Pack Continues Rise Up Rankings

The Wolfpack is ranked ninth in the coaches poll and 12th by the Associated Press, and coach Herb Sendek has NC State off to the school's fifth-best start since 1970.

While other conference teams continue to dominate the headlines, the NC State hoops squad is quietly and steadily pushing its way to the top of the national polls. After it moved to 6-0 with a win over Manhattan, the Pack entered the national top 10 for the first time in 20 years.

During the 1984-85 season, Jim Valvano's team was ranked in the Associated Press top 10 for two weeks in December, reaching 10th one week and ninth the next. The Wolfpack hasn't been ranked as high as 12th in the Associated Press poll since the 1987-88 season, when the Wolfpack reached No. 11 for one week in March. State was ranked 10th in the coaches' poll and 12th in the AP going into last weekend's matchup with Liberty, and has since moved to ninth in the coaches' poll while staying at 12th by the Associated Press vote.

The 94-60 romp over Liberty allowed the Pack to match its best start ever under coach Herb Sendek. The 1999-2000 team also started off 7-0, on its way to a 20-14 record for the campaign. Seven consecutive victories to begin the season matches the fifth-best start since 1970 – giving Sendek two of the top five starts in school history in that time frame. The 1972-73 squad went a perfect 27-0, the 1981-82 team began 9-0, and the 1975-76 and 1974-75 teams both started out 8-0.

NC State is joined in the top 10 by ACC foes Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, UNC and Duke, marking the first time ever that each of the "Big Four" teams in North Carolina have been ranked among the land's top 10 teams at the same time. While recognizing the significance of that accomplishment, Sendek has been quick to caution that polls mean next to nothing at this point.

"It's always been a great area for basketball and all four of those programs have great tradition," said Sendek. "It's early yet, though, it really is. Some of the folks who probably do the rankings haven't even had a chance to see all the teams that they're ranking yet. So it's early, and right now, the big key is to keep getting better."

The Pack has been dogged by questions about its early schedule, which has featured home games exclusively. However, the Wolfpack is in the midst of a five-game stretch against opponents that made the NCAA Tournament last year, and the team should find out a lot about where it is when it visits Washington, which is currently ranked 18th by the AP and 20th in the coaches poll. Despite the fast start, however, Sendek hasn't had seen signs of overconfidence from his mature squad.

"I haven't detected any of that at all right now," Sendek said. "Once again, we're so early in the season that our team hasn't done anything of special note or recognition to this point in the season. I don't think that's been an issue at all with us right now."

Though the players have embraced and handled the rise in the polls the right way, they still are cognizant of how significant the top-10 ranking has been for a program that went a decade without going to the NCAA Tournament in the 1990s.

"It's definitely a privilege just to be here, first of all," said junior Cameron Bennerman. "But for me to be able to contribute to a top-10 team like I'm doing right now -- and I'm sure everybody else feels the same way – it means even more because of all the minor elements that go into it."

Some players view the lofty ranking in another way, however. Freshman Cedric Simmons grew up a Wolfpack fan in Shallotte, N.C., and he says it's the best State team he's seen in his lifetime, but he warns of another factor that goes hand-in-hand with a place in the top 10.

"It means a lot, in a way, but top 10 just means you have a target on your back, to me," Simmons said. "You just can't let it get to your head and keep working like you're not ranked."

If you're looking for some of the reasons for the Pack's soaring start, you have to look no further than the conference rankings. While the Wolfpack has always been at the top of the league charts in defensive statistical categories, this year the stats reflect NC State's ability to win in a variety of ways.

After the first six games, the Pack ranked second in the ACC in rebounding defense (33.2 per game), fourth in blocked shots (6.67), second in scoring defense (54.3), second in scoring margin (+28.7), second in field-goal percentage defense (.353), and second in three-point field-goal percentage defense (.284). Offensively, the Wolfpack was third in the league in assists (19.17), third in turnover margin (+5.67), first in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.60), second in made three-pointers (9.33), first in field-goal percentage (.521) and third in three-point field-goal percentage (.403). In addition, NC State held five of its first seven opponents under 60 points. The Pack is 86-15 when holding foes under that mark in Sendek's eight-plus years at the helm.

Like classmate Simmons, rookie Andrew Brackman also is overwhelmed to be playing on such a strong team so early in his college career. The happy-go-lucky youngster also was beaming when asked about playing alongside two-time first-team All-ACC pick and reigning ACC Player of the Year Julius Hodge.

"Coming in, playing my first year and being in a top-10 program and getting to go on the court and play, I didn't think it would happen the first year; maybe my second year," said Brackman. "But it's happening, so we have to pretty much embrace the moment and keep it going."

To quote one of Sendek's favorite phrases, NC State knows it hasn't "arrived" yet – not in mid-December. So it has to be music to his ears to hear how the Wolfpack players continue to focus on how to improve, even in the midst of repeated questions about the polls.

"I just think that we have to keep it together and keep it going," Bennerman said. "We've got to build that momentum and somewhat steamroll our way through games. There will be some games that Julius doesn't have the stats that he has, and other people have to step up. If our offense isn't [clicking], we have to rely on defense.

"No matter what, we have to overcome the adversity and just keep it going, one game at a time."

And one slot in the polls at a time.

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