Sidney Lowe is carrying plenty of expectations into his second season as North Carolina State’s coach.
He’ll look to help the Wolfpack build on a surprising 2006-07 as they open their season Thursday against William & Mary.
Lowe took over as coach from Herb Sendek, who led North Carolina State to the NCAA tournament in five straight seasons. However, the Wolfpack were hoping that Lowe, the point guard on their 1983 NCAA championship team, could help them emerge from the shadow of intrastate rivals Duke and North Carolina.
Lowe did nothing to diminish those hopes last season, despite inheriting an inexperienced six-man rotation. The Wolfpack earned a comeback 74-67 win on Nov. 27 against Michigan, an 83-79 win against the No. 3 Tar Heels on Feb. 3 and reached the finals of the ACC tournament after a first-round win over the No. 21 Blue Devils.
North Carolina State reached the quarterfinals of the NIT before finishing the season with a 20-16 record.
“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.”
The Wolfpack return four starters and have been picked to finish third in the Atlantic Coast Conference after being picked to finish last before the 2006-07 season.
“I like the fact that people feel that we should be a better ballclub,” Lowe said. “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.”
The Wolfpack will get back Brandon Costner, who averaged team highs of 16.8 points and 7.3 rebounds as a rookie last season, swingman Gavin Grant, who was second on the team with 14.7 points per game, and Ben McCauley, who averaged 14.4 points and 6.9 rebounds.
“The main part in (last year) was that we believed in each other and a lot of people didn’t believe in us,” McCauley said. “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.”
However, N.C. State will have to replace point guard Engin Atsur, who averaged 11.3 points and a team-high 4.2 assists as a senior last season. Sophomore Farnold Degand, a transfer from Iowa State, will start at point guard, but Tennessee transfer Marques Johnson and freshman Javier Gonzalez will also compete for time at the position.
Johnson is not eligible to play until the second semester. Gonzalez has been nursing a thumb injury, but Lowe expects him to play in the opener.
The Wolfpack have won their last 13 season openers by an average of 22.3 points. They have won 10 straight against William & Mary and lead the all-time series 22-5.
However, the Tribe nearly pulled off an upset in their season-opener on Saturday. They led for long stretches in the first half and were within two points with less than 10 minutes to play before falling 68-53 to No. 5 Georgetown.
Nonetheless, William & Mary’s losing streak against ranked teams extended to 29 straight games, a drought that dates to 1977.
“We went toe-to-toe with them,” coach Tony Shaver said, “for about 36 minutes.”
Laimis Kisielius, who averaged 11.3 points last season as the team’s leading returning scorer, had a team-high 16 points but was held scoreless in the second half.
“They’re a great defensive ballclub. Physically, they just wear you out,” Shaver said. “I thought he looked exhausted in the second half.”