Q & A With Coach Herb Sendek

NC State coach Herb Sendek has guided his team to three crucial conference wins in four outings, helping the Pack get hot at the right time. He discusses his team, the ACC Tournament and how he would change the NCAA Tournament format.

Can you talk about how Levi Watkins has impacted your program, despite all his injuries?
Well, he's been a terrific young man for us, both on and off the court. He's somebody who's done the right things, been about our basketball program in every way. And you're right, he's unfortunately had a tough go of it with two knee injuries now that, in each case, carved out a pretty good portion of his season. So in two of his four seasons, he has been sidelined for a significant amount of time. And it just turned out that, in each case, he had played enough so that a medical waiver wasn't possible. And so, from that standpoint, Levi is a young man who's been through a lot but has remained positive and added great value to our program.

Can you talk about how some guys -- like Julius Hodge, who has scored a career-high 31 twice in the ACC Tournament and John Gilchrist, who scored 30 against you last year -- seem to elevate their play in the ACC Tournament?
Obviously, the two examples that you cite are right on target. But those two young men have stepped up throughout their careers, not only during the tournament, but the regular conference season as well as non-conference games. And at the tend of the year, you always benefit from guys playing their best.

With the ACC being one of the larger conferences now, is there any concern that the league could be penalized in NCAA Tournament bids, in effect being too good for its own good?
Well, it's just a mathematical fact that any time there's a game, one team loses. And at the end of the season, not matter how strong your league is, 50 percent of the numbers in the columns are losses. And when you have great parity and there's balance, your records aren't going to be as overwhelmingly impressive. I think we see some of that even, for example, in the NFL; there's terrific balance and teams with near-.500 records make the playoffs.

I've long said and will continue to voice my opinion that I think it would be wise to continue expanding the NCAA Tournament field. As we've now stretched to 330 Division I teams, with all the interest and excitement that circles the first-round games, why not give more student-athletes an opportunity to participate in one of the greatest sporting events on earth and let them feel good about their season? Because each and every year, no matter how you do it – even with the best intentions, the greatest efforts, an avalanche of information – teams who have had really good seasons don't make the cut. Which teams deserve in at the end, a lot of times, it just comes down to a matter of very difficult choices and personal preferences.

Can you talk about what Levi Watkins brings to the court?
I think one thing Levi takes advantage of is knowledge of our system. He has, despite some of the missed time for two years, a real working knowledge of our system. And on the defensive end of the floor, he has the ability to really grasp scouting points and help not only himself, but his teammates, be prepared at any one particular time for what may be coming.

Virginia has gone to that slow-down offense and drastically changed its tempo of play. How difficult is it to prepare for that?
Well, our game was the first game that they showcased a dramatic change in style of play, so certainly we didn't have any time to prepare for it and had to adjust as the game went along. But nonetheless, although they continue to employ a very similar strategy, they will strike and look to attack in transition. And they do present some very difficult matchup problems. I think they're a very skilled offensive team with a number of weapons, guys who can really dribble, shoot and pass. And they have pretty good balance inside and out, so they're a difficult matchup.

To answer your question specifically, obviously ours was the first game that they went away from what they had been doing up until that point through the season and decided that they would use another strategy.

Is your team playing its best basketball right now?
I think so. We started the season playing very well, we got out of the gates on a pretty good, quick first step. And I think since that point, this most recent stretch has been our best, and you could certainly make a case that it's been our best basketball of the year.

Do you think Virginia is going to be a very emotional team, with it being Senior Day and possibly the last home game for its coach?
Well, I think any time you play in the ACC, there's a great deal of emotion, there's tremendous intensity. Senior Night is always a special evening for each of the teams when it's their turn.

Julius Hodge is certainly a character. What will you remember most about him?
Well, he's easy to smile and he's somebody who likes to kid around, likes to joke. He's also somebody who's very passionate about what he does.

You're the only coach in the conference to experience four games in four days in the ACC Tournament. Can you talk about the wear and tear of four games vs. three in the tourney?
Well, I don't know how you quantify that. Three's tremendously draining, emotionally and physically and mentally. I think by the time players and coaches get to that third day of a tournament, they're really operating on adrenaline. Certainly to add a fourth day is a tremendous task; it takes everything that you have. I really marvel at how the players do it. It's extremely grueling, and the only balance is that both teams in that final game, of course, [when] there's just three games, as it has been up until this year, have been through the same thing. It's unbelievable, and I think sometimes, then to turn around and play an early Thursday game in the NCAA Tournament is another factor. And the teams that go through that really have to be very strong; very strong.

You've been on both sides of the mid-major vs. major issues. Do you feel a second- or third-place team in a mid-major conference can compete with a sixth in the ACC or SEC or a big conference?
Well, it's difficult to generalize on a question like that. There certainly have been teams in those conferences that in a given year could compete very well. And I think, certainly the other case scenario is, in a one-game matchup, absolutely. We see that every year in college basketball, during the non-conference part of our schedule, as well as once tournament time plays.

I think the key test that we don't really get to see is over the course of a 16-game schedule, where that team would have to go night in, night out, North Carolina, Wake Forest, NC State, Maryland, Georgia Tech, right down the list in our league, Virginia, Virginia Tech … We don't have that part of the information.

But it's difficult to make the decisions that the committee is faced with every year, and that's why I've been a proponent of adding teams to the field. Why should we have to discern between such fine lines and how much more excitement would there be if we had another round to the tournament? It would take one more day to play.

How many teams would you add to the NCAA Tournament?
Well, I think that part needs to be carefully examined, whether you go to 96 or whether you jump all the way to 128. I know this: Each and every year, there's some really good teams who have had successfully seasons play in the NIT, and yet our basketball world, in most cases, doesn't permit or doesn't want to permit the student-athletes for those teams to feel good about their season.

We've continually increased the number of bowl games, and I think it would really merit some consideration to do the same with the NCAA Tournament field.

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