As the Wolfpack begins its ninth season under Sendek, the team is adorned with high expectations despite being in a conference with five other teams that are ranked higher in most preseason polls. Many attribute this to the return of last year's ACC Player of the Year, Julius Hodge, and some even cite the immediate impact of transfer Tony Bethel, who can fill the role of lead guard to take pressure off of Hodge. But the fact is that this team may be Sendek's most complete product in terms of unity and ability. This is an experienced team comprised of players who not only know and respect Sendek's offensive and defensive philosophies, but also work well together because they all have the skill sets and abilities to execute those philosophies. This is the end result of masterful recruiting by Sendek that should be measured not only by the players brought into the program, but also those that remain in the program.
Some detractors continue to criticize Sendek about his recruiting, pointing to the fact that over a dozen players have transferred from NC State over the coach's eight-year tenure at the school. But at the same time, these people must acknowledge that Sendek is good at recognizing talent, and even better at knowing which talent will be good for his team in the long run, even if it takes a couple of years to figure that out. Take, for example, the case of Damien Wilkins, one of the most heralded prospects ever recruited by Sendek. Wilkins had unique skills, but did not fit well with the Sendek system. Further, the constant insistence by his father, former NBA player Gerald Wilkins, of how Damien should play and the Wilkins family's focus on Damien's professional career were becoming distractions for the entire team. That's why, in the interest of team chemistry, Sendek cut Damien loose even when he desperately wanted to return to the Wolfpack after NBA tryouts. The following season, Sendek took a team that included a versatile leader in Anthony Grundy and a high-energy superstar in Julius Hodge to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991.
Sendek may have proven himself yet again this fall with the recruitment of point guard J.P. Prince of Memphis. Prince is widely considered one of the best point guards in the high school class of 2005, and at 6'5", he possesses unique skills that would make him a perfect fit for Sendek's system, especially since versatile point guards are always at a premium for the Wolfpack. Back in September, NC State was among the favorites to land Prince, but when the young prospect revealed to Sendek that he wanted guaranteed playing time, the Wolfpack coach withdrew the scholarship offer and Prince was off to Arizona. It's always difficult for a coach to make such a decision, especially when the player is considered by many to be what the program needs most. But Sendek chose to stand pat with what he had, rather than risk a potential disruption to the team chemistry he worked so hard to create.
Team unity is a factor that cannot be taken for granted. It is one of the reasons athletically superior teams fall to less-talented teams. It is something that can be thrown off by one player (see Eddie Griffin's one year at Seton Hall, or Tim Thomas' one year at Villanova), or a combination of players and coaches (see Joe Forte, Matt Doherty, and even Rashad McCants). It was one of the driving forces behind the Wolfpack's 1983 national championship; and that, more than anything, is a reason for NC State fans to be pleased with their current head coach. After all, Herb Sendek knows how to foster team chemistry. And if there is anything for which he should be held accountable, that should be at the top of the list.
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One thing Sendek will need to watch in his team this year is that buzz-word that Wolfpack football fans find all-too familiar these days: discipline. On at least three separate occasions last season, NC State players were whistled for violations of slapping the backboard or hanging too long on the rim. Those calls resulted in technical fouls that could have (or may have) wrecked the Pack's progress in those games. And the worst thing about these continued violations is that they signified a complete lack a discipline. That was one of the reasons Sendek allowed referees at this year's Red-White scrimmage to make those calls, even if the game was just an exhibition. As a result, freshman Gavin Grant and junior Cam Bennerman were each charged with technical fouls (much to the dismay of several boo-birds in attendance) for hanging too long on the rim and slapping the backboard, respectively. What may be more alarming is the fact these continued exhibitions of showboating could be a direct reflection of how the players practice. If this is the case, Sendek may need to start cracking down on such behavior, or else these scenarios will continue to play out in the regular season. And if that happens, you can bet Wolfpack fans will be as tolerant this season as they were during football season.
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Rashad McCants comments in which he likened playing basketball at UNC to serving time in jail may have caused a lot of unnecessary grief for Roy Williams and others in the Tar Heel program, but it was just another example of the lack of social skills and common sense that college players tend to exhibit from time to time. It is painfully obvious that a vast majority of basketball players don't go to college to get smarter. Rather, they are just preparing themselves for "the league" and whatever payday to which they believe themselves entitled. It should be obvious to most high-profile Division I programs is that education on social and communications skills is needed before these players even hit the hardwood. Therefore, these schools should invest in classes like "How to Speak to the Media: 101" and "Social Responsibility: You are No Criminal." But until this happens, be prepared to see more of the responses by players like McCants who really have no clue as to the difference between what they are saying and what they should be saying.