|Friday, October 18
Wolfpack warm up to Sendek's style
By Andy Katz
RALEIGH, N.C. -- OK, so Herb Sendek looks a lot older than 39. But blame it, if you must, on the lack of hair. And so what if he doesn't bowl folks over with fake greetings and salutations that would make him Mr. Personality -- even if it were not the real deal.
What you get when you walk into Sendek's office on the campus of North Carolina State is genuine Herb.
Ah, but listen to N.C. State officials and close friends of Sendek, and what they say is once you get past the shield the coach puts up, you find a humorous man who would go to the wall for anyone inside his circle of friends.
"I've been around Herb Sendek when he's been funny," assures national recruiting analyst Dave Telep, who lives in Raleigh. "A lot of people don't see it. But he's got humor in him. Behind the scenes he'll chat up people, and he's really good in (a recruit's) living room."
Peel back the reserved delivery -- the short, quick sentences -- and you'll find a coach who is, at his core, a family man who loves the game and has a passion for his players. He's loyal, but at the same time he won't budge if players don't fall in line.
Exhibit A came two summers ago. He made what is probably the most dramatic recent move of a coach when he shut the door on Damien Wilkins after the player declared for the 2001 NBA draft but then later decided to return to the Wolfpack program. Sendek simply said, "No thanks." He wasn't about to have a potential locker-room issue. Scholarships are renewable on a yearly basis and Sendek chose to take a pass on Wilkins, not even blinking when he transferred to Georgia in time for this season.
"His recruiting changed to the point where if you can't shoot, you can't come ... and you've got to be a character guy and a scorer," Telep said. "He's looking at all those things wrapped up in a student of the game."
That explains why Sendek wasn't afraid to make adjustments last season, tinkering with his system to put in Princeton principles with better athletes. The goal was to produce more shots and, subsequently, more points.
"I'm continuing to learn," said Sendek, a former Rick Pitino assistant at Kentucky before he put in three years -- one NCAA berth and two NIT appearances -- at Miami of Ohio.
"I've had incredible opportunities during my younger years and learned some things by fire," Sendek said. "When I was hired here, I was perceived as one of the up-and-coming hot coaches. But then when we struggled two seasons ago and had the one losing season (13-16), I knew in my heart that I was a better coach. The last several years have been good for me as a person to grow as a coach. I've certainly not arrived."
Want to know how humble he is? Check out Sendek's office. Very few coaches who weren't part of the school's coaching family tree have enlarged photos of the last five head coaches on their walls. Coaches generally don't want the specter of a former coach hovering over them. They want distance. They want their own identity. But Sendek is loyal to the school.
And that's not all.
Sendek has a few photos with the Pope during a private mass in Italy a few years back (loyalty to his Catholic faith) and a number of shots of his three girls and wife (loyalty to family). Sendek is basically an intellectual, honest, direct, nice guy who just happens to coach a high-profile program in arguably the most competitive conference in the country -- the ACC.
"I try to be as honest as I can with our players ... and those guys are smart and know when you're giving them a snow job," Sendek said. "They want to have trust and honesty with people."
Sendek is simply being himself, whether he's in his own home goofing around with his girls, or in a recruit's living room selling N.C. State basketball. It's just that his family and friends see Sendek's private life a little more, while all others deal with coach Sendek -- whether that be in the home of a recruit, practice or even talking to the media.
"I try to talk as much about honesty, and that doesn't mean I can't be demanding and have high expectations," Sendek said. "I think (players') families leave thinking that this person wants the best for my son and really cares for him at the end of the day more than the basketball."
And maybe that's why the cerebral Sendek continues to be a finalist for some of the top recruits in the country (Mustafa Shakur chose Arizona over N.C. State), while grabbing a few (New York's Julius Hodge two years ago) that defy his personality.
"He deals with you straight," Hodge said. "He lets you know how much you're going to play and where. He's honest."
But, had it not been for an NCAA Tournament berth last March -- his first with the Wolfpack in six seasons -- not to mention a first-round win over Michigan State and a three-point near miss to Connecticut in the second round, Sendek might have been bounced by season's end.
"Absolutely I felt that pressure," Sendek said. "Maybe with greater self-mastery I wouldn't have felt it to the extent that I did, but I did."
But last year's 22-10 campaign earned him a five-year contract that squelches any talk that he'll be out the door soon. Sendek used to talk about the importance of the regular season, the overall calendar year in the growth of each player. He didn't want to put too much importance on the NCAA Tournament. But he's not naive. He's in Carolina, on Tobacco Road, and he knows that failing to get in the tourney regularly along with Duke and Carolina would spell doom for his career. Handing out NIT watches every March wouldn't cut it.
"It was an important threshold for our program to cross last year," Sendek said. "The fans really embraced last year's young team. Once you're in, anything is possible, and it was a real positive step for us to go further even with the heartbreaking loss to Connecticut."
So, what now? Hodge said the Wolfpack actually relish that no one pays as much attention to them nationally, let alone in North Carolina, where Duke and even a rebuilding Tar Heels program get most of the ink. Hodge said it's fine with the Wolfpack that they need to prove themselves all over again in 2002-03. They realistically see a potential ACC championship come March and expect to get back to the NCAAs at the very least.
And to do that, Sendek is going to have to use his Carnegie Mellon education and figure out a way to use four players who are essentially the same size. The 6-foot-6 Hodge, 6-7 Ilian Evtimov, 6-7 Marcus Melvin and 6-7 Levi Watkins will dominate the lineup, playing a variety of positions. Point guard and rebounding will be the biggest questions, but everyone will have to share in the responsibility, with Clifford Crawford probably getting the nod as the fifth starter.
"We have versatile, interchangeable guys," Sendek said. "You've heard coaches say they have position-less teams? Well, that's true with us. I usually prefer as many versatile guys who can do a variety of things, and with our system it's easier to accommodate those kind of guys without having stereotypical positions."
Sendek is looking for any of the "interchangeables" to simply be transporters of the basketball, getting it from point A to point B. But what they'll miss is a player like Archie Miller, who could get the Wolfpack reset in their offense and give them order during chaotic times.
"As we talk through it we could be more unconventional," Sendek said.
Aside from a constent playmaker, rebounding will lean heavily on Melvin, who averaged 5.4 boards a game last year, second on the team to departed guard Anthony Grundy (5.5). The Wolfpack will need more help from the guards, or better yet, the position-less players, to do a little bit of everything to make this work.
Sendek will raise his voice (yes, he actually does), and he'll figure this one out and probably have the players' trust on how to win. There were questions prior to last season, but far less this year with an NCAA berth, recruiting success stories and the loyalty that runs deep with the present players.
No more foreign trips?
The Pac-10 sponsored legislation that would do away with all foreign tours for all men's and women's sports because of the cost and apparent strain on a student's time in the offseason (and for Duke, during a fall break).
The proposal won't be up for a vote during management council and board of director's meetings this month, but will be on the docket come April unless the membership removes it from consideration.
"It's part of the overall reform movement," said Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen, whose member school Arizona is by far the biggest proponent of a foreign trip after having gone to Australia three times in Lute Olson's tenure. "We felt that the foreign tours were expensive to the university and were a time demand on student athletes. If the team takes one in the summer, then the student-athlete has to go. It deprives them of their free summer time no matter how nice the trip would be. I'm sure the coaches think this is an advantage, but it's a question of cost and time demand."
But herein lies the problem with this thesis: Teams can only go on a foreign trip once every four years, meaning a number of student-athletes never go on a trip; most teams take them when they have a young team, meaning they skip their chances, and can go long stretches without taking a tour (Duke's previous foreign trip before this year's was in 1988); it's a great experience for the student-athletes and few probably say they felt like they were forced to go and had a horrible time; why should regular students get a chance to take a semester or year abroad and athletes can't take a 10-day trip overseas?
And finally, this doesn't prevent a band or choir taking a trip -- so why a basketball team?
The cost of the trip can be an issue, and if a team can't afford to go to Europe or Australia, is taking a trip to Canada out of the question? And does this mean that players wouldn't be able to play on a Big Ten or Big 12 all-star team touring Scandinavia? Is the NCAA going to legislate that its players cannot play games outside the U.S. in the summer? What's next, no USA Basketball?
The majority of players and coaches find the trips exhilarating, educational and invaluable bonding time with their teammates and coaches. Getting rid of these trips would be another way to sour the college athletic experience. Schools have until April to rally against this proposal.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.