Week Away Crucial For Pack Hoopsters

After a tough stretch that has seen NC State go 3-3 and battle teamwide sickness, the Pack has the week off before opening conference play at Miami on Jan. 9.

When NC State coach Herb Sendek addressed the media following the Pack's 82-69 home loss to West Virginia on Jan. 2, he did so without giving an opening statement. Though he assured reporters that he had already been through the sickness that has hampered his team for a week and a half, Sendek did look worn down following a poor six-game stretch of play.

"I think the first step for us is to get healthy," said the coach. "We've had the flu just bring us to our knees. Before we move forward, we've got to get healthy, and once we do that, once we stabilize our health, we've got to get better. So I think it's really a two-step process for us right now."

Redshirt junior guard Tony Bethel has been slowed for nearly two weeks, redshirt junior Ilian Evtimov has also struggled with a cold and junior Cameron Bennerman ran a temperature that knocked him out of practice the day prior to the matchup with the Mountaineers. Throw in an ankle injury that sidelined senior Julius Hodge for the West Virginia contest and you have a team in desperate need of the week-long break that awaits the squad before beginning conference play at Miami on Jan. 9.

"It's very important," said senior Jordan Collins of the week between games. "We need to get everybody back healthy. We've had a couple with the flu, a couple sick, a couple bangs and bruises … We have to get everybody back healthy; that'll help."

"I think it's going to give us time for some of our guys to get better," said Evtimov. "We have a bunch of guys that have a cold, others that have the flu, Julius has been hurt … Nobody's feeling good right now, but that's OK. We faced adversity tonight and we've got to learn from it."

"I'm just going to evaluate and continue to work with [associate athletic director for sports medicine] Charlie [Rozanski]," said Sendek when asked whether it might be best to give his players a day or two off. "The two days we had in between games, we weren't able to practice, for all intents and purposes. We limited to a lot of mental things, we were limited to some walk-throughs. Some guys had to watch; Cameron had a temperature of 103 yesterday and was bundled up watching. Tony, bless his heart, he just hasn't been able to turn the corner with this thing.

"We've got to get healthy; whatever that takes to get some of those guys some time. And then, as soon as we get back in position to do so, we've got to move forward, like I always say, on a broad-based front. Because there's not one thing right now that we really have polished."

Indeed, Wolfpack players and coaches were quick to point out that sickness can't explain away the squad's poor play in the past three weeks. The subpar stretch is even reminding some players of recent years, when ugly non-conference outings slowed down the team's development.

"It's mind-boggling. You have a veteran team, and every year, we've lost those kinds of games," said Evtimov. "So you would think we wouldn't lose that way because we know better, but unfortunately, it happened again.

"I don't know what to say. Maybe it's something about getting your rhythm."

"We need to get healthy, but I honestly felt like we could have got a win tonight [vs. West Virginia]. I really did. I feel like we could have got a win," Bennerman said, shaking his head. "Andrew [Brackman] played a heck of a game tonight and some other guys tried to step it up even though they are under the weather.

"We just need to start back knocking down some shots. We got some pretty good looks, and we have to start knocking down shots and start playing better basketball overall. Period."

"There's no way to gauge [at what percentage the team is playing due to sickness]. I wouldn't even begin to speculate on all that," said Sendek. "Different people have it to different degrees of severity, and some of us handle those kinds of things differently than others.

"And none of that, believe me, those of you who are here covering West Virginia, none of that, none of that takes away from what they did. Please don't misconstrue what I'm saying. West Virginia is a hell of a team and they did a great job today."

When asked, Sendek revealed that the team passed on its annual flu shots this year due to the nationwide shortage. It is not known how much effect that has had on the squad's struggles with the flu.

"I don't know if that is the reason why or not, but guys are close and spend a lot of time together, and unfortunately, it's kind of like dominoes, it just goes through your team," said Sendek. "We always do every year, but this year, we haven't.

"From the one standpoint, we're very humbled, we understand that we've got to get better, we know we're not there yet and the last two games have been a good reality check for us. But at the same time -- and I'm not making an excuse -- but we've all had the flu, and we know what that feels like. I really respect the effort the guys gave today, I want them to get healthy, and then we've got to roll up our sleeves and get back to work."

Sendek lauded the way his team responded to the nightmarish 63-45 setback to St. John's and got back to playing an unselfish, ball-movement-dictated brand of offense. The defense didn't cooperate against the Mountaineers, but the coach sees that his players are cognizant of where improvement needs to be made.

"Like I said after the St. John's game, I didn't have any explanation for that and I certainly didn't expect that to happen; I don't think anybody did," said Sendek. "I thought our mindset tonight was very good. I think our hearts and minds were in the right place tonight. We had good intentions, we had good teamwork. We got beat on defense too much, but it wasn't for lack of effort or intention, so I like where our mindset was.

"And I think our guys are fully aware of the fact that they have to rise to a challenge, that the last two games have put is in a position where we recognize with tremendous clarity that we have to get better across the board."

With Hodge on the bench, Evtimov and Bennerman built on the leadership roles they have created for themselves due to the parts they play on the 2004-05 version of the Wolfpack. Both players pledged confidence in the squad, but noted that there is much work to be done in order for the squad to get where they want to be.

"I'm still confident in this team and in myself, but we have to do it," said Bennerman. "There's nothing to it but to do it. It's one of those things where you can talk about it and we can talk about it in the game, [saying] ‘Let's go, let's go' -- but you have to do it. It's just something you have to do."

"I think that lately, with what happened, we were heading that way," Evtimov said, acknowledging the Pack's poor play in recent weeks heading into the St. John's game. "I think that was a very good wake-up call for us. Losing to West Virginia at home, that's just going to reinforce that wake-up call and reinforce that we're not good yet.

"We can be a very good basketball team, but right now, we have a lot of margin for improvement. We have to go back to work in everything we do."

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