Meanwhile, North Carolina State got to the second round with a 61-52 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette. The Wolfpack finished second in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a record of 11-5. In the conference tournament N. C. State defeated Florida State, 78-71, before being edged by Maryland, 85-82. The Terrapins went on to win the tournament.
Overall, the Pack is 21-9. Their best non-conference victories were at home over Brigham Young (89-62) and Washington (77-72). State had two common opponents with Vanderbilt and lost to both, 68-61 at Michigan and 58-55 at South Carolina. The Wolfpack defeated six lesser opponents and fell 66-65 to Boston College. The team is coached by Herb Sendek, a former assistant to Rick Pitino at Kentucky.
In conference play, the men from Raleigh own home wins over Duke (78-74), Wake Forest (73-68), Georgia Tech (76-72), Virginia (88-69), Florida State (75-59) and Clemson (86-69); and losses to North Carolina (71-64) and Maryland (70-69). On the road they had five big victories, over Wake Forest (81-70), Georgia Tech (76-69), Maryland (81-69), Virginia (79-63) and Florida State (58-53); but lost at Clemson (60-55), North Carolina (68-66), and Duke (76-57).
Vanderbilt and North Carolina State have played only twice, and that was a long time ago. Led by Tom Hagan's 22-point performance, the Commodores beat the Wolfpack in Greensboro, N.C., 65-59, on Dec. 30, 1968. Nearly a year later State beat Vanderbilt 76-70 in Nashville, despite 16-point performances by both Perry Wallace and Thorpe Weber.
In ACC statistics, N.C. State is by far the best free-throwing team in the conference (79.8%), and second in assist/turnover ratio. In most categories they in the mid-range: fifth in field goal shooting (45.2%), sixth in three-point accuracy (34.3%), fourth in scoring margin (+8.1 ppg). Their weakest areas are rebounding margin (seventh in the conference) and blocked shots (last).
State's best player, named the ACC Player of the Year by Associated Press, is 6-6 junior Julius Hodge. A New York City native, he is a typical big-city player, specializing in one-on-one moves, and cocky almost to the point of arrogance, but able to make good when it counts. He is the leading scorer (18.6 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (6.3 grabs per game). Also, he leads the team in assists (3.8 per game) and averages playing almost 35 minutes per game. There is no doubt that Hodge is the "go-to" man on this team.
6-8 senior Marcus Melvin made second team All-ACC. In contrast to Hodge, he is a home-grown product who is second in scoring (14.2 ppg), and first in rebounding (snagging 8.2 caroms per game). With a 230-pound frame, he is well-equipped to go in and battle under the boards, but is a surprisingly good outside shooter, making 35.6% of his threes.
6-3 senior Scooter Sherrill scores 10.5 points per game, and became the top defender on the team as the season progressed. In the past three weeks he has been handicapped by a severe ankle sprain and torn muscles, but is expected to play with the aid of a protective boot. In former years he was the team's main outside threat, but has fallen off to 31.4% accuracy on threes this season.
State's other two starters lend a true international flavor to the team. 6-7 sophomore Ilian Evtimov, who hails from Bulgaria, missed the 2002-03 season with an ACL tear, but returned this season to score 9.3 ppg and average 4.4 boards. He is an exceptionally intelligent player who helps everywhere- second on the team in assists and steals, tops in free-throwing, and able to make the outside shot.
6-3 freshman Engin Atsur, from Istanbul, Turkey, made it into the starting lineup after seven games and hasn't been dislodged since. He scores 8.2 points and has the best three-point shooting percentage on the team (39.1%). He handles the ball capably and should be a four-year starter.
The Wolfpack has some depth. Four of the reserve players have logged considerable minutes and often make valuable contributions. 6-8 junior Levi Watkins (6.4 ppg) is a dangerous outside shooter who can go inside and rebound. 6-10 junior Jordan Collins (3.3 ppg) has had to contend with injuries this year. 6-4 sophomore Cameron Bennerman (3.3 ppg) provides effective play at the wing positions. 5-11 freshman Mike O'Donnell (2.6 ppg) was a starter at point when the season began, before giving way to Atsur. Also available are 6-5 junior Will Roach, 6-11 freshman Adam Simons, 6-5 freshman Chris McCoy, and 6-4 sophomore Dominick Mejia.
North Carolina State can't come close to matching the size of Vanderbilt, but has what it takes to be a difficult opponent. The Pack has a scrappy defense that held down their ACC opponents until the Maryland loss in the tournament. They run a controlled offense and aren't likely to beat themselves with mistakes.
The Commodores will be challenged to find a good matchup against Hodge, and even if they somehow keep him in check, they will have to contend with Melvin. ACC fans fully expect this game to be a stepping stone for State on its way to the Sweet 16.
The Commodores may have to come up with another performance like they had in the Mississippi State game in the SEC tournament to win, but the opportunity to win with superior size is definitely there. The Pack should find it hard to stop Matt Freije and David Przybyszewski. Sherrill's injury will hurt their defense. The prediction here is for a Vanderbilt victory by two to six points.