N.C. State can win the ACC tournament. In his heart, Sidney Lowe honestly believes this.
Even after a disappointing five-win ACC season with his best player injured and with his own job status in doubt, the Wolfpack coach still believes in his team and the magic of the tournament.
"Absolutely, no question about it, I believe it because I lived it," Lowe said in an interview on Tuesday. "That's just who I am."
Do not mistake Lowe's optimism, about either the tournament or his future, for naivete.
Lowe understands the crossroad he's at after five seasons with an 86-77 overall record and a 25-55 mark in the ACC, and without an NCAA tournament appearance on his résumé. He is aware the next game could be his last.
"I am a realist in knowing what we have and what's going on," said Lowe, 51. "But I'm still optimistic in being able to do it."
In Greensboro on Wednesday, Lowe said he did not know if he would be back for a sixth season.
That's not in my hands," Lowe told a three-deep throng of reporters after practice at the Greensboro Coliseum. "That's in other people's hands. We're going to see what we do here. Right now the focus is to come into this tournament and try to win."
The anguish of a season unfulfilled was evident in the aftermath of Sunday's 72-62 home loss to Florida State, which dropped the Wolfpack to 5-11 in the ACC, 15-15 overall.
Lowe labored to explain the defensive lapses and lack of execution in the final minutes that cost his team against the Seminoles, twin maladies that have deflated State's preseason hopes for a return to the NCAA tournament and a Top 25 ranking.
"It's frustrating for everyone, but no one more than Sid," said Tommy Burleson, the center from N.C. State's 1974 title team and a fixture at most home games still. "He's really tried, really worked."
No matter how frustrated Lowe has been, though, he has kept a positive attitude. Shaped by the Wolfpack's improbable run in 1983 through the ACC tournament and then the NCAA tournament, Lowe believes as long as there are games left, there's still hope.
Since a discouraging, nine-point loss at Boston College on Jan. 11, Lowe has insisted "there's still time left" to make a run, a refrain he repeated after Sunday's loss.
"He has shown great character in how he has kept moving forward and been resilient from anything from the outside," said former N.C. State guard Chris Corchiani, who remains close to the program. "He truly believes they can make a run."
A portion of the fan base hasn't shared Lowe's optimism. Picked in the preseason to finish fourth, the Pack limped to 10th place with four losses in the final five games.
Attendance since the UNC game on Jan. 29, Lowe's 10th straight loss to the Tar Heels, has dwindled. N.C. State's average paid attendance this season, according to the ACC, was 13,779, leaving close to 6,000 empty seats on average for each home game at the RBC Center. On message boards and local sports-talk radio, some fans are ready for a change. First-year athletic director Debbie Yow repeated Monday that she will not comment until the end of the season after she has had time to meet with Lowe.
Sophomore Scott Wood said Sunday the players are frustrated, too, but they don't blame Lowe. The team that shows up in practice, isn't the same one that shows up for games or at least not the entire game.
"I feel like if we could let everybody watch our practice, everybody would be wondering why we're like this right now," Wood said.
A knee injury in November to senior forward Tracy Smith changed the dynamic of the team, which was structured to be built around Smith, the leading scorer and a second-team All-ACC performer last season.
With Smith out for 10 games, including four key nonconference matchups against Georgetown, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Arizona, Lowe had to rely on a group of three freshmen and two sophomores. This is not a point Lowe likes to belabor.
The way former N.C. State assistant Ed McLean sees it, however, you're not making excuses if you point to the team's inexperience. It's a reality you can't ignore, he said.
"This season, when you look at it as a whole, has been a learning process for this team," said McLean, an assistant to Jim Valvano in the 1980s. "Losing the best player so early in the season put the team under a lot of stress."
N.C. State's schedule did not make it any easier. In addition to those four big nonconference games, N.C. State was the only ACC team that had to play two games each against the top four in the final standings (North Carolina, Duke, Florida State and Clemson).
The freshmen flashed the potential that made them one of the best recruiting classes in the country, one that took Lowe three years to woo and ultimately sign.
Freshman forward C.J. Leslie led the team in rebounding (7.2 per game) and guard Lorenzo Brown in assists (3.8) but with guard Ryan Harrow, the trio took their knocks in ACC play, especially on defense.
The young players are talented, though, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. The last two classes, with sophomores Wood and forward Richard Howell, have upgraded the talent in the program. Those players still need time to learn, Bilas said.
"I think they have good players there now," Bilas said. "And as they get older, I think they could form a really good team."
The question now is, will Lowe still be the coach as those players get older and better?
In 2000, Herb Sendek completed his fifth season with 86 wins and 26 in the ACC, nearly identical to Lowe's record. Sendek was given a sixth season and then took the program to the NCAA tournament for five straight seasons.
Lowe believes the program is poised to make another breakthrough. His own professional experience has taught him about coaching turnover.
He worked for three different NBA teams in four years before coming back to N.C. State in 2006. All coaches, especially ones who spent 15 years in the NBA, realize they are hired to be fired.
This is where "realist" infiltrates the "optimist" side of Lowe.
"Do I think about it? Sure, it's my life," Lowe said. "Would it hurt me? Absolutely. Do I have my opinion about it? Sure, but I don't worry about it.
"I'm not worried. Worrying means that you go home and you can't live your life and you're stressed out. That's not me."
Staff writers Caulton Tudor and Ken Tysiac contributed to this report.
email@example.com or 919-829-8938