Monday, February 16, 2009

Unselfish McCauley lifts N.C. State

With N.C. State’s 16-point lead over Georgia Tech whittled to three early in the second half, Wolfpack senior Ben McCauley tried to get away with a takedown of an opponent while pursuing a rebound of a miss by teammate C.J. Williams.

The refs caught McCauley and called him for a foul. McCauley got up and screamed at his teammates in frustration, demanding that they get their act together.

They did. N.C. State caught its breath, reduced its turnovers and pulled away for an 86-65 win, its second in a row, to sweep the season series with Georgia Tech.

It was easy to overlook McCauley’s senior leadership because he attempted just one field goal and finished with four points. But coach Sidney Lowe appreciated McCauley’s effort.

Lowe said McCauley had “one of the best 0-for-1 ballgames I’ve ever seen.” McCauley grabbed eight rebounds, handed out three assists and helped hold Georgia Tech center Gani Lawal to seven points.

That performance illustrated the difference between this season’s N.C. State team and last season’s. On Feb. 8, McCauley scored 25 points with 15 rebounds in one of the best statistical performances of his career.

Since then, he scored five points while struggling with illness against Wake Forest and four against Georgia Tech. Meanwhile, center Tracy Smith has averaged 15 points in those two wins, including a team-high 18 against Georgia Tech.

When Smith is in the game, McCauley is forced to play in the high post, away from the low-block spot where he’s most effective. Smith is no threat whatsoever to score from the high post, so Lowe’s only choice is to park him down low, where he’s not as good a passer as McCauley but is a more explosive scorer.

Last season, managing that kind of situation proved to be a nightmare for Lowe when freshman J.J. Hickson became the leading scorer. This season, McCauley still looks like a leader even when he’s in the high post while Smith is playing and scoring on the block.

It’s one of the reasons there’s some optimism about this N.C. State team with six games left in the regular season. The Wolfpack (14-9, 4-6 ACC) faces a difficult game at North Carolina on Wednesday but is playing perhaps its best basketball of Lowe’s tenure with the exception of the 2007 ACC Tournament.

It all starts with the selfless leadership of a player like McCauley in the late stages of his senior season. – Ken Tysiac