We used to be, the four of us who sat in the same almost-decent seats at the RBC Arena year after year, the epitome of the "Wolfpack faithful."
In the Les Robinson era, we abided as fine young engineering students—bad players, dean's list in the classroom—donned the red-and-white in penance for Jim Valvano's sins.
They were trying, anyway.
Under Herb Sendek, we saw Damien Wilkins go from the nation's top prospect to horrible head case before he transferred to Georgia and a future NBA career. In 10 seasons, Sendek's blue-chip recruits were counted on two fingers. (Julius Hodge, a superb player, was the other one.)
We never lost hope.
And with luck (raise your hand if, when you first saw Marcus Melvin, you thought he'd be an all-star), pluck (who ever got more out of being a slow 6-foot-6 than Elian Evtimov?), a trapping defense and back-door offense, Herb won more games than his recruiting merited.
Sendek's teams always played hard.
Still, most fans weren't sorry to see Sendek go. Because among the Wolfpack faithful there was always the belief that, with the right coach, State would attract the very best talent around and play for the NCAA championship too—yes, up against UNC and Duke, because besides good coaching, what did they have that State didn't have?
So when Sidney Lowe, point guard on the '83 championship Pack squad, replaced Sendek two years ago and led his leftovers to the ACC championship game in his first season, fans thought—we faithful four especially—that happy days were here again.
But last year, in Season Two, Lowe did perhaps the worst, most discouraging job of coaching that we have ever endured. Need I review it? With Engin Atsur, our quadralingual point guard, gone—man, did we ever love Atsur—Lowe failed utterly to recruit a replacement, which left Javi Gonzalez, a game-but-overmatched freshman, to play the point when Sendek's last leftover, Iowa State transfer Farnold Degand, was injured.
Meanwhile, without anyone else in the lineup who could even spell p-a-s-s let alone deliver one, Lowe benched the best passing center in the league, 6-foot-9 Ben McCauley, and replaced him in the post with freshman J.J. Hickson, who was:
a) not a center, because he could not play with his back to the basket;
b) potentially a great power forward, another dire need when the starter at that spot, Brandon Costner, began playing poorly (bum knee);
c) destined to enter the NBA draft after his one required year out of high school, where he was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers and is now—ta da!—a power forward.
Displaced by Hickson, McCauley went into a season-long funk. Costner, who fed off McCauley's (and Atsur's) feeds, disappeared. Meanwhile, Hickson scored a lot of points but never passed the ball. The guards were bad. The defense was bad. They were bad—no, horrible. Last in the ACC.
Worse, they were a bickering, unhappy bunch forced to play second fiddle to Hickson's pro aspirations, and to Lowe's apparent determination to groom Hickson for the draft even at the cost of tanking the season.
Was it a strategy to attract future blue-chippers? A desperation move based on the belief that, without Hickson at center, the season would be worse?
Either Lowe was cynical or simply mistaken, but either way, watching his team lose while it came apart was far more painful than watching Robinson's or Sendek's teams had ever been.
Which is why we four fans quit going—suddenly, we were out of town, busy at home, anything but drive to the RBC, put up with the parking mess there, sit in our mediocre seats and watch a misbegotten team get worse.
I, previously so very faithful, made it to maybe six games. None of which, as I recall, were any fun. Half-full of stone-faced fans, the RBC feels like nothing so much as the ice hockey arena it also is.
Which leads me to my preview of the Pack men for this season. I certainly hope we'll be better. But we won't be much better—seventh or eighth in the league is probably the upper limit—because we still have no guards.
On the plus side, McCauley's back in the starting five, passing out of the post or, if not double-teamed, making his patented slide to the basket. The 6-foot-8 Costner's got some energy back, playing two-man games with McCauley or driving and dishing to the 6-foot-5 leaper Courtney Fells.
With Gavin Grant gone, Fells has moved from the two-guard to the three-forward, a better spot for him with his good shooting and shaky ball handling. But once again Lowe has failed to bring a guard who's ready for prime time, and Degand is once again injured.
Thus, when the season began, Lowe's starting guards were the 5-foot-11 Gonzalez and 6-foot-5 freshman C.J. Williams from Fayetteville, and the only thing I can say about Williams is that Melvin was from Fayetteville and he was a big zero, too, as a freshman. Backing them up: 6-foot-5 hustler Trevor Ferguson, a fan favorite because, unlike some others on this team, he overachieves; and a 6-foot-2 freshman from Indiana, Julius Mays, who'll maybe get better.
Off the bench, the best players are a pair of forwards, 6-foot-8 junior Dennis Horner and 6-foot-7 sophomore Tracy Smith. But Smith, who's tough enough to be a good four-forward, instead serves as McCauley's backup in the absence of any other center. That leaves the 6-foot-8 Horner, who'd be a good three with a little more quickness, to back up at the four where he really can't hang.
Lowe's already signed three allegedly top-shelf recruits for next year, and he's breathing hard around John Wall, the Raleigh Word of God Christian Academy star who some think is the best point guard prospect in the country.
Here's hoping that all works out for him, and that Lowe can restore a winning spirit to the Pack—and himself.
As for the faithful four, however, we'll be watching this year on TV. Still cheering for State, of course. Still thinking UNC and Duke should go to hell. But we're all so busy, and out of town a lot, or—