They seem like an NBA team on film. They're really good. They have great experience and great balance, inside and out. And they have the capacity to score in every conceivable way. They're tremendous in transition, they run a lot of good quick-hitters, and when they miss, they rebound tenaciously. So they're clearly one of the best teams in the country.
It sounds like you're describing UNC.
You certainly could very easily group those two teams together.
Can you talk about the role players for Wake Forest?
They have, in addition to the experience and the balance, the third point would be they have depth, and they have experienced depth. They can bring a junior like [Trent] Strickland in, who's given them really quality minutes, a senior like [Taron] Downey; and they don't drop off. They have a really strong rotation of about eight guys who give them quality depth as well. So if one particular player is having an off game, it's not his night, they don't necessarily have to take it between the eyes. They have a number of guys who have shown the capacity to step up.
I think their backcourt is terrific and deservedly gets a great deal of praise and acclaim, but I think Eric Williams is having his career-best year, just a real force inside. I've maintained for a couple of years now that I think Jamaal Levy's one of the most underrated players in our league, just in terms of productivity and versatility. And then [Vytas] Danelius is just such a great competitor, and right now, he's shooting the ball exceptionally well.
You've had trouble with big guys, and Williams is one of the best big men out there.
He's just incredibly strong. He has great size and strength and has terrific hands. So he catches everything and he's just so powerful.
Was Cedric Simmons' extensive minutes in the last game a matchup deal, or will he continue to see a lot of time?
I expect Cedric to continue to play very significant minutes for us. I think he has really blossomed, turned the corner, made great progress, since we started at the beginning of the year. And I'm really excited about his potential and future with us. So he's a very important player for us right now.
You said the other night that the problem is not the offense, it's the defense – that it's not up to NC State standards. Can you elaborate on that?
I'm certainly not prepared to give our offense a clean bill of health, because it has started there in at least some cases and put our defense in a position where we've had to guard at a disadvantage in transition. But just looking at our numbers through nine ACC games, I don't have it right in front of me, but I think we're roughly giving up 47 percent field-goal percentage, our three-point defense is roughly 36 percent, we're forcing just under 13 turnovers. So the fact that we're not turning the ball over ourselves isn't giving us a tremendous advantage; it's basically a break-even. And we're giving up 40 percent of second shots. And so I just don't think that those numbers are where they need to be, and we have to do a better job on the defensive end of the floor. And that's throughout the game, but certainly there have been any number of cases in some of the close losses that we've suffered that we have just not come up with that one big stop, gotten that one big rebound that you need to win instead of lose. So we've really tried to be honest with ourselves about that, address it and continue to work to become a better defensive team.
Having said all that, you probably also heard me say that I came in on Monday and got the statsheet out and just curiously wanted to see, in the four games that we lost by a combined 10 points, what we were at the foul line. And we were 55 out of 90, for 61 percent. And I don't think, at any point, we've been the kind of team that just has the margin to leave a minimum of 35 points at the foul line -- not including how many of those were front ends of one-and-ones -- and be OK with that. So when you're struggling, you certainly put everything under the microscope, ask questions about every aspect of everything you're doing. And it leads you in a lot of different directions certainly, but at the end of the day, the difference maybe between where we were and where we find ourselves now isn't as dramatic in terms of performance as the records or the bottom line would indicate. And certainly free-throw shooting has been a very critical element to create that bottom-line differential.
What have been the major problems? Intensity, personnel, what?
I think, at any one time, that it hasn't been the same thing. We've gone through some lineup shakeups because of some of the health issues that we've talked about, and we've had Tony [Bethel] and Cameron [Bennerman] out, separately and together, along with some other guys. We're integrating some young players. So I don't know that, at any one time, you can just say, "Clearly, this is the reason why." But I do know it hasn't been good enough for us to get the job done in the manner that we'd like. So it's something we have to address.
It seems like your freshmen have been learning at different speeds. Has that been part of the problem?
Well, I think our freshman class is as talented as most any. I think those guys have all had really good freshman years and had outstanding moments for us. But this is a pretty good league to compete as a freshman, as you go through those 16 games, there's a lot of things that you're going to experience for the first time. And we're at a position where at certain times right now, all three of those men are on the floor together for us.
I think they've done a really good job and continue to get better. But, like all freshmen, physically and mentally, it's a great challenge. It's a real grind.
Can you describe Ilian Evtimov's style of play?
I think he's somebody who plays with his heart and his head very well. He's a great competitor, he really consistently gives you great effort. And he's somebody who really has to rely on his basketball I.Q. and his savvy. He's not the tallest or the quickest or the fastest and he doesn't jump the highest … He has some physical limitations that he has to make up for with intelligence and heart.
When you recruited him, you had no idea you'd be using the system you have now, correct?
We had given it some thought, but we hadn't come to that conclusion yet, correct.
Have you been surprised at how well he's adapted to it? He seems like a perfect fit.
I think it is a system that suits him very well.
Julius Hodge said that sometimes he watches game film and sees times when he could have taken over, but he has opted to stay within the system and give up the ball when he's double-teamed. Is there a point coming where he needs to take over to ignite everybody?
I don't see it the same way. I think any time that two players are guarding one, somebody should be more open.
With ACC expansion, State and Wake are paired together to play twice a year. Does that put any kind of different spin on the rivalry, make it more intense, as opposed to teams just playing once?
I would think that the rivalry has always been very intense. I think it's purposely placed here during Rivalry Week in college basketball, and whether we played once, twice or, as they did at one time, four times in a year, I think it would always be an important game for both schools, and I'm sure both teams would, for the most part, give great effort every time they played. But like we talked about, everybody doesn't play the same schedule in the ACC. We have two pretty good primary partners this year.
Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt has talked about the importance of handling the bumps in the road in the ACC, and understanding that things will get better right around the corner. Is that something you have to address?
Sure, and conversely, if you had a great week last week, it doesn't necessarily carry over to this week. To the best of your ability, you have to somehow stay in the present, you have to continue to show up and work hard. As fundamental as those statements may seem, it really underlies the key, I believe. You just have to keep giving your best effort and showing up, and unfortunately, in this world, you can do a really good job and your kids can play hard and do everything that should earn them the chance to feel good about themselves with what they've done. And yet, the other guy is really good, too, and he's worked, and they've done a good job, but only one team can win. So that makes it challenging.
Do you get more positive after such a rough stretch?
It depends. It really depends on what the circumstances are and what the situation is. Certainly, you always want to be positive, you want to make sure that there's hope instilled, but at the same time, our guys are smart, and it's important to give them honest feedback.
Do you sense that any of your guys are pressing or trying to do more than they should?
I don't think they're doing more than they should be doing. We can be doing better than we're doing, but guys really want to do well. There's nobody that's comfortable with what we're going through, and I think everybody has felt the pain of the results. And so from an intentions standpoint, guys want things to be better, for sure.
Is there a happy medium for Hodge, between shooting too much and not enough?
I just think every game is different. And defenses choose to play different ways. Each game kind of takes on its own storyline. And it's hard to predetermine exactly what you're going to do, because if the defense counters in a certain way, you may have to adjust. Julius has been a terrific scorer for us throughout his career, but he's also been a great playmaker and passer, and he's been able to get other guys shots. And the thing is that those two can certainly exist together, with someone of his talent.
Do you think you can be successful with him taking five shots in a game?
There's no question in my mind. Now, there may be other games, and he's had many of them, where he takes 16 shots or 14 shots. We don't sit down usually before a game and ascribe ahead of time how many shots a guy is going to get. That would be difficult to do. But I really believe that Julius, as well as most any other player, can have a tremendous impact on a game, and not take that many shots.
Let's go back, for instance, to our game against Duke. Engin Atsur did a remarkable job on J.J. Redick , he really did. And Redick didn't score like he's accustomed to. And not recalling off the top of my head, he probably didn't get 10 shots in the game. He might have seven or eight, you can check, I don't know what it was. Yet the fact that we had to guard him the way we did, to prevent him from having 40, he still had a tremendous impact on that game and on Duke's offense. And he didn't have to take a lot of shots that night, because it demanded so much of our attention, so much of our energy and focus, that he still was a huge key in their win, even though everybody looked at the statsheet and said, "Boy, Redick, he's not the reason they won tonight. He didn't do it. It was Shelden Williams." Of course, it was, but it wasn't just Shelden Williams. So I believe most any player, if he's playing his role and he understands the game, can have a tremendous impact, even though on a given night he may not get as many shots as he otherwise would.
Who do you say you have to stop in order to beat Wake Forest, the big man or the guards?
I don't think you can look at it that way. We have to stop the team -- and I don't even though if that's possible, to stop the team. Hopefully, we can do something short of stop, contain, keep somewhat in check. Because they're too good offensively. They have the capacity to put points on the board, like North Carolina, in a fashion that I haven't seen too often in college basketball since I've been doing this. Those two teams, offensively, are incredible. And in many cases, it does start with their defense, so your defense, in turn, has to start with your offense.
Ideally, you'd like to establish a playing rotation by January. Has this year been more challenging in that way than previous years?
Yeah. As I look back, and I've done a lot of evaluation here recently, really tried to go back and look at how we've arrived at this particular point in the season and really try to do that as objectively as possible, as opposed to as defensively as possible. And although there's certainly things that we could have done better, admittedly so, I think one of the greatest challenges in actually doing that has been the discontinuity we've had in our practices and the number of days that we weren't able to practice in a typical fashion. And the extended periods of time that we've had different guys out. That maybe one of the things as you evaluate where you are, you put it in that category over here, that "Hey, that's just one thing in life you can't control, as much as you want to control everything as a coach or as a professional in any aspect of life." But as soon as we do that, we do then have to immediately get back to the things that we need to do better.
Cameron Bennerman had his breakout game in Winston-Salem last year. Is there a chance he could see action tomorrow night?
He is. Cameron has been working together with us again, he has a brace-like structure on his arm. I don't think he has the ability to have full extension yet, he's somewhat restricted, but it's been great just to have him back together with us in practice. And he's been working hard.
He's somewhat amazing, because last year, if you recall, he played with that broken bone in his hand far faster than anybody would have imagined. And this year, the same thing with the ligament damage in his elbow, I think he's back faster or as fast as one could possibly expect. And when he comes back, he just has an amazing capacity to deal with it in the best way possible. It's not perfect, compared to perfect health, but in terms of a guy combing back and dealing with, last year, a big pad on his hand, and this year, an arm brace, he's done that incredibly well. Uncanny.
What kind of lift is it for your team to see guys like Cameron and Tony coming back?
He's an important player for us. When we went out, and I don't know, he still may be, he was our second-leading scorer and shooting the basketball very well from the field. And you talk about our defense, he does give us another good athlete.
And you know, one of the things that, in your humble moments, you realize as a coach, is you can have your salt-and-pepper shakers, you can have your magnetic board to move your pieces around, you can have your chalkboard with your Xs and Os. And in the perfect world, if I put my X, which is a defensive player here, and you have your O there, I should win that part of our chess match – and then, all of a sudden, that O is Shaquille O'Neal. And so it doesn't work out the way it looks on that diagram.
So we can sometimes position our players defensively in certain ways, but there's still, at the end of the day, great value in having talent. And a guy like Cameron has the ability, has the potential, to help us in that area. And hopefully, with his return – and like Tony, he's at the beginning stages of coming back – it'll help some of our Xs.
Are you saying he may be able to play?
No, he's going to be able to play, albeit with a brace on. He will play; he will play. I don't know all the details, I didn't really investigate the device (brace), but I know he has one and it's a very obvious one. He has no restrictions, but I think he has a few limitations that he otherwise wouldn't have.
You mentioned discontinuity in practice before. Can you elaborate on that and how can you work on that?
What I meant specifically by that is that we've had a number of guys out at any one time. I can remember, as we came back from New York, we had two days to prepare for West Virginia and we had some additional time for Miami, and going into both of those games, for instance, we didn't have enough guys to practice. And guys literally didn't practice and then tried to play in games. So that was about a week on our calendar -- where I insert the word "discontinuity" -- that we weren't able to practice in a typical fashion.
For instance, before the West Virginia game, Cameron Bennerman had a temperature of 103. He didn't practice -- but he played in the game. Before Miami, Julius had the back spasms and an ankle, so he didn't practice before Miami – he played in the game. Those kinds of interruptions, it seems like we've dealt with here for several weeks, not just with one guy who's out, but with a series of guys at any one time, have made your normal continuity in practice much more difficult. Last year, we were much more fortunate; it wasn't until the very end of the season when Scooter [Sherrill] got hurt against North Carolina and Jordan [Collins] got hurt in the ACC Tournament, that we experienced that. We were very fortunate in that we were able to stay pretty much on task, on beat, and so we had a much greater continuity.
So it's nothing we can work on other than make sure we go to church today.
Other than Levi, has everybody practiced this week?
Yes, we've had our whole team at practice.
Did you guys get flu shots after they became available to the public?
Yes. We got late flu shots.
Has Julius been the senior leader you expect, on and off the court and always, that you wanted him to be?
Always? I don't know that we've had the kind of consistent leadership that we ideally would like. I think we've been more challenged here recently to have that because it's a lot easier when you're winning. And that's not just on Julius, but I think that's on our team. I'm really challenging them right now to be better leaders.
Like we've talked about in the past, I think we're at our best when we have multiple levels of leadership. You can start with the seniors and the captains, and then you can run all the way down to our sophomore class and say, someone like Engin, who plays point guard and has a great mind and a lot to contribute, should not just leave leadership to others. I think we have the ability to offer different kinds of leadership that can complement each other, and that makes the leadership piece all the stronger.
But your seniors should be your leaders, in essence, right? You have three senior captains.
Perhaps. Perhaps. That's one way to look at it, but I think it's important that we have multiple levels of leadership. In other words, I think Tony Bethel, for instance, has the qualities of an excellent leader, and I would want those to be included for our team, and not just wait until next year when he becomes a senior.
You mentioned some similarities between Wake Forest and UNC. Can that UNC game help you prepare for Wake then?
Hopefully, it will help us. I think every time you have an experience like that, there's certainly things that you can take away from it.
They have some similarities, but they're still a different team, they run different things. With both of them, you have to do whatever you can defensively to stop them, especially in transition.
You said leadership is easier when you're winning. Isn't it more important when you're not?
Well, it's always important, because if you're winning and you don't have it, you can go the other way quickly. But it's always important, and it's important on and off the court.
Who else has displayed good leadership qualities?
I think, at times, any number of the guys that we've talked about have. But right now, we're challenging everybody to be better in that area, as well as any other areas.