Sunday, February 04, 2007

Outside the Aviary: "Tyler Hansbrough is a Corn-Eating Bastard"

Note: the real title of this post follows with the borrowing song lyrics and it is Outside The Aviary: "Lookin' for a Leader..." C'mon, though. Hansbrough is a goofy bastard. On with the post.

On Saturday, I watched something I didn’t think could happen for another 2 years. Sidney Lowe defeated the vaunted North Carolina Tar Heels. Roy Williams, though stockpiled with double the amount of weapons had no answer for a team tired of being considered a third wheel. North Carolina sports has room for two teams in its conservative heart—three once the Panthers find a capable quarterback.

NC State’s tenure as a force in college basketball ran out as Les Robinson depleted their stature with terrible shooters and awkward looking big men. He was the answer to scandalous times—NC State’s version of Bush as a family man. Robinson was likable and State knew they wouldn’t have to worry about point shaving, academic failures or recruiting violations for awhile. They had teams with heart you loved to root for, but you knew they had no chance. It was like watching John Cryer in Pretty in Pink. EVERYTHING had to go perfectly for them to win. I remember hearing about them losing to Florida Atlantic (giving the Owls their first Division I victory in basketball). I remember Jeremy Hyatt, CC Harrison, and the flattest three point shot in history—Mr. Ishua Benjamin. They were all great guys—Harrison actually ended up being a pretty fantastic guard—but they were guided by a man who was unable to win.

Then State saw the arrival of Herb Sendek. Sendek was the manifestation of Robinson’s teams in one man. He was Ducky. He was the man behind Hodge, Melvin, Evtimov and a separate cavalcade of “not quite prime time” big men that all left early for some reason or another (not being used to their potential). However the failures of Sendek’s career are measured by alumni and rabid fans, he was more successful than anyone could have hoped. There’s the danger though—he gave State fans hope. That proved to be his undoing. Since State’s third wheel mentality is fueled by those who know the history of Wolfpack coaches—the big three being the forefront in Everett Case (the father of the ACC), Norm Sloan, and Jimmy Valvano. Sendek’s real failure was making NC State visible. They were never going to transcend the slow offense and inability to win on tobacco road. Sendek won but wasn’t a winner. His body language proved it. He constantly looked like a kid with full sleeve tattoos and a leather jacket was escorting his daughter through his country club—he wanted things to go well, but he had no power to actually make it happen. The constant red faced, tie-loosening routine had no panache (it doesn’t pay to say “we get no respect” in sports unless your players take that into their own hands).

The difference between Sidney Lowe’s approach—in his young collegiate coaching career—and the two men before him is not just that he beat Carolina. It’s not his immediate ties to State or recruiting class hype. It’s not even the amount of confidence he’s instilling into players that were not his own picks. It’s the absolutism of his attitude. It won’t be enough to beat Carolina in Raleigh. It won’t be enough to finish in the NIT with a team picked to finish dead last in the ACC. It will only be enough WHEN NC State is as respected as their counterpart. It’s a mix of pride, stubbornness and swagger. He’s never yelling at referees or screaming at his players. He’s watching them fail and letting them learn. He’s got a young squad with potential to be very good in the coming years. Wins like today are going to go a long way toward proving that—no to the basketball world, but the players themselves.

Instead of going after calls, he’s making adjustments. Instead of benching Grant and company after mistakes, he’s teaching men how to get out of situations. Instead of playing to be ahead, he’s showing kids how to win despite being behind. All of this came to fruition yesterday during two critical time periods—just before halftime when Carolina stormed back to tie the game, and in the second half after a thunderous dunk by Tyler Hansbrough. The lead was cut to one possession or tied a few times, actually, and every time I looked over to the side Sidney Lowe used his “Slow Down and run the offense” face. Engin Atsur responded brilliantly (the MVP of yesterday’s win), as did the big men and Courtney Fells (who is beginning to remind me of a more freakishly athletic Rodney Monroe during his hot streaks). This is not a tournament bound team, by any means. However, the fact that they won two straight against ranked opponents with their leader back from injury shows me they want to be. They believe they can be. That is more than I expected from a first time coach and a slew of kids playing against the “will” of North Carolina.

As the students rushed the court yesterday, I was reminded of when I was growing up. I knew UNC-NC State was going to be vehement and bloody. I knew, as well, that Dean Smith was patrolling the sidelines and that the best athletes went to UNC and Duke. While that is still true, I wonder if it will remain that way for long. Of the times Duke and UNC have owned the ACC (most of the time), the balance of the league will shift with recruits that want to beat the best to be the best. Maryland was a classic case of this. Walt Williams was a beast with little support, but he started a trickle down effect that ended up with Maryland winning a national championship in 2002. The classic two guard set-up with a dominant big man (Steve Blake, Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter) was essential. Can’t the same be said for Paul Hewitt’s Final Four club (Jarrett Jack, BJ Elder and Chris Bosh—preceded by Travis Best)? If Wake Forest had won their triple overtime game with West Virginia in 2004’s NCAA Tourney, we could be talking about another final four club (Chris Paul, Justin Gray and Erik Williams—preceded by Tim Duncan). If State can match a true point guard (God bless Atsur for taking this challenge) with Fells’ ice cold jumper, then McCauley and Brandon Costner can run the game from the low block as well as the guards from the top of the key. In a best case scenario, the Wolfpack can be a threat sooner rather than later. Wishful thinking, I know, but if Sendek and Hodge brought them into prominence, is it possible that Lowe and (insert recruit here) take them to the next level?

Yesterday was a prototypical next-level win. Even the announcers knew State didn’t win despite themselves; they won because they played the perfect game against a team as young as they were. They played a patient, ball control offense (turnovers be damned) and a stifling interior defense (Hansbrough’s 24 points be damned). What State discovered against Carolina was that the best defense is a mixture of intimidation (State out rebounded UNC in the double digit range—would this have happened had Hansbrough not been pushed around and fouled early?) and rebounding. The best defense is to have the ball. Sloppy at it seemed it was a decisive win for a school that has not been viewed seriously in quite a while. While we have to wait to see what Sidney Lowe does with his own players before judgment, I’m more excited to see a coach patrolling the sidelines since the late 80’s. He gives State the intimidation they have sorely missed. That might be enough for me right there. For the first time in over a decade, the sidelines are even. The rivalries are getting there too.

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