By Hermann Wendorff, Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
November 11, 2002 RALEIGH Julius Hodge can be an annoying trash-talker, and that's just according to his teammates. The N.C. State sophomore's opponents have referred to him using much harsher terminology. Whatever the perception of Hodge, he is undeniably the engine powering the Wolfpack's drive toward a return to notoriety in the ACC. N.C. State was picked to finish third in the preseason media poll, its highest consideration since 1990. The Pack even garnered four first-place votes, earning a newfound respect on the heels of the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years.
Anticipation in Raleigh is at a level N.C. State hasn't seen since the late Jim Valvano coached the Wolfpack to its last ACC regular-season title in 1988-89.
We could actually go out there and win the conference, said former N.C. State great Tom Burleson, who with his unmistakable 7-4 frame often can be seen cheering on the Wolfpack at the newly named RBC Center in Raleigh.
Much of the credit for the program's recent energy surge goes to Hodge. His commitment to N.C. State two years ago as a consensus top-10 recruit was seen by many as a major victory for coach Herb Sendek, especially after the Wolfpack finished 13-16 during Hodge's senior year of high school.
When he finally took the court, Hodge didn't disappoint. He led all ACC freshmen in scoring and finished second in the rookie of the year balloting, behind Georgia Tech power forward Ed Nelson. Whether Hodge was scoring 21 points at Virginia, shutting down Temple guard Lynn Greer or making a crucial three-pointer in the Pack's ACC Tournament semifinal win over Maryland, the wiry 6-6 swingman always seemed to be the center of attention.
The thing about Julius is he can influence the game in any number of ways, Sendek said. He can do it with his scoring. He can do it on the defensive end. He's just extremely versatile, and he has those innate qualities you can't teach, where guys want to be on his team even in a pickup game.
But Hodge's darker side rubbed many people the wrong way. He displayed a knack for jawing with opponents, and his gesticulations during games often bordered on taunting. A cheap elbow to the back of Maryland guard Steve Blake's head during a Feb. 3 game led the ACC office to slap Hodge with a one-game suspension, the first of its kind since the 1960s. Blake called Hodge a punk following the incident. At least one of Hodge's teammates doesn't blame opponents for getting mad.
I wouldn't like (Hodge) if he wasn't on my team, junior forward Marcus Melvin said. He talks too much.
It is exactly that kind of enthusiasm, when he channels it in a positive way, that makes Hodge invaluable to N.C. State. With the departure of All-ACC selection Anthony Grundy and steady Archie Miller from the backcourt, Hodge is a prime candidate to step into the leadership void.
Hodge has his own key to Reynolds Coliseum on campus and often can be found shooting at the old gym until after midnight. His brutal work ethic when it comes to basketball is a constant reminder to his teammates that Hodge wants them to make the same commitment.
That's in my personality, just to be outgoing and make sure guys are working hard, Hodge said. I want everybody to work at the same level, so I keep my eye on everybody.
Said Sendek: I think Julius is even more ready to assume a leadership role. I think he has one of those special, magnetic personalities. Guys tend to gravitate toward him. I think we all saw some of that begin to manifest itself as we came down the home stretch last year.
The Wolfpack returns four players who had a significant number of starts last season. Perhaps more importantly, assistant coach Larry Hunter, the architect of N.C. State's offense, is around for at least another year. The former Ohio head coach rebuffed a chance at the Evansville job, among other opportunities, in the spring.
Sendek's claim that the Wolfpack strives for a type of hoops nirvana positionless basketball may sound silly to some, but it isn't far from the truth. N.C. State is without a true point guard among those who are likely to get into the eight- or nine-man rotation, but the roster includes several players who are capable of bringing the ball up the court. That includes Hodge, the 6-8 Melvin and the alliterative guard duo of senior Clifford Crawford (6-3) and junior Scooter Sherrill (6-3). Another versatile returnee, sophomore Ilian Evtimov, was lost for the season (knee) in early November.
Our need for a point guard will be to help us get organized, to help us know when to attack and when we need to reset, Sendek said. I think we have any number of players on our team who are capable of transporting the basketball.
Once in the halfcourt, the Wolfpack employs a series of quick screens and cuts to the basket that bring to mind the classic Princeton offense, only with talent superior to the Ivy Leaguers. N.C. State has several accurate outside shooters and, when the offense is working well, shows considerable patience in waiting for the best shot.
They do a great job of spacing the floor, Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. When you're an aggressive team, that sometimes plays into their hands.
The Wolfpack led the ACC in starts by freshmen (74) last season, and their relative experience will allow Sendek to bring this year's incoming class along at a more comfortable pace.
With sophomores Jordan Collins (6-10) and a bulked-up Josh Powell (6-9) giving N.C. State a pair of likely starters in the post, the staff plans to redshirt lanky 7-0 freshman Adam Simons. First-year players Justin Flatt, Dominick Mejia and Cameron Bennerman all 6-4 guards don't appear to be anything more than apprentices, and Flatt also has been targeted for a redshirt year.
Often overlooked, especially prior to Evtimov's injury, is 6-7 forward Levi Watkins. The sophomore had developed into the Wolfpack's sixth man last year, before a knee injury in his first ACC contest abruptly ended his season after 13 games. Throughout Watkins' rehabilitation and subsequent on-court workouts, one voice has remained a constant and unrelenting source of motivation.
Levi, you know they've forgot about you, Watkins has heard from a certain classmate. They don't know who Levi Watkins is. You've gotta show ëem.
The voice belongs to Hodge. The Wolfpack belongs to Hodge. N.C. State may go as far as Hodge can take it, whether anybody likes him or not.
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