Lail: Just the Beginning

The season may have ended for NC State's men's basketball team in a raucous West Virginia gym on Tuesday night, but it still feels like things have just begun.

Why? Because there is a feeling of rejuvenation under first-year coach Sidney Lowe.

On the surface, this feeling of rebirth doesn't make much sense. The Pack needed to win – and win a lot – in the postseason just to sniff that magical number of 20 wins. (And it took five postseason wins to do that.) Heading into the ACC Tournament, State was all but destined for -- at best -- the NIT. And this comes after a string of five-straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.

So why all the good vibes? One could argue that the program – from a wins and postseason appearances standpoint— took a step back this season.

But one would be missing the point. When you get right down to it, the reason State fans are jacked up about the program right now is simple: Lowe gets it. He's one of us. He understands the mindset and the passion of being a Pack fan. He wants State to not only be a competitive team but a championship team.

Gavin Grant was asked by reporters, following Tuesday night's 71-66 loss at West Virginia, what Lowe told the team afterwards.

"He said there are three teams in the Triangle now, that's it's no longer just Duke and Carolina," Grant recalled. "He said this [team] put NC State back on the map."

That's the kind of comment that will make a State fan pump his fist in the air while reading the paper first thing in the morning.

Obviously, one must be cautioned not to get too excited. Fans will remember a similar feeling in 1997, when the Pack – under first-year coach Herb Sendek – won three straight ACC tourney games (including a win over Duke) to reach the finals only to run out of gas against UNC. What followed was an inspired NIT run in a frenzied Reynolds Coliseum. A decade later, however, many Pack fans (a majority, perhaps?) had grown stale of Sendek's program.

Lowe may not have been the first choice to replace Sendek, and only time will tell whether he was the best. But for the moment, momentum is clearly with him. How well he builds upon that will go a long way in determining if, in fact, the Pack clearly is back.

Here are a few suggestions (some legit; some tongue-in-cheek) of how Lowe can continue to ride that momentum and solidify State's standing in the Triangle, the ACC and the nation.

1. Put "State" on the front of the jerseys (even if just for home games). This seems like such a trivial thing, but it's a point of pride for so many Pack fans. (And if Michigan State can do it, why not N.C. State?)

2. Put "Pack" across the bottom of the shorts. Probably not nearly as important as putting "State" on the jerseys, but a number of fans would love to see this. It too would serve as a nice link to the program's storied past. (Just don't go back to honor those horrid geometrically-offensive shorts from the Todd Fuller era.)

3. Install the noise meter at the RBC Center. And we're talking the real one, not some phony Jumbotron thing. (OK, OK: I know the "real" meter was controlled by someone along the court at Reynolds, but still …)

4. Make the introductions more old-school. Not exactly sure how you do this or if the players would go for it, but nix the NBA-style music and lights. Make it simple and classic.

5. Revamp the Heritage Game. With all due respect to the Savannah States, Appalachian States and N.C. A&Ts of the world, this should be against a major program. Lowe was oh-so-subtle in his praise and adoration of Reynolds Coliseum and her atmosphere following the NIT win over Marist, and Grant told bemused reporters following the game that State should play Duke and Carolina there. "I'm serious," he said.

Romantically, that sounds awesome. Unfortunately, it doesn't make much sense to play Duke and UNC at Reynolds in front of a loud and rabid 9,000 fans only to play Florida State and Georgia Tech at the RBC Center in front of 12,000 fans in what sounds like a library. (What kind of home court advantage is that?) If anything, make the Heritage Game a conference game or do what's necessary to schedule a regional power like Tennessee, Kentucky or West Virginia.

6. Recruit, recruit, recruit. So far, so good for Lowe.

7. Beat Carolina ... and, if it's not too much trouble, Duke. Think this one's not important? Just ask Mike O'Cain and Chuck Amato.

As a kid, I would state that if NCSU went 2-25 with both wins being over UNC, I'd be pleased with the Pack's season. But aside from bragging rights, there is some logic in simply wanting to be competitive with the Heels. (And by competitive I mean splitting on a regular basis with some sweeps every couple of years or so.)

Carolina has long been the standard-bearer for consistency in ACC hoops. You compete with them (and Duke, for that matter) and the rest will fall into place. Former State football coach Chuck Amato understood that to raise the level of your program you have to be able to compete and beat the top team in the conference. In his case it was Florida State, which he did. Unfortunately, it was losing to North Carolina that did him in.

One of Sendek's major flaws was his insistence that the Carolina game was "just another game" and should be treated as such. Mathematically he was right. A win over the Heels didn't count as two; a loss didn't count as two; a win over UNC was just as important in the conference race as a win over Clemson. But at the same time, it's not just another game. It's THE game. Lowe understands this. He won over a number of fans just by acknowledging that, No, this isn't just a regular game. And it's not just bragging rights on the line. It's pride. And honor. And tradition.

Which brings us to ….

8. Bust out a plaid jacket sometime, coach. Lowe was recruited by and did play one season for Norm Sloan. Just imagine how nuts the fans would go if, in late-January, Lowe walked out from behind the stands in a stuffy Reynolds Coliseum sporting a loud, plaid jacket as the Pack took the floor against Bruce Pearl and his equally loud Tennessee orange jacket.

The noise meter would definitely hit red.

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