March 31, 2005
RALEIGH N.C. State's late-season turnaround and run to the Sweet 16 not only salvaged the season and allowed the Julius Hodge Era to end on a happy note, it also briefly united the warring factions within Wolfpack Nation.
Even the most bitter of the anti-Herb Sendek crowd couldn't complain about the way State banded together down the stretch to pull out an NCAA bid, then beat Charlotte and No. 2 seed Connecticut before falling to Wisconsin in the regional semifinals.
That's something the program make that, the university needed badly. The division among the fan base had gotten completely out of control in the past couple of years. Before the late surge, it got to the point that many in the anti-Sendek crowd openly pulled for the team to lose, on the theory that it would hasten the coach's departure. Short-term pain for long-term gain was the motto.
The question now: Has Sendek turned a corner in gaining the support, or at least the acceptance, of the N.C. State fan base? Will the anti-Sendek crowd chill out a bit, now that he has taken State to four straight NCAA appearances, now that it should be evident that he's not going to get fired any time soon? Or is this still an uneasy situation that will blow up again, beginning with the first time State has a bad game next season?
It's tempting to say the answer is C, that this remains an uneasy situation that will blow up again the first time the Wolfpack has a bad game next season. But maybe not.
State certainly has the look of a Top 25 team going into next season, despite the departure of Hodge. A solid veteran base returns in forward Ilian Evtimov, swingman Cameron Bennerman, combo guard Engin Atsur, point guard Tony Bethel, forward Andrew Brackman, center Cedric Simmons and swingman Gavin Grant. Sendek will add three four-star recruits, 6-8 forward Brandon Costner, 6-8 forward Ben McCauley and 6-6 swingman Courtney Fells.
If Sendek addresses a few legitimate complaints from the moaners and groaners in the offseason, he could effectively silence them for some time.
First and foremost will be to play a more enticing non-conference schedule. State's non-conference slate was abysmal again this year, and it showed with State's RPI staying above 100 for much of the season. Washington and West Virginia proved to be legitimate national contenders, and Sendek gave Hodge a New York homecoming by scheduling a trip to the Holiday Festival, but there were too many Elons and Libertys. Even when State was 8-0, it was hard for fans to get too excited, because the competition had been so suspect.
Sendek no doubt will want to keep some patsies on the schedule, especially early, as he works Costner and perhaps McCauley or Fells into the rotation and tries to stack the deck for a fast, confidence-building start. But there is a happy medium, and Sendek could help himself greatly by finding it.
Meanwhile, there are some hints that Sendek will tweak the Princeton-style offense he used during the Hodge Era, in an effort to better suit the strengths of next year's team. If that happens, the anti-Sendek crowd would have its two biggest complaints addressed.
Versatility, Experience, Depth Return
This really could be a nice team next year, clearly capable of bettering this year's 21-14 record.
Evtimov didn't find his form until late in the season, after undergoing two more knee surgeries last summer, but he's a solid player, and as a senior he'll be a solid team leader.
Bennerman was in and out of Sendek's doghouse for most of this season, but he's an explosive offensive player and his lockdown of sharp-shooting guard Brendan Plavich in the second half of the NCAA win over Charlotte showed that he's capable of playing great defense, too. He could be ready for a break-out season, assuming he and Sendek finally can get on the same page full-time.
Atsur was never as consistent as many expected this year, but he's a great outside shooter when he has his confidence. One has to think he'll play with more assertiveness next year, as a veteran upperclassman no longer deferring to Hodge and others.
Bethel is due for some better luck next season, after going through all sorts of stomach problems during the regular season and then suffering a pulled groin in the ACC Tournament. Bethel showed signs of being very good, especially late in the season, in between the sickness and the groin injury.
Bethel (a rising senior), Atsur (junior) and Bennerman (senior) may wind up forming the most experienced backcourt threesome in the ACC next year, depending on who leaves elsewhere for the NBA.
Brackman started strong, hit the wall, then got his second wind and was a major factor again down the stretch. Assuming he learns from that and comes back stronger, he could be one of the better frontcourt players in the league as a sophomore.
Simmons was the prized recruit coming into this year and showed plenty of raw talent, although he was clearly in over his head at times. If he continues to mature and develop some offensive skills during the summer, and he continues to learn the system next fall, Sendek will have a bonafide presence in the pivot.
Grant, too, has potential if he can continue to develop his game. If Costner, a versatile McDonald's All-American in the Marcus Melvin mold (but more athletic), and the other newcomers are as good as advertised, Sendek will be able to go nine or 10 deep.
One other thing to consider. Teams often change personalities in the year after a dominant player such as Hodge leaves, and that's not always bad. Hodge was refreshing, and he had an outstanding four years, and his contributions to the program are not in question. But often, others grow more than anyone would have imagined once they're taken out of the shadows and pushed into the spotlight.
Of course, that's all a best-case scenario. Worst-case, State will get off to a mediocre start, somebody will get hurt, and the anti-Sendek crowd will be back in full force again. But, hey, that would be nothing new around here.