March 15, 2004 RALEIGH N.C. State had an easy path to its third straight ACC Tournament championship game, and this time maybe the Wolfpack could have even stopped Duke's annual steamroll through the field. So the 2004 tournament might be remembered by some as a stumbling and bumbling trip to the Greensboro Coliseum, since Herb Sendek's team needed a second-half comeback to beat seventh-seeded Florida State and had a historic 21-point collapse against sixth-seeded Maryland. Certainly, for some, that loss, which turned on one of the stupidest reasons ever for getting a technical foul, is reason enough for an awfully bitter aftertaste, following State's best ACC regular-season finish since 1989. But it's not really fair. The Wolfpack, after all, was missing two starters in the semifinal loss to the Terrapins. Granted, junior center Jordan Collins is really about two-thirds of a starter, since he has been in the starting lineup only nine times all season, and he averages only 10.9 minutes, 3.3 points and 2.0 rebounds per game. However, senior guard Scooter Sherrill is at least a starter and a half, one who might have been able to stop, with some on-court leadership, the panic that caused the second-half collapse against the Terps. Sherrill's numbers have not been particularly impressive this year, as he struggled through a horrific shooting slump in December and January. But his four years of struggles at N.C. State, in which he went from defensive liability to defensive stopper and from a one-dimensional shooter to an all-around contributor, helped him develop a wealth of experience that would have been invaluable as the Terps quickly erased a 19-point second-half lead. That's not to say a healthy Sherrill's presence on the floor would have stopped it, but he would have helped find a way to get the ball inbounds on Maryland's revamped press, and his defense could have limited some of those career-high 30 points scored by Maryland point guard John Gilchrist. Sherrill, who tore a muscle in his left leg against North Carolina and missed the Wolfpack's final four games before the NCAA Tournament, desperately wanted to play in the ACC Tournament, his last at N.C. State. He went through double treatments and was constantly on the underwater treadmill before the team went to Greensboro. It would have been a risky proposition for him to get on the floor, since he could have further injured the bad ankle and might have even caused permanent, career-threatening damage. There was no chance the training staff was going to let him risk it. So it was smarter to keep Sherrill out of the lineup for those four games, and the situation allowed Cameron Bennerman to preview how he might be able to produce next year, when Sherrill is gone for good. Bennerman was surprisingly efficient in wins over Wake Forest and Florida State, establishing career highs in scoring in both games. Bennerman can't replace Sherrill's leadership, but there were some critics who were beginning to wonder if the sophomore swingman would ever be a productive player. They probably were the same ones who wondered a couple of years ago if Sherrill would ever be able to step out of Anthony Grundy's shadow to contribute scoring and defense. Now, with an extra week of rest, Sherrill should be able to return to the lineup for the NCAA Tournament, in which the Wolfpack will be the trendy one-and-done candidate for bracket-hawks. But with Sherrill in the lineup, the team's third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament could land Sendek's team in the Sweet 16, where the Pack hasn't been since 1989. There's no doubt that many N.C. State fans who considered themselves Sendek Skeptics were won over by the coach's performance this season, when he followed up back-to-back 9-7 ACC records (and two trips to the conference championship game) with an 11-5 league record, a Top 25 finish and a strong NCAA Tournament seed. At the other end of the spectrum are the so-called Herb Haters, who probably won't give the coach an ounce of credit unless he wins an ACC title or takes his team to the Final Four. In between, there are many N.C. State fans who still aren't sure what to believe about Sendek. Another early NCAA exit would only feed their frustration and revive concerns about the Wolfpack's 15-year status as a national also-ran, but a trip to the Sweet 16 or beyond quickly would make the team's ugly collapse against Maryland a distant memory.
Technical Foul: Sad But Avoidable N.C. State fans were howling (big surprise) about the technical foul that was called on the Wolfpack bench early in the second half, as a team manager wiped water off the floor as Maryland tried to inbound the ball. In their minds, Larry Rose's call will go down as one of the worst in ACC Tournament history, just as Rick Hartzell's phantom traveling call against Chris Corchiani in the 1989 East Region semifinal against Georgetown will go down as one of the worst calls in NCAA Tournament history. The latter, of course, cost Jim Valvano's Wolfpack a chance to play Duke for a trip to the Final Four. The fact is, the Wolfpack clearly had been warned about its on-court camp revivals taking up too much time during timeouts, and Rose was justified in calling the delay-of-game technical. Put that four-point possession with Gilchrist's multiple three-point shots, and it didn't take long for the Terps to erase what had been a 19-point lead early in the second half. The technical gave (Maryland) another burst of energy, Wolfpack senior Marcus Melvin said, and they used it to their advantage. So Sendek, who likes to over-think and over-prepare for every possible situation, might want to reconsider having his team sit on their little folding chairs on the court during lengthy timeouts. What purpose does it serve, other than to give the dozens of managers every college team seems to have nowadays something to do? Ostensibly, of course, it gets the Wolfpack players away from the fans and the noise on the sideline during games. But it can't possibly be worth that much trouble. At home, there are friendly fans behind the bench. On the road, the few seats each team receives from opposing schools also are right behind the visiting bench. It's not as if someone can overhear strategy. Most other schools have abandoned the obnoxious practice of setting up camp during timeouts. Why risk it, especially if players are going to be sloppy enough with their cups of water to leave a mess on the court? It may have cost the Wolfpack a game, and a chance to play for the ACC championship, and that's obviously far too heavy a price to pay. Herring: Solid Second Choice N.C. State coach Chuck Amato is always asking for more publicity, more recognition for football in a basketball state. Yet, here it is, right in the heart of basketball's prime time, and Amato very quietly is about to start the most important spring drills since Philip Rivers was a freshman. The Wolfpack's offensive staff will be looking to choose a new quarterback, either redshirt junior Jay Davis or redshirt freshman Marcus Stone. Amato also will be looking for some answers to the defensive problems that plagued the Pack during last year's 8-5 season. At least Amato was able to bring in a defensive coordinator before the start of spring drills, after going two seasons as the only Division I-A head coach without one. It just turned out that it wasn't the guy Amato wanted most. In the long run, it might not be a bad thing that Amato hired feisty veteran Reggie Herring instead of Miami defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, who would have been a two-year rental at best. Shannon, a former Miami star linebacker, is on the fast track to becoming college football's next prominent African-American head coach. Unless, of course, he goes straight to the NFL. Amato threw a lot of money (reportedly a total package in the $300,000 range) at Shannon, who gave the offer very serious consideration while at the same time denying to the media any contact at all with the Wolfpack. In the end, Shannon got a nice raise from the Hurricanes, and everyone knew the coach's alma mater was going to win out if it was a close call financially. The fact that Shannon's mother is ailing also contributed to his decision to remain in his hometown. Regardless, don't expect him to be there much longer. Herring was the linebackers coach for the NFL's Houston Texans for the last two seasons. In the college ranks, he previously had long stints at Auburn (1986-91) and Clemson (1994-2001). Herring left Tommy Bowden's staff soon after he spouted off about Tiger fans, who quickly turned on him. That should be good practice for working at N.C. State, where fans began grumbling about first-year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone exactly two games into last season. With Herring, Amato has a veteran assistant coach who is full of energy and who has been successful in the ACC, although Herring is known far more for his aggressive approach and his fiery style than he is for being an Xs-and-Os mastermind. In his five years (1997-2001) as the coordinator at Clemson, the Tigers posted only one season better than 7-5. Bowden let Herring go after his defense gave up more than 28 points and almost 400 yards per game in 2001. Like Amato, Herring has ties to Florida State, where he was a star linebacker for Bobby Bowden just before Amato arrived in Tallahassee. The NCSU coaches will be working together this spring with a defense that returns all 11 starters from its Tangerine Bowl win over Kansas.