ACC Basketball: NC State Blazes in the Year of Underdogs
North Carolina State's basketball team is having a dream run in the ACC tournament so far. Coming into the tournament with an all-time low seeding (10), no one even took them seriously. This, considering that they had beaten the fabled UNC once and Virginia Tech twice (yes, home and away) during the regular season.
Suddenly they are in the spotlight and that too as giant-killers! They made the unthinkable happen by beating Duke in the first round, and now have taken down Virginia in the quarter finals. And these were teams which had comprehensively beaten NC State during the regular season. They are also both in the top 25 in the Coaches poll, with Duke being at 21 and Virginia being at 24. Now, there is a possibility of both teams dropping out of the top 25 because of these losses.
Sidney Lowe's NBA-style offense seems to be paying off, and the team is led well by point-guard Engin Atsur. The team seems to be completely different every time he is on the court. He handles the ball well and makes great plays, making use of good finishers like Brendan Coster, Ben McCaulay and Gavin Grant. Today relative unknown Bryan Nieman also stepped up and shot a couple of three-pointers to bring the Wolfpack back into the game.
The Wolfpack have been derided all season long for lacking bench strength, leading to exhaustion among the starters. They have often been called the "sixpack" due to having only six players playing the entire game. This has resulted in player fatigue surfacing at key moments, such as the loss to UNC in the away game during the regular season. Today was only the third time, all season that Lowe used 7 or more players in a game.
In the first half it seemed like too much experimentation was going on (what with close to 9 players being rotated in and out), and NC State went into the break trailing by 14 points. It would be great to know what Sidney Lowe told his wards or fed them during the break, because the regular starters came out and played like they were possessed. They soon cut the lead to 7 points, but then saw it stretch to 11 again. Nieman, Costner and Atsur soon pulled Virginia back and State were leading with around 8 minutes of the game left. They never relinquished the lead, and the game ended at 79-71 in favor of the Wolfpack.
Some key elements of the game - Costner's 20 points (this following his 30 point showing in the Duke game), McCaulay's penetration of the Cavaliers' defense, Atsur's ball-handling and play calling, and the unselfish attitude of the State players. One instance was when McCaulay was fed the ball, into the paint, by Atsur, and he immediately sent it to the corner where Courtney Fells was waiting to nail a 3-pointer. This despite the fact McCaulay himself might have been able to put in a 2-point basket without much difficulty. This shows that the players are placing the team ahead of themselves and is a great attitude that Sidney Lowe is cultivating.
Also, the defense was exemplary, and this in spite of the fact that the Cavaliers have Sean Singletary and J P Reynolds in their team, who can run rings around (and occasionally did in this game) most defenses in the country.
There is one worrying point for State, and that is the large number of turnovers. There were 13 in the game, with 8 in the first half, and Gavin Grant seems to be responsible for a few of these. Turnovers have been a constant problem for Grant throughout the season, and he must work hard on improving this aspect of the game. Many a game has been lost by State during the regular season, because of this issue.
Next year's NC State team will be worth watching, considering that the current team, with its lack of bench strength is performing well, and since Sidney Lowe has some promising recruits lined up for fall '07.
All in all, this ACC tournament seems to be the year of the underdogs, with all four games on Thursday being upsets (in that they were won by lower-ranked teams). Only UNC seems to be living up to its seeding, by beating Florida State in today's game.
Even if NC State doesn't make it to the NCAA tournament (which seems highly unlikely considering their lackluster regular season performance), they have retrieved their pound of flesh by beating UNC and VTech during the regular season and now Duke and Virginia in the ACC tournament. Who knows, they may have even spoiled the Blue Devils' and Cavaliers' shots at the NCAA tournament, and that is no small consolation.
Most importantly though, they have gained respect by how they have performed admirably the entire season with their handicap of a short V-Tech, again, in the semi-finals and UNC in the finals.