After year one he looked like a savior, keeping the Pack out of last place and giving fans a memorable ride in the ACC and NIT Tournaments. He took a handful of scholarship players and won 20 games as the Pack became ruthlessly efficient on offense and a healthy Engin Atsur spurred its late season success, raising expectations in the process.
But if his first season was a success, his second season was an unmitigated disaster. Working with improved depth, including one of the best big men in the country in the form of freshman J.J. Hickson, Lowe's team actually played worse. The lack of good guard play in a guard-dominated sport was a big factor, but the Pack managed to start the ACC season 4-4 before spiraling out of control and dropping its final nine games on its way to a last-place finish.
Now the Pack seems to be on a collision course with another sub-par season. After losing an 18-point lead and allowing Virginia Tech to steal a win from them this weekend, the Pack sits at 2-6 in conference play, and barring some miracle, will struggle to make the NIT this year.
Add it all up and we have nearly three seasons, a few good wins hidden by tons of losses and no answers. So instead of dwelling on the questions that we can't answer yet, let's try to figure out what we have learned about Sidney Lowe so far.
When he was hired no one was really sure how Lowe would do on the recruiting trail, but he has passed that test with flying colors. He landed Hickson and effective forward Tracy Smith in his first year as a college coach. He has a highly-regarded class coming in next year and is still in the mix for elite prospects John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. He's going to bring talent to NC State basketball.
However, one area where Lowe has not shown a lot of promise is player progression. Three of the Pack's current starters have been starters under Lowe for his entire tenure. Ben McCauley and Brandon Costner are almost identical players to the ones that stepped on the court three years ago for Lowe. Courtney Fells is the same enigma he's always been, fluctuating between non-existent and star on the court every few games. The only other player who has seen a lot of minutes in all three seasons is Dennis Horner, and he remains the same bench contributor he was his freshman season.
When they aren't turning the ball over, Lowe's teams have shown a remarkable efficiency on offense. They hit a high percentage of shots, especially inside the 3-point arc, and get to the line more than their opponents. He understands how to get his players shots and has drawn up several nice plays at the end of games, though they don't always work out (the final possession of regulation against Tech being the perfect example). From an X's-and-O's standpoint, he has proven to be effective.
However, hasn't shown a knack for maximizing his line-ups. It took him until late January to decide he needed to shorten his bench, a decision most coaches make before the turn of the calendar. Lowe makes questionable substitutions and can't seem to find consistent roles for his bench players. He refused to put Hickson and McCauley on the floor at the same time last year, forcing his two fiercest competitors to fight against each other for time. There are plenty of excuses for how he's handled substitution situations, but ultimately he's made several sub-optimal decisions that likely cost the Pack on the scoreboard.
But the most important thing Lowe has shown is his ability to listen, learn and adjust. The Pack has improved its rebounding over last season and has shown some signs of better ball security, Sunday's game notwithstanding. Lowe has tried to shorten his bench recently but academics and injuries haven't cooperated. He started playing McCauley and Smith together more often, learning from last year's Hickson debacle, even putting the both of them in the starting line-up. It will be his ability to adjust and adapt that will ultimately determine his fate as a head coach.
The learning has already paid off for this team, even if its hasn't reflected in the win column like fans would prefer. The Pack has, somewhat incredibly, been leading or within single digits in the final eight minutes in eight of its nine losses. The team lost its two best players from last season and has, for the most part, improved. The improvement has yet to translate into more wins, but the team is much more competitive than it was last season.
What's left is taking the next step, winning close games, and it's hard to determine if more guard help or better coaching is what's needed to solve that problem.
The next few weeks matter when it comes to the NC State program. Lowe needs a decent finish, an NIT berth... some positive momentum. Anything to show that Wolfpack basketball is moving forward, not backward, since his hiring as head of the program.
It's important to remember that it's not just Lowe's third year at NC State, it's his third year as a college coach. Lowe still has plenty of time to prove himself, but each year that passes without him showing any progress is another year that the rumbling of dissatisfaction in Raleigh grows louder.