March 29, 2004 RALEIGH Now that basketball season is over, it's time for Wolfpack junior Julius Hodge to make a decision. Hopefully, he'll make the right one. Hodge, the 2004 ACC player of the year, has until May 10 to decide if he wants to leave school early and enter the NBA draft. And that's what he should do, but only if he is smart enough and gets good enough advice not to do anything to jeopardize his final year of college eligibility the way former teammate Josh Powell did last year at this time. If he's interested, Hodge should go through the process in place for college players, including the pre-draft camp in Chicago in early June and the individual workouts with teams, and get good information about his game from the people who actually make the decisions on draft day. What Hodge is likely to find is that the NBA scouts still don't trust his jumpshot, still don't trust his ball-handling abilities, still think he's too skinny for 82 regular-season games and still believe he needs another year of polish before he can be a productive professional player. Essentially, he's a guy who doesn't fit into any specific position, which often means death in the NBA. Hodge might prove them wrong, but no matter what happens, he isn't likely to be in lottery territory and may not even be a first-round pick. Reminder: A second-round pick doesn't automatically get a guaranteed contract, although it's possible to negotiate for one. Despite what some may think of him on the court, Hodge is a smart kid who understands that jumping to the NBA, where he yearns to play, is a huge move. He will rely on his family to help make the choice, and he will listen to what Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek tells him about his prospects, something Powell didn't do. In the end, Hodge will rely heavily on his brother, a school teacher in New York, to make the final call. That's a much better advisory panel than the one used by Powell, who reportedly was pushed into his decision by a boyfriend of his mother, who desperately needed the money any money Powell could provide last year. An undrafted free agent, Powell was cut by Dallas in preseason camp and now is playing overseas. Hodge also seems more willing to listen to what the scouts and management tell him, and his best decision may be to go through the process, learn what he needs to work on to be a long-term NBA player, then return to N.C. State and apply his maniacal work ethic to improve on those things. If he declares, Hodge can withdraw his name up to a week before the June 24 draft. One thing that might be working both for and against the Wolfpack is how the season ended, with yet another disappointing loss in the NCAA Tournament. Hodge would love to win some kind of championship and showcase his game in the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight or the Final Four, something he's never had the chance to do. But two of his three seasons at State have ended in the aftermath of bad calls by officials. In 2002, it was a foul called on Hodge against Connecticut, and this year it was the intentional foul against Marcus Melvin in the second-round collapse against Vanderbilt. Hodge, who fouled out of the Vanderbilt game early and had to watch the ending from the sideline, may decide it's not worth the hassle of never catching a break in the postseason. If Hodge does come back next year, the Wolfpack could have its strongest team yet under Sendek, thanks to the late development of Ilian Evtimov, the addition of Georgetown transfer Tony Bethel (a point guard who sat out this year) and the arrival of a three-player recruiting class that is considered one of the best in the ACC. Having all that, plus the ACC's reigning player and coach of the year, should make for bright horizons. Hunter Wants Own Program Again It's coach-hunting season in college basketball, and it appears that Wolfpack assistant Larry Hunter, after three years as Sendek's associate head coach, will be moving on. Hunter was a finalist at press time for the James Madison job, along with former North Carolina coach Matt Doherty, who planned to withdraw his name from the JMU search if he got an offer from one of his higher-profile (St. John's?) suitors. Even if the James Madison job doesn't come through, Hunter might land elsewhere. Hunter has made it widely known since he joined the Wolfpack staff after the 2000-01 season that he wants to run his own program again. He's happy at N.C. State, but he'd jump at the chance to lead a program at JMU's level or above. It would be a significant loss for the Wolfpack, since Hunter helped install the Princeton-style offense Sendek has relied on to get the Pack into the NCAA Tournament for three consecutive years. Hunter also impressed many NCSU boosters on the speaking and hand-shaking circuits, consistently offering clear, direct, sensible and thorough answers to some of the same questions that often launch Sendek into hard-to-digest monologues. At the same time, losing Hunter probably wouldn't be a devastating loss. Though some Herb Haters like to think so, Hunter wasn't the sole reason the Wolfpack was successful during his three seasons on the bench. Sendek clearly has earned some respect, especially after guiding his team to 11 ACC victories in a brutal league this year. Rivers Flowing Up Draft Board It took the national people a while to catch on, but they finally are learning what N.C. State fans knew all along: Philip Rivers is not just a yokel with big numbers. He's a talented kid, capable of putting up big numbers despite everybody join in here, in unison his awkward throwing motion. He has the maturity and intelligence NFL teams yearn for in a player they will invest millions of dollars in and expect to be the cornerstone of a franchise. Not long ago, there were people wondering if Rivers, who started an NCAA-record 51 consecutive games at quarterback for the Wolfpack, would be taken on the first day of the NFL draft, let alone in the first round. But after his Senior Bowl performance and his workouts in the combine and on campus at N.C. State, more people have taken notice of college football's second all-time leading passer. He's made a boatload of money since the Wolfpack ended its season with his record-setting performance in the Tangerine Bowl, and even fans of NCSU rivals are pretty elated that the 2003 ACC player of the year is getting more respect from the NFL scouts. Rivers is one of the top three quarterbacks in the draft, with Mississippi's Eli Manning and Miami-Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger. Many mock drafts predict that San Diego will take Manning with the first overall pick, but don't be surprised if the Chargers trade down, hoping to pick up an extra first-round pick and Rivers somewhere in the top 15. I was a big fan of him before this year, San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith told Sports Illustrated. I kept hearing people talk about the draft, and they'd say he was a fourth- or fifth-round pick (entering the 2003 college season), and I thought that was absurd. I really, really like him. Smith and his braintrust were among the dozens of NFL people who recently came to see Rivers and several of his former teammates work out at Carter-Finley Stadium. While there were varied impressions from that workout, it's pretty obvious that Rivers is becoming one of the draft's hottest commodities. Meanwhile, don't expect Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato to tip his hand anytime before August about who will replace Rivers in the Wolfpack lineup. He's going to let junior Jay Davis and redshirt freshman Marcus Stone compete throughout spring drills and the first couple of weeks of fall practice before he names a starter. So, if you see the coach in the next couple of months, don't ask. Perhaps an even bigger winner in the NFL sweepstakes is former Wolfpack lineman Sean Locklear, who moved around more than an Army brat during his career at State. The converted defensive lineman and offensive tackle finished as an offensive guard, and that's where he will play in the NFL. The scouts recognize that Locklear is not polished at that position, but they see an unlimited upside in his natural abilities and believe all he needs is a little time to learn his position. The interesting thing about looking at all the mock drafts is that unless Maryland defensive tackle Randy Starks is taken late in the first round, it appears the ACC will have only one first-round pick for the second year in a row. That's exceptionally lean for a conference that produced, on average, five first-round picks from 1997-2002. Of course, there are at least eight other potential first-rounders who played football at incoming ACC members Miami (DB Sean Taylor, TE Kellen Winslow Jr., DT Vince Wilfork, LB Jonathan Vilma, LB D.J. Williams, OL Vernon Carey) and Virginia Tech (DB DeAngelo Hall, RB Kevin Jones).