January 6, 2003
RALEIGH Chuck Amato couldn't be in much better shape going into the offseason.
No, we're not talking about his oversized, heavily thumped chest. We're talking about his program, which finished ranked No. 12 in the final Associated Press poll and No. 11 in the coaches poll after dismantling the Notre Dame myth in the Gator Bowl on the Fighting Irish Network, which, in Roman numerals, is spelled NBC.
The Pack again is rolling in recruiting, already having brought prep All-American defensive end Mario Williams, linebacker Ernest Jones and offensive lineman Yomi Ojo into the fold. Others joined them for January enrollment, including a pair of non-qualifiers (receiver Lamart Barrett and defensive back Garland Heath, both originally from Florida) from last year's class, which means they'll be able to participate in spring practice.
National recruiting analysts have started to notice that Amato is using his old connections to land some of the Sunshine State's best recruits, and it's a good bet that this year's recruiting class will end up just like the football season: close to the top 10.
But here is some friendly advice for Amato: Drop the persecution complex. If you needed to inspire your team for this past season by telling them no one gave them any respect, fine. It worked, thanks in part to a schedule that didn't deserve much respect. You finished 11-3, beat the gilt out of the Fighting Irish and finished with the second-best final AP ranking in school history.
Remember, however, that the media did pick the Wolfpack to finish second in the ACC. (The Sports Journal correctly forecast the 10-3 regular-season record.) The Pack finished, by one game, fourth, because of its three-game losing streak to Georgia Tech, Maryland and Virginia. It's hard to justify a no-respect stance, or a media conspiracy theory, when you actually finish lower than members of the Evil Empire predicted.
Of course, back-to-back wins over Florida State and Notre Dame saved the season and provided a good jumping-off point for the coming season. The 11-3 final mark was not only the best in school history, the Notre Dame game may end up being one of the top three wins in school history, especially if it indeed launches the Wolfpack into the top 10 heading into next season.
The holes Amato needs to fill tight end and two linemen on offense, the entire defensive front are not insurmountable, thanks to the recruiting prowess of the coach and his staff. He already has plenty of people to fill in on the defensive front. The Wolfpack may well have the best ACC players at their respective skill positions next year in quarterback Philip Rivers, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and tailback T.A. McLendon.
Several newspapers did looks ahead at next season recently, and all predicted that the Wolfpack would be among the top three in the conference. At least two made the bold assertion that the Pack would be in the top 10 nationally. That's possible, because next year's schedule includes a trip to Columbus, Ohio, to play defending national champion Ohio State and a more reasonable collection of opponents to gain a little national respect. Texas Tech comes to Raleigh, along with Connecticut and Division I-AA Western Carolina.
Anyone who objects to that schedule should look at OSU's slate next year, when it defends its title: There are eight home games on it.
Clearly, no one is dismissing the Wolfpack's chance to have another great season next year. The opportunity itself should provide plenty of motivation.
Hoops: Easy Schedule Can Hurt
Here is the problem with Herb Sendek's basketball program: The coach believes he is helping his team by putting together putrid non-conference schedules. He is not, and that's why the Wolfpack headed into the ACC season poorly prepared, particularly in going on the road.
The Pack played nothing but patsies in November and December, winning easily for the most part against the likes of Mount St. Mary's, Coppin State and North Carolina A&T. The only decent team Sendek's squad beat was South Carolina, mainly because of strong defense and Julius Hodge's timely scoring.
Completely untested, the Wolfpack went on the road to a neutral site to play Gonzaga in the Jimmy V Classic, where it put on one of the worst shooting performances ever captured by television cameras. At one point the Pack missed 20 straight shots. It returned home for two more games against cupcakes, beating up on Fairleigh Dickinson and Wofford, even thought it didn't play particularly well.
Then, in the big non-conference send-off, the Pack went to Amherst, Mass., to face the Minutemen and again failed to find the basket in a 68-56 loss. This time the Pack missed 13 straight shots in an ESPN2 broadcast, showing the world just how big a joke it was that the Wolfpack actually spent time ranked in the coaches poll.
The Pack likes to think its defense, which is excellent at times, can carry it. Don't count on it. The pockets State's players were picking were on teams that don't have the athletic ability, skill or discipline they will see in the ACC. That's why playing those games paid few, if any, dividends beyond a nice-looking record.
Those games didn't seem to improve the Wolfpack's rebounding ability. State fans should shutter to think how badly their team will get beat on the boards once the ACC season starts.
Remember, the NCAA Tournament selection committee basically dismisses those mini-wins in its RPI formula. Generally, it looks more favorably on a team that performed well in its conference, even if it has a few early season losses. NCSU beat UVa at home to start 1-0.
Would a couple of games, here or there, against a team that has been to the NCAA Tournament at some point in its history be so bad? Those games might actually help the team improve, both in rebounding and in finding the patience it needs on offense to get off a few more decent and make-able shots.
If Sendek doesn't like going on the road, then he should play in a holiday tournament on a neutral court against a decent field. The Wolfpack could have done that last year, but instead it chose to host the ridiculously bad Black Coaches Association Invitational, just so it could get three wins against a horrible field of contestants. Maybe that worked for last year, when the Wolfpack finally returned to the NCAA Tournament after a decade-long absence. But it also blew any chance for the next four years to play in an event that had real competition, because of NCAA limitations.
Sendek complained that the good games on the schedule at UMass, Boston College, at Temple were all moved around to accommodate television. Well, that's what happens when you sell your soul to the devil. At some point, the fire gets hot.