March 14, 2005 RALEIGH When N.C. State lost at Wake Forest 86-75 on Feb. 10, the Wolfpack was 13-10 overall, 3-6 in the ACC, and in the throes of a three-game losing streak. It had lost eight of its previous 11. The chances of pulling out an NCAA Tournament bid looked remote, to say the least. But a late-season surge, followed by another impressive showing in the ACC Tournament, allowed State to squeeze out its fourth straight NCAA Tournament invitation. The Wolfpack wound up getting a No. 10 seed in the Syracuse Regional, where it was matched up against in-state foe Charlotte, the No. 7 seed, in Worcester, Mass.
The bid represented the fourth NCAA Tournament trip for the senior class of Julius Hodge, Jordan Collins, Levi Watkins and (redshirt junior) Ilian Evtimov. That group arrived in the aftermath of a 10-year run in which the Pack failed to reach the Big Dance even once and never finished better than 6-10 in the ACC.
"I did have a great deal of confidence that we had played our way into the tournament," ninth-year coach Herb Sendek said. "I fully anticipated that we would get an invitation."
Chances are, nothing short of a Sweet 16 appearance (that likely would require a win over No. 2 seed Connecticut) will silence the many critics of Sendek, who has been under fire all season, even on his own weekly radio show. But it erased any doubt over whether or not Sendek's job is safe, if there ever was any doubt to begin with, considering that the coach always has had strong support from athletic director Lee Fowler.
Funny thing is, Sendek continues to draw the admiration and respect of State's opponents, if not the school's own fans.
After State wore down on the third day of the ACC Tournament and lost to eventual champion Duke 76-69, Mike Krzyzewski went out of his way to sing State's praises.
"N.C. State has to be in the tournament," Krzyzewski said. "I thought coming into this tournament they were playing the best basketball in the conference, and I think they showed that in all three of their games here. I don't usually talk about another team. In fact, I rarely talk about another team, especially to my own team, except for the team we're going to play against. But when I saw them play at Georgia Tech when they started their run, I said, 'This is a team that I admire. They're playing with such courage and togetherness.' They're a really good basketball team."
The turnaround State went 8-4 starting with a win at Georgia Tech on Feb. 13, to finish the regular season at 19-13 was pretty incredible, in many ways.
State battled injuries throughout the season, perhaps the most hurtful coming to point guard Tony Bethel, who missed four games with a stomach bacteria problem and was not his normal self for more than a month. State also played without center Jordan Collins (shoulder), forward Levi Watkins (knee) and guard Cameron Bennerman (elbow) at times down the stretch, then lost Bethel (groin) again in the ACC Tournament.
Passing, Foul Shooting Upgraded
Four of the 12 games down the stretch were against teams that wound up getting No. 1 or No. 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. State split with Wake Forest, winning by 16 in the tournament after losing by two in Raleigh, and lost to North Carolina and Duke.
Besides the normal cloud that hangs over the program's head, with the team's own fans blasting Sendek relentlessly, State dealt with the added turmoil that came when Wake's Chris Paul punched Hodge during the game in Raleigh. That led to Paul's one-game suspension in the ACC Tournament and prompted heated words from both sides.
How did State do it?
"We got better, and we played well," Sendek said. "It had to do with nothing more complicated than the fact that they guys continued to work hard."
In truth, the defense was substantially better down the stretch, as holding high-scoring Wake to 55 and 64 points in the span of a week would indicate.
State ran its offense to perfection in the ACC Tournament wins over Florida State and Wake, too, getting more backdoor layups in the Wake game than in any game all season. Evtimov was the key to that, with his passing from the top of the key, which was set up by his ability to hit the three-pointer and draw the defense out to clear up the middle.
State also improved its free throw shooting a major problem in several close losses this season down the stretch.
"Of course, we always believed in each other," guard Engin Atsur said. "But we did not have a lucky season. You know, a lot of things led to losses, and losses led to more losses. The thing that kept us going was we knew how good we are, and we got an opportunity to show that at the end of the season. It just didn't happen for a while. But we went into the ACC Tournament with the opportunity to show we're a good team, and I think we proved that we are."