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Gober On N.C. State!

Jim Gober continues his ACC previews, this time with N.C. State.

The North Carolina State Wolfpack (+7.0 ppg, -2.3 rpg, +3.6 apg, 4.5 bpg, 45.5% fg, 37.0% 3-fg, 8.4 3-fg made/g, 70.5% ft, +13 ft attempts, +46 blocks, +1.4 bpg, +42 steals, +1.2 s/g, +2.9 to/g, 1.2 a/t, opponents: 43.2% fg, 34.7% 3-fg, 5.7 3-fg made/g, 0.8 a/t) arguably lost the glue that kept State together against the loaded ACC in 2004-2005 with the loss of 6-7 senior WF Julius Hodge (17.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.4 spg, 49.3% fg, 25.5% 3-fg, 66.8% ft, Honorable Mention AP All-American, 2004 ACC POY, 2nd Team All-ACC, 2nd Team All-ACC Tournament, NBA Draft Pick # 20).

The Wolfpack also lost 6-10 C Jordan Collins (6.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 50% fg, 46.2% 3-fg, 81% ft), who was more effective away from the basket than in the low post where State had a need for a rebounder, and 6-8 WF Levi Watkins (3.9 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 40.7% fg, 31.3% 3-fg, 85.7% ft), who was effectively lost to NC State for his senior season due to injuries and a slow recovery.

Despite the significant loss of Hodge and the constant and mostly undeserved criticism of Coach Herb Sendek that has plagued NC State’s recruiting efforts until the past two excellent recruiting years, Coach Sendek has assembled a team for the 2005-2006 season that has extremely experienced leadership in four returning starters and outstanding young talent that should more than fill the Pack’s need to get better in the frontcourt. Two fifth-year seniors, a senior and a junior with international playing experience gained while representing his country will handle the ball for the Wolfpack and create a significant edge in experience and ball-handling over most ACC opponents, with the possible exception of Boston College.

The Pack should also have as much balance in scoring as any team in the ACC, with five returning players having averaged between 7.4 ppg and 9.8 ppg last season. Depending upon the development and contributions of its young frontcourt talent, State could be a much better team on the national level than might be expected of a team without any returning double-digit scorers that just lost the multi-talented Julius Hodge. Given their respective player losses and gains and returning talent, NC State has certain significant advantages over its closest competitors, Wake Forest and Maryland, in the competition for one of the four opening day passes into the second round of the 2006 ACC Tournament.

The Wolfpack’s advantage in experience, talent and depth at PG combined with the support with ball-handling State’s PG will receive from several Pack starters at other positions gives the Pack a huge ball-handling edge. The Wolfpack should be able to take advantage of the Deac’s weaknesses in providing ball-handling support for its inexperienced PG replacement for Chris Paul and in defending shots from behind the 3-point arc. Wake allowed opponents to shoot 37% on 3-point shots, and Wake has only one proven returning ball-handler, Paul’s replacement, who is decent but not exceptional. Even before Maryland lost its best ball-handler by far after last season, outstanding departed PG John Gilchrist, NC State absolutely dominated Maryland with the Wolfpack’s superior team ball-handling. The Pack outscored the Terps 167 to132 in two meetings, led the Turtles in assists 39 to 22, and had fewer turnovers by a margin of 21 to 31. With excellent potential to be much improved in the frontcourt in 2005-2006, the Wolfpack may be an even tougher match-up for the Terps and able to compete better against Wake inside.

If not the best returning player for the Wolfpack, 6-3 junior PG Engin Atsur (9.4 ppg, 2.5 apg, 2.0 a/t, 40.6% fg, 38.3% 3-fg, 76.8% ft, Turkish National Team) is certainly an outstanding starter and the best ball-handler on the team. Atsur will be one of many Pack players likely to increase his scoring to offset the lost scoring of Hodge. Atsur is a particularly smart playmaker and a solid defender.

Though Atsur can handle the PG duties by himself, he is likely to have the benefit of playing next to 6-2 fifth-year senior PG Tony Bethel (8.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.6 a/t, 41.4% fg, 33.6% 3-fg, 77.3% ft), who is in his third season with State after transferring from Georgetown after the 2002-2003 season and two years as the Hoyas’ starting PG. For State, Bethel will share the PG and 2G positions with Atsur in the starting lineup and the ball-handling duties.
Besides having these two point guards who can play the 2G position, State has tall and promising young talents in 6-7 soph 2G Gavin Grant (4.2 ppg, 41.0% fg, 26.5% 3-fg, 59.6% ft) and 6-6 freshman WF Courtney Fells (Prep Stars #44, Gatorade Mississippi POY). Fells is part of the third best incoming freshman class in the ACC, behind only Duke and UNC, and a top-15 recruiting class nationally that includes three solid players. Fells could have an immediate impact as an athletic scorer. Also capable of playing the 2G position for the Pack is starting 6-4 senior WF Cameron Bennerman (9.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.1 bpg, 47.5% fg, 39.3% 3-fg, 73.2% ft), though Bennerman is better in the open court and not the caliber of ball-handler State’s other players at 2G are. The strength of Bennerman rests in his shooting accuracy and athleticism, though he did not contribute much on the boards. Backing up Bennerman at WF are Fells and Grant, both of whom are versatile wing players.

Though NC State has certain advantages over Wake Forest and Maryland that are mentioned above, those teams have had a distinct advantage over the Pack in the frontcourt in terms of rebounding margin, especially at Wake, the ACC’s top rebounding team in 2004-2005. Oddly, State had more success in blocking shots than either the Deacs or Terps, and the Demon Deacons had no advantage over their opponents as a shot-blocking team last season.

Despite their youth, the frontcourt players for NC State could prove to be among the best in the ACC in 2005-2006, and they are likely to narrow the frontcourt advantages of the Deacons and Turtles. The one veteran who plays for State in the frontcourt is 6-7 senior PF Ilian Evtimov (9.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.2 spg, 44.7% fg, 42.6% 3-fg, 66.7% ft). Following knee surgery during the 2002-2003 season and minor knee surgery in June 2005, Evtimov is not quick enough to play the WF position regularly or contribute effectively as a rebounder, but he is an exceptionally skilled passer, shooter and ball-handler. Along with Engin Atsur, who is from Istanbul, Turkey, Evtimov, who is from Sofia, Bulgaria and was raised in France, led the Wolfpack in three-point shots made last season.

6-10 soph PF Andrew Brackman (7.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 47% fg, 36% 3-pg, 80.6% ft, Honorable Mention All-ACC Freshman Team) showed exceptional shooting touch and ball-handling skills for an inside player during his freshman season. Both Brackman and 6-9 soph C Cedric Simmons (3.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.1 bpg, 50.6% fg, 54.5% ft) need to gain weight to compete against physical inside players, but they both showed they can be solid ACC players. Simmons displayed his ability to excel as a shot-blocker, and he could become a defensive force for the Pack with added strength.

If those players do not fill the Pack’s need for inside play, 6-8 freshman PF Brandon Costner (Prep Stars # 23, McD All-American, Gatorade and AP New Jersey POY, 3rd Team Parade All-American) and 6-8 freshman PF Ben McCauley (Prep Stars # 73) offer excellent solutions. Costner, who is the Pack’s most highly regarded recruit since Julius Hodge, brings tremendous skills to the PF position. Costner can shoot outside, score inside, pass especially well for a big man and handle the ball. McCauley will probably begin his Wolfpack career in a reserve role, but he offer toughness on the boards. Depending upon the development of Brackman and Simmons, Costner is likely to be the starter for State along with Evtimov. Regardless, Brackman and Simmons are likely to play a lot, and McCauley will see minutes, especially if State chooses to go with a taller lineup.

The effect of losing Julius Hodge on NC State’s fortunes in 2005-2006 is uncertain, though “The Jules of Harlem” was undoubtedly a great and versatile college player. Without Hodge, the Pack still should be an exceptional ball-handling team with established strength or solid potential at every position combined with experienced leadership.

On the perimeter, State is in excellent shape with established starters and solid reserves. With the addition of power forwards Brandon Costner and Ben McCauley and the freshman experience gained by Andrew Brackman and Cedric Simmons, NC State is on the verge of becoming as strong inside as it is on the perimeter. Costner may become an immediate ACC star.

With the extreme loss of talent at other ACC schools in the upper half of the conference, NC State should emerge as a solid contender for one of the top 4 spots in the ACC standings and might emerge as a national top-20 team.