11/15/07 — k1078 BC-BKC-NCStatePreview 11-01 0636

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k1078 BC-BKC-NCStatePreview 11-01 0636

By Wire
Published in Sports on November 15, 2007 3:17 PM


AP Sports Writer

RALEIGH -- From the day he returned to North Carolina State, Sidney Lowe embraced the program's tradition and gave its frustrated fans reason to believe.

There were plenty of memorable moments in Lowe's first season, from an upset of North Carolina to a surprising run to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament finals. And it seemed like for each, Lowe was wearing that bright red blazer that became his signature.

It all has those fans who expected the worst last season dreaming big again. This time -- in a throwback to Lowe's days as a player for the Wolfpack -- N.C. State expects a real return to the top tier of the ACC.

"I like the fact that people feel that we should be a better ballclub," said Lowe, whose team is picked to finish third in the ACC after being picked to finish last in his first year.

"We still have to go out and play. A lot of people didn't think we could do much last year, and we proved some folks wrong. I told (the players), 'We have to do it again.' We really had a good year last year, but we really haven't done anything."

Don't tell that to N.C. State's fans, who are relishing the start of what they believe is a resurgence under Lowe, the point guard on the Wolfpack's 1983 NCAA championship team.

N.C. State (20-16, 5-11) reached the NCAA tournament in five straight seasons under previous coach Herb Sendek, but felt like an afterthought when compared to instate rivals Duke and North Carolina -- who were reaching Final Fours and winning national titles.

It didn't seem like Lowe could change the dynamic quickly after inheriting an inexperienced six-man rotation. But his team found a way to pile up memorable wins, from a stirring comeback win early against Michigan to an 83-79 win against the third-ranked Tar Heels -- a game in which the Wolfpack shot 13-for-17 after halftime.

The Wolfpack also beat the Blue Devils to start their thrilling ACC tournament run and ended up reaching the NIT quarterfinals. That success jolted awake a slumbering program and restored the pride that came from winning a pair of national titles and 10 ACC championships.

"The main part in (last year) was that we believed in each other and a lot of people didn't believe in us," said Ben McCauley, who averaged 14.4 points and 6.9 rebounds. "Every game we went into, we believed we could play to the highest level. And sure enough, we did. We got some big wins and gave ourselves a lot of momentum for this year."

Now four starters are back -- including McCauley, all-conference rookie Brandon Costner and swingman Gavin Grant -- while Lowe has brought in a talented recruiting class that includes McDonald's All-American J.J. Hickson.

"We're going into this season feeling like we're going to pick up where we left off," said Costner, who led the Wolfpack with 16.8 points per game.

The Wolfpack certainly will have more depth, with Lowe hoping to play an eight- or nine-man rotation. The glaring question is who will fill Engin Atsur's spot at point guard, where Lowe will likely turn to Iowa State transfer Farnold Degand, Tennessee transfer Marques Johnson or freshman Javier Gonzalez. Johnson is not eligible until the second semester while Gonzalez has been sidelined with a thumb injury, leaving Degand as the early choice.

"Last year, I certainly knew that it would be tough," Lowe said. "But I really didn't know what I was going up against. This year, I know. I'm excited about it. I embrace it. I love this."