They had a great year. They had a great year. And there's a lot more to celebrate than commiserate.
What did you see in Gavin Grant that made you want to recruit him
I just really loved his versatility, the fact that he could do so many different things. He's improved seemingly every day, has really emerged as a terrific young player for us. And we are relying a great deal on Gavin's productivity right now.
How nice has it been to see Tony Bethel back?
As we previewed the season, we talked at length about how excited we were that he would be able to play in games this year. That he had already helped our team immensely last year just by being able to practice, making things more competitive, being a terrific leader, but the real exciting part would be that he would be in the games this year. I thought he got off to a great start, especially after not paying last year.
And he got sick around Thanksgiving, recovered, and then when we came back from Christmas, obviously, is when he really became sick a second time and then we lost his services for a while. And it really wasn't until our game this past weekend that he was able to give us any lengthy minutes, and it was really good to see him play well.
He's an important player for us, and we actually went through a stretch there when we didn't have Tony, for all intents and purposes, as well as Cameron, so the way our numbers are, to have anybody back is very welcome.
What does Bethel's presence add to your team?
He gives us another good athlete, somebody who has good quickness on the defensive end, but also has a nice skillset on offense. He's just a good all-around guard, I think.
It seemed like Julius went back to low post more with Bethel in. Is that accurate?
Not entirely. Julius still, even when Tony was out, has the ability to go and play different spots on the court for us.
How quickly did you learn about the State-UNC rivalry when you took over here at State?
I don't know if there's any one single story, but it's pretty obvious that there's great history, pageantry and intensity through the rivalry. You don't have to wander too far before you realize that that's the case.
How difficult was it to see Levi Watkins go down with injury?
It was really hard. Levi obviously tore his ACL in his left knee against Maryland at the very beginning of our ACC season his freshman year, and it was too far into the season to qualify for a medical waiver, so he lost that year. Then he worked incredibly hard to come back his sophomore year, and now, coming down the homestretch of his senior year, to see him suffer this kind of injury, I think, really hit everybody hard yesterday. I think we all really felt for Levi.
It was very early in practice and we had basically just gotten going, and we had to regroup the best we could to finish the day, because I think everybody's mind and heart was with Levi.
Could he come back sooner than expected?
The timeframe that I was given was three to four weeks. As we all well know with those kinds of estimates, that's all they are. Could it be three weeks? Perhaps. Could it turn into five? I don't know. It's really just a best guess, I think, by the doctor.
Is there any update on Cameron Bennerman?
I think he's getting better. He's still on the sidelines for us as well, though..
What is the biggest challenge UNC presents?
I think they present a challenge in just about every way. I think they're playing as well as anybody in the country, and they're extremely talented and deep. They play hard , they play together … They're a great basketball team.
Transition defense has not been a strong point for your team. Is that a concern for you?
They want to play as fast as anybody. They would love to play off of your mistakes and allow that to turn into easy baskets for them. They want to push the ball, whether it's a make or a miss. They want a high-possession game.
What does league gain from going to major markets for the ACC Tournament?
I don't know, other than I think that the people who represent those cities, those schools in those particular locales, want it in their backyard and they want to host it for convenience of their fans, and that's understandable. I don't know that it gets any more coverage; I don't know if that's possible. If they have it in Greensboro or Charlotte, it's not like there's less TV or less media coverage. I think it just gets those other areas a chance for an economic boost, for easy access for more of their fans, and it probably just creates more of a feeling of equity as opposed to always having it in North Carolina.
Is there a different feeling when the tourney is outside of North Carolina?
I think it's only been out of state one time since I've been here, and that was in Georgia. So for the most part, I don't have a good barometer for that, because it's been in Greensboro or Charlotte most every time since I've been able to participate.
Have you ever seen a rash of injuries and illnesses like the one your team is enduring?
Unfortunately, I'm not happy to report, I think we've had a similar situation in other years. But it does seem uncanny. Uncanny.
And I think one of our greatest challenges this year as a unit is just trying to establish some continuity in practice. And it seems we were very fortunate and blessed early. We went relatively unscathed through the fall other than Ilian trying to come back from his knee injury, and then we went to New York, and since that point, our team has yet to be whole again.
What kind of emotional boost does Bethel's return provide?
Well, I think when you have a player like that return, it can only help boost the confidence in the other guys. They realize he's a good player and we're a better team with him, so I think it does make the other guys feel better. Certainly, when somebody's out, you've got to pull together and make up for it collectively, but I think it's good for the psyche of the team when one of your better players is able to return.
Is Bethel back to playing as much as he was before the sicknesses?
Pretty much so. I'll continue to keep a close eye on him, but for the way we are right now, we fully expect him to play significant minutes in the game.
Engin Atsur seemed to hold the backcourt together through all the injuries.
Engin has had really a solid year for us, and I think he's a terrific player. I think [Clemson coach] Oliver Purnell gave him some very nice comments after our game, and that was nice to hear, because I don't know that Engin always receives the kind of recognition that his play would probably deserve. And I've said this several times recently, that perhaps – and it's only perhaps – that's it a function of the fact of the kind of person he is. He does anything but draw attention to himself. He's very quiet-spoken and unassuming; he has great self-confidence but he also has a real sense of humility. And he is just such a team person it's incredible. So he's been a very solid player for us.
Unfortunately, right now, he's a little bit under the weather, and we're hoping he's doing better by tomorrow. He did not practice yesterday.
Did you ever have any doubts about Bethel returning?
We talked about the guestimate with Levi. When we got our information about Tony, it was "Tony could be out a week to six months." So yeah, there was doubt. There was concern. We didn't think it would be six months because, fortunately, he's a young, healthy person, but there are documented cases with the condition that he has that have taken that long. So we didn't know for sure.
And so we've really had some good practice at becoming resourceful. Guys have had to assume different roles, but that's all part of it. I think the key to this whole thing is, at any one given moment, you do the best you humanly can with the circumstances that you have, and that's really what it's all about. We've had some guys really battle through some things, and I really admire them for that a great deal.
Have you done anything different in practice because of the free-throw difficulties?
We really haven't. We really haven't. We didn't do anything extraordinarily special last year relative to earlier years, and we led the country. We pretty much have the same recipe for practice, and it's probably not altogether that much different than what most everybody else does. It's one of those things that's probably fairly common across the board.