Let's take stock, Wolfpack fans. The damage is unmistakable. We've been manhandled, run over, left for dead in play-in games too many to mention, and even when we were good, we weren't good enough, and there was always a Duke or a UNC team headed to the Final Four while our Julius Hodges and our Elian Evtimovs were falling short. No question, when your best memories are how bad Duke was that year when Coach K had his hip replacement, or Carolina was when Matt Doherty got fired, you've suffered deeply and too longand that we certainly have.
To say we've been patient is to miss the signs of our deterioration, and yet we are nothing if not resilient, capable of bouncing back from the Les Robinson era, from the Damien Wilkins fiasco, from the various head cases with which Herb Sendek burdened us, of which Gavin Grant, now a fugitive from the law, is just the latest example.
We are ready to bounce back now, oh, so ready! Indeed, our expectations are a bit delusional, although—given the damage—is our condition not understandable? From last year's scrappy 20-16 club, N.C. State returns three starters and four others who were effective off the bench, led by second-team all-ACC forward Tracy Smith. We lost forward Dennis Horner and off-guard Farnold Degand from the starting lineup, but we've added a trio of blue-chip freshmen in the persons of point guard Ryan Harrow, off-guard Lorenzo Brown and swingman C.J. Leslie.
In short, we must be improved. And given the way that Harrow, Brown and Leslie burst brilliantly onto the floor in early-season games against Tennessee Tech, East Carolina and George Mason, we could be so much improved that even Duke's various Plumlees will have to eat our exhaust if we—did I say delusional?
Remember, we are counting heavily on three freshmen, none of whom is named John Wall, and they all played like freshmen just before Thanksgiving in a fan-deflating 82-67 loss to No. 16 Georgetown in the finals of the Charleston Classic. Harrow and Leslie struggled again Saturday as State labored to dispatch a less-than-formidable (0-3) Fairleigh Dickinson team 77-67.
The fact is, early on we're not that good and the freshmen are shaky. But another fact is, we are loaded with talent and should get better as the season progresses if—and here's the biggest if of all—head coach Sidney Lowe can put the pieces together and fashion them into a team. Because going into a pair of tests on the road at Wisconsin (tonight's game in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge) and at No. 9 Syracuse on Saturday, the Pack looks more like a bunch of guys who just met each other on the playground than they do a championship contender.
But that's the fun of sports, yes? Watching players as they work on their own games, get stronger and (hopefully) learn to play as a unit with their teammates? In his first four seasons at State, Lowe had one fair group that got better as the season went along, two decent teams that got worse, and last year's group, which was short on skills but worked hard and came together to win some tough games down the stretch.
This is the first year that Lowe's had a team with so many skilled players and so much upside potential, but it's potential that raises a lot of questions.
Can they play defense? Lowe wants to run, and he has the speed to do it (Harrow, Brown, Leslie, Smith and Scott Wood, the 3-point sophomore who runs well at 6-foot-7). Unfortunately, the three freshmen aren't very good defensively, and a running offense starts with good defense and rebounding. Harrow, Brown and Leslie, if he's going to play on the perimeter, must get better at stopping penetration—better individually and better at knowing how to help each other. Thus far, returning senior point guard Javi Gonzalez and junior off-guard C. J. Williams are better defensively, but neither is the offensive player Lowe wants for his running game.
Who's the go-to guy? Last year it was Smith in the post. Smith's been hurting and, after arthroscopic knee surgery, he's out for at least a couple of weeks. When he returns, he should give State's half-court offense a focal point it's been lacking.
Who's the go-to guard? Guards win games, and State needs a go-to scorer on the perimeter when defenses collapse on Smith. So far, only Wood has shown any shooting range.
Where will C.J. Leslie play? At 6-foot-8, lightning fast, with good ball-handling skills and coast-to-coast ability, Leslie shows flashes of greatness. But in half-court situations he looks lost. He's a natural wing forward but doesn't shoot as well as Wood—and State needs Wood's outside shot. Or he can play inside, giving State the racehorse offense that Lowe craves. But 6-foot-9 sophomore Richard Howell is a better defender and rebounder so far, and Lowe's promised Smith, a 6-foot-8 senior, some time at the power forward position as well, in anticipation of next year's NBA draft.
Who won't play inside? With Smith on the shelf, 6-foot-10 sophomore DeShawn Painter's made the most of his playing time at center and stamped himself as the backup. Aussie sophomore Jordan Vandenberg (7-foot-1), after adding 20 lbs. of muscle, is an effective passer and defender in the post. Then there's Howell, who was the best of the group in preseason, according to Lowe.
Are they winners? Over time, Harrow, Brown, Leslie, Wood, Howell and Smith (this year) and Painter (next year, with Vandenberg in reserve) are good enough to win championships, maybe even (dare we dream it?) a national championship. They're a long way from it now. But they're so young, they should get stronger with every game.