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Always the Bridesmaid, Never the Basketball Team Expected to Win

Statefans Nation has a well-written rant on hating UNC centering on a basketball victory in 1998. It hits every unconscious tic of Wolfpack fandom - unjustified complaints about the refs, complaints about Herb Sendek, paeans toward Jim Valvano, and immense pride in something that no one else really cares about. (And in this case isn't even true; North Carolina A&T is also a land grant university. Either way, I'm glad you're a fan Morrill Act and all, but who really cares?) What struck me most about the article was the game. I don't remember it at all, and I was there.

I suppose if you had quizzed me on who UNC lost to in 1998 I would have eventually come up with the Wolfpack. I remember UNC won the ACC Tournament that year by beating the three teams that upset them in conference, and that State was the first of those three, so I would have worked it out given time. I remember beating Duke at home and steamrolling through the ACC Tournament and the disgrace that was the Final Four that year, but I hadn't recalled this. It was UNC's only home loss of the year though, so good for y'all, Wolfpack.

This year's State team was inexplicably picked third in a lot of preseason conference polls, primarily on the basis of a 5-11 conference record and a late ACC tournament run. Yes they were hampered by Engin Atsur's injuries (who was 7-8 in the ACC before graduating last year) and had a talented high schooler J.J. Hickson coming in at center, but it was primarily one lost weekend in March that was selling everyone on the Pack.

Well, the Hickson kid is good - he's the fifth most efficient scorer in the country right now, which is rare to see in a post player. It's come at the expense of Ben McCauley, however, who has seen his minutes plummet, and to a lesser extent Brandon Costner, who isn't putting up as impressive a showing as last year.

So the Wolfpack are very much the team they were last year, strong down low and despeartely in need of a healthy point guard. The person filling that role was supposed to be Farnold Degand, but he's gone the way of Bobby Frasor for the year, leaving Javier Gonzalez and Marques Johnson to run the floor. The duo have a combined eight assists in the last four games, which is pretty indicative of the guard play. Shooting guard Courtney Fells is also doubtful, leaving only Gavin Grant and Costner to get touches outside.

The thing I fail to understand is how a team heavy on post players and light in the backcourt can be such a poor rebounding team. The Wolfpack were dead last on both ends of the court last year in conference, and are almost equally poor this season. The Heels can't let their guard down - it was State's uncharacteristic rebounding and not Sidney Lowe's sartorial choices that led to last year's upset - but should Thompson and a now-healthy Stephenson pull their weight on the boards, Carolina should be able to avoid repeating 1998.

You know, I almost a little jealous I don't have my own UNC-N.C. State upset memory to write about. But then I realize that UNC has never played a Wolfpack team ranked in the top ten in my lifetime [*] - the last time that happened was the 1975 ACC Championship, which UNC won - and I just have to soldier on.