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ACC Notebook

December 30, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Atlantic Coast Conference Notebook

by Michael Protos

Who’s Who in the ACC

As non-conference plays gives way to the even more exciting ACC season, there are already several surprise teams this year. Georgia Tech has torched everybody from Marist to Connecticut en route to a top five ranking. Virginia and Wake Forest have also had better starts than expected. Look for Wake Forest to continue to play near the top of the ACC and the Cavaliers to drop back a little in ACC play.

These teams have been fueled by budding stars like Georgia Tech’s superhuman sensation Isma’il Muhammad, Wake Forest’s freshman phenom Chris Paul and Virginia’s post presence Elton Brown. In addition to these three, there have been several other players who deserve their props now and will be crucial to the future success of their teams as conference play kicks into high gear in the next couple of weeks.

The best place to start is at the top. And the top player in the ACC is NC State’s junior guard Julius Hodge. Hodge is leading the ACC in scoring with 18.5 points per game. But he also grabs seven rebounds a game and dishes more than four assists per game to involve his teammates. Hodge is one of the few players in the ACC who can single-handedly take over a game and win it for his team.

In a conference full of super sophomores, the most underrated sophomore is Georgia Tech’s point guard Jarrett Jack. He is among the conference leaders in assists with 7.3 per game, in addition to 12.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Jack is also a defensive threat, averaging more than two steals per game. His teammate, Muhammad, has developed a consistent jumper in addition to his amazing athleticism. Muhammad is second on the team with 12.5 points per game in addition to 5.3 rebounds per game.

Other second year players fill the statistics as conference leaders. JuCo transfer Jamar Smith is in his second year at Maryland and leads the Terps in scoring and the conference in rebounding. He averages a double-double per game with 15.2 points and 10.8 rebounds. North Carolina’s sophomore Sean May is the only other ACC player to average a double-double, with 16.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Also on the Tar Heels’ talented squad, sophomore guard Raymond Felton leads the conference in assists with 8.4 per game.

There are several freshmen who will emerge as key players on their teams by the end of this year. But three who have already made a difference are Wake Forest’s Paul, Duke’s Luol Deng and Virginia’s Gary Forbes. Forbes has entered a situation in which he must start and contribute immediately on a shallow Virginia squad. He has met the challenge with 13.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

Deng has helped Duke jump off to another fantastic start, and the comparisons to Carmelo Anthony have already started. Deng leads a talented Duke lineup in scoring and is second in rebounding, averaging 14.6 and 6.7 respectively. Despite Deng’s great play, Paul has been the most dominant freshman in the conference this season. Paul leads the conference in steals with 4.3 per game, scores 13 a game and is third in the conference with 6.6 assists per game. And even at only 6’0, he grabs four rebounds per contest. Paul provides the fuel for Wake Forest’s fast-paced attack but also has the savvy to run a precise half-court offense.

The ACC is full of shining and rising stars. From top to bottom, the ACC might be the best conference in the country this year. Imagine how good it will be next year if these youngsters decide to stay for another year to mature and to enjoy the premier competition of ACC basketball.

Clemson Tigers (6-4, 0-0) Last week: 1-0

The Tigers won their only game last week, beating Radford 74-58. But Clemson struggled to put away the Highlanders until the end of the game when the Tigers scored 14 consecutive points. Junior guard Chey Christie led Clemson with 20 points but the interior attack paved the road to victory as the Tigers outrebounded Radford 45-26.

Senior forward Chris Hobbs and junior forward Sharrod Ford are two of the better post players in the ACC, but they receive precious little support from other sources than Christie. Junior forward Olu Babalola provides even greater depth in the frontcourt but struggled with foul trouble against Radford. Freshman guard Vernon Hamilton has become a key component to coach Oliver Purnell’s rotation.

With no quality wins this season, Clemson desperately needs to beat Boston College Dec. 30. The Eagles are Clemson’s last non-conference game. The Tigers begin ACC play Jan. 3 at home against No. 3 Duke.

No. 3 Duke Blue Devils (8-1, 0-0) Last week: 0-0

Following the slaughter of the No. 19 Texas Longhorns, Duke took the week off to celebrate the victory. Or to celebrate the holidays. Either way, the Blue Devils should be well rested when they play Davidson Dec. 29. Then Duke will travel to Clemson Jan. 3 to open its ACC schedule.

Florida State Seminoles (11-1, 1-0) Last week: 1-1

The Seminoles started the week with a tough loss, 63-56, at No. 16 Pittsburgh in a battle of unbeatens. Against one of the better defenses in the nation, Pittsburgh was efficient with the ball – shooting 52 percent and only committing 10 turnovers. Junior forward Mark McCarroll contributed 13 points for Pitt off the bench.

Florida State could not find a steady attack in the paint but did bolster its depth. Nine players received at least 10 minutes of playing time, including freshmen Von Wafer and Alexander Johnson. Wafer finished with 13 points, including two three-pointers. Senior guard Tim Pickett continued to lead the Seminoles with 14 points and eight rebounds, but he could not provide enough of a lift to overcome Pitt.

Against No. 25 Maryland, Wafer and Johnson powered a 16-2 run in the second half that brought Florida State from a narrow deficit to a small lead that the Seminoles milked to the finish. In clutch time, Maryland’s youth showed as the Terrapins failed to hit free throws. Florida State, on the other hand, finished 24-of-33 from the charity stripe. Any coach will tell you that the combination of smothering defense and solid free-throw shooting will take you a long way in this game.

Senior guard Michael Joiner and Pickett joined Wafer and Johnson as double-figure scorers for Florida State. Johnson led the team with 14 points in a balanced attack by the Seminoles, who forced 24 turnovers.

Florida State goes on the road this week to play Stetson Dec. 30 before heading to Gainesville, Fla., for a clash with No. 14 Florida Jan. 3.

No. 4 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (11-0, 0-0) Last week: 1-0

Perhaps the Yellow Jackets felt slighted by only receiving two votes for the No. 1 spot in last week’s Hoopville poll. Georgia Tech came out and pounded Marist, 90-40, to make a strong case that they are playing better basketball than any other team in the nation. All 12 players scored in the game for Georgia Tech, with junior guard Isma’il Muhammad leading the team with 16 points and eight rebounds.

Like Florida State, defense is a priority for coach Paul Hewitt. His Yellow Jackets forced 21 turnovers and held the lesser talented squad from Marist to under 30 percent shooting. Although Georgia Tech has smothered opponents not named Connecticut or Texas Tech, the team plays the type of sound defense that can be effective game-in and game-out during conference play. Only one opposing player reached double-figures and the Yellow Jackets only gave up 14 first-half points. Equally amazing, Georgia Tech gave up only five turnovers, refusing to give Marist any opportunity to build a run to cut into the lead.

Georgia Tech plays Virginia Commonwealth Dec. 29 before traveling to instate rival Georgia Jan. 3.

No. 25 Maryland Terrapins (7-3, 0-1) Last week: 1-1

Prior to visiting Florida State, the Terps hosted UNC Greensboro, which was the team’s first game in over a week. Maryland showed no effects from the time off, however, slamming the Spartans 85-58. Maryland held UNC-G to under 36 percent shooting while shooting better than 53 percent. Sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley led all scores with 19 points.

Maryland’s freshmen received much needed playing time as D.J. Strawberry, Ekene Ibekwe, Mike Jones and Wil Bowers each logged at least 10 minutes. Strawberry has become the most reliable reserve and is good for five to 15 points a night.

But the kids did not fare so well against a more experienced and more aggressive Florida State team. The lack of a seasoned point guard proved costly as Maryland committed 24 turnovers, six by sophomore point guard John Gilchrist. Maryland also struggled to find the stroke at the line, making just 10-of-18 in the game. As a team, Maryland is below 56 percent shooting from the free-throw line. That is inexcusable and will cost the Terrapins several more games in conference play.

Coach Gary Williams, however, knows the importance of free throws and ball handling. Practice will probably be more intense than ever this week. Maryland will get a chance to rebound with a home game against Mount St. Mary’s Jan. 3.

NC State Wolfpack (6-2, 1-0) Last week: 1-0

NC State opened ACC play last week with a 86-69 victory at home over Virginia. The Wolfpack beat the Cavaliers with a balanced attack, especially from three-point range, where NC State made 11-of-27 three-pointers. Junior guard Julius Hodge led the charge with 23 points, six assists and five steals.

NC State likes to apply suffocating pressure on defense and create transition opportunities to find three-point shooters. Against Virginia, the defensive pressure prevented the Cavaliers from establishing any type of effective rotation. The starting five accounted for all but six points for Virginia. Those starters lost steam toward the end of game and could not hit crucial shots to pull the Cavaliers back into the game.

This week, NC State plays UNC Wilmington Jan. 3.

No. 9 North Carolina Tar Heels (7-1, 0-1) Last week: 1-0

The Tar Heels rebounded from a heartbreaking triple overtime loss to No. 8 Wake Forest by playing UNC Wilmington in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Although Wilmington always is a tough opponent – just ask Maryland about last year’s first round NCAA Tournament game – the Tar Heels handled the Seahawks 71-54.

The game was a homecoming for sophomore guard Raymond Felton, who played high school ball for Latta High, which is near Myrtle Beach. Felton finished with 16 points, four rebounds and six assists, but junior guard Melvin Scott was the star. Scott scored 19 points and helped spark the sluggish Tar Heels to victory when junior forward Jawad Williams and sophomore forward Sean May sat down on the bench to recuperate from injuries. On a team filled with stars, Scott is a three-point assassin who can make clutch shots when called upon to do so.

One of those stars, May, did not return to the game after spraining the same ankle that forced him to miss the second half of last season. May iced the ankle on the sideline, but no additional information has come out yet about the severity of his injury. If May misses significant time, the Tar Heels do not have anyone who can fill his shoes.

North Carolina plays Coastal Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Dec. 30 before traveling to Lexington, Ky., to play No. 1 Kentucky in a battle of two of the most storied programs in the nation.

Virginia Cavaliers (8-1, 0-1) Last week: 1-1

The Cavaliers stretched their winning streak to eight games last week by beating Coastal Carolina 89-74, before falling to NC State later in the week in Virginia’s ACC opener. Against Coastal Carolina, the Cavaliers established an effective inside-out game as forwards Derrick Byars and Elton Brown scored 39 points collectively. Senior guard Todd Billet and freshman guard Gary Forbes then burnt Coastal Carolina from outside, scoring 16 and 13 points, respectively.

Virginia’s weakness, however, is a severe lack of depth. Freshman T.J. Bannister was the only non-starter to log more than 10 minutes in either game last week. The Cavaliers need senior guard Majestic Mapp or freshman forward Donte Minter to become a consistent contributor off the bench or else the Cavaliers risk being shut down by more talented teams in the ACC.

And NC State qualifies as one such team. The Wolfpack did not allow Virginia to get any support off the bench, forcing the starters to average 31 minutes in the game. Although Brown scored 18 in another solid effort, it was not enough to withstand NC State’s constant wave of pressure on both ends of the floor.

More athletic teams like NC State will run Virginia ragged. The Cavaliers must take advantage of the strong play by Byars and Brown to slow games down and work within the half-court offense. Forbes and Billet are sharp-shooters that can kill teams that must compensate for strong games in the paint by Byars and Brown.

After coasting through a weak non-conference schedule, Virginia plays the two toughest non-conference opponents this week when Iowa State comes to town New Year’s Eve and when Providence visits Charlottesville, Va., Jan. 3. Virginia must win at least one of these two to prove the Cavaliers have a shot at the NCAA Tournament.

No. 8 Wake Forest Demon Deacons (7-0, 1-0) Last week: 0-0

The Demon Deacons needed last week to recover from the triple overtime marathon win over North Carolina. This week, Wake Forest plays North Carolina A&T and New Mexico in their friendly confines at Winston-Salem, N.C.


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