We've watched this year's squad try to find its identity after losing a combined 34.8 points, 8.1 assists, and 9.8 rebounds per game from Anthony Grundy, Archie Miller, and unexpectedly, Ilian Evtimov. Cliff Crawford has stepped up when the team has needed him most. Herb Sendek has maintained his resolve throughout the storm of criticism that traditionally passes for fan support. The team has overcome its struggles to pull together for two of the biggest back-to-back victories in recent memory, against Duke and Carolina. And Josh Powell isn't getting pushed around anymore.
After noticeably hitting a wall last year after conference play began, the pressure for Powell to perform at ACC-level this year was going to be high, to say the least. To make matters worse, 6'10, 240 lb. Jordan Collins would be hobbled for much of this season due to a groin injury, and with the Pack often going no more than one deep on the bench, Powell would have to assume sole responsibility for the Pack's play in the post. At the beginning of this season, much attention was given to the fact that Powell had bulked up and gained 30 lbs. over the summer. In addition to gaining bulk, however, Powell has proven to have also gained more confidence and fearlessness in his game.
While still undersized for a center at 6'9 and 210 lbs., Powell's athleticism and improved strength have helped offset disadvantages when defending bigger or stronger players. Likewise, Powell clearly worked on his back-to-the-basket game in the offseason, and has started attacking the hoop with a newfound ferocity. That aggressiveness has translated into more pressure on the defense and more free throw opportunities. After 15 games this year Powell has been to the line 60 times, compared to just 73 trips in 34 games last year. Recently Powell has also showed a greater willingness to shoot the three or take the ball to the basket, which has helped pull opposing big men away from the post, and subsequently helped create more lanes for backdoor cuts.
The burden of the team's success lies perhaps most heavily on Powell, as the Pack's best post defender and, aside from Hodge, the only player who has consistently displayed a low-post offense. In State's losses to Gonzaga and UMass, two teams who rely heavily on their size, Powell was outperformed, and the Pack suffered badly. In both games Powell shot a combined 3 for 16 for a total of six points. At Georgia Tech, Powell more than held his own against super freshmen Chris Bosh, scoring 12 points and grabbing six boards in only 21 minutes of action. But 21 minutes was the telling number: State played even until two quick fouls early in the second half sent Powell to the bench, and with Collins still inactive, 6'10 Bosh and 7'1 Luke Schenscher locked down the boards and easily dropped shots over top of State's short lineup, resulting in an embarrassing NC State collapse.
Powell has bounced back each time, however. After the UMass loss, he helped hold UVa's banger Travis Watson to 10 points and scored 13 of his own in the Pack's victorious ACC opener. After the Tech catastrophe, Powell responded with a season-high 23 points and nine rebounds in a losing effort against a hot-shooting Boston College. Powell then came up big against UNC, exploiting the Tarheels inexperienced frontcourt for 17 points and nine boards. This year Powell has contributed an average of 12.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game, improving on totals of 7.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game last season. He still needs to be more consistent, but his improvement is helping dispel the myth that players don't develop under Coach Sendek.
When he's been down, it hasn't been for long. Powell has bore the burden on him this season with a maturity and determination not seen from any Pack big man since Todd Fuller. Like Fuller, Powell got pushed around his first year, but has exhibited the motivation necessary to succeed in one of the most physical conferences in the nation. Also like Fuller, who was a perennial Academic All American, Powell has led the team in achievement off the court, boasting a 3.45 GPA in Business Management his freshman year.
One of the most athletic big men in the league, Powell's potential is hopefully just beginning to be scratched. As a freshman Powell showed flashes of the versatility that made him such a good fit for Coach Sendek's offense. This year, he has displayed the low-post game that the team needs in order to compete in the ACC. More impressively, he's displayed the resilience and attitude that he needs to become a star in the ACC.
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