Key Losses: C Jordan Collins (6.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.0 bpg), G/F Julius Hodge (17.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 4.8 apg), F Levi Watkins (3.9 ppg, 14 games started)
Postseason: NCAA: Defeated Charlotte 75–63, defeated Connecticut 65–62, lost to Wisconsin 65–56 in the regional semifinals
West Orange, NJ/Seton Hall Prep
Herb Sendek went out and got what he needed -- two big men and a scorer. Costner and McCauley (both 6-foot-9) may be more versatile than their predecessors. Costner, for instance, averaged 4.3 assists per game (along with 18.7 points and 7.2 rebounds) as a prep senior. Fells, a former star quarterback, is a pure athlete who should instantly get the chance to show his scoring prowess.
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Herb Sendek's Wolfpack program took a monumental step forward in reaching the Sweet 16 last season. It was the Pack's fourth consecutive tourney appearance, and the consistent ingredient in the past four years was the blue-collar play of Julius Hodge, now gone to the NBA. However, the pieces are in place for another deep run in '05-06. In fact, State may be just as talented -- but deeper -- than it has been in years. It's the kind of team that could reach elite status.
"I think over the last four years our program has made great strides, and I think we have established ourselves as one of the best programs in the country," says Sendek.
Another long march in the spring would go a long way in affirming that kind of comment.
Ilian Evtimov could step into the leadership role vacated by his old roommate Hodge. While not the most athletic guy on the team, Evtimov is arguably the most versatile, and he's unquestionably the best passer on the team. Evtimov's quick feet and hook shot give him an edge against taller, slower players, while his ability to step out and hit the 3-pointer can lure big men away from the basket.
One of the unsung heroes of the run last year for State was 6-foot-10 freshman Andrew Brackman, who possesses the kind of versatility perhaps not seen from a big man in Raleigh since the days of Todd Fuller or Tom Gugliotta. Brackman is a fundamentally sound player who is developing into an outstanding shot-blocker -- he recorded a team-high 40 last year.
Cedric Simmons was perhaps thrown into the fire a bit earlier than expected last season as a talented-but-raw freshman, but he appeared to come out of his shell, confidence-wise, as the season progressed. His ability to provide quality minutes and stay out of foul trouble could be the Pack's X-factor.
Sendek has two 6-9 freshmen who will vie for minutes. Brandon Costner was a McDonald's All-America last season after leading Seton Hall (N.J.) Prep to a 30-1 record and the state championship. Ben McCauley, Pennsylvania's Player of the Year, averaged almost 29 points and 17 rebounds per game as a senior. Both players are capable of taking the open jumpers away from the hoop.
Hodge was unquestionably the heart and soul of the program for four productive years. While that kind of persona is hard to replace, the good news is his work ethic and attitude could not help but rub off on teammates. That was evident last year in the play down the stretch of guards Engin Atsur, Cameron Bennerman, Gavin Grant and Tony Bethel. Their Hodge-like hunger was vital to State's run in the NCAA Tournament.
Bethel, the chief ball-handler on a team devoid of real positions, went down with a variety of injuries and illnesses early and often, freeing up time for Atsur, Grant and Bennerman to shine in a time of necessity.
Atsur, the only player to start every game last season, became a better ball-handler; Grant became a better leader; and Bennerman, a human highlight reel waiting to happen, became more confident.
A healthy Bethel, who began his career as a starting point guard at Georgetown, immediately turns the Pack backcourt into one of the most dangerous in the ACC. His ability to consistently hit an open jumper could solidify that standing. And Bethel, who averaged 3.8 rebounds per game last year, is not afraid to mix it up inside as well.
Courtney Fells could be the perfect swingman to step in (even as a freshman) and step up for the Pack. As a high school senior last year, Fells came close to averaging a triple-double, with 23.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game.
You can't just stick a player on the court and -- bang! -- he instantly replaces the leadership and talents of a guy such as Hodge. But what Sendek has done is put together a team full of interchangeable parts with interchangeable talents and character.
The result, if the pieces come together, should be a team that doesn't miss a beat -- or a former teammate.