A Bittersweet Ending

This feature story is from the Spring 2011 issue of the Pack Pride Magazine and focuses on the head coaching tenure of Sidney Lowe. To learn more about our publication and how to subscribe, click on the link inside ...

This feature story is from the Spring 2011 issue of the Pack Pride Magazine that is currently shipping to subscribers. CLICK HERE to learn more about the publication!

A Bittersweet Ending

Never Able to Recapture His Championship Magic, Sidney Lowe Steps Down as the Leader of the Pack

Pack Pride Magazine
Spring 2011
WORDS: Scott Vogelsberg
PHOTOS: Jeff Reeves

n the spring of 2006, within shouting distance of Reynolds Coliseum, new coach Sidney Lowe received an on-campus greeting that seemed to stir the echoes of NC State lore. Everyone who was there to witness the re-introduction of the point guard of State's 1983 national title team to Wolfpack Nation seemed to feel something in the air, a vibrancy that had been missing around Pack basketball.

Energy, hope, excitement, goosebumps … call it what you will, but it was hard to deny during a memorable scene. Less than a year later, Lowe guided a gutsy, undermanned NC State squad to within a couple of minutes of an improbable ACC Tournament championship.

Now those days in May 2006 and March 2007 seem so long ago, just early-spring dreams lost in the breeze. And as Lowe has now seen his coaching tenure in Raleigh come to an end after his resignation on Tuesday afternoon, it's hard to imagine just how we arrived here from there.

In this year-by-year retrospective of the Lowe Era as head of the State program, we try to piece together just how such a promising start turned into a tenure of lost hope.

2006-2007: Record-Breaking Debut Leads To Soaring Expectations
Taking over a team ravaged by attrition and injury, Lowe put together a campaign that even the most cynical observer had to consider promising. Despite the loss of senior point guard Engin Atsur for a dozen games, the loss of junior Andrew Brackman to baseball and the defection of two signees from the Herb Sendek era, Lowe cobbled together a gritty squad that executed in the halfcourt and played strong defense.

He turned to some familiar faces to help him along the way: Monte Towe, one of the heroes of the Wolfpack's 1974 national championship squad, left his head coaching position at New Orleans to be Lowe's right-hand man; Pete Strickland, who was an assistant at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md., when Lowe was a player there, also came aboard; and Larry Harris, ace recruiter and longtime Sendek assistant, elected to leave the Arizona State staff after just three weeks to come back to the Pack.

Redshirt freshman Brandon Costner was the catalyst, emerging on the scene to put up a dazzling finish to a campaign that saw him average 16.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He got plenty of help from sophomore Ben McCauley (14.4 points, 6.9 boards per contest), junior Gavin Grant (14.7 points, 5.3 caroms per game) and sophomore Courtney Fells (10.9 points per contest). However, the cohesive force was Atsur, the heady floor leader and dead-eye shooter who contributed 11.3 points per game and made the Pack attack work. Having five players average double-figure scoring gave NC State the balance needed to adjust to what opposing defenses were allowing.

The biggest non-conference victory came over Michigan, while the Lowe era really started in earnest when the Wolfpack knocked off then-No. 3 UNC. Atsur's injury led to an uneven regular-season performance, but when the bright lights came on in Tampa for the ACC Tournament, the Pack found its stride. After dropping Duke in overtime, NC State followed up with sterling wins over Virginia and Virginia Tech, setting up a rubber matchup with the Tar Heels in the finals.

Using a couple of improbable shots down the stretch, UNC outlasted the tiring Wolfpack in another close one, denying State an NCAA berth but opening up a door to the NIT.

"Lowe became just the third Wolfpack coach to win 20 games and beat the other three in-state schools in his first season as coach."

Employing a small rotation due to the availability of only six scholarship players, NC State still managed victories over Drexel and Marist in the NIT before succumbing in yet another nail-biter to West Virginia to end the campaign.

Along the way, Lowe became just the third Wolfpack coach to win 20 games and beat the other three in-state schools in his first season as coach. The Pack wrapped up Lowe's debut season at 20-16 overall, with a 5-11 regular-season conference record, which tied them for 10th in the ACC.

However, the postseason effort and the impending arrival of a top-20 recruiting haul had Wolfpack Nation giddy about the future prospects—and served notice to the rest of the league that Lowe would be a force to be reckoned with once State was at full strength.

2007-08: Lofty Predictions Come Crashing Down In Year Two
The momentum created by NC State's furious finish carried over to the offseason, especially with the impending arrival of one of the nation's best big men, J.J. Hickson. Part of a highly regarded class that included Tracy Smith, Javy Gonzalez and Johnny Thomas, the hyper-athletic Hickson was expected to give the Pack its first legitimate post presence in years. Senior Gavin Grant certainly did nothing to dim lofty expectations when he let his excitement get the better of him and predicted that State would lose no more than four games in his senior season.

Though project big man Bartosz Lewandowski left the program after just a season, Iowa State transfer Farnold Degand and Tennessee transfer Marques Johnson were expected to give the Wolfpack a boost in the backcourt, giving a thin State roster six vital additions. However, the season that many anticipated would represent Lowe's breakthrough got off to an ominous start. Hickson was all he was advertised to be, pouring in 31 in a tremendous debut, but the Pack compounded head-scratching early-season losses to New Orleans and East Carolina by getting run off the court in a matchup with Michigan State.

Despite the best efforts of Hickson (14.8 points, 8.5 rebounds per contest, 59.1-percent shooting from the field), Grant (13.1 points per game) and Fells (10.6 points per contest), State was largely uncompetitive in conference play, with 10 of their 13 ACC losses by double-digits or more.

One of the main reasons was the disappearing acts of Brandon Costner and Ben McCauley, who both regressed badly in their third seasons in Raleigh. Costner fell from averaging 16.8 points per game as a freshman to just 8.5 as a sophomore, while McCauley slipped from 12.4 to 6.1 points per contest.

Degand, who showed spurts of promising play, was lost for the season with a knee injury just 10 games in, leaving point guard duties to Johnson and Gonzalez. The limited Johnson was simply not up to the challenge of being a primary ballhandler, while Gonzalez was largely eaten alive while trying to learn the position as a rookie in the ACC.

With the backcourt devastated and the Pack vulnerable to defensive ball pressure and presses, State went into a tailspin, losing their last nine contests of the year to finish at 15-16 overall and 4-12 in the ACC, which put them in a tie for 11th.

"Hickson was all he was advertised to be, pouring in 31 in a tremendous debut, but the Pack compounded head-scratching early-season losses to New Orleans and East Carolina by getting run off the court in a matchup with Michigan State."

With rumors of a lack of chemistry on the team, the prospect of Hickson bolting for the NBA after one season (he would be a first-round pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers) and the seeming dearth of on-court passion and fight, let's just say the luster was off Lowe's sheen, with all the energy created by his memorable debut dissipating quickly.

2008-09: Lack of Identity, Backcourt Talent Relegate Pack to Also-Ran Status
Following the departure of J.J. Hickson and the disappointing 2007-08 campaign, not much was expected of NC State in 2008-09. The Pack surprised many, however, by beginning the season 9-2 with narrow losses only to two strong opponents, Davidson and Marquette. Once conference play began, State struggled once again, starting off 2-6, claiming two overtime victories (and one OT loss). A big home win over Wake Forest highlighted the regular season, which was filled with inconsistent, up-and-down play. Perhaps more troubling, NC State never seemed to form an identity and never seemed to feel comfortable in translating Lowe's instruction to the court.

Redshirt junior Brandon Costner and senior Ben McCauley bounced back with strong seasons in what would prove to be both players' final go-around in the Red and White. Costner averaged 13.3 points and six rebounds per contest, while McCauley emerged as the leader of the squad and contributed 12.4 points and 7.8 caroms per game. Fellow senior Courtney Fells (11.3 points, 3.6 caroms per contest) finished strong as well, and sophomore Tracy Smith used a late-season surge to finish up with 10 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Sophomore Javy Gonzalez, junior Dennis Horner, redshirt junior Trevor Ferguson and freshman Julius Mays all carved out important roles as well, with Ferguson and Mays becoming contributors partially due to the transfer of Marques Johnson prior to the campaign.

Mays would lead the way with 18 points in the Pack's first-round loss to Maryland in the ACC Tournament, but his minimal contributions during his time in Raleigh and the slow development of classmate C.J. Williams would ultimately prove to be very damaging to Lowe's tenure at State. In some ways, State's very modest Class of 2008 (Mays and Williams) reflected a loss of momentum within and surrounding the program.

While the Wolfpack continued to struggle on the court, finishing at 16-14 overall and 6-10 in the ACC, tied for 10th, State was taking care of business in the classroom, with six players earning GPAs of 3.0 or higher. By scoring 995 out of a possible 1,000 in the NCAA's APR ratings, the Pack led the ACC and finished in the top 10 percent of all Division I institutions.

2009-10: Late-Season Rally Again Fuels Optimism For The Future
Not quite unexpectedly, Brandon Costner elected to forego his final season in Raleigh. Costner always had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the fanbase and was something of an enigma on the court, capable of stellar play at times and other stretches where you forgot he was on the floor. Rising redshirt senior Trevor Ferguson also opted to leave school, and with McCauley and Fells exhausting their eligibility, the Pack had some big holes to fill on the roster.

"Costner always had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the fanbase and was something of an enigma on the court, capable of stellar play at times and other stretches where you forgot he was on the floor."

Lowe responded by inking a six-man class that was considered a top-15 national haul, once again raising the excitement level around the school. That energy took a huge hit, however, when the diamond of the class, Lorenzo Brown, didn't fulfill academic obligations and was forced to spend the season at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va. The arrival of Scott Wood, Richard Howell, Deshawn Painter, Jordan Vandenberg and Josh Davis gave hope to a program in dire need of some.

When the season started, Tracy Smith wasted no time in showing he would be the go-to guy for the Pack. Arguably the top post player in the league, he averaged 16.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in his junior campaign. Unfortunately, State suffered a couple of devastating losses in the non-conference portion of the schedule. The Wolfpack fell to Florida when Chandler Parsons nailed an improbable 75-foot shot at the buzzer in overtime to give the Gators a stunning one-point victory, then lost the chance for an important road win (even without Smith) when Arizona hit a runner at the buzzer to win by two. These two losses could be seen as somewhat symbolic of Lowe's time as coach, with the Pack unlucky and unfocused enough to string together important wins that would allow Lowe to put his stamp on the program.

Hope was restored again when the Wolfpack notched a big-time win over Duke, but that was immediately followed by a mind-boggling stretch that saw State lose seven of eight conference matchups. Once again, though, the Pack rallied to a strong finish, going 6-3 in their last nine. Included in that mini-run was a trip to the ACC Tournament semifinals, where NC State lost by just three in a heartbreaker against Georgia Tech.

The two victories in the ACC Tournament put the Wolfpack in position for another NIT invitation, and State notched its 20th win for the second time under Lowe with a win over South Florida before falling to Alabama-Birmingham. Senior Dennis Horner (11.9 points, 4.9 boards per game) was the Pack's best player down the stretch, and Gonzalez (9.5 points per contest) and Wood (7.8 points per game) worked well with Smith to give NC State a respectable inside-out offensive approach.

Looking back, one might wonder how things might have been different had Brown been eligible for this season. But still, by finishing up at 20-16 overall (5-11 in the ACC, tied for ninth) and buoyed by another strong finish down the stretch and a stellar recruiting haul on the way, Wolfpack Nation was once again lulled into an offseason-long feeling of optimism.

2010-11: Uninspired Play, Inability to Finish Signal the End of the Sidney Lowe Era
Tracy Smith had emerged as a first-team All-ACC force. Just a sophomore, Scott Wood was established as one of the league's most dangerous three-point shooters. Javy Gonzalez represented a prized commodity in the ACC: a senior point guard. Richard Howell had earned a reputation as a burly rebounding presence heading into his sophomore campaign. A top-five recruiting class was on its way to run with the Pack.

"Javy Gonzalez represented a prized commodity in the ACC: a senior point guard. "

Throw all these factors into an equation that included the strong finish to the previous season and Lowe's first team with all of his own hand-picked players, and one can see why expectations had skyrocketed in Raleigh. In a little-reported development, though, three role players—Julius Mays, Johnny Thomas and Josh Davis—transferred out in the offseason, robbing the team of some depth, work ethic and unselfishness. And unfortunately, the season would unfold in an eerily similar fashion to the 2007-08 season, which also featured a ballyhooed team based on the previous season's postseason run, a solid NIT showing and a nice influx of talent.

An early-season knee injury would knock Smith out of commission for 10 games, and he would never return to full strength, serving notice that this may, once again, not be the Wolfpack's year. The out-of-conference slate didn't feature a loss to a lesser team, but did include two lopsided losses to Georgetown and Wisconsin, a hard-fought setback at Syracuse and a lackluster home defeat at the hands of Arizona. A romp over Wake Forest got the ACC season off to a strong start, but losses to Boston College, Florida State and Duke seemed to rob the team of its confidence.

A two-point win over Miami gave some short-lived hope, but hopes were quickly dashed with four straight losses, including uninspired, uncompetitive efforts against rivals Duke and UNC. Not only did the stretch call into question whether elements of the team had quit on Lowe, but it also included a disturbing trend of strong halves of basketball followed and offset by mind-numbing stretches.

Standing at 2-7 in league play, some even quietly speculated whether a midseason removal of Lowe was in order. However, State rallied with back-to-back victories and fought hard in close losses at Maryland and home against UNC. A home win over Georgia Tech gave some hope for at least an NIT berth, but seemingly disinterested setbacks at Virginia and in the home finale vs. Florida State ended those thoughts before they really took root within the fanbase—which more and more found better things to do with their time than show up at the RBC Center.

The Pack wrapped up the regular season at 15-15 overall and 5-11 in the conference, tied for 10th. Despite hobbling through much of the season, Smith still led the way with 14.1 points a game, to go with 5.6 boards. Freshman C.J. Leslie contributed 11.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest, but he was just as apt to play NC State out of runs with face-palm-worthy shot selection and the type of body language that seemed to lead to the squad playing better when he was on the bench. Wood added 9.9 points per game, but struggled to get open looks, while rookie Lorenzo Brown averaged 9.4 points per contest and paced the Pack in assists and steals, but was also far and away the team's leader in turnovers. The third frosh, Ryan Harrow, managed 9.3 points per game, but took his lumps against stronger and more mature players in conference and was sidelined by sickness at a key time during the season. Howell put up 7.4 points and 6.4 caroms per contest, but had a really difficult time finishing around the basket and suffered a seemingly never-ending string of shots blocked. Despite a widespread perception that he was the better point guard for this version of the Wolfpack, Gonzalez saw his minutes and points (5.3 per game) dwindle after yielding to Harrow.

Fittingly, Lowe's final game, a first-round loss to Maryland (a team that Lowe never beat in nine tries as a coach) in the ACC Tournament, served as a worthy metaphor for his tenure in Raleigh. His team fell behind early, made an inspired late rally, then slowly fell apart when everything was on the line.

Postscript: A Difficult Farewell For A Beloved Figure In State Hoops
The numbers became harder and harder to ignore as the Lowe Era progressed. 86-78 overall. 30-59 in ACC play. 7-33 in conference road games. By the end, they couldn't be denied or avoided, and everyone recognized that a change was needed.

"The numbers became harder and harder to ignore as the Lowe Era progressed. 86-78 overall. 30-59 in ACC play. 7-33 in conference road games. By the end, they couldn't be denied or avoided, and everyone recognized that a change was needed."

On the court, the search for an identity never ended. Lowe wanted State to be a transition team, yet they never had the talent to convert on the fast break. He wanted them to run proficient half-court sets and isolation schemes, but they seemingly missed more layups than any team in the nation. He wanted them to have the heart his '83 team possessed in spades, but he never had the go-to guy or the fiery leader needed to make it happen down the stretch. With no identity to hang their hat on in times of stress, when everything was on the line, the Wolfpack came up short again and again and again.

Other concerns of Lowe's approach are purely conjecture: some observers felt overall player conditioning had declined, while others called into question the player rotations. Some wondered whether Lowe's time as an NBA coach actually hurt his practice regimen; in the NBA, with so little time between games, there is no emphasis on teaching or individual skill instruction. To many, it appeared that that practice style may have seeped its way into an NC State roster that too often was lacking in fundamentals and basketball IQ.

Yet for all the criticisms, doubts and complaints, Lowe possessed a quiet dignity that belied his fiery nature. He never lashed out at his detractors, never succumbed to ref-baiting, never dodged a question and was always gracious with the media.

In the hours following that final-game loss to Maryland, the headlines reflected a sadness around the inevitable, of what was to come, the lost hope and the hard decisions for Lowe and State. "It hurts me," he admitted to the media after his last contest as coach. "I know what it's like to win here and I know how the people will get behind you. It means a lot more to me [than other coaches."

So even in those final moments, even Lowe's biggest critics felt empathy for the hero of yesteryear who could never reclaim those fleeting, springtime wisps of glory. Due to that humility—and the little matter of a national championship he helped bring to Raleigh—perhaps no coach who has ever resigned will ever remain as embraced by a fanbase as Lowe will.

And despite the losses and the overriding sense of what might have been, maybe that's the most fitting epitaph to put on the Lowe Era at NC State.

This feature story is from the Spring 2011 issue of the Pack Pride Magazine that is currently shipping to subscribers. CLICK HERE to learn more about the publication!

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