Pack riding perimeter power

Staff WriterFebruary 17, 2004 

It's being called the best N.C. State basketball team since 1989, and such comparisons are not farfetched -- so far.

With its victory over top-ranked Duke on Sunday, the Wolfpack is 16-5 overall and 9-2 in the ACC. That '89 team went 22-9 overall, won the ACC regular-season race at 10-4 and reached the third round of the NCAA Tournament.

But as bright as things look at the moment, Pack coach Herb Sendek is right when he warns his players and the team's fans to keep their feet on the ground.

For one thing, there's no longer any such animal as a bullet-proof college basketball team. One injury, one misstep, and momentum can fade quickly. The latest example is Kansas.

"Everyone is walking a thin line," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt pointed out last week.

In State's case, that line is the 3-point arc.

Throughout its recent surge, State has been remarkably effective at gunning down opponents from long range. Julius Hodge, Marcus Melvin, Scooter Sherrill, Ilian Evtimov and Engin Atsur have hit their outside jump shots early and often.

"When you're hitting them from where they are, it's just about impossible to defend," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said after State defeated the Seminoles 75-59 on Feb. 10. "There's just so much you can do. You can't send the defense out there but so far without opening up the rest of the court."

Obviously, State is doing other things very well, too. It is defending, rebounding and playing with more intensity than at any point during the past two years.

The Pack looks much like it did late in 2001-02, when it reached the ACC championship game, then beat Michigan State and scared Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament en route to a 23-11 record.

The big difference between then and now is consistency. The 2001-02 team lost by 30 points to Duke in the ACC title game and by 16 to Maryland, 37 to Duke and 12 to Wake Forest late in the regular season.

This season, State has imploded only once, losing 76-57 Jan. 15 at Duke. NCSU has lost four other games by a combined 13 points. That reflects experience and poise. Of Sendek's eight teams at State, this is the least likely to be rattled.

But none of that matters if the Wolfpack goes cold. The Pack, so dependent on its 3-point shooting, still can't afford a prolonged perimeter slump.

Then again, you could say that about most college teams, given the lack of great big men nationwide.

No ACC team is capable of depending upon its low-post offense to win consistently. Nationally, Stanford may be an exception. There's an Emeka Okafor of Connecticut here, a Channing Frye of Arizona there, but the days of pounding it inside are all but gone.

The NBA takes the best high school big men and hopes the next Shaquille O'Neal will be hatched.

The colleges are left to play small ball, and Sendek is doing his best to perfect that game. It's dangerous work, though.

The theme of State's season could be borrowed from the 1990 Mike Nichols film, "Postcards From The Edge." As long as the shots from afar keep dropping, the Pack will be right there. But if there's any sort of interruption in the hot streak, it'll get hairy.

Columnist Caulton Tudor can be reached at 829-8946 or ctudor@newsobserver.com

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