Sendek: "We've Got To Hang Together Right Now"

With a critical road matchup with Maryland looming, Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek offered a candid assessment of NC State's recent struggles and how it can return to early-season form.

Opening statement:
You have to give yourself an honest evaluation, and I think we have to be prepared to do that today in order to move forward. Obviously, nobody feels good about losing, so we just have to address the things that are not getting done and hopefully improve on them. Knowing that, with our schedule, things aren't going to get any easier for us – we're going to have to be better.

You've mentioned changing behavior. What do you mean by that?
Just any number of things. You could start on the defensive end of the floor, getting a big rebound once you've earned a stop, rather than giving up a second shot, getting more stops in critical periods. Offensively, not to oversimplify or trivialize things, we're probably a made layup or a couple of free throws away from being 3-1 instead of 1-3 [in the ACC]. And, in a couple of instances, I don't know if we could get better shots in our sport than we've gotten, and we just haven't converted. But I don't think we can focus on that; we have to focus on things like getting big rebounds, getting an important stop, eliminating some critical-point turnovers with better decision-making. Those are things that I think we have to focus our attention to.

Do you think your team has to get tougher mentally?
Mental toughness is always essential to compete at this level. Whatever label you want to attach to it, mental toughness, focus, concentration, all those kinds of words describe a necessary state of mind, especially going on the road and doing what it takes, not just to play well, but to win the game. We could be better at all those things, and once again, things aren't always as good or as bad as they seem, notwithstanding the record. If we convert a couple of layups, chances are the theme of this conversation is entirely different. But we didn't, so now the spotlight and the introspection are much more intense.

Tony Bethel is improving. Is he closer to getting back on the court?
I'm hoping. He practiced a little bit the day before we played Virginia Tech and he's been getting some extra cardiovascular work in. It's just going to take time, but he's certainly moving in the right direction, and we'll see how he responds today and tomorrow in practice. But he's definitely on the road back. How long it ultimately takes before he can get back into game shape is hard to pinpoint.

How much of a difference can he make, especially in perimeter defense?
He's an important player for us. He really solidifies are perimeter rotation, and he gives us another athletic, quick guard in the backcourt who can do a number of really positive things for our basketball team.

What have you seen in watching film on Maryland that could pose problems for your team?
I've always had great respect for the system Maryland employs; I think they have one of the best systems in college basketball. I think it could probably be traced back to when Coach Williams was together with Coach Davis years ago, and he certainly polished it through the years. I think they just have a great system. They really force you to prepare, whether you take the ball out on the side and have to get ready for their 1-2-1-1 press, some of their full-court or three-quarter-court traps, the sharpness with which they execute their flex system … They just have a really, really good system that forces tremendous concentration in your preparation.

You play an awful lot of Sunday games this year. Do you have any say in that?
We get the ACC schedule and we go with it. I know that every effort is made not to give one team too many Sunday games or too many two-games-in-three-days bursts. But I think we've gotten to the point where there are so many different variables in the computer that something has to give. As it turned out this year, we have a very lopsided schedule in terms of Sunday games, in terms of the sequence of home and away games. It's moved more and more in that direction as, I think, we've added variables to the schedule equation.

But we added to our glut of Sunday games with a couple of non-conference as well. The West Virginia game fell on a Sunday largely because of New Year's. And we had a chance, obviously, to play Manhattan on national television, so we elected to do that. The [game] in Washington was a Fox national TV game, so we certainly contributed to at least two of those cases. The holiday was the reason for the third, and then, obviously, the conference games, we have no say whatsoever.

Post defense has become an issue. Have you identified anything that you need to improve in that area?
Well, it was an issue at Virginia Tech; Collins really hurt us inside. I thought we did a pretty good job with Georgia Tech, and, obviously, Shelden Williams hurt us in the second half of our game against Duke, and we probably won't be the only ones that he does that to this year. But we need to be better in that area.

When you're in our situation, it's hard for me to sit here and not be forthcoming and admit that we don't need to be better in most every area. At the same time, I try to strike a reasonable balance of calm and, once again, realize that sometimes the line is so obscure that -- like we talked about earlier in the conversation -- if a guy makes a layup or you make two free throws, everybody is filled with joy. And the difference between your team is really negligible, other than your bottom-line record.

What has Levi Watkins meant to the program in his career?
Levi was been a really important basketball player to our program. He's one of our tri-captains this year, and he's given us leadership and he certainly has contributed with his play over the years. Right now, he's been recovering from the flu the last few days, but he's just been a real steady guy, an every-day guy for us.

Has he recovered enough to where he might be available this weekend?

Maryland has great depth. Do you have anything planned to try to stop anything anyone in particular does off the bench?

Well, that's not really the focal point of our preparation. We prepare for Maryland's team and we're certainly cognizant of their personnel as we do that. I don't know if that's kind of our starting point. They do have a good bench, they do have good depth, [but] I don't know that that's kind of the centerpiece of our preparation right now.

Mike Jones has played well lately. Do you have anything planned defensively to stop him?
Once again, that's not our paradigm. We recognize Mike Jones and his explosiveness and his shooting, but our scheme has to guard Maryland, not one player.

What have you noticed about Nik Caner-Medley that he's doing differently?
Well, I've always had great respect for Nik because he pours his heart out. He plays with tremendous passion and effort, and if you do that over the course of your career, you're going to get better. And I think he has improved every step of the way. Although he was certainly a landmark freshman, now in his third year, he's really developed and I think he's playing with a lot of assertiveness and confidence.

I've always been a fan of his, even when I first saw him in July going into his senior year as a high school player. I believe he had committed to Maryland very, very early, and I said, ‘Wow, they've really got themselves a heck of a player there.' I think that was obvious to me the first time I saw him play.

How is Julius holding up during this stretch of struggles?
Well, I think we all, as members of a team, share in those struggles. I don't think any of us feel good about it, Julius included. But the one benefit of being part of a team in any walk of life is you're able to share struggles and you're able to share joy. And when you're able to share each of those, it makes it a lot better than if you had to put it all on your own shoulders. It's no fun just to feel joyous by yourself or as fun as it is to share it with others, and the same thing with struggles. So we've got to hang together right now and keep battling.

How difficult is it to keep the team together during this difficult time?
I think it's important that we recognize the choice of our response. There's a certain amount of the human condition that makes it easy when things don't go well, whether it's at the office or on a team, that you retreat, you put a fence up, that it's somebody else's doing and not mine. I think that's a real choice that's always there.

Or you can choose to come with open hands and open heart, take a good, hard look in the mirror, realize that we're in this together and it doesn't serve any productive purpose to blame others, to make excuses. Hopefully our men will choose the latter. We've certainly talked about, with our guys, the two choices that you have any time things are hard.

And I think our human defenses sometimes make that first choice a little bit easier, to kind of [say], ‘OK, this isn't me, because it hurts if it's me. It's everybody else.' And if everybody takes that mindset, you really start to close down in small circles. I think you've got to come together and you've got to bring open hands and open heart, like I said, and recognize that we all have to do better and we all have to stick together. Because it is the ultimate team game.

Some coaches say you learn more from a loss than a win. Do you feel that way, that you have learned a lot about this team in the last month?
Well, you're always learning. You're always learning at new levels; that never stops, whether you win or lose. Sometimes difficulty speaks to us a little bit more loudly. Sometimes when things are hard, it's a little bit easier to get our attention as human beings.

You've had three end-of-game situations, at Washington, Miami and Virginia Tech. Do you like what was designed there, or was it simply a lack of execution?
Well, we've certainly been very close three different times and come up short each time. Could we have come up with something better? Perhaps. Could we have executed it more effectively? Perhaps. But we didn't. And we don't want to focus too much of our mental energy there, because in each of those cases, there were many things that came before each of those final possessions that, had we done better, we never would have been in such a predicament, if you will.

Earlier in the year, Ilian said he was still restricted in range of motion in his knee. Do you think he's overcome that at this point?
Well, I think he's doing much better than he was earlier in the season, but he's been through a lot with his knees. I think, because of the tremendous mental toughness that he has and the constant dedication to treatment and strength training, he still puts himself in position to compete favorably, which hasn't been easy to do with all the surgeries that he's had. But I think he's doing better now than he was in the fall and the earlier part of our season.

Do you change anything as far as practice or approach at this point, or do you keep doing what you've been doing and just do it better?
Well, I think it's important always to have a pulse of your team and to ask the key questions: What does our team need? And sometimes, some subtle change can be good. Even when you're winning, to be one step ahead and have a pulse of what the group needs now is important -- really important. Sometimes it may be a good idea just to take an extra day off; it could be something like that.

But I don't think, if where you're going with that question is, that we can drop back and make wholesale changes with what we do with our systems. Because execution is a function of repetition. If you, for example, would try to make wholesale changes and then only practice it two days before your next game, the likelihood of being able to execute that under pressure at this level is very remote, I believe.

I think you execute what you know best and what you've done hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. Because even with that kind of repetition, we still make mistakes, we still miss assignments, let alone something that you just put in Monday because we didn't win the game on Saturday. And now we're going to do this Monday and Tuesday and be really good at it by Wednesday? It doesn't work that way, I don't think.

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