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ACC Preview # 1 - N.C. State

So far, Sidney Lowe has had a sublime season, or at least the end of his first season was, if not the whole thing, and an outright nightmare last time out.  

State's season last year was utterly bizarre.  Start with Lowe's questionable decision to put J.J. Hickson in the starting lineup immediately, without earning it, and the ensuing meltdowns by previously admirable Ben McCauley and Brandon Costner, toss in season-ending injuries to would-be point guard Farnold Degand, and freshman Johnny Thomas, and a disaster was ready to strike - and strike it did.  And needless to say, the arrest of Sidney Lowe II didn't do much to cheer things up around the program (young Lowe is now doing time for multiple charges involving a home invasion and drugs).

As it turned out, Hickson was indeed a very good player and was drafted in the first round by Cleveland.  But - and this is not his fault because he played hard and well - fat lot of good he did State.

The Pack finished under .500, at 15-16, and a pitiful 4-12 in the ACC, and was left with a bunch of questions about just how good a coach Sidney Lowe really is.

2   Harris, Simon F 6-5 239 RSr.
4   Fells, Courtney G/F 6-6 210 Sr.
34   McCauley, Ben F/C 6-9 237 Sr.
12   Degand, Farnold G 6-3 185 RJr.
15   Ferguson, Trevor G 6-5 190 RJr.
33   Costner, Brandon F 6-9 231 RJr.
31   Horner, Dennis F 6-9 218 Jr.
23   Smith, Tracy F 6-8 240 So.
10   Gonzalez, Javier G 5-11 172 So.
30   Thomas, Johnny G/F 6-5 203 RFr.
21   Williams, C.J. F 6-5 203 Fr.
24   Mays, Julius G 6-2 188 Fr.

The saddest part is just how high expectations had gotten after State's thrilling run at the end of the previous season.  State took six players and damn near won the ACC and made a gutty run in the NIT as well. It was gripping basketball, superbly executed.  You couldn't help admiring that team. Really, it was in the finest tradition of State basketball.  From Everett Case to Norm Sloan to Jim Valvano, State has thrived on passionate basketball, played at a high speed, wedding intelligence and talent (Herb, you are excused for the purposes of this discussion).

So the train wreck last season was a shocker.  Now-departed Gavin Grant predicted State might lose four games the entire season; they lost three by December 15th, including a stunner at ECU, the first ACC school ever to lose to the Pirates.  The loss at UNC, when State was frankly pathetic, was inexcusable.

So where do they go from here?

Presumably, the first job is to heal the fractured chemistry.  Costner and McCauley, who were both superb before Hickson arrived, will have to be taken care of.  They'll start, and like before, they'll be counted on for heavy minutes, assuming they're back on board.  

Costner, who caught flack last season for being out of shape, thought he was playing for a shot at the NBA.  He is an outstanding shooter when he's all there, or when less of him is maybe. 

McCauley is one of the more clever big men in the ACC. He's a very good passer, a solid rebounder and can put points up.  Last season, his scoring fell from 14.5 per game to 6.9, and his rebounding from 6.9 to 3.7.  His minutes dropped by 12.7.

Costner's minutes were chopped even more radically: he fell from 34.3 to 13.8.  That's enough to irritate almost anyone.

The chemistry problem was an issue, but there was no denying Hickson's talent.  He was the best player State had, and McCauley and Costner didn't fit well with him, which kind of limited Lowe's options. 

With Hickson, Grant, and Courtney Fells, State should have had an athletic core to build around.  What they didn't have was a point guard, and if the other problems didn't kill them, that did.

State was forced to throw freshman Javi Gonzalez to, well, not the wolves perhaps, but to everyone else around.

He did show some savvy at times, and a pugnacious attitude, but he was small and freshman-weak, and not fast enough to keep up with everyone he had to guard.  He's a likable sort of player, but as a freshman, the ACC was a league beyond his talents.

No one got to see what Farnold Degand was capable of since he was injured so early, but he's been rehabbing and should be ready with whatever he brings.

And State also will have the services of freshman Julius Mays, which gives them three options, which, after not really having one last year, must be a comfort to El Sid.

But still, no matter how you look at it, this program is between the vision of Herb Sendek and that of Sidney Lowe.  If Sendek was a clockmaker, seeking precision and predictability, Lowe is more like a NASCAR driver, hoping to go faster and faster.  

McCauley, Costner, and Dennis Horner, and Trevor Ferguson are very much in the Sendek mold.  Gonzalez, Johnny Thomas, C.J. Williams, Mays, Tracy  Smith and Courtney Fells, not so much (even though Fells was a Sendek recruit).

McCauley, Costner and Fells are the heart of the team, for better or worse.  McCauley and Costner will presumably be happier without Hickson to take their lunch money anymore, and while Fells is erratic, he can be effective. Certainly he's been more effective for Lowe than he was for Sendek.

Aside from chemistry, State's big problem last year was at point.  After Degand was hurt, and Gonzalez exposed as not ready, State only had Tennessee transfer Marques Johnson. Nowhere near the player that his namesake was, Johnson is now an N.C. State transfer, having departed for Georgia State.  

No great loss.  When he transferred, Lowe issued a statement that said “Marques felt it would be in his best interest to take advantage of an opportunity somewhere else. He definitely has handled himself with as much class as anybody that I’ve been around since he has been at N.C. State.”

Given the "class" that some of Lowe's players have demonstrated, is that a nice thing to say?

Presumably, with an older, stronger Gonzalez, a more or less healthy Degand, and savvy frosh Julius Mays, Lowe will find an effective point to pair with Fells. And if that's the case, they should be solid with McCauley and Costner, if he's grown up a bit since last season.  So what about the in between game?

Since Lowe wants to run as much as possible, he has a few options, although Costner could slow things down if he shows up out of shape again.  He could start Degand and Fells and give up size for mobility. On the other hand, if Johnny Thomas is recovered from his freshman injury, or if C.J. Williams is better than advertised, one of them could step into the starting lineup. 

Or conceivably Trevor Ferguson could step up. 

We're biased towards Ferguson: he's not the most talented player around, but he's smart and he keeps moving. You want to see guys like that do well.  And remember he was looking like a great high school player until he broke (we think we remember this correctly) both wrists after a dunk gone bad.  

We could see State surrounding McCauley and a point guard to be named later with, say, Fells, Williams and Thomas.  Wouldn't be a huge team, but State doesn't have a lot of size anyway.

But they do have Tracy Smith, and he's an intriguing part of the puzzle.

The 6'8", 240 pound Smith had his moments last year, and he has some talent, although weight has been a problem for him at times.  If he has a breakthrough season, it would give State four solid players up front, by which we mean four solid big men.  If he is in outstanding physical condition, he'll push for a starting spot.  

But all that said, it doesn’t really get State from point A (Sendek) to point B (Lowe).  Sendek wanted an elegant watch; Lowe wants a stopwatch.  

This is not a team without talent but fitting it together is going to be problematic, and that's assuming someone can handle the point at an ACC level.

Our guess is that, given his preference for a running team, Lowe may ultimately end up going with a smaller lineup.  He's probably going to have to make a choice between the old and the new, and since his idea (and his recruits) are the new, and the fans didn't much care for the old, there's no argument whatsoever for going back.

This is somewhat complicated by the fact that this is Lowe's third season, yet he only has five of his own recruits in the program, and only Degand is more than a sophomore, and he's a transfer. 

It's a program in a prolonged transition, in other words, and there's more work to be done than you'd expect in the third year of a new regime.

On balance, we'd say - cautiously - that the prognosis is, overall, positive.  You could say a lot of things about Lowe, particularly after last season, but no one has ever called the guy stupid.  He's a smart man and we're sure he's learned from his mistakes.  Recruiting is looking up: Lowe has 2009 commitments from Richard Howell (6'7"/215) and Lorenzo Brown, both out of Georgia, and Scott Wood, a 6'5" high school teammate of Julius Mays out of Indiana, said to be a tremendous shooter.  For 2010, he has commitments from 6'10" C.J. Leslie out of Raleigh and 5'11" Ryan Harrow out of Georgia.  If we're not mistaken, so far, Javi Gonzalez, out of Florida, is the only Lowe recruit not from Georgia, North Carolina, or Indiana.  He's also working hard to get John Wall out of Raleigh (an ill mother may help him there) and Derrick Favors out of Atlanta.  Either would be a huge get for State, far bigger than Hickson was.  Both would be huge, almost Fab Five huge.

We're of the opinion that he's going to be a dynamic recruiter as time goes by.  But that won't help this year, and until State shows the level of passion that they had at the end of his first year, and the remarkable commitment and trust that they shared, the jury is out. 

State fans won't much like the idea of being patient, since they've been patient for what, 18 years now?

Unfortunately, that probably hasn't changed. At least not yet.