Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/10/2007 09:39:00 PM
Whatever You Do, Don't Get Punked
Sindey Lowe has his Wolfpack one more upset away from an NCAA berth.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Sidney Lowe's Red Coat Express cannot be stopped in the ACC tournament. First an upset of Duke on Thursday. Then Virginia on Friday. And now Saturday's magic, a 72-64 win over Virginia Tech. On what would have been the 61st birthday of late N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, Lowe -- a player on Jimmy V's 1983 national championship team -- has piloted the 10th-seeded Wolfpack to within one win of an automatic NCAA tournament bid. And the fact that he's done it while wearing a red blazer straight out of the Valvano wardrobe, well, that's only made it more special for the N.C. State family.
As heartwarming as this story is -- an 18-14 team making an improbable run in March with historic implications -- it's undoubtedly driving fans of Illinois, Stanford, Drexel, Kansas State, Purdue and Texas Tech nuts. Why? Because Lowe's Wolfpack are on the verge of singlehandedly shrinking the NCAA tournament bubble. Sunday's ACC final is suddenly full of intrigue, with Carolina fighting for a No. 1 seed in the dance and N.C. State potentially playing spoiler for a host of at-large candidates.
Ultimately, what may stick with me the longest from the Wolfpack's run is not the red-coat craze, but rather the pregame speech Lowe gave his team at the outset of the ACC tournament. As much as the first-year coach is willing to talk about the Valvano stuff -- "The way we're doing it right now is very similar to what our fans saw in 1983," Lowe said -- he's not into quoting the guy. Needless to say, the words Don't ever give up have yet to find their way into Lowe's motivational arsenal.
Instead, junior guard Gavin Grant said this was the message Lowe gave the team in its Thursday-morning meeting before taking on the Blue Devils:
Don't let anybody come out and punk you. Don't let anybody push you around. It's a basketball game. What's the worst that can happen? You aren't going to get in any fights.
Even if N.C. State doesn't make the Dance -- and I get the feeling it won't, since the ACC final with be its fourth game in four days, and it's against the deepest team in the country -- I think that Lowe's rhetoric has legs. If I'm a coach of a potential Cinderella in the NCAA tournament, I'd crib from Sid. No modern-day player wants to get punked. And if the runts on some No. 16 seed are reminded that they won't literally get their asses kicked by a No. 1, well, who knows what could happen?
Sidney Lowe is not hard to find on the NC State sideline.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
TAMPA, Fla. -- As NC State coach Sidney Lowe made his way toward the exit of St. Pete Times Forum on Friday night at around 9:50 p.m., the top item on his agenda was finding a dry cleaner. The bright red blazer he was wearing had been saturated with sweat during 10th-seeded Wolfpack's 79-71 win over second-seeded Virginia, and if he was going to sport it again in Saturday's ACC tournament semifinals, it needed to be laundered.
Three phenomena have defined the first two days of this event in Tampa. The first has been the success of underdogs, with NC State notching two of the tournament's five upsets by knocking off Duke and Virginia on back-to-back days. The second sensation has been Tyler Hansbrough's mask, which we've already covered. The third, and perhaps most talked-about, item is Lowe's red coat. A gaudy, sideline fashion statement has become the symbol for the Wolfpack's improbable surge from a 5-11 conference finish to the verge of stealing an NCAA tournament bid.
Lowe, who wanted to make it clear that he is changing everything else ("I've got four pairs of pants, got four shirts, got ties, and my undergarments"), had the coat made for him by Cary, N.C., tailor George L. Saunders. It was initially intended as "a one-time thing" to wear during NC State's home date with third-ranked UNC on Feb. 3, in which the Wolfpack pulled off a mammoth, 83-79 upset. After that, Lowe said, "I figured I should wear it in the ACC tournament, for the first game ... and then we won, so I thought I'd wear it again."
At this point -- as long as he can get it cleaned -- Lowe has no choice but to keep wearing it. And his team, as crazy as it would have sounded at the start of this week, has a legitimate shot of actually winning the ACC tournament. NC State swept its next opponent, Virginia Tech, during the regular season, and knocked off likely tourney-final foe UNC in the red coat's now-famous debut. In senior point guard Engin Atsur, the Wolfpack have a savvy veteran to keep an otherwise inexperienced team from crumbling under pressure. In sweet-shooting lefty forward Brandon Costner, the redshirt freshman who scored 30 points against the Blue Devils and 22 more against the Cavs, State has an inside-out threat who's been a matchup nightmare for 4s and 5s on the perimeter. (Costner, for the record, is no fan of the coat, but will tolerate it for the time being: "I don't really like it," he said. "It's kind of bright. But we're winning, so I'll let it go.")
Lowe's pick-and-roll-heavy offense has given Duke and Virginia headaches, mostly because the interior duo of Costner and the underrated Ben McCauley have been dominant forces. "The offense is designed to take advantage of mismatches," said guard Gavin Grant. "We know that Brandon is real mobile, and other 4s and 5s can't keep up with him, so we run a lot of screen and rolls with him going high and Ben going low." It clicked so well that NC State was able to shoot 73.9 percent in the second half -- including one streak of nine straight points by Grant -- and erase a 14-point halftime deficit.
What Lowe has done, more than anything, is make his team believe that its season doesn't have to end in the NIT. He was last at an ACC tournament in 1983, as a player under Jim Valvano -- the coach whom the red coat honors -- and the event served as the Wolfpack's springboard to a storybook national title run. "I told them that, every year in this tournament, something magic happens, whether it's a player that no one expected suddenly emerging as the MVP, or a team that surprises everyone," said Lowe. "I said to our guys, if it's going to be a team, then why not us?"
Indeed, why not NC State? With that kind of inspiration, this red coat craze might just carry on all the way into the NCAAs.