RALEIGH — Elite recruit Ryan Harrow assured N.C. State basketball fans that help was on the way.
Harrow, one of the country's top-rated point guards, talked about leading the Wolfpack to the top of the ACC standings and winning a national championship on Wednesday, right after he put his commitment to N.C. State in writing.
"We're going to turn heads," said Harrow, who came up from Marietta, Ga., to sign his national letter of intent.
He was greeted by a throng of cell-phone wielding, jubilant N.C. State fans at Sammy's Tap & Grill, a Raleigh sports bar near campus. But the Wolfpack will have to wait another 12 months for Harrow and the rest of a potentially program-changing recruiting class to arrive on campus.
The 2009-10 season starts today with a home game against Georgia State, and expectations for coach Sidney Lowe's fourth season are minimal. Picked by ACC basketball writers to finish last in the league, the Wolfpack has to replace its top three scorers from last season's team, which finished 16-14, 6-10 in league play en route to a 10th-place finish.
State failed to win more than six regular-season ACC games in any of Lowe's first three seasons. It also missed the postseason the past two seasons and has not made the NCAA Tournament since Herb Sendek's final team, in 2005-06, reached the second round.
Lowe is starting over with a roster full of players he recruited, ones he expects will play with more energy, at an up-tempo style. He also likes the makeup of his team, which he believes will be a more united group.
"I can't tell you what that means in wins, losses," said Lowe, who enters tonight with a 51-46 career record at State, 18-36 in ACC. "I just think that it can be an excellent year for us. but the guys have to play. We have to have consistency and stick together."
Lowe is preaching patience, with the current group of players, which includes five new freshmen, and with the promise of the next recruiting class. He also understands the uneasiness losing creates.
"I went here, believe me, I understand," Lowe said. "What I look for is progress in our team, progress in our program."
And progress, Lowe added, only comes with better players. In addition to Harrow, next year's class includes 6-foot-4 combo guard Lorenzo Brown, who is spending the year at Hargrave Military Academy getting his academics in order, and 6-8 forward Luke Cothron.
Lowe will be given more time to turn the program around, N.C. State athletic director Lee Fowler said. The two have talked openly, Fowler said, about the expected progress this season and the direction of the program.
"We've always been honest with each other," Fowler said. "He understands we need to win more, but I also think he needs to know we support him. Too many times, loyalty's a one-way street. Fans want the coach to be loyal to them, but they're not loyal to the coach. We need to give [Sidney] a chance to get it going and not put any extra pressure on him."
The success of this season depends on the development of veterans who had been role players, and on how good the five freshmen can be.
The Wolfpack's offense starts with junior forward Tracy Smith, who trimmed down to 235 pounds but will be expected to carry the extra weight of the scoring production lost from departed big men Brandon Costner (13.3 points per game) and Ben McCauley (12.4 ppg).
Smith entered college in the same class as J.J. Hickson, the McDonald's All-America who played one season, leading State in scoring and rebounding in 2007-08, before becoming a first-round pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Smith watched Hickson and hopes he learned from Hickson how to deal with a constant stream of double-teams and zone defenses. The same defensive strategy is likely in store for Smith, a 6-8 live-on-the-low-block power forward who averaged 14.8 points per game in the final nine regular-season games last season.
"I'm not the only one who can score on this team," Smith said. "I know the double-team is coming, and that's fine, because we've got guys who can hit outside shots."
One of the biggest problems for State under Lowe has been consistent backcourt production. The same group of guards return, although if the preseason is any indication, there will be more clarity at the point guard position.
In last week's exhibition game, junior Javier Gonzalez started at the point against St. Paul's and was backed up by sophomore Julius Mays. Senior Farnold Degand has been switched to shooting guard. At different times last season, Lowe juggled all three at the point.
Gonzalez, Mays, sophomore C.J. Williams, senior Dennis Horner and freshman wing forward Scott Wood are expected to score from the perimeter and alleviate some of the inside pressure on Smith.
Horner, and freshmen DeShawn Painter and Richard Howell (who is recovering from knee surgery) will get the bulk of the minutes at forward.
On paper, that leaves the Wolfpack with the least amount of returning offense in the ACC, as well as with the least experienced group in the league. It doesn't add up to much hope for this season, but that's exactly what this group is counting on -- being counted out.
"I know people are doubting us because we don't have a lot of experience," Horner said. "There's some pressure on us to perform, but I think we can. We're going to be all right."
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