Pack Stacked For 2005-06

"We gave it our all. We played until our jerseys were soaked, our legs were sore and we were exhausted. And we played hard – and that's all you can do in the end." With those words, Julius Hodge put the stamp on his college career after the Pack's 65-56 loss to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.

For a couple of weeks, the Wolfpack captivated hearts in the Triangle area, and while the disappointment of a poor second half against the Badgers will linger for a while, the optimism surrounding coach Herb Sendek's program should sustain fans throughout the offseason.

Hodge was the unquestioned leader of State's run in the NCAA Tournament, and it's difficult to quantify just how much he'll be missed in 2005-06. After all, no other Pack player averaged double-digits in scoring or more than 100 assists, and Hodge also grabbed close to 100 more rebounds than any other teammate. His 17 points and 6.6 rebounds per game paced the squad, as did his 162 assists.

Consider that Hodge took 34 percent of the team's free throws and made 32.3 percent of them; that he grabbed 20.1 percent of the team's rebounds, handed out 30.6 percent of the assists and scored 22.5 percent of the points. Not to mention that, especially down the stretch, his teammates thrived on his fiery on-court demeanor and energetic leadership.

His senior teammates, Jordan Collins and Levi Watkins, also made key contributions when they weren't injured. Collins averaged 6.6 points and 2.4 boards per contest and led the Pack in three-point shooting percentage with a 46.2-percent (24-52) clip. Watkins registered 3.9 points and 1.4 caroms per contest in limited time.

The impact of the three seniors on this year's 21-14 team will be difficult to replace in terms of leadership and sheer numbers. The trio combined to shoot 48.3 percent on field goals (308-638), 34.2 percent on three-pointers (53-155) and 70 percent on free throws (215-309), while notching 337 rebounds (128 offensive), 200 assists, 129 turnovers, 60 blocked shots, 67 steals and 884 points in 2028 minutes. Those seniors accounted for 29 percent of the team's minutes, 35.4 percent of the made field goals, 18 percent of the made three-pointers, 41.1 percent of the made free throws, 30.1 percent of the rebounds, 37.8 percent of the assists and 34.5 percent of the points.

However, one of the silver linings of State's constant injury problems this season was the fact that younger players were thrust into more prominent roles by necessity, enduring a trial by fire. Rookies Andrew Brackman, Gavin Grant and Cedric Simmons all struggled at times, but also had shining moments that portend promising futures. Brackman (7.4 points, 3.5 rebounds per game) stood out early on, faded in the middle, then re-emerged as a force in the postseason. Grant (4.2 points, 2.4 boards per contest) made strides early in the conference season before settling into a smaller role as the season wore on. Simmons (3.5 points, 1.8 caroms per game, 35 blocked shots) started to assert himself halfway through ACC play before seeing his minutes dwindle in the postseason tourneys.

The expected improvement of Brackman, Grant and Simmons should more than offset the losses of Collins and Watkins in the frontcourt. Mix in a healthy Ilian Evtimov (9.8 points, 3.8 boards per game) and the Wolfpack should have a nice blend of versatility and size on the interior. Evtimov was disappointing in the NCAA Tournament, but his terrific showing in the ACC Tournament and status as NC State's trigger man at the top of the offense should make him the team's leader in 2005-06 – if he can avoid the offseason knee injuries that have plagued him in recent years.

Highly touted 6-9 newcomers Brandon Costner and Ben McCauley will also be vying to carve out roles in the Pack's big-man rotation next year as freshmen. Costner is a McDonald's All-American who led Seton Hall (N.J.) Prep to a 30-1 record and a state championship by averaging 19 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, while McCauley racked up 28.8 points and 16.5 caroms per contest to earn Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Player of the Year honors for Pennsylvania. Both have demonstrated the ability to handle the ball, knock down the perimeter jumper, and wheel and deal in the low post.

In the backcourt, Tony Bethel could prove to be the key for the Wolfpack. A tenacious defender and strong athlete, Bethel (8.0 points, 3.8 rebounds per game) suffered a myriad of physical setbacks this season, which never quite gave him the opportunity to showcase his complete game. However, his late-season absence allowed Cameron Bennerman (9.6 points, 2.7 boards per contest) to reassert himself in the postseason and cement himself as a valuable returnee at guard next year. Bennerman brings an athleticism that the Pack often lacks on the court and is capable of getting the easy buckets on slashes and in transition that the team often struggles to get.

Engin Atsur (9.4 points, 2.6 caroms per game, team-leading 57 steals, second on the squad with 86 assists) is one of the conference's most underrated players. He's a heady player with terrific defensive skills, a dangerous perimeter jumper, a nose for the ball, a sense for knowing where the ball should go on offense and an underrated ability to score. Along with Evtimov and Bethel, Atsur will be counted on as a team leader next year as well.

Of course, State's offense needs a "glue" guy, a player who can cause matchup difficulties, play a couple of different positions and provide the versatility that makes the offense click. At the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions last year, signee Courtney Fells said that the Pack staff told him that they envisioned him filling that role in Hodge's absence.

A former standout quarterback in Mississippi, Fells has shown a stellar blend of athleticism, versatility and shooting touch. The 6-6 athlete flirted with averaging a triple-double for most of his senior campaign, averaging 23.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per contest on his way to Gatorade State Player of the Year recognition. While it's difficult to ask a rookie in the ACC to handle such a large role, Fells is likely to get every opportunity to shine as a swingman early on with the Wolfpack.

With returnees Evtimov, Atsur, Bethel and Bennerman; improving youngsters Brackman, Grant and Simmons; and exciting newcomers Costner, Fells and McCauley, Sendek & Co. would appear to have the ammunition in place to be forces once again in the ACC. How to assimilate those parts into a well-functioning machine will be no easy task, nor will the job of finding a replacement for the player who was the team's heart: Hodge. However, the process should be both exciting and interesting to watch in 2005-06.


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