by Bob Geary
Thesis: We need a public search for a new State basketball coach. You know, same as the N&O is always wanting for your next university president or Durham police chief. Open forums, why do you want the job? what'll you do if you get it? — a public Q&A type of thing. Sir or madam, what's your strategy for putting State back up there with Duke and UNC?
Put it to a public vote, even.
Why? Because Sidney Lowe's successor needs to be somebody who is absolutely fearless, who wants the job so badly he'll risk everything to get it, and who's a good enough huckster that he — presumably it's a he — can convince the fans, the media and, yes, prospective blue-chip players that once he's here, there'll be no stopping him, and that means you Coach K, ol' Roy or whoever else gets in the way.
Shy violets need not apply. Oooh, please don't tell my current employer I'm looking? Leave that weak stuff wherever you're at..
No such person? Then let's keep Sidney.
As far as Sidney Lowe's concerned, it's pretty simple. Five years, no NCAA tournament appearances, not enough first-rank players recruited, not enough hard-nosed defense shown, not enough — wins. Forget that business about how you play the game, because how you play the game is judged — at least in the arena of big-time college basketball — by whether you win by two (fabulous! gutsy!) or lose by two (gutless! undisciplined!), and how many wins and losses are on your permanent record.
Lowe's record as a coach marks him as a loser, and the best players won't sign up to play with a loser because 1) they want to win, and 2) they understand that if you're not winning, chances are good that by the time they show up to enroll at your school, you won't be there any more. And without the best players, you don't win.
After four bad years, Sidney was on a death watch as this season started. With early wins, he could've staved off the shroud, shown that State was on the uptick and clinched his argument by signing another blue-chip player or two for next year and the year after.
Instead, he lost early, signed no blue-chippers and is, therefore, headed for the door. Even winning the ACC tournament might not save him, but we'll never know, because his team simply isn't playing well enough to win the tournament.
Is this fair? It is what it is. Sidney Lowe is a good guy and a decent coach and his players — now that he's rid of Herb Sendek's bad-news leftovers — they like Sidney, they play hard for him and it doesn't matter at all.
Because the truth is, college basketball is completely out of control as an extra-curricular activity for undergraduate students, at least in the realm of the Division 1 "power conferences" — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, etc.
Imagine if, as a requirement of your participation in the N.C. State orchestra, you were required to travel all over America, week after week, fall and spring semester, playing competitive concerts against other big-time bands. Forget your classes, your major in chemistry, your minor in music theory, what matters is beating Syracuse and Boston College ... because Lord knows there couldn't be two winning orchestras in the same arena on the same night.
Your first trumpet is out with the flu? Suck it up, boys and girls, because Duke and North Carolina are playing with injuries too, and we by God have to beat them on the strings, in the brass section and on the scoreboard.
It's about winning, forget whether you played good music or improved your fingering.
I'm just a fan, but they give us press passes to the State games and I've watched a bunch of them close-up over the last two seasons. Here's my take: Sidney Lowe's teams are damned good. They're just not quite as good as the professional-quality teams in Durham and Chapel Hill. Do our guys play defense like I wish they would? No. Do they move, and screen, and cut, and execute as well on offense as I wish they would? No.
Could this be due to the fact that, for two years, we've had exactly one guy (Scott Wood) who could shoot from the outside?Or the fact that our one really good big man (Tracy Smith), who a year ago was so strong inside that to stop him teams occasionally left Wood open on the outside, has been hurt and ineffective this year?
In other words, could the reason that we're not quite Duke on offense or Carolina on defense have something to do with the fact that our players aren't all pros in the making the way Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler, Seth Curry, Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes are?
It has everything to do with that. I think Lorenzo Brown is damned good, just not (yet) a good shooter. I think Ryan Harrow is damned good, but after a tough year he's doubting his abilities and backing off instead of attacking. I think C.J. Leslie is damned good, but he's young and needs a better shot, better movement without the ball, better defensive positioning, better everything really, but the good news is, he's shown flashes of being great in every area. C.J. Wlliams, Rich Howell, and I could go down the list: Our guys are good. Hopefully, they'll get better. They didn't come as far this year as I hoped they would. Next year's another year.
But Sidney won't here.
And then what? There are, it seems to me, five ways to go as N.C. State basketball coach:
1) Concede that Duke and UNC will always beat you if you try to recruit against them for the very best talent, so instead go for the best defensive talent — guys who're fast, intense and smart enough to master swarming and trapping defensive styles. You can win a lot of games this way. Example: Virginia whipped State last week with a team of over-achieving defensive mongrels, plus a red-hot shooter or two. Downside: By not going for the very best talent, your only chance of winning championships is in the movies.
2) Concede that Duke and UNC will always beat you if you try to recruit the very best talent, so instead go for the best shooters — guys who'll hit their 3's while the Zellers and Hensons are making 2's. Run properly, a Princeton-style offense with a lot of screening and back-door cuts will always get you open shots for somebody. The trick is that all five of your guys have to be able to make them, because Princeton-style doesn't work if the other team can leave one of your guys open beyond the foul line. Downside: See above; plus, one bad shooting night in the tournament and you're out even if you're the perfect Herb Sendek-team.
3) Concede that Duke and UNC will always beat you if you try to recruit the very best talent, so instead go the outlaw route — guys who flunked out somewhere else, or bounced around in the jucos, or for whatever reason have been misunderstood. Jerry Tarkanian won that way. Downside: It's still not the very best talent, so you're starting from behind. And you';re in for a lot of bad publicity, especially if you start winning.
4) Go head to head with Duke and UNC for the very best talent.
5) Join the SoCon and play against Elon and Appalachian State.
Me? I would either join the SoCon or start a league with other high-minded universities where scholarship comes first and we play basketball for fun on the side. This, of course, is why I will never be N.C. State chancellor. (OK, maybe it's not the only reason.)
Clearly, though, State intends to choose #4, and I wonder whether that's the right course, because Sidney Lowe's been trying his best for five years now, and the number of blue-chip recruits he's landed is exactly one — J.J. Hickson, who stayed for one year before leaving as a first-round NBA draft pick. (Leslie? Maybe in time, but if he's one-and-done, all you can say is that he wasn't ready to play big-time college ball while he was here.)
Maybe what we need is a defensive coach, who'll win his share? Or another Herb Sendek, who'll win his share but never the big one? Or maybe, given a chance, we'd take another Jim Valvano if he came to our public forum and said, you know, I can win but I'm going to recruit the Shacklefords and the Washburns and if you don't like it, don't hire me. Put it out there — after all, the Wolfpack faithful are desperate.
But if we choose to go the #4 route, let's make sure we're improving on Sidney Lowe. Because, yes, Lowe's had a tough five years, and it's nice to imagine the new guy will turn it around and win with Lowe's team next year and the following year and start bringing in the very best talent ...
... but what's the evidence that he will? Let's hear that case.
I'm not saying State can never recruit head-to-head against Duke and UNC. I'm just saying, it'll be hard as hell at first, given the hole we've dug for ourselves — so hard that even a good coach like Sidney Lowe couldn't do it.