Q & A With Ilian Evtimov

Bolstered by a two-game winning streak, Ilian Evtimov and the Wolfpack are gaining confidence down the homestretch. Tonight's home matchup with the rival Tar Heels carries significant postseason implications for State, and Evtimov said he and his teammates are fully aware of that fact.

How can you control the tempo vs. UNC?
Controlling the tempo of the game with North Carolina would mean stop their transition and make them play halfcourt offense. For us, be unselfish and patient on offense and get some good shots. The more patient and the more unselfish we play, the more we score. I know that's a little awkward, because you would think that the quicker you shoot the more you would score, but with the offense we have, the more patient you are, the better shots you get -- so therefore, the better likelihood of them going in. And we've proven that over and over during the year.

Aren't they tough to stop in the halfcourt, too?
They're a very good basketball team in the halfcourt, too, but I think that if you stop their transition, it's a different team. We're not a bad team playing halfcourt defense, and they're going to have to work to score against us. And if we limit their transition, instead of them getting 25 points from transition and scoring in the 90s, now it's in the 70s or 60s, and now that's a different ballgame.

How difficult is it to stay patient against them?
They're a very good defensive team as well. They play really hard on offense and defense and try to convert a lot of their points from steals and turnovers in transition. So if we handle their pressure, and we phase and we're patient and play unselfish, we're going to have a good shot.

As much as they like to pressure us, I think we've faced pressure before, especially playing them on the road. We've faced Duke, who likes to pressure the basketball. We've had some kind of experience, so it's something we've got to handle.

How much has it helped that the team is healthier?
We definitely want to build on what we've accomplished lately; the two wins that we've had have been very big for us. We've got everybody healthy except for Levi, and therefore the practice intensity has been much better. We've had much better practices in the last two or three weeks than we've had all year. We're going to try to build on the two games we won -- we want to make it three. And we know that a win against North Carolina is just going to help us down the stretch, and we need that.

Besides being healthier, why have the practices been so much better?
We don't have any room for error right now, and we're aware of that. There's a lot of sense of urgency from everybody, and that moves intensity into the practice. When you have [healthy] guys at practice, you can go even harder, because if you get really, really tired, you can get a sub in real quick and get a quick blow and come back in and play in segments.

I think we've all come to a point where we have to do whatever it takes to get it done.

Does NC State believe it can win when it's not making three-pointers?
Yeah. I know that we shot a lot of threes against Maryland, but one of the reasons why we've been winning lately is because we've been going inside. Guys are getting opportunities to shoot the threes, however, Cedric Simmons has been playing big for us lately. If he catches it down there and you let him play one-on-one, he's going to score that. If you let Jordan Collins play one-on-one down there, he has a good chance of scoring that, too. We have the perimeter players to help us … If they don't help, Julius is going to score nine out of 10 times, because he's 6-7 and he's long. He's the returning ACC Player of the Year.

We're very versatile, and I think that at this point of the year, we've finally put it all together and guys are playing their role they way they should be playing it.

So the key is going inside first?
Definitely. If you just pass the ball around the three-point line, you're not going to get good shots or good looks and we're not going to make them. If we go inside, then there's this thing called the inside-out game, and that will give opportunities for us to shoot the three. We have to knock them down. If they stop helping, then we'll go inside and stay inside.

Simmons said that you've been working with him on some post moves. What have you shown him?
Little aspects and little ideas about angles. He's just so talented and so gifted. He's 6-9 and his reach is so long and he can really jump. I just tell him a few things I've learned over the course of my career here and I learned from my brother. He's just got to keep going hard and he's got to use the angles, and that will give him a whole different dimension to his game because he is so talented. I have to use that because I'm at a disadvantage with my size, but a guy like him, if he uses that advantage, he's going to be unstoppable.

Do you guys have a feeling of disgust when you see UNC doing so well when you're struggling?
Yeah. We know that Carolina has been having a good year so far and they deserve everything they've got. I think that first loss at the beginning of the season, they used that as momentum, to build off of that.

I respect Carolina and everything they've done. They're a great program and they have a lot of good wins, but doesn't make us think that they're going to come in here and beat us. We're very confident. We know that they're not invincible. They're very talented, they're very good, but not invincible. This is the ACC and anything is possible on any given night, so we're very confident going into this game.

They humiliated us the last time we played them, and that's something we're aware of. That's something that's in the back of our minds. We talk about in practice when practice gets slack or sloppy.

Will your brother Vasco, a former UNC player, be at the game, or did he go back overseas?
He left Saturday. He only had about a four- or five-day break. He came in and surprised me. I had no idea he was coming. We had a great couple of days we spent together. I wish he was here for the Carolina game or I wish the Carolina game was played on Saturday, but unfortunately not.

Is the team aware of all the criticism that Coach Sendek has been taking, and how is that handled?
Everybody is aware that he's been taking a lot of heat, but it's not just Coach Sendek, it's the five guys on the court. Coach can't suit up and play, and he can only teach you so many Xs and Os. If you don't play hard, you're not going to win the game. And I think we struggled with that in some of the ACC, especially in the beginning. We weren't healthy, but the main thing was we didn't play defense and we didn't play hard enough. And there's nothing he can do about that; he keeps telling us and telling us, but it has to come from us because we're the ones on the court. And unfortunately, he's been taking a lot of heat for that.

But the season is not over. If we win the next four games and we have a 9-7 season, what are people going to say then? How bad is a 9-7 season in the ACC with teams like Wake Forest, Carolina and Duke?

What is the key for tomorrow night?
It's definitely defense. That's the reason why we've won lately, is because of our defense. Instead of playing off our offense, lately we've been playing off our defense, and that's the one reason why we've been successful. If we maintain the same mindset and the same intensity, there's no reason why it's not going to be a good game.

What has been the key for the resurgence of confidence in this team?
Now that everybody's healthy, like I said earlier, we have more people to practice and we're more into the rhythm of things. We don't have to adapt to the fact that sometimes we may not have 10 people practicing because of sickness and flu and injuries.

Now, it almost feels like the beginning of the season. Everybody is healthy and practicing but Levi, and even he is doing stuff on the side or sometimes doing one or two drills that he's able to do right now. And practice is very intense, and that's very good for us right now because we need to build on that.

Is it possible that all the sickness and injuries can be a plus because younger players were asked to do more?
Yes. I know that we had some losses throughout those stretches and we've struggled with consistency, but I think in the long run, it can help us. The younger guys or guys that didn't play as much were asked to step up and play more minutes, do things that they were not expecting to do or had not done to that point. Their roles increased. Then, whenever the players who were hurt or sick came back, those young guys will have more experience and be better prepared down the stretch if they're required to do anything in that manner. If anybody gets hurt, we can count on somebody stepping up because they already have that expertise.

What was your first impression of Julius Hodge?
That's a long way back. It was, "Goodness gracious, he's so skinny." He was wearing a wifebeater, and all you could see was bones. We were in the gym; he was there with Jordan Collins. It was my first night here and I just went to the gym, and they were shooting wit the gun, and I jumped in there with them, and we just had a few shooting contests.

Jordan was a lot bigger than he is now, about 275 pounds, and Julius was 175. And those guys, four years later, just transformed their bodies and themselves into weapons. Jordan is very strong now and he's very agile on the court, and Julius is just becoming so much stronger and he's ever been. He benches 275; for a guy that came in here benching 175, that's a huge jump.

How is a team's mindset different after a couple of wins vs. a couple of losses?
I think that when you win a few games, when you play, you expect yourself to win. And even when you're going through a hard time during a game or a … run for the other team or a moment where you don't score for a couple of possessions, I think that you look back and you rely on your defense and you know that you're going to win that game. And you have that confidence that this game is far from being over. I think that it manifests itself, especially when you have a few wins.

When you have a few losses, it's a lot easier to just crumble and just be like, "Man, this happens too many times and we've not made it work so far." So it's a lot easier to just give up; not to losing the game, but give up into what you believe in and what is working for you. I think that when you win, you know that what's working for you is what you need to do, and stick with the gameplan.

Do you have a favorite story about Hodge?
I'll tell you what, my freshman year for New Year's, me and Julius went to the movies. When we got out, New Year's was passed, it was 12:05, and my New Year's was Julius. I don't know; it's something I'll never forget, because usually you remember what you were doing on New Year's and it's usually exciting. But me and Julius, there was nobody on campus, nothing to do, so we just decided we were going to go to the movies like a date.

How much have you used the first meeting with UNC to prepare for tomorrow?
We know that what hurt us the first game was our turnovers and their transition. They had a lot of points off of that. We know that if we want to win the game, we have to change that. We were aware of that before our first game, we just weren't successful at sticking to the game plan. We know that this is what we need to do tomorrow in order to win the game.

They're a very good basketball team and sometimes people like to talk about Xs and Os, but tomorrow the team is going to win who's playing the hardest, and that's it. That's the bottom line.

Other than just playing harder, what aspect of the team's defense has improved the most?
We are protecting the paint, which means that if somebody gets beat on a straight-line drive, somebody is going to help him. Everybody has got each other's back, and this is what we've been missing. Because previous games, somebody penetrates, somebody will step up and then they'll dish it out to the big man for a dunk or a layup, and that hasn't been the case lately. If the big man steps up, another guard is going to step into the big man.

We want to protect the paint and we don't want to give up any easy baskets. We stress that; especially the Georgia Tech game. We held them to 51 or 52 points, and that was because we protected the paint.

What movie did you and Julius see?
I can't even remember. I don't remember, but I guess that's one story that I can remember that happened my freshman year when we were roommates.

Are you amazed at what he has done in his career here?
Yeah. He turned a lot of things around. A lot of people didn't believe that something like this could be possible at NC State, and I think that Julius and that class, Levi, Jordan, myself and Josh, when we came in here, we were determined to prove everybody wrong. And I think that the main person in doing that is Julius, because he was the most publicized and he was the best player coming in, and I think he lived up to those expectations. I think that he works so hard that he was going to have to be successful.

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