By Hermann Wendorff, Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
April 7, 2003 RALEIGH One of the greatest myths perpetrated by any fan base is that N.C. State has a grand basketball tradition that should be the envy of all.
The Wolfpack has had periods of success and memorable moments over its 93-year history, but to say it even approaches the stature of titans such as UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina or Duke is to repeat on oft-told Tobacco Road fairy tale.
N.C. State is one of only 12 Division I programs to win at least two NCAA championships, but any comparison to the big boys has to stop there. Oklahoma State and San Francisco also have won two national titles. How many kids dream of becoming Cowboys and Dons of the hardwood?
Counting its two NCAA titles (1974, 1983), the Wolfpack has been to the Final Four on three occasions, or one more than Wisconsin. It has reached the Sweet 16 a total of 11 times, a figure comparable to college basketball middleweights Boston College, DePaul, Florida, Iowa, LSU, Memphis, Minnesota, Missouri, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, St. John's and Seton Hall.
The exaggeration of N.C. State's tradition can be traced back to Everett Case, its coach during the 1940s and 1950s, and Reynolds Coliseum, a building that was ahead of its time when it was built in 1949.
Case was a showman who did more to promote college basketball than perhaps anyone else associated with the game. The Dixie Classic drew some of the top teams in the nation to Reynolds for 12 years. Case also won, collecting the ACC's first three championships and four overall, before he retired in 1964.
But what casual fan outside the state of North Carolina has been educated in such Wolfpack lore? The fact is that since Case, N.C. State has built its reputation on three dominant years (1973-75) when it had perhaps the best player in the history of the college game, David Thompson, and one miraculous some would say lucky run to the 1983 national championship under Jim Valvano.
Outside of those anomalies, N.C. State has been simply average. Nobody who has observed the program in the last 15 years can associate the Wolfpack with anything better than mediocrity. That said, there is nothing standing in the way of N.C. State flexing considerable muscle over the next few seasons.
One needs to look no further than the last two years. After missing out for five years under coach Herb Sendek, the Wolfpack finally broke a 12-year drought and was invited to the NCAA Tournament last season. It even came within one questionable call of reaching the Sweet 16. State made it to the tournament again this year, bowing out in the first round, again in a very close game.
Sendek has taken the Wolfpack to two consecutive ACC Tournament championship games, both times losing to Duke. State has won 10 ACC titles overall, and more are not out of the question.
The key is to figure out if Sendek is the right man for the long haul, and this is something that divides the Wolfpack faithful like nothing else. While Sendek's record is only slightly inferior to Valvano's and better than Norm Sloan's over his first seven years, he is constantly fighting doubts among N.C. State supporters.
Sendek's main obstacle might be something that is out of his control. His cool, bookish demeanor inflames the worst kind of passion, which is none at all. Sendek appears to have the unequivocal support of athletic director Lee Fowler, and the coach is locked up through 2007.
Sendek's personality, while bland, didn't stand in the way of good recruiting results two years ago, when he brought in a top-five class that included prep All-American Julius Hodge, a first-team All-ACC performer this season. Since then, however, the NCSU talent pipeline has slowed to a trickle.
It helps that the Wolfpack's home is the gorgeous RBC Center, whose only competition as far as ACC arenas go might be Maryland's brand-new Comcast Center. The RBC building is eye candy for recruits, and Sendek has used it to his advantage.
Hodge, State's leading scorer and rebounder, is a difference-maker among ACC players. His on-court emotion serves a dual purpose to ratchet up the energy level of his teammates and vex the opposition to no end. The rising junior just needs to work on channeling those feelings better when the Pack needs him most. Hodge didn't have his best performance in this year's ACC championship and struggled again in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, looking uncharacteristically tentative against California.
Sendek could help Hodge by recruiting a true point guard, but recently the coach has known only failure in that quest. John Gilchrist (Maryland), Chris Paul (Wake Forest) and Mustafa Shakur (Arizona) all could have given N.C. State a reliable ball-handler and playmaker, but they chose other schools. Sendek is bringing in Mike O'Donnell from Florida next year, but many doubt the player's size and ability.
It looked for a while like Sendek had the same problem recruiting big men. The Wolfpack was thought to be weak in the middle even at the beginning of this season, but sophomore Josh Powell showed flashes of brilliance toward the end of the year. Powell could use more help down low, but that's not a situation unique to the Pack.
Sendek's game-day coaching is another matter. One of the hallmarks of his tenure has been consistently tough defense, but the Wolfpack's offense during that same period has been questionable to a similar degree.
The problems were thought to have been solved last year, when assistant coach Larry Hunter joined the staff and N.C. State went to a Princeton-like offense with multiple cuts and screens. It turned out, however, that the key to the success of the system last year had more to do with the personnel than anything else. The Wolfpack went long stretches without scoring this season, leading to stinging non-conference losses against Massachusetts and Temple.
Sendek's bench presence does not inspire a great deal of confidence. Hodge himself questioned the coach's decision-making after the Cal loss. In that game, Sendek called a late timeout when senior point guard Clifford Crawford was streaking down the court in a two-on-two situation. In addition, the Wolfpack failed to get a shot off in the final seconds of regulation despite two timeouts.
Regardless, Sendek looks like N.C. State's man for the foreseeable future, unless Pittsburgh comes calling with its vacancy and the lure is too much for the Pennsylvania-bred coach. He doesn't appear to be the Panthers' first choice, but anything can happen.
The Wolfpack could do better than Sendek, should he leave a vacancy in Raleigh any time soon. Then again, the Pack also could do worse. When you look back at its history, in fact, it has on many occasions.