeter, takes him away from the basket and out of rebounding position too often. Simmons also loves to go for blocked shots (2.95 per game), which affects his rebounding chances when he doesn't make the block successfully.
Sendek insists that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the defense as it relates to rebounding, however. He said State is just going to have to work harder and continue to put more emphasis on rebounding.
Either way, State is going to win a lot of games and finish with a nice record at this point. But this team has hopes of more than just a nice regular-season record, and its improvement on the glass will be one key variable as it moves toward the postseason.
EXPERIENCED TEAM AVOIDS SLUMPS
Through 22 games, State had not lost back-to-back games all season.
After a loss at Iowa on Nov. 30, it responded with a seven-game winning streak. After a loss at North Carolina on Jan. 7, it came back with a big win at Boston College three nights later. After losing at Duke on Jan. 21, it came back to beat Wake Forest three days later. And after an ugly loss to Seton Hall on Jan. 25, it responded by pulling out three straight nail-biters -- at Clemson in double overtime, then over Virginia and Maryland at home.
That's a sign that the veteran leadership on the team -- Bethel, junior guard Engin Atsur, senior guard Cameron Bennerman and senior forward Ilian Evtimov -- is fully emerging. State's players also point out something else. It's a sign of how much they have learned from their losses, and how much they realize they hate to lose. Those are both really good signs heading into the stretch run.
One more thing to consider. If State never loses two in a row this season, it will have at least 22 wins going into the NCAA Tournament. That's pretty good work.
DETAILS CONTROL COSTNER SITUATION
Freshman forward Brandon Costner is back practicing with the team and suiting up for games again, after going out with a stress fracture in his leg in late November.
Costner recently said he wants to play again this season, if he can get healthy enough for the stretch run. Yet speculation abounds that he will wind up sitting out the rest of the way and take a medical redshirt. If that sounds like a contradiction, it isn't.
Here's the deal: Costner played in State's first five games, thus eliminating the chance of taking a standard redshirt. The way State interprets NCAA rules regarding medical hardships, the only way a player can apply for and be granted an extra year of eligibility is for that player to continue to strive to get healthy after he has been injured and to make every effort to return to action. If the rehab doesn't go well enough and the player doesn't return, then and only then will the NCAA consider his appeal for an extra year of eligibility.
So if State or Costner came out today and said that the player had decided not to try to come back this season, he would risk losing his appeal altogether.
There are two additional things to consider with this situation.
State's front-line depth isn't so good that it can afford to write Costner off at this moment, anyway. Sendek is doing fine without him for now, but if Simmons or Brackman had the misfortune of a significant injury, State might need Costner for the sake of depth if he could play.
Meanwhile, Costner, like most highly touted recruits, came in with the idea of winding up in the NBA some day. So a fifth year of eligibility might never come into play, anyway, if he develops the way he hopes he will.
POSITIVE SIGN: ROAD PERFORMANCES
State will close the regular season with four of its last seven games on the road, but that shouldn't be as daunting a task as some might think. The Wolfpack's statistics on the road versus at home are equal in virtually every category, and it actually has shot better from the field on the road.
The two ACC road losses, versus North Carolina and Duke, were nip and tuck until State fell apart at the end. And those games served as valuable learning experiences, according to Bennerman.
"Those two games had a lot to do with the environments at Carolina and Duke," Bennerman said. "You're under the influence of a lot of pressure. Those are hostile environments. If you hold up at those places, that says a lot. We're going on the road the next couple weeks, and we're going to have to stick together, but we know we can. We'll run into adverse situations, but Carolina and Duke, those are one of a kind."