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Opinion: The schooling of NC State & Julius Hodge

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When Julius Hodge enrolled at N.C. State, it's a safe bet he never anticipated that he was going to get this kind of schooling.

Hodge has a great smile. He says all of the right things – most of the time. He endeared himself to Wolfpack alumni and fans quickly. But even those who loved the numbers as well as the intangibles he brought to the basketball team had to question some of the antics. It has to make you cringe a little when a seemingly precocious freshman gets branded so quickly as a player who was getting on a lot of opponents' nerves.

When he made life difficult for Syracuse's top player with some questionable defensive tactics, even those who loved this freshman from the Bronx had to begin scratching their heads a little. Then, in his first ACC road game, when he wanted to shimmy and shake before the uppity fans in Charlottesville, you had to at least begin raising an eyebrow or two.

His ACC season got off to a great start before Duke shut him down and sent him into what could be called an offensive tailspin. But that was OK when he turned around and gave State fans a total defensive gem in shutting down Temple's top player – even if he was still using some questionable defensive tactics.

For sure, Hodge was becoming more fundamentally sound as a defensive player. Anyone who knows the game at an intelligent level could see that. The footwork, the positioning. He was turning into a defensive stopper.

But this face-guarding thing? What was that all about?

Those of us who played a lot of basketball in our younger days and who have watched massive amounts of basketball, especially of the ACC variety, for all of our lives had to be wondering where this was going to lead? Clearly, a player who is using such questionable defensive tactics is asking for, at minimum, a stray elbow when the refs aren't looking. That's the key.

Players who are really good at this stuff know when you can get away with a stray elbow here, a quick body jab there, and when you can't. Ask Steve Blake. He's the master. He could be the ACC's all-time leader in cheap shots the refs have never seen.

But we've seen them. When you play before crowds of 10,000, 15,000, even 20,000, that's a lot of eyes. Thousands of ACC basketball fans have seen them.

So State's precocious freshman has been schooled. He got caught because he did something he shouldn't have done. We all know that. You can't whack a guy in the back of the head with an elbow that close to the action, in full view of the referees.

What Hodge did was wrong. That really can't be disputed. Steve Blake never would have done that. He would have been a lot more discreet about it. He knows how to play this game.

Now Hodge just has to learn how to play the game, too. It's time to cut out the trash-talking and the chest-thumping. It's time to just play. That's exactly what Hodge should be doing tonight. Just playing. Again, though, he has been schooled.

Most people who have been following ACC basketball all of their lives can't remember a player being suspended. Punches have been thrown. Players on the floor have been kicked. There have even been some fights. But no one can remember a player being suspended – until Julius Hodge. John Swofford has decided to make one of State's star freshmen the poster boy for intolerable behavior.

Duke's revered coach can work the Cameron crazies into a frenzy while an opposing player is shooting free throws right in front of the Blue Devils' bench. For that, the officiating crew is too intimidated by the power of this Hall of Fame coach to even call a technical.

Maryland's routinely maniacal coach can scream obscenities at an opposing player without so much as a reprimand. Meanwhile, the Virginia assistant coach who took offense to Williams' profane tirade is the one who is reprimanded.

Duke's ballyhooed transfer starter can thump his chest and belittle a second-division team and get away with that. But when the insulted coach angrily takes offense, he's the one who is slapped on the wrist.

Oh, yes, Hodge has gotten some kind of schooling in his first year of college. He's not playing for Duke. He's not playing for Maryland. He's not playing for the programs that are carrying the ACC's national championship hopes this season.

He's playing for a program that is fighting and battling and scrapping to get back among the ACC's top dogs. It's a tough fight, though. Learn that you can't do anything untoward in striving to get to the top. Only those who already are on top can get away with that. John Swofford has made that much very clear.

Was Julius Hodge wrong? Absolutely. Should Swofford be making him the poster child for poor sportsmanship in the ACC? Absolutely not. The punishment should fit the crime.

Name the last five ACC players who either threw a punch or a flagrant elbow. Were any of them suspended? Certainly not.

But Julius Hodge won't be playing tonight. He'll be learning a tough lesson. We'll all be learning a tough lesson. He has been schooled. State fans have been schooled.

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