Sweet Sixteen Redux

After battling through a mid-season crisis, a hard-fought victory followed by a magical upset of a Big East school in the NCAA Tournament propelled a 13-loss NC State team to Syracuse to play in the Sweet Sixteen.

After battling through a mid-season crisis, a hard-fought victory followed by a magical upset of a Big East school in the NCAA Tournament propelled a 13-loss NC State team to Syracuse to play in the Sweet Sixteen.

Wolfpack Nation has seen this before.

It was 10 years ago that the 2004-05 NC State team traveled a path to the regional semifinals that is similar to the current squad, battling past Charlotte (then UNC-Charlotte) and upending the defending national champion Connecticut Huskies to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1989. Julius Hodge was the reigning ACC Player of the Year that season and he sees similarities between the team 10 seasons ago and Mark Gottfried’s bunch now.

“I see parallels in that there is a lot of youth of both teams,” Hodge said. “My team in ‘05 we had a couple of young players that really contributed to our Sweet Sixteen run with freshmen Andrew Brackman, Gavin Grant and Cedric Simmons. On this team I see the same with Malik Abu, Caleb Martin, BeeJay Anya and a lot of the frontline guys. It is a young core with young talent. They are ferocious and they are not afraid of anyone.”

The Wolfpack was highly touted during the 2004-05 campaign but floundered early. Like the current squad, the belief never wavered and State reached tournament play for a fourth straight season.

“The 2005 team got as high as number 7 in the country,” Jordan Collins recalled. “We had a rough patch in the middle of the ACC but we always knew that we were a good team. We just had to play up to our potential.”

In its first NCAA Tournament game 10 years ago, the Wolfpack battled UNC-Charlotte, who were led by current NC State assistant coach Bobby Lutz. The Pack trailed by seven at halftime due to the hot shooting of Brenden Plavich. The 49ers’ guard hit five three-pointers in the first half.

“What I remember is that we played really well early and Brenden Plavich shot the ball really well,” Lutz said. “We had a lead and then they put [Cam] Bennerman on him midway through the first half and he did a great job the rest of the game defensively.”

NC State had its way with UNC-C in the interior, outscoring the 49ers, 40-24, in the paint. In a stark contrast to the perception of most Herb Sendek-coached teams, the Wolfpack also enjoyed an advantage on fast break points. What stood out to Lutz however was the play of Hodge.

“Julius really imposed his will on the game,” Lutz said. “I don’t know if statistically he was the difference--I don’t remember his exact stat line--but I thought Julius’ leadership and his will to win was a difference. Our guys fought too. It was a battle. I felt like he was the main reason State won the game to be honest.”

With the 12-point victory in its NCAA Tournament opener, NC State next faced UConn in what was essentially a road game due to the second round matchup being held at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass.

“We played against a really good UNC-Charlotte team coached by Coach Lutz,” Hodge said. “We were down big at halftime and turned it around. Going into the UConn game we had a mentality where we wanted to shock the world.”

Levi Watkins, now an assistant coach under Bobby Hurley at Buffalo, played on the 2005 team and was on Gottfried’s staff in 2012 when the Pack returned to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since his senior season. Watkins recalled the resolve that NC State had to reach the second weekend of the tournament after falling short his first three tries.

“We hadn’t gotten to the Sweet Sixteen,” Watkins said of NC State at that point in his college career. “We had obviously gotten to the tournament every year, but we hadn’t gotten to that second weekend and that is something that we just kept talking about.”

“We were looking forward to playing UConn. They always seemed to be in our bracket somehow. They were the number two seed and they had a bunch of future first-round NBA guys that were on that team. We just wasn’t ready for it to be over.”

Against the Huskies, NC State once again trailed at intermission but the Wolfpack limited UConn to 38.5 percent shooting from the field after the break. State also shot well behind the arch, converting half of its 20 attempts, and was a sizzling 15-for-17 (88.2 percent) from the free throw line.

NC State led by 11 points with five minutes remaining.The game was tied at 62 in the waning moments but Hodge sealed the win with a three-point play with less than five seconds left.

"I wasn't going to be denied," Hodge said to the media afterwards. "We weren't going to be denied. It's not unbelievable, but nobody believed that it could happen for us.”

Hodge finished the game with 17 points, 13 of them coming in the final 11 minutes while playing out of position at point guard.

“[Hodge] was great,” Watkins said. “He was the most vocal out of everyone but we were fortunate to have a team full of guys that had that same competitive spirit. Jules was definitely the ringleader but we had a lot of guys that all led as well.”

This season’s NC State team has grown over the course of the campaign, shrugging off a stretch where the Pack went 3-7 over a period five weeks. Ironically, the 2005 squad had the same mark after its first 10 league games.

“We had some adversity that year,” Watkins said. “We started off 3-7 in the ACC that year. Obviously, we had already went to three NCAA Tournaments in a row and for our senior year we obviously didn’t want to go out like that. We had to battle some adversity and then just started playing well at the right time. It is just a coincidence that this team is doing the same thing.”

“We had a couple of injuries here and there and then suddenly we just started playing our best basketball in February and March--which is what you want to do.”

Hodge and the 2005 team fell short in Syracuse against Wisconsin. Looking at NC State’s matchup against Louisville, the Wolfpack great feels maintaining routine in the buildup to the trip is essential for success.

“I would just tell them to make sure they continue to stay on their regular schedule,” Hodge said. “Make sure they go to class early and get your school work done so you don’t have anything else on your mind once when you get to the practice court. And while you are out there, just play as hard as you can. They happen to be in a fortunate situation where they are playing against a team they are very familiar with, that is in their league and who they have already happened to beat this season.”

A fixture at practices like Hodge, Collins also has pride in the current team but is not surprised with what he has seen.

“I’m super proud of this team because I see them on a daily basis,” Collins said. “I see how hard they work. It’s not luck they are in the Sweet Sixteen. They have earned it.”

Unlike his classmates, Watkins is immersed in a college coaching career but he still has a strong bond with his alma mater and will be making the drive from Buffalo to Syracuse to support the school that he also coached at for eight seasons. He is proud NC State has made it to the regional semifinals but he is willing to dream bigger.

“That was my senior year,” Watkins said of the 2004-05 team. “It is funny because this team--I have followed this team obviously, it is my alma mater and I support NC State--It is funny how it has all shaken out because we went to the Sweet Sixteen 10 years ago and ended up playing in Syracuse just like these guys.”

“If they could go and win two games and make it to the Final Four,” Watkins added. “Boy, that would make all of us former players happy.”

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