By Hermann Wendorff,
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
November 15, 2004 RALEIGH The two men most responsible for N.C. State's frequent appearances on the national radar these days could not be more different. Or maybe that's only true on the surface.
Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek has been unfavorably compared to a cardboard cutout in the past, a man incapable of outwardly expressing a positive or negative feeling in a public setting. It was this reticence and the perception it created that he didn't care that made Sendek a lightning rod for criticism during the darkest periods of his tenure at N.C. State, which is entering its ninth year.
So why does Sendek appear to be shedding this uptight image? Perhaps it is because the Wolfpack went into the season with its first preseason Top 25 ranking (19th) since 1989, and a fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament appears imminent. It could be the fact that N.C. State will take the court this season with the strongest roster Sendek has put together. Picked to finish fifth in the ACC, the Pack might be underrated.
Whatever the reason, it was clearly evident that a more relaxed Sendek presented himself before the media in mid-October at an Italian restaurant in Raleigh. On a stage where people normally sing karaoke, Sendek sat wearing a sports shirt unbuttoned at the top and answered questions about the upcoming season.
The subject turned to the satisfaction of Wolfpack fans with Sendek's job performance. He has endured just about every criticism short of being burned in effigy, but when he was asked whether he thought he finally was appreciated, coming off an ACC coach of the year award, Sendek was surprisingly resolute.
"Probably so, but you'd probably be better served to ask (the fans) that," Sendek said. After a pause, he added: "I think so."
To represent N.C. State swingman Julius Hodge in a caricature is next to impossible. His only activity level is hyper. Somebody turned up his volume and then broke off the knob, in the process damaging the filter between Hodge's brain and his mouth.
For the Wolfpack, this almost always has been a good thing. Hodge has been the team's emotional leader for the last three years, earning All-ACC honors as a sophomore and junior. The reigning ACC player of the year, Hodge is the face of N.C. State basketball.
As a senior, Hodge wants to take things just a little more seriously. Although he is still the source of great comic relief for his teammates, the media and especially himself, Hodge also has tried to project a statesmanlike demeanor as the Wolfpack goes for the ACC title that has eluded it for 17 years.
"We still want to continue to get better," Hodge said. "This year I'm going to take a role of being a more vocal leader, try to teach some of the young guys, like Cedric Simmons and Gavin Grant. We want to win a championship, and we know that's something that if we continue to work hard, we'll be able to achieve."
At Operation Basketball in October, Hodge was dressed casually in jeans and an untucked shirt, having ignored Sendek's instructions for his players to wear ties to the event. Hodge said he wanted to be different, but with regard to comparisons with his coach, Hodge said the two are cut from the same cloth.
"We have a lot of similarities," Hodge said. "He's hard-working and dedicated like myself, and we both share a common goal." Then the punch line. "What me and Coach Sendek have in common is that during practice we both tell the most corniest jokes, but everyone tends to laugh. They have to laugh at his. I think I'm a little bit more funny."
When Sendek arrived at N.C. State, he inherited a program saddled with five straight losing seasons and stringent self-imposed academic restrictions that were the remnants of scandal under the late Jim Valvano.
Those sanctions made it difficult to recruit, and as a result Sendek wasn't always able to get his first or even second choices to commit to N.C. State. As a result, Sendek had to make do with some players of marginal skill and others of marginal character, in a few cases dealing with both at once. It took him six seasons to get to the NCAA Tournament, and if many Wolfpack fans had gotten their way, Sendek would not have been around to see the team finally break through in 2002.
The year N.C. State broke a 13-year NCAA drought coincided with the first season for Hodge, who spurned overtures from Syracuse in his home state to play to Raleigh. Now Hodge plays a vital role in recruiting others. Grant said Hodge wielded great influence over his decision to attend State. Grant, Simmons and Andrew Brackman comprise a freshman class that was ranked in the top 20 nationally.
"I knew everything there was to know about (Hodge)," said Grant, who went to Hodge's high school, St. Raymond's in the Bronx. "He's the same way he's always been. He's always been energetic, charismatic. He lets everybody know he's in the gym when he walks in. He acts like that, but he backs it up. He doesn't just talk and then go on the court and do nothing."
On Nov. 10, Sendek landed another highly regarded group, which included at least two more top-50 players. What makes the Wolfpack's recent recruiting success more astounding is that it coincided with Sendek's embracing of a Princeton-like offense that would be described at most playgrounds and AAU tournaments as boring and antiquated. But he makes no apologies for it.
"Some of the concepts and principles that (the offense) is founded on are time-honored, and they're beautiful," Sendek said. "We've been able to add some of our own philosophies to it, our uniqueness. I think our guys enjoy playing in the offense for the most part."
Because the Wolfpack has so many players with the ability to shoot, dribble and pass, the offense is well-suited to a roster that could go as much as nine- or 10-deep. The arrival of a point guard in the person of Georgetown transfer Tony Bethel makes N.C. State's backcourt formidable, with Engin Atsur and Cam Bennerman coming off the bench.
The Wolfpack is hoping fervently that junior forward Ilian Evtimov can shake off the knee problems that have hounded him for the last two seasons. Evtimov is among the team's best passers, rebounders and shooters. Levi Watkins and Jordan Collins provide experience up front, but they will be pushed by Simmons and Brackman, who bring a combination of raw skill and polished fundamentals to the table. Grant is the type of player, like Hodge, who can float between the backcourt and the frontcourt with ease.
Now that Sendek's seat doesn't feel so hot, he knows the expectations will be ratcheted up. Such is the nature of the business. N.C. State fans are impatient, if not for an ACC championship just yet, at least a trip to the Sweet 16 after a 15-year absence.
"I don't sense it. I know it," Sendek said. "And we want to do that for (the fans). We know we still have a lot of room to keep getting better. I think the way our program is perceived right now is very favorable."
Or, as Hodge would say: "With my size and the way I've been dominating the league so far, and Tony's quickness, his ability to shoot and create for others, I think we're going to be hard to handle."
|1997||4-12 (8)||17-15||NIT 2nd Round|
|1998||5-11 (8)||17-15||NIT 2nd Round|
|1999||6-10 (5)||19-14||NIT 2nd Round|
|2000||6-10 (6)||20-14||NIT Final Four|
|2002||9-7 (3)||23-11||NCAA 2nd Round|
|2003||9-7 (4)||18-13||NCAA 1st Round|
|2004||11-5 (2)||21-10||NCAA 2nd Round|
x won ACC title
* returning starter
Julius Hodge is the production part of Herb Sendek's offense of interchangeability. He led the Wolfpack in scoring, rebounding, assists, field goal percentage and (probably) technical fouls last season, while becoming the first NCSU player in more than a decade to be named the ACC player of the year. He's more durable (and quotable) than any player in the league, and his skinny frame appears far more solid this year. Another player who can really make the Pack's offense go is Ilian Evtimov, whose uncanny passing ability allows him to play out front, even though he's technically a power forward. Unfortunately, Evtimov has been relatively fragile during his time in Raleigh, and he was slowed in the preseason by continued knee troubles.
Other Key Returnees
Both Levi Watkins and Jordan Collins have been around long enough to understand their roles in Sendek's system, but they need to become better rebounders. Watkins has never been tentative in taking outside shots, and he has been effective in that role at times. Collins needs to reel in his desire to be a three-point shooter. Cameron Bennerman, who admirably stepped into Scooter Sherrill's starting spot at the end of last year, is a capable scorer and one of the team's best rebounders. He drew raves from teammates for his offseason improvement. Engin Atsur is better than he is given credit for as a defender, shooter and ball-handler. The native of Turkey had an impressive rookie season, especially considering his difficulties with American basketball lingo and a drastic change in culture.
All three freshmen Cedric Simmons, Andrew Brackman and Gavin Grant can contribute inside, where the Wolfpack hasn't had a real presence since Josh Powell turned pro early. But the first-year player who is likely to make the biggest immediate impact is Georgetown transfer Tony Bethel, who earned a spot on the Big East all-freshman squad three years ago, then transferred after his sophomore season. A two-year starter for the Hoyas at the point, Bethel is really a combo guard who shoots as much as he passes. He'll step into the backcourt, sharing minutes with Atsur and Bennerman alongside Hodge.
ALSO Worth Noting
Hodge has bulked up by his standards since the end of last season, adding some 15 pounds of muscle. He looks noticeably bigger in his upper body. Hodge, who finished second to Wake Forest's Chris Paul in preseason player of the year voting, can become the ACC's first back-to-back player of the year since Tim Duncan in 1996-97. Evtimov was hampered throughout the preseason with more knee injuries and had arthroscopic surgery just before the start of practice. Brackman, a two-sport standout who will play baseball in the spring, gives the Wolfpack a defensive presence inside. He blocked four shots in the second half of the Pack's second exhibition game. After 13 straight years of being left out of the AP's preseason Top 25, NCSU was ranked for the second year in a row going into the season, at No. 19.
CHART BY: THE NCSU INSIDER