Herb Sendek told the crowd at the ESA for the 2001 Red-White game that NC State fans would "fall in love" with this team. The statement may have been heard but the words were hollow as they reverberated over the sound system to a crowd that seemed more interested in getting back to tailgating for a soon to be played football game. The coach standing in the middle of the court would just have to excuse the skeptical crowd he now faced. After all, Sendek had stepped up to the microphone previously to try to calm the NCSU faithful. Wolfpack optimism would always turn into pessimism when season after season were full of disappointments, injuries and just plain old bad luck (some would say a curse). "Fall in love" was not what NC State fans wanted to hear. What they desired were the words "NC State would return to the NCAAs".
The Pack's last Big Dance appearance was a second round lost to Oklahoma State in Les Robinson's 1991 debut season. During the eleven year drought, Pack fans saw rival Duke dominate the nineties with five Final Four appearances, winning it three times (1991, 1992, 2001). UNC was winning too. The Tarheels played in six Final Fours, winning the title in 1993. Meanwhile, NC State struggled to just finish with a winning season. The period saw a combined record of 144 wins and 160 losses. The conference showing was even more bleak. The Wolfpack in that stretch managed only 52 wins while churning out 114 losses. All this from a once proud NC State basketball program.
Indeed, "Fall in love" were empty words on that October day. After all, NC State was coming off yet another setback season (13-15 and 5-11). One fan yelled a more simple goal for Sendek. "Just beat Carolina!" Forget about the NCAAs. Forget about the loving mood coach found himself in. "Just beat Carolina!" NC State people could start with that. The idea of falling in love was just too far beyond the dreams for most in the crowd that day. However, the prophetic vision of a coach standing alone on the ESA court and the voice of a frustrated fan would soon be dreams come true.
The 2001-02 season had several pivotal games. After a brisk 5-0 start, the young Wolfpack had it's first road test in the ACC/Big Ten match-up. The trip was not kind to the Pack, where Ohio State soundly defeated the NC State 64-50. Julius Hodge was quick to not blame the youth of the team on the loss. "I'm not going to say that we lost this game because we're a young team. I credit Ohio State because they came ready to play" Hodge said in the post game interviews. But the fact was, NC State had five freshmen and one sophomore that were in the process of finding their way with the help of outstanding senior leadership in Archie Miller and Anthony Grundy. Hodge's refusal to acknowledge their youth showed the "no excuse attitude" that the team would carry throughout the season.
The UMass game in Raleigh was a chance to get the Wolfpack's flashy new offense back on track after a disappointing showing in Columbus. However, the shooting woes which had typified NC State in recent years continued to be on exhibition as the Wolfpack went down for a second straight game, 69-62. The Pack was manhandled in the paint by the experienced front court of the Minutemen. While some of the doubters began to resurface, most NC State fans were still searching for a reason to love this edition of the Pack. Miller refused to let the young team fall into the routine of the past. "If you take any time off and put your head between your knees, especially with the talent we have and the talent we're playing, you're going to get beat. And then you're going to lose confidence and it's going to steam roll." Miller said. "Our older guys, especially me, have to pick the younger guys up and pull up through it. We're going to get better and concentrate on the next game."
If you had to point to a game that a spark was ignited between the fans and the team, you need to look now further than the away game against the Houston Cougars. Wolfpack fans were taken back to memories of 1983. Memories of Thurl, Derrick, Sydney and Jimmy V. The sudden recall of a long passed national championship seemed to galvanize the supporters of the program. This was their chance to rally around the 2001-02 version of Wolfpack basketball. Now, the only thing needed was a win.
The Pack and the Cougars were in a nip and tuck game throughout the second half, with no team being able to exert domination over the other. It appeared that, like in '83, it would come down to a last second shot. After calling two time-outs, Sendek drew up the final play as NC State found themselves two down. Against a formable Houston press, the thought was to put the ball in Grundy's hands. Anthony raced into the front court before running into a Houston trap causing the NCSU senior to fall to the floor. The ball came loose and an Australian scrum ensued. Pack freshman Levi Watkins batted the ball to Marcus Melvin who shot a desperation three from 25 feet at the buzzer. Melvin was able to do what Derrick Whittenburg could not do in 1983, he hit the game winner! The final score for the game was 67-66. However, the real score was that NC State fans had started falling in love, just as Coach had promised.
Not only did the faithful take the words of Coach Sendek to heart, his team turned the words of the frustrated fan into reality. NC State swept the Tarheels beating the UNC handily in both match-ups. The victory in Chapel Hill was particular sweet. That was the night when Pack fans took over the Dean Smith Center. When it became apparent the struggle would end early for Carolina, UNC fans filed out in droves. Left to run the Smith Center were some 5,000 NC State fans. A chorus of Wolfpack cheers and celebrations filled the center. The frustrating past had turned into a glowing future. And the State fans were enjoying the moment.
While the Carolina victories were sweet, the Pack was far from done. "No excuses" had become the motto for this team. It was to be a return to the NCAA or bust. The Pack finished the regular season with 20 wins for the first time since 1989. The chance to dance seemed imminent, but the Pack wanted to do more damage. March madness had begun.
NC State routed Virginia (for the third time) in the first round of ACC tournament play 92-72. The Pack would go on to shock the eventual national champions Maryland, in round 2, 86-82. NC State would be beaten by Duke in the finals, but the Wolfpack had long sowed up an at large bid for the NCAAs.
The opportunity to dance gave the Wolfpack it's first shot at a national championship in over a decade. The opening round against Michigan State found the Pack full of jitters. NC State scored a season low 18 points in the opening half. But as the adage goes, the only reason you play the first half is to get to the last half. When the whistle blew to start the second, the Pack lit up Michigan State for a 12-2 run to draw within three. However, the momentum that had turned was about to be in jeopardy as Anthony Grundy went to the bench early in the second half with four fouls. If the Houston game was where the spark was lit for NC State fans, it can also be said that the point when this team became Julius Hodge's was with 14:45 remaining in this first round game. Hodge sparked the Pack with lay-ups, three pointers and foul shots during the 10-plus minute stretch Grundy was on the bench. The Pack out scored Michigan State 28-13 in that decisive run of the game. NC State went on to win their first round game 69-58. Hodge scored a team high 16 points.
The second round saw NC State matched up against Connecticut. The taller and more physical Huskie team was able to control most of the game although the Pack was able to keep it close. With time running out, Connecticut all but sealed the deal with a controversial play. The Wolfpack had pulled to within one (72-71) on a 3-pointer by Marcus Melvin with 47 seconds left. Connecticut ran the clock down on its next possession and it seemed Caron Butler (who scorched the Pack with 34 points) waited too long to get his 3-point attempt off. As the shot clock buzzer sounded, he shot and was hit ever so slightly on the forearm by Hodge. A delayed whistle was blown for a foul on Julius and Butler made all three free throws for a 75-71 lead with 11 seconds to play. A three by Ilian Evtimov and another pair of Butler free throws ended the scoring for both teams. A last second three point shot by Hodge banged off the front of the rim as NC State would be forced from the tournament with a 77-74 loss.
No one took the loss harder than Hodge, who laid on the floor face down to hide his tears after his missed shot. Grundy who had just played his last game in a NC State uniform was quick to pick Hodge up from the floor. Grundy would talk about the star freshman after the game. "I know how competitive he is and I'm just proud to play with a guy like that."
After Hodge had gathered his emotions he told the media of his unbelief in the foul that was called that gave Butler his three shots that helped to seal the Wolfpack's fate. "I couldn't believe there was a foul called. I was playing tough defense," he said in a quiet voice. "For a call like that to send us home and end our season, that's just hard to swallow." The return to the NCAA's was over, for now. But Hodge was already thinking about next year even before his tears had dried off the MCI floor, "This will definitely motivate me, motivate all of us. Mark my words: Next year, we will not be denied by anything."
Indeed, Hodge had his plans for the Pack way back in February of 2001. In an interview during his senior season, he made the statement much to Wolfpackers delight, that he planned to lead NC State to a bunch of championships (ACC and NCAA). Although the past season was a success as compared to recent adventures on the court by the Pack, Hodge and his teammates are in no way satisfied with the Wolfpack's 23 wins, beating Maryland in the ACC tournament or with beating Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The NC State program has their eyes set on the Final Four. In a June of 2002 interview with Gregg Doyel from the Charlotte Observer, Hodge spoke about the next step for the Pack. "This season, I'm thinking high of my team, and we're not falling short. Anything less than the Final Four will be like Charles Barkley says -- uncivilized."
The Wolfpack's last four games of the 2002 season were against the NCAA Champions from 1999 (Connecticut), 2000 (Michigan State), 2001 (Duke), and 2002 (Maryland). The Pack was gallant in their late season drive against some of the best programs in college basketball. That experience gained by the youthful Pack should pay dividends in their drive for a title in 2003. With a year's experience under their belt combined with graduation and early departures hurting the power teams in the ACC, look for the Pack to have a real opportunity to win the ACC Championship. Duke may be the early media favorite, but the reality may just be that Hodge's prediction of championships becomes a matter of fact by playing the games.
No longer will NC State have to see Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy or Jason Williams from the 2002 ACC Champion Duke team. Maryland, the defending National Champions, lost Juan Dixon, Lonnie Baxter, Chris Wilcox, and Byron Mouton. Also, cross out Wake's Darius Songaila and Virginia's Roger Mason. UNC lost Kris Lang and Jason Capel, not to mention the transfer of three other players. The game of attrition seems to favor the Pack for the upcoming season, who lost only Archie Miller (who will still provide leadership as a coach for the Pack) and All-ACC player, Anthony Grundy. In particular, the loss of Grundy will have the biggest impact, but the returning players seem ready to fill the void, as witnessed in the Michigan State game.
The front court who was often banged around by the likes of Boozer and Baxter are a year older and a year stronger. The biggest surprise player may be center Jordan Collins (So 6'10" 262 1.6 ppg). He showed perhaps the most improvement of all the big men for NC State in 2002. During their ACC tournament run, Collins gave valuable minutes for the Pack, providing rebounds and much needed interior defense. During the off-season, Jordan worked on reshaping his body. He chiseled out muscle, while improving his speed and agility. NC State fans can look for major contributions from the refined center this year.
Also in the mix for playing time will be forward Josh Powell (So 6'9" 235 7.2 ppg). The Georgia native enjoyed great success in the classroom as a freshman when he accepted a membership into The National Society of Collegiate Scholars. On the floor, Powell made the biggest splash of the "Fab 5" (Watkins, Collins, Evtimov, Hodge, Powell) in the early season. He wooed the crowds at the ESA with thunderous dunks and smashing blocks. However, the wear and tear of the ACC's bruising inside game eventually wore down the NC State Forward by late February. Despite the late season fade, Josh was named to the All-ACC Rookie team. From all reports, look for Powell to be up to the physical challenge this year, where he too has been in a stringent conditioning program.
While Powell and Collins look to have great sophomore seasons, it is hard to imagine them topping the second year that Forward Marcus Melvin (Jr 6'8" 232 10.1 ppg) played. NC State fans saw the first Pack big man since Tom Gugliotta to consistently drain the three. Melvin lead the team in 3 point efficiency (46-105 .438). But his talent was not limited to the deep threat. Marcus would often bring the ball up in Sendek's point by committee offense. Never was his talent used more effectively than in the Michigan State game, when Melvin would clear his teammates to take the Spartan Forward Aloysius Anagonye the full ninety feet, time and time again. The task of covering Melvin proved to much for the 2001 Sporting News Player of the Year. Anagonye's tired set of legs resulted in a poor offensive showing, where he scored only two points for the game. NC State fans can expect more of the same from Melvin this season. With the departure of Miller and Grundy, do not be surprised to see Melvin play an even more prominent role from beyond the arc, both as a primary ball handler and as a three point gunner. It also may go beyond that. If you gauge Melvin using the Chavis league as an indicator, Marcus may just be the best player on the team this year.
Levi Watkins (So 6'7" 220 3.2 ppg) had all the accolades of a future star coming into the NC State program. He was a Parade All-American and ranked in the top 50 players from the class of 2001. In the early season games, Levi was emerging as one of the Wolfpack's most versatile players. He was strong and athletic. He showed the ability to defend the perimeter as well as in the blocks. He also was beginning to display a nice offensive stroke and looked to provide some real productive minutes for the Pack. However, his freshman season was cut short in the second half of the ACC opener against Maryland in late December, when he had a major ACL tear that forced him to the sidelines. In a recent GoPack.com interview, Charlie Rozanski, NC State's Director of Sports Medicine, updated Watkin's progress. "Levi is doing fantastic. He's six months-plus from his surgery and his range of motion and functional strength have really improved dramatically. He's about 15 percent from full strength in that leg." The short-term goal was to make sure Watkins was ready for individual skill workouts that began in late August. Recovering from ACL surgery can often be slow and tedious. However, there are signs that Watkins will be at full strength by the time the Wolfpack begins official preseason practices in mid-October.
When Watkins went down last season, Ilian Evtimov (So 6'7" 226 7.1 ppg) was asked to pick up much of the slack. Ilian responded with an All-Rookie ACC performance, or did he? When the ACC Freshman team was announced, it seems they left off the native of Bulgaria much to the chagrin of Pack fans. Upon looking into the matter a little closer, it seems the AP writers were unable to spell "Ilian Evtimov" correctly. The result was a computer that kicked out enough votes that would have put Ilian just one vote shy of making the All-Rookie team and number one in the honorable mention group. The recount was on and Ilian got his due for his performance that included tough defensive play, three point shots and unbelievable passes that drew "oohs and ahhs" from fans and opponents. After Evtimov came off the bench to scorch Clemson for 18 points and six boards in the 83-54 victory for the Pack, Tiger coach Larry Shyatt became an Ilian fan. "I think Evtimov is one of the brightest young people in this league, and I mean bright. As an opponent you don't often enjoy anything, but I enjoy watching him play basketball."
The returning Guards for the Wolfpack looked to be formable for any opponent. Scooter Sherrill (Jr 6'3" 190 5.7 ppg) has finally paid his dues. After sitting behind Grundy and Miller for his first two seasons, the McDonald All-American looks like he is set to have a breakout season. Scooter's defense has been a topic for debate for some time now. However, if your reputation is based on performing against and compared to the likes of Anthony Grundy in daily practice, not many could stand up to the test. It is very probable that Scooter's defense is not as bad as most people may believe and the experience of going against Grundy has made him a better player. Sherrill's offense has never been questioned. He displayed a glimpse at the future in January when he lit up Clemson's zone for 19 points. Scooter told the media afterward, "Anytime you're a shooter and you're playing against a zone, your eyes get real big." Sherrill's eyes were huge on that night. He was 5 for 7 from beyond the arc and helped shoot the Pack to the win.
The Pack's lone senior, Cliff Crawford (Sr 6'3" 190 4.3 ppg) has seen his starting role come and go. As a sophomore, he started 25 of 29 games due in part to an injured Archie Miller. This past season, Cliff was used mainly as the sixth man coming off the bench in relief of Miller and Grundy. By all accounts, the point guard position will again be Cliff's to lose. He is extremely quick but has been out of control at times in the past. Senior years seem to have a way to deal with such deficiencies. Each possession is cherished by the great senior players. Their game seems to slow down as decisions become routine and easily made. Control of the game comes more natural for seniors as younger players step up to make the mistakes. The pressure is less, with the yolk of previous upperclassmen now lifted. Cliff Crawford should have a big senior year. It is simply his time to do so.
The heart of the 2002-03 team is without a doubt, Julius Hodge. The McDonald All-American lived up to all he was billed to be as a Freshman. He was a great team player who's practice time is legendary. He was a great individual player, showing skills becoming of a NBA star. He was a fierce competitor that hounded opposing players while drawing the ire of their fans. Nothing during the past season intimidated Hodge. Not a rowdy Syracuse crowd, not Steve Blake and not even a great player like Caron Butler. Julius was not and will not be intimidated because he is focused on his reason for attending NC State. In a 2001 interview with Tony Haynes of GoPack.com, Hodge explained his mission as a Wolfpack player. "I've heard of Jim Valvano and David Thompson," Hodge said. "They are examples of the great people that have passed through this program throughout the years. I'm just trying to bring the success back with this recruiting class. We want to win. That's what we came here to do and that's why we practice so hard every day. I came to North Carolina State University not only to get a four-year academic degree, but to win the National Championship."
With talk like that, how can you not love this team?
This concludes the 2002-03 preview of NC State basketball. If you would like to reach the author, send your e-mail to email@example.com.