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February 17, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Atlantic Coast Conference Notebook

by Michael Protos

A Matter of Respect

Quick. Name the best teams in the ACC.

Duke – sure, they’re 10-1 in conference play and ranked number one in some polls.

North Carolina – well, they’re good, but the Tar Heels are actually tied for fifth in the conference with Florida State.

Did you name NC State in your top three? If you didn’t, you should have.

The Wolfpack have quietly become one of the nation’s best teams, not just one of the ACC’s best teams. And yet, no one is talking about NC State has a possible top two seed in the NCAA Tournament. Most conversations about the Wolfpack have concerned there potential bubble status.

Well, you can burst that bubble. The Wolfpack are a legitimate Final Four contender and proved so Sunday night by beating Duke 78-74 in Raleigh, N.C. The score was close, but NC State led throughout the game and really seemed in total control until the final minute when Duke nearly stole the game. But as the best teams ritually do, the Wolfpack rallied around its primetime players to hold on to the victory.

Junior guard Julius Hodge could easily be the ACC’s most valuable player and will likely earn my vote for the award. Hodge is among the ACC scoring leaders with 18.3 points per game. But Hodge does so much more than score – he also averages 6.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. Defensively, Hodge shuts down the best of the ACC.

Hodge’s number two is senior forward Marcus Melvin, who is second on the team with 13.8 points per game. He leads the team in rebounding with 7.9 rebounds per game. Melvin has worked hard to become the Wolfpack’s most potent interior scorer.

Guided by coach Herb Sendek, the Wolfpack play tenacious defense and efficient offense. They practice the details, and it shows in the game. Rarely do you see a defensive breakdown committed by the Wolfpack. The Wolfpack are the best in the nation – the entire nation – in free-throw shooting, making 80 percent of the team’s free throws.

One reason the Wolfpack do not get respect nationally is because NC State has not excelled in non-conference play. But don’t be fooled. This team is getting better by the game. They played some tough opponents like Michigan and Boston College on the road in non-conference play. They erased a strong BYU team in Raleigh, N.C., on national television.

Don’t be shocked to see the Wolfpack build some momentum off this win against Duke.

But the Wolfpack will lose one feature that has haunted them all season – anonymity.

With the win against Duke, NC State will finally receive national attention from sources beyond here. Check the Hoopville ACC archives, I’ve been giving props to NC State all season and predicted them to finish third in the preseason conference report. Most did not rank NC State so high.

But most will now. NC State needed a major victory, such as the one against Duke, to move from bridesmaid to bride. People will start to name NC State as a sexy Final Four darkhorse candidate. Opponents will gun to take them down and claim a victory against a top ACC team.

Those bandwagon analysts, however, are realizing something that I’ve known – and my guess is that Sendek and the Wolfpack players knew too – since the beginning of the season: This team is for real.

Demon Deacon Suspended

Wake Forest played at Clemson without sophomore guard Trent Strickland, who was suspended, coach Skip Prosser said. It was the first game that Strickland missed during his two-year career.

ACC Player of the Week:

Rashad McCants, North Carolina

McCants averaged 28 points and 6.5 rebounds in two games last week for the Tar Heels and has scored 25 points or more in seven of the Tar Heels’ last nine games.

Rookie of the Week:

Chris Paul, Wake Forest

Paul led the Demon Deacons to two victories last week, which ended a four-game losing streak, by averaging 23 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists.

ACC Coach Watch:

Gary Williams, Maryland

Williams’ Terrapins lost a tough game at North Carolina last week, which put the Terrapins in seventh place in the standings. Maryland needs a few more wins to get off the bubble. This week, Maryland plays Georgia Tech in College Park, Md., and Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Two wins will buy the Terrapins a ticket to March Madness.

Team Notebooks:

Each team notebook, listed in alphabetical order, features a team report up to this point of the season. It includes information that the NCAA Tournament selection committee will likely consider when filling out the brackets in a few weeks. So, check out your favorite team to see how they stack up.

Clemson Tigers (9-13, 2-9) Last week: 0-2

RPI: 49
Strength of Schedule: 2
Best non-conference win: Boston College 72-62
Worst non-conference loss: At Georgia 61-56
Best three wins: North Carolina 81-72, Boston College, Florida State 53-48
Worst three losses: Georgia, at Virginia 61-50, Maryland 65-52
Road/neutral court record: 0-9
Last 10 games: 2-8
Remaining schedule: three homes games (NC State, Virginia, Georgia Tech), two road games (Maryland, North Carolina)

Tournament Outlook: Coach Oliver Purnell is in his first year at Clemson, and it shows this year. The Tigers have struggled to build any momentum this year and occupy the bottom of the ACC standings with little hope of passing anyone but Virginia. And that’s a big if. The bottom line for the Tigers is that to make the NCAA Tournament they will have to win four ACC tournament games, including a second round game against the No. 1 seed, which will likely be Duke.

Clemson looked to win its second straight home game against a ranked opponent when Wake Forest visited Littlejohn Coliseum. The Tigers had beaten North Carolina in the team’s last home game. But the Demon Deacons came prepared for a battle and left with an 82-67 win. Clemson only made 17-of-34 free throws, which almost always will spell defeat. The Tigers battled back from a double-digit deficit, led by junior forward Olu Babalola, who finished with 22 points. The Tigers have had at least one player put up solid point totals each game, but the team almost always struggles to find another weapon. The trend continued against Wake Forest as junior guard Chey Christie was the next leading scorer with only 10 points. Clemson also killed any comeback chances with turnovers, committing 20 turnovers while the Demon Deacons have only committed 11 turnovers.

Clemson tried to pick up its first road win of the season at Florida State. But the offense apparently missed the trip to Tallahassee, Fla., as the Seminoles won 65-52. Junior forward Sharrod Ford led a lame offensive attack with 15 points. He worked harder than any of his teammates, grabbing 10 rebounds, which was more than one third of the team’s total. Although Clemson was better in the ball-handling department, committing only 13 turnovers, the Tigers could not find the shooting touch, making only 37 percents of their shots.

Clemson plays NC State Feb. 18 then hosts Virginia Feb. 21 in a game that will likely determine last place in the conference standings.

No. 2 Duke Blue Devils (21-2, 10-1)

RPI: 1
Strength of Schedule: 11
Best non-conference win: Texas 89-61, neutral court
Worst non-conference loss: Purdue 78-68, neutral court
Best three wins: Texas, NC State 76-57, at North Carolina 83-81 OT
Worst three losses: Purdue, at NC State 78-74
Road/neutral court record: 10-2
Last 10 games: 9-1
Remaining schedule: four homes games (Maryland, Valparaiso, Georgia Tech and North Carolina), two road games (Wake Forest, Florida State)

Tournament Outlook: Duke is the ACC’s best team in a strong year for the entire conference. As a result, Duke will likely claim a top seed in the NCAA Tournament unless the Blue Devils lose at least two games between now and the end of the season. The Blue Devils are one of the most dangerous teams in the nation. It will take a lot of chutzpah to bet against Duke to reach the Elite Eight at the very least.

Duke opened the week with another home victory over Virginia, 93-75. The Cavaliers played tough but the best they could do is to lose by 18 points at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Sophomore guard J.J. Redick led all scores with 25 points, which included four three-point shots. Sophomore forward Shelden Williams was once again unstoppable in the paint, scoring 19 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking four shots. As a team, Duke outrebounded Virginia 35-20.

Duke’s winning streak ended when the Blue Devils ran into a determined Wolfpack team in Raleigh, N.C. NC State won 78-74 despite Redick’s 28 points to lead Duke. Senior guard Chris Duhon had a solid game with 17 points, three rebounds and five assists. But Duke could not overcome a great shooting performance from the Wolfpack, who shot 52 percent from the field. With the loss, Duke no longer looks invincible or is a lock to win the conference. Combined, that means Duke will play with a new sense of urgency that should cause opponents concern. Duke is a great team that lost to a great NC State team. Look for the Blue Devils to bounce back with vengeance.

Duke continues the tough road trip to Wake Forest Feb. 18 and then returns home to play Maryland Feb. 22.

Florida State Seminoles (17-8, 5-6)

RPI: 43
Strength of Schedule: 52
Best non-conference win: At Miami 67-58
Worst non-conference loss: At Florida 87-73
Best three wins: Georgia Tech 81-65, North Carolina 90-81 OT, Wake Forest 75-70
Worst three losses: At Clemson 53-48, at Virginia 76-67, NC State 58-53
Road/neutral court record: 2-7
Last 10 games: 5-5
Remaining schedule: two homes games (Virginia and Duke), three road games (North Carolina, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech)

Tournament Outlook: Florida State is in a dangerous position despite having a strong record. The Seminoles lack a marquis win outside of Tallahassee, Fla., and probably need to win at least one of those three remaining road games. Two would all but clinch the Seminoles a bid in the NCAA Tournament. If they fail to win any road games down the stretch, Florida State must beat Duke at home and win at least two ACC tournament games to make the NCAA Tournament. Of the seven ACC teams with realistic tournament dreams, the Seminoles have the greatest chance of being left behind as they lack a strong road/neutral court record and a strong non-conference win.

For the second time this season, the ACC’s best players, the Seminoles’ senior guard Tim Pickett and NC State’s junior guard Julius Hodge, went head-to-head and Hodge and company prevailed. Florida State lost 75-59 in Raleigh, N.C., as Pickett and the Seminoles never found an offensive rhythm. Pickett scored only five points and only freshman guard Von Wafer reached double-figures, scoring 12 points. The team shot under 35 percent for the game and could not contain the Wolfpack’s deadly shooters, who made 47 percent of their three-point attempts.

Pickett was the only Seminole who scored in double figures against Clemson, but that was enough to lift Florida State to a 65-52 win. Pickett scored 15 points in the first half en route to 16 points for the game. Freshman forward Alexander Johnson showed promise as a developing member of Seminoles’ frontcourt. Johnson scored nine points and seven rebounds. The team excelled on defense to hold Clemson to 37 percent shooting.

Florida State has a must-win home game against Virginia Feb. 17 and can bolster the team’s NCAA resume with a win at North Carolina Feb. 21.

No. 15 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (18-6, 5-5)

RPI: 16
Strength of Schedule: 24
Best non-conference win: Connecticut 77-61, neutral court
Worst non-conference loss: At Georgia 83-80
Best three wins: Connecticut, at Wake Forest 73-66, Texas Tech 85-65, neutral court
Worst three losses: At Virginia 82-80, Georgia, at Florida State 81-65
Road/neutral court record: 6-5
Last 10 games: 6-4
Remaining schedule: three home games (Wake Forest, NC State, Florida State), three road games (Maryland, Clemson, Duke)

Tournament Outlook: The Yellow Jackets torched everyone early in the season en route to a 12-0 record, but they have hit some hard time in conference play. But Georgia Tech will be playing in the NCAA Tournament in March. The Yellow Jackets will be playing for a top four seed in the tournament down the stretch. Three home wins would just about seal Georgia Tech’s position as a top four seed.

Georgia Tech started the week with a game against North Carolina in Atlanta. Georgia Tech won 88-77 in a close game that featured nearly identical statistics. Both teams shot 48 percent. Both teams grabbed 37 rebounds. Both teams committed 19 rebounds. The difference? The Yellow Jackets hit 82 percent of their free throws and North Carolina hit only 50 percent. Junior guard B.J. Elder went off for 30 points to lead the Yellow Jackets to the win. Another key difference came from behind the three-point line, where Georgia Tech made 13-of-25 shots.

The Yellow Jackets finished the week with what should have been a great opportunity to win another road game. But Virginia had a surprise waiting for the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech held an 80-79 lead in the closing seconds, but Virginia’s senior guard Todd Billet drained a last-second three pointer to give the Cavaliers an 82-80 upset victory. Georgia Tech’s guards accounted for 59 of the team’s 80 points as foul trouble negated the impact of junior center Luke Schenscher and senior forward Clarence Moore. Elder led the team with 22 points.

Georgia Tech has a tough game at Maryland Feb. 19 and then plays Wake Forest in Atlanta Feb. 22.

Maryland Terrapins (13-8, 4-6)

RPI: 32
Strength of Schedule: 13
Best non-conference win: At Florida 69-68
Worst non-conference loss: West Virginia 78-77, neutral court
Best three wins: Florida, Wisconsin 73-67, North Carolina 90-84
Worst three losses: West Virginia, NC State 81-69, At Florida State 79-75
Road/neutral court record: 3-6
Last 10 games: 5-5
Remaining schedule: four home games (Georgia Tech, Clemson, Wake Forest, Virginia), two road games (Duke, NC State)

Tournament Outlook: The Terps join Florida State as the ACC’s two most volatile bubble teams. A winning or losing streak at the end of the regular season could make or break the team’s NCAA hopes. Maryland has a favorable schedule and will make the NCAA Tournament. But a win in the ACC tournament would not hurt to cement their tournament status.

Maryland had all week to scheme a winning strategy against North Carolina. But the Terrapins could not quite overcome a huge 20-point deficit in Chapel Hill, N.C., losing 97-86. The Terrapins had three players foul out in a game that featured 55 fouls and 80 free-throw attempts. The Terrapins found themselves down by 20 at one point but battled back in the second half to pull to three points. Sophomore guard Chris McCray led the Terrapins with 16 points. But the game was a true team effort as seven players had at least eight points. Freshman forward Ekene Ibekwe had some thunderous dunks to swing momentum Maryland’s way. But Ibekwe fouled out in only 10 minutes. He scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds in that time.

Maryland will look to bounce off the bubble once and for all with games at home against Georgia Tech Feb. 19 and at archrival Duke Feb. 22.

No. 21 NC State Wolfpack (15-5, 8-2)

RPI: 19
Strength of Schedule: 14
Best non-conference win: BYU 89-66
Worst non-conference loss: At Michigan 68-61
Best three wins: Duke 78-74, Georgia Tech 76-72, BYU
Worst three losses: At Michigan, at Boston College 66-65, at Duke 76-57
Road/neutral court record: 3-5
Last 10 games: 7-3
Remaining schedule: three home games (Washington, North Carolina, Maryland), three road games (Clemson, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest)

Tournament Outlook: NC State entered conference play solidly on the bubble as the Wolfpack lacked any good road wins and did not have a good non-conference win. But the Wolfpack have torn apart everyone, including a monster home win against duke. They also picked up a great non-conference win at home against BYU as an intermission to conference play. NC State will make the NCAA Tournament and will be playing for a good seeding for the remainder of this season. If the Wolfpack can hold court down the stretch and steal a road win or two, NC State has a good chance to get as high as a No. 3 seed. Winning the ACC tournament may convince the committee to reward the Wolfpack with a No. 2 seed.

The Wolfpack continued to chase Duke at the top of the ACC standings by beating Florida State in Raleigh, N.C, to start action last week. NC State won 75-59 as junior guard Julius Hodge scored 16 points, grabbed seven rebounds, dished six assists and blocked three shots. More importantly, he shut down the Seminoles’ superstar guard, Tim Pickett, holding him to just five points. Freshman guard Engin Atsur led NC State with 20 points, making 4-of-7 three pointers. Atsur has emerged as yet another sharpshooter for an NC State team that is growing into a serious contender as the season works toward its conclusion. The Wolfpack have a solid recipe for success with two great players in Hodge and senior forward Marcus Melvin. They also have several role players like Atsur, senior guard Scooter Sherrill and sophomore forward Ilian Evtimov, all of whom are capable of going off for a big-time game against big-time competition.

NC State’s second game of the week was a great win at home against Duke. Hodge and Melvin each had 18 points to lead NC State. NC State outworked Duke for rebounds, 27-21. The Wolfpack also held Duke to 41 percent shooting while lighting it up for 52 percent. Most importantly, NC State made 20-of-24 free throws, including just about everything in the final minute. NC State committed 15 turnovers, which nearly let Duke come back in the closing seconds. But the Wolfpack prevailed to move within a game of sharing the conference lead with the Blue Devils. The game is an official statement that the Wolfpack are for real.

NC State takes the five-game winning streak to Clemson Feb. 18 then returns home to play Washington Feb. 22.

No. 17 North Carolina Tar Heels (15-7, 5-6)

RPI: 15
Strength of Schedule: 4
Best non-conference win: Connecticut 86-83
Worst non-conference loss: At Kentucky 61-56
Best three wins: Connecticut, Illinois 88-81 neutral court, at Wake Forest 79-73
Worst three losses: At Clemson 81-72, at Florida State 90-81, at Maryland 90-84
Road/neutral court record: 4-5
Last 10 games: 5-5
Remaining schedule: two home games (Florida State, Clemson), three road games (Virginia, NC State, Duke)

Tournament Outlook: The Tar Heels should be a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but the Tar Heels have looked vulnerable to nearly everyone in the ACC. If North Carolina ends the regular season on a prolonged losing streak, the Tar Heels might need a win in the ACC tournament to prove their NCAA worth. In all likelihood, however, the Tar Heels will be playing for a seeding in the NCAA Tournament down the stretch. The Heels could rise as high as No. 3 or No. 4 or fall as low as No. 8 or No. 9.

Don’t think free throws matter? Tell that to the Tar Heels, who lost to Georgia Tech 88-77 in a virtual stalemate, except North Carolina made only 9-of-19 free throws while the Yellow Jackets made 23-of-28 free throws. The teams were identical in field goal percentage, rebounding and fouls, but the Tar Heels just could not buy a free throw, which helped make the difference. Sophomore guard Rashad McCants had a sensational game with 31 points and five rebounds. Junior guard Melvin Scott was the only other Tar Heel to reach double figures, scoring 10 points.

McCants and the Tar Heels bounced back at home against Maryland by winning 97-86 in a game filled with fouls. The two teams combined for 55 fouls and 80 free-throw attempts and had four players foul out. McCants led North Carolina with 25 points and eight rebounds to help the Tar Heels prevail, despite nearly blowing a 20-point lead. North Carolina has a bad habit of allowing opponents to claw back into the game. Some blame the team’s lack of depth. But most champions only play seven- or eight-man lineup in the NCAA Tournament. What this team struggles with is defense. If the Tar Heels can play 40 minutes of good defense, they can beat anybody in the ACC, and probably anybody in the country. Sophomore forward Sean May had a strong game for the Tar Heels with 14 points and 12 rebounds. Junior forward Jawad Williams also had a great game with 23 points and eight rebounds. Williams will be crucial in determining how deep in the NCAA Tournament this team goes.

North Carolina has a week to prepare for Florida State Feb. 21.

Virginia Cavaliers (13-9, 3-8)

RPI: 58
Strength of Schedule: 35
Best non-conference win: Iowa State 85-74
Worst non-conference loss: Providence 84-69
Best three wins: Florida State 76-67, Iowa State and Minnesota 86-78
Worst three losses: NC State 79-63, Maryland 71-67, Duke 93-71
Road/neutral court record: 2-5
Last 10 games: 3-7
Remaining schedule: two homes games (North Carolina and Wake Forest), three road games (Florida State, Clemson and Maryland)

Tournament Outlook: It’s not looking good for the Cavaliers. Virginia built a 10-2 record by playing many weak teams in the Piedmont. Since that time, the Cavaliers have lost seven of their last nine games and cannot claim a victory over a currently ranked team. At best, Virginia can finish conference play 7-9. The bottom line for Cavs’ fans: Win the ACC tournament. And keep that overall record above .500 or else no NIT bid either.

Virginia tried to end the losing streak at Duke, which would instantly turn around this season. Despite playing tough, the Cavaliers were overmatched, and Duke won 93-75. Coach Pete Gillen deserves credit for getting his team to play inspired basketball. But Gillen also deserves some blame for his team struggling so much this season. If not for a creampuff non-conference schedule, Virginia would likely have an overall record similar to Clemson’s record, perhaps even worse. The problem starts with recruiting – Gillen must determine what his program needs and then go out and get that player. Despite the talented freshmen he has this season, Gillen still lacks a dominant center and a true point guard. He has plenty of scoring guards, but nobody to get them the ball or to take away the pressure with a punishing paint presence.

Junior forward Elton Brown has been one of Virginia’s few reliable weapons this season, and Brown finished with a team-high 24 points and eight rebounds against Duke. But only freshman guard J.R. Reynolds managed to accompany Brown with double-digit scoring. A member of Virginia’s talented freshman crop, Reynolds scored 16 points. Duke clearly is stronger and more physical than Virginia, winning the rebound battle 35-20. Forwards Jason Clark and Derrick Byars can explain the lopsided rebounding statistic as two of Virginia’s best big men both fouled out in only 13 minutes of play.

Against Georgia Tech, Brown continued to lead the way as the Cavaliers won 82-80. Brown finished with 21 points and seven rebounds as the Cavaliers came from behind to beat Virginia in the closing seconds. Down 80-79 with the ball and time quickly winding down, the Cavaliers waited for an open shot. Senior guard Todd Billet had been 0-for-3 at that point in the game, so when he popped open and received the pass, many fans probably held their breath and said a little prayer. With or without the prayers, Billet let the three pointer sail and it touched nothing but net, giving Virginia the 82-80 thrilling victory.

Virginia will try to carry the momentum of the upset win to Florida State Feb. 17 and then to Clemson Feb. 21.

No. 19 Wake Forest Demon Deacons (15-6, 5-5)

RPI: 26
Strength of Schedule: 16
Best non-conference win: Cincinnati 91-85
Worst non-conference loss: At Texas 94-81
Best three wins: At North Carolina 119-114, Cincinnati, Indiana 100-67
Worst three losses: At Florida State 75-70, Georgia Tech 73-66, North Carolina 79-73
Road/neutral court record: 4-4
Last 10 games: 4-6
Remaining schedule: three home games (Duke, Florida State, NC State), three road games (Georgia Tech, Maryland, Virginia)

Tournament Outlook: Like the Tar Heels, Wake Forest should be a lock for the NCAA Tournament but can ill afford a long losing streak to end the season. The Demon Deacons need to beat Duke or NC State at home to prove they can beat the ACC’s elite. If they win two out of three road games, they will end all talk of leaving the Demon Deacons out of the NCAA Tournament. Wake Forest’s stock is falling right now and would probably fall to a No. 6 or No. 7 seed. They could rise as high as No. 4 or No. 5 or fall as low to No. 9 or No. 10.

Wake Forest entered the week with a four-game losing streak that could have doomed their once-promising season if stretch to many more games. The Demon Deacons responded with a huge road win at Clemson, 82-67. Sophomore guard Justin Gray had a career-high 29 points, including four three pointers. Gray shot down every Clemson comeback attempt, especially in the second half when the Tigers had slashed the lead to three. Freshman guard Chris Paul helped Gray lead the Demon Deacons by scoring 16 points and dishing out five assists. In a foul-filled game, Wake Forest made 28-of-35 free throws to hold on to lead in the second half.

The Demon Deacons ended the week with a big home game against No. 12 Cincinnati. Wake Forest won 91-85 as Paul destroyed the Bearcats for 30 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Paul made 10-of-14 field-goal attempts and all seven free-throw attempts to lead the Demon Deacons. Four other Demon Deacons reached double figures, including Gray, sophomore center Eric Williams, junior guard Taron Downey and junior forward Vytas Danelius. Danelius has battled injuries all season and reached double figures for the first time in nearly a month. If Danelius becomes a reliable scoring option, he adds greater depth to a talented frontcourt. With a trio of great guards in Paul, Downey and Gray, Wake Forest could regain its early season form down the stretch.

Wake Forest will try to regain its position among the ACC’s elite by playing Duke Feb. 18 and at Georgia Tech Feb. 22.


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