N.C. State Wolfpack (2001: 13-16)
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For a man standing at the end of a plank, blindfolded with a final cigarette hanging out his mouth, Herb Sendek is surprisingly optimistic.
The sixth-year N.C. State coach, flanked by the most heralded recruiting class of his Wolfpack tenure, is supremely confident that his program will turn things around this season, though he's not guaranteeing that his team will make it to the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolfpack, of course, has been absent from the big tournament since 1991, which is one of the reasons Sendek got pushed to such a precarious perch. Going 13-16 and finishing seventh in the ACC last season didn't help either.
But with the long-awaited arrival of McDonald's All-American Julius Hodge and four other talented freshmen, Sendek is eager to get started on his most critical season in Raleigh.
The Wolfpack's quintet of freshmen was ranked No. 1 in the nation by InsidersReport.com, No. 3 by Sports Illustrated, No. 5 by Prepstars.com and No. 6 by both ESPN.com and The Sporting News.
Hodge, the highest rated recruit coming into the ACC this season, is a 6-6 McDonald's All-America shooting guard from St. Raymond's High School in the Bronx.
He showcased his abilities for Wolfpack fans during the annual all-star game, which was played for the first time at nearby Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. He scored 17 points in the high-scoring game, and learned a little about what he needed to do to compete at the highest level of college basketball.
Junior Clifford Crawford (7.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.5 apg,), a 6-3 point guard, is supposed to run the show, though Sendek says he will refuse to label any of his players this year with normal position titles.
"With this team, I am not going to circle anybody and say you are a point guard,'' Sendek said. "I want our guys to play a lot of different positions. I want them to be flexible enough to execute and perform at any different position.
"We may have five players on the court that have a perimeter flavor to them. I don't think we are going to have five guards on the floor-I hope we aren't reduced back to those days-but we should have five players who can pass, dribble and shoot on the floor.''
Four of Sendek's incoming freshmen are big men: forwards Levi Watkins and Josh Powell, wing player Ilian Evtimov and center Jordan Collins.
Evtimov, the younger brother of former UNC player Vasco Evtimov, played high school basketball in Winston-Salem and is expected to provide some of the shooting that recent Wolfpack teams have lacked.
The rebounding and inside muscle, however, will have to come from elsewhere.
Sophomore Marcus Melvin (4.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg), a 6-8 power forward, has the only real frontcourt experience returning from last year. But he played sparingly, averaging only 11 minutes a game. Red-shirt freshman Michael Bell, a 6-9 forward, is back in action after sitting out last year with an injury and long-term project Kris Jensen, a 7-1 center who enrolled at State after two years as a reserve at Southeastern Community College, will also provide some inside depth.
But three freshmen forwards will certainly get their chance to contribute. Collins, a 6-10 product of DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md., is the latest in a long line of players from that school to play for the Wolfpack. He is the biggest and strongest of the Wolfpack's three freshmen, though hardly the most athletic.
Powell, a 6-9 forward from Riverdale (Ga.) High School, might be the most versatile of the newcomers. He held his own against the NBA's No. 1 pick, Kwame Brown, during a state high school playoff game, scoring 16 points and grabbing 12 rebounds while Brown had 26 points and 11 rebounds.
Finally, 6-7 swing forward Watkins of Rockville (Md.) Montrose Christian Academy has experience playing inside, but he transformed himself into a wing player during his senior season after losing about 25 pounds. He averaged 23.2 points and 11.2 rebounds during his final prep season and will likely benefit immediately from Wilkins departure.
Yes, the Wolfpack has a great recruiting class coming in. And Sendek just might be able to turn things around this season, by listening to Hunter and letting those young guys and his perimeter veterans get up and down the floor in a fast-paced stampede.
But this is clearly the most critical year of Sendek's career at N.C. State. The school, with its gleaming new arena, cannot afford to keep paying a coach around $800,000 per year if he cannot field a team that can qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
At a school with two national championship banners hanging from the rafters, a full decade of struggling to reach mediocrity is more than enough patience. If this had happened a few miles down the road, at either Duke or North Carolina, there might have been riots in the streets years ago.
This is Sendek's sixth season. He's got all the amenities he needs. He even has enough players. What this year's team doesn't have, however, is much experience. The good news is that with so many early entries into the NBA, experience is not a requirement for college basketball success anymore.
And while some have been saying this for two years now, this truly is Sendek's final chance to turn things around: Win, or leave.