February 2, 2004 RALEIGH Finally, it seems, N.C. State's basketball team was so embarrassed by its poor road record over the last two years, it finally made moves to improve on the things that had been holding the Wolfpack back. The Pack's recent win over Maryland, a team that loves to beat N.C. State, was a huge boost for a Herb Sendek team that virtually no one realizes can be no worse than tied for second place in the ACC heading into the second half of the conference season.
There's a good reason for that. Until the Feb. 1 game in College Park, every time the Wolfpack had been in position to make a real statement at Michigan, at South Carolina, at Duke, at Boston College, at North Carolina it failed to impress. State had 21 turnovers against the Tar Heels at the Smith Center, essentially giving away a game within its grasp.
There's another reason, too. Usually, when the Wolfpack wins think of the game against Georgia Tech the games are excruciatingly painful to watch, because good defense messes with good offense.
Neither was the case against Maryland. The Wolfpack jumped out to an early lead, thanks to senior Marcus Melvin. It withstood a Maryland comeback. Then it played an exceptional second half against the Terps, led by the scoring of determined junior Julius Hodge and the unexpected scoring contributions of freshman Engin Atsur. The Pack's shooting was sizzling, including 10 of 19 three-point attempts.
There was no deadly scoring drought, no ill-advised shots, no wild passes to ghosts. On the few occasions when the Wolfpack made errors such as when Melvin's errant inbounds pass to Atsur was intercepted it made up for them almost immediately.
In the aftermath of his turnover, Melvin rebounded a missed three-pointer and threw it off the legs of a Maryland player out of bounds. Atsur, who snapped back from a poor performance against UNC, followed his missed layup with a gutty three-pointer on the Pack's next possession, a shot Sendek called the biggest of the game. Hodge finally succeeded, too, after several games where it looked as if he was trying to do too much.
Hodge carried the team on his shoulders with his 28 points against the Terps. Maybe the little talking-to Hodge got from Melvin the day after the UNC game, when Melvin told Hodge to return to his normal manic work ethic, did a little bit of good. Hodge said after the game that he was no longer going to be Mr. Nice Guy, with the opposition or with his teammates.
You're not going to see me out there, smiling and trying to be nice to everybody, Hodge said. I'm not going to try to be like Grant Hill anymore, trying to help get everybody involved. I am going to scowl and not worry about people's feelings.
Hey, the approach seemed to work. Hodge didn't have the silly turnovers that plagued the Wolfpack against UNC and Duke. In fact, as a team, State committed only nine miscues against the Terps.
The win in College Park, where the Wolfpack hadn't won since January 1989, really can't be overstated. It was just State's second road win of the season. That allowed the Pack to join Duke as the only teams in the league with more than one conference win on the road in the first half of the season. And perhaps it even ended the program's misery against the Terps, who have dominated the regular-season series for the better part of a decade.
Huge Help: Free Throw Accuracy
Watching teams make free throws is about as exciting as watching basketball practice. Shots from the line normally are only interesting when teams are awful at it, as Maryland has been at times this season or like everyone at Duke except J.J. Redick.
But Sendek and his team, which has led the ACC in free throw shooting percentage for the last two years, are exceptionally good at the line. It's not all that hard to figure out why: Sendek has recruited good shooters to play for his perimeter-oriented offense, and good shooters should be able to make uncontested shots.
However, until the Maryland game, NCSU was not particularly good at getting to the free throw line on the road. So making 23 of 25 attempts was a huge reason why the Pack was able to win that game. It didn't hurt that Maryland only made nine of 18 free throw attempts in the game.
If the Wolfpack can maintain its shooting at the line it entered the Wake Forest game ranked No. 1 among NCAA Division I schools in free throw shooting percentage while on the road, then there is no reason for Sendek's team not to finish in the top four of the ACC standings for the third year in a row.
Grid Schedule Great In Many Ways
While most people were buzzing about another fine haul of football recruits including more impressive blue-chippers from Florida it should be noted that Pack coach Chuck Amato recently wielded some other influence on ACC football.
When the 2004 ACC schedule was released with Division I-AA Richmond on State's schedule instead of Navy, which wanted out of its contract with the Pack earlier in the week, the Wolfpack had two open dates on the schedule. Importantly, one will come early in the year, and one will come late in the year.
Open dates were a huge issue for Amato in 2003, during the Wolfpack's 7-5 regular-season campaign. He believed the ACC office didn't try hard enough to accommodate his request for an open date before the Pack's game at Ohio State last September, something the coach thought was assured when the school signed the contract with the Buckeyes.
Instead, the ACC office slipped in the Wolfpack's ACC opener against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons surprised and embarrassed Amato's team in Winston-Salem, and State then lost in triple overtime at Ohio State. Amato believed throughout the season that the scheduling decision had a big impact on his team's season.
Now, the Wolfpack not only has an open date between its season opener against the Spiders and its second game against the Buckeyes, it has another later in the season. The off-weeks likely will be essential for State to have a successful season, with an offense run by either Jay Davis or Marcus Stone instead of Philip Rivers for the first time in five years.
Putting the I-AA Spiders on the schedule shouldn't hurt Amato's team, which already knows it will play Ohio State, Miami and Florida State at home this year and travel to Virginia Tech and to Charlotte (to play East Carolina). That's as good a schedule as the school has ever had in football, including those years in the 1970s when Penn State was an annual opponent.