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February 23, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments



Atlantic Coast Conference Notebook

by Michael Protos

Bubble Trouble at Maryland and Florida State

There are two weeks left in the regular season, and the crystal ball grows cloudier for a couple of ACC teams.

Maryland and Florida State entered the week stuck in the middle of the ACC standings. Both teams have several pros and several cons that will cause headaches for the selection committee when deciding which teams will claim the final spots in the NCAA Tournament field. Maryland has more marquis wins in non-conference play and more road/neutral courts victories. Florida State has beaten North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest in conference play. But all of those games were at home.

So basically, these two teams need to just win. Don’t worry about RPI rankings or strength of schedule. All that will work out if you just win.

And what did those teams do? Lose every meaningful game last week.

Florida State split a pair of games – one at home against a non-threatening Virginia team and one on the road at North Carolina. Despite their home success, the Seminoles will not receive kudos for home victories against teams like Virginia and Clemson. They should win those games. A loss is an upset. NCAA teams are expected to pull off a few upsets on the road. And Florida State came close but dropped yet another ACC road game at North Carolina.

The bottom line for Florida State: The Seminoles are not in the NCAA Tournament unless they win two out of their three final regular season games at Wake Forest, home against Duke and at Georgia Tech. Otherwise, the Seminoles need to reach, and maybe even win, the ACC tournament championship game.

Maryland is an even more complicated case. The Terrapins have some great non-conference wins at Florida, when the Gators were No. 1, and against the Big Ten’s best, Wisconsin. But the Terrapins currently hold an unimpressive 4-8 ACC record.

Maryland entered the week at 4-6 with two tough games, at home against Georgia Tech and at Duke. The loss at Duke is understandable, especially because no other team has succeeded to win in Cameron Indoor Stadium in the last 40 games. The last team to do so – the Maryland Terrapins in 2001.

But the Terrapins had to win at home against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets may be ranked, but in the ACC, home wins are expected. Even the ranked teams struggle to win on the road. Maryland dropped the ball in a huge game that could have nearly guaranteed the Terrapins a position in the NCAA Tournament.

As of right now, Maryland does not deserve an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. The Terrapins do enjoy the advantage of playing in the ACC. If a final spot comes down to Maryland or a team from the Pac-10 or Big Ten, Maryland should get the spot.

The Terrapins must win at least two of their final four games. Those games include home games against Clemson, Wake Forest and Virginia and a road game at NC State. The home games are dangerous, however, because a loss to Clemson or Virginia would end the Terrapins’ tournament dreams. If they protect their house against those two and beat NC State, look for Maryland to draw a No. 8 or No. 9 seed.

Duke Turns 40

The Blue Devils slammed Maryland to end a two-game losing streak in the ACC. But those two games were on the road, where winning is always challenging, even if you’re Duke. But don’t even think about winning in Cameron Indoor Stadium. With the win, Duke stretched its home winning streak to 40 games, tying Pitt with the longest such streak in the NCAA.

A Pair of Point Guards Honored

The Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year award honors the nation’s best point guard, including Division II and III. Two ACC floor generals made the cut that names the nation’s 16 best. Wake Forest’s Chris Paul and North Carolina’s Raymond Felton have an opportunity to receive the award Sat., April 5 at the Final Four in San Antonio. Although I am unfamiliar with the non-Division I candidates, my bet is that St. Joseph’s all-galaxy guard Jameer Nelson will claim the honor unless the Hawks fail to reach the Elite Eight. Paul or Felton could easily claim the award if either man leads his school to the Final Four, especially if the road includes a win against St. Joseph’s. That would be the textbook definition of beating the best to be the best.

ACC Player of the Week:

Jarrett Jack, Georgia Tech

Jack averaged 21 points, 3.5 rebounds, four assists and two steals per game last week as he led the Yellow Jackets to a huge road win at Maryland and helped Georgia Tech nearly overcome a double-digit deficit in a loss to Wake Forest.

ACC Rookie of the Week:

Chris Paul, Wake Forest

Once again, the weekly honor came down to Paul and Duke’s Luol Deng. Paul’s team won the head-to-head competition as Paul proved to be the difference. He has become the team’s emotional leader who is more than willing to take – and usually make – the clutch shots. Paul averaged 12.5 points, three rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.5 steals in two wins for the Demon Deacons last week.

ACC Coach Watch:

Gary Williams, Maryland

The Terrapins have been one of the most consistent ACC teams in the past decade, but Williams’ team is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament if Maryland does not win this week at home against Clemson and Wake Forest.

Team reports:

The following team reports are listed according to the school’s ranking in the ACC standings.

No. 3 Duke Blue Devils (22-3, 11-2) Last week: 1-1

The Blue Devils played a thrilling game at Wake Forest last week but lost their second consecutive ACC game, 90-84. In a physical, hard-fought game, the Blue Devils built a double-digit first-half lead but saw it shrink to five at halftime. Wake Forest completed the comeback early in the second half and the game went back and forth until the final horn. Freshman forward Luol Deng had a big game, scoring 20 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Senior guard Chris Duhon provided the seasoned leadership this team needs to reach the Final Four, finishing with 12 points and six assists. In the end, though, Duke could not stop Wake Forest’s superstar freshman Chris Paul, who refused to lose again to Duke. Paul led the late charge that saw the Demon Deacons surge ahead of Duke for the victory.

Duke rebounded at home to slam Maryland 86-63 to stretch the Blue Devils’ home winning streak to 40 games, matching Pittsburgh’s current streak. Sophomore guard J.J. Redick bounced back from a dismal performance at Wake Forest with a 20-point game that propelled Duke to an easy victory. Sophomore forward Shelden Williams had another dominant game inside, scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. On the defensive end, Williams erased Maryland’s senior center Jamar Smith. Usually good for a double double every night, Smith was held to four points and four rebounds. Duke forced 22 turnovers as Maryland struggled to find anyone not named John Gilchrist who could handle Duke’s defensive pressure.

The Blue Devils play Valparaiso Feb. 26, which is the level of competition that Duke will likely face in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It’s a brilliant scheduling strategy by coach Mike Krzyzewski, who clearly wants his team to be ready to face every level of competition en route to another championship. Duke finishes the week at Florida State, where every ACC team has fallen except NC State.

No. 14 NC State Wolfpack (17-6, 9-3) Last week: 1-1

Call it a post-Duke hangover. Call it a lack of concentration. But no matter how you try to explain the Wolfpack’s 60-55 loss to Clemson last week, the truth is that every road game in conference play is a challenge. Just ask NC State’s rival, North Carolina, which also found out that Clemson is no pushover at Littlejohn Coliseum. The Wolfpack struggled from start to finish, shooting a paltry 32 percent from the field and an abysmal 16 percent from three-point territory, making just six of 37 attempts. No team will win games with that many attempts and that few made baskets. So the bottom line is that the Wolfpack, still one of the ACC’s best teams, lost because they ran into a stingy defense on the road and because the Wolfpack couldn’t find their shooting touch. It’s a recipe for disaster that resulted in disaster and cost the Wolfpack an opportunity to move into a tie with Duke for first place. Junior guard Julius Hodge led the Wolfpack with 15 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals.

NC State returned home to play Washington in the Wolfpack’s final non-conference game of the regular season. The Wolfpack struggled early in the game and trailed 34-31 at halftime. But senior forward Marcus Melvin led the Wolfpack to a second-half comeback with 16 points and eight rebounds. The Wolfpack ended up with a 77-72 win as Hodge and Melvin sealed the game with free throws after the Huskies missed an opportunity to take the lead with under 20 seconds remaining. NC State moved to 14-0 at home, but the Wolfpack must be concerned with their tendency to play to the level of opponents. NC State wins most of their games, but the games are frequently closer than they should be, which means that the Wolfpack are courting disaster come tournament time when the difference between winning and losing is frequently a single opportunity at the end of the game.

The Wolfpack can create some separation from the middle of the pack this week with games at Georgia Tech Feb. 25 and at home against North Carolina Feb. 29.

No. 15 Wake Forest Demon Deacons (17-6, 7-5) Last week: 2-0

Two of the ACC’s best freshman went head to head when Duke and Luol Deng visited Wake Forest and Chris Paul. When these two teams last met, Duke won at Cameron Indoor Stadium and Duke’s Chris Duhon essentially erased Paul, who appeared to be near tears at the end of the game. Paul delivered an equal and opposite amount of emotion after his Demon Deacons knocked off Duke 90-84, handing the Blue Devils their second consecutive loss. Paul finished with 23 points, five rebounds, eight assists and four steals and generally dominated in the last three minutes of the game. Paul helped the Demon Deacons steal the lead from Duke with two amazing drives to the hoop.

Paul has the rare ability to slash into the lane, take a hit from the lingering monsters and still have the balance to get the ball into the hoop, sometimes from seemingly impossible angles. Paul delivered an assist and stole the ball to finish the complete domination late in the game. This freshman came to win at Wake Forest, and the Demon Deacons clearly have a new team leader to replace current Dallas Maverick Josh Howard, who graduated from Wake Forest last May. Even though he is a freshman, Paul clearly has the most emotion – and arguably the most talent – on the court for Wake Forest and inspires his teammates to raise their games to the next level. That next level could provide an ACC tournament championship and a lengthy NCAA Tournament run.

Against Georgia Tech on the road, Wake Forest jumped out to a 19-4 lead in the first six minutes of play. Sophomore guard Justin Gray had a fantastic game, scoring at will to finish with 26 points. But the Yellow Jackets fought back and tied the game late in the second half at 71. Paul was a non-factor for most of the game because of foul trouble that limited his time on the court and effectiveness as he could not be aggressive at either end. But with the game on the line in the closing seconds, Paul drove to the hoop and made a difficult layup to give Wake Forest an 80-76, which held up over the final 10 seconds.

The Demon Deacons can take another step toward finishing near the top of the ACC standings with wins at home against Florida State Feb. 25 and at Maryland Feb. 28.

No. 17 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (19-7, 6-6)

Georgia Tech opened the week at Maryland and won 75-64 with the Yellow Jackets’ trademark suffocating defense. The team held the Terrapins to 32 percent shooting while making over 50 percent of their own shots. Sophomore point guard Jarrett Jack was the offensive star for Georgia Tech, leading the team with 21 points, five rebounds and five assists. The win helped put Georgia Tech create some separation between the Yellow Jackets and the bottom third of the standings.

Georgia Tech started the game at home against Wake Forest with seemingly no ability to stop the Demon Deacons, who built an early 19-4 lead. Junior guard B.J. Elder was entirely ineffective in the first half, scoring just one point, because he was saddled with foul trouble. Coach Paul Hewitt decided that to play Elder in the second half and let the experienced guard avoid any more foul trouble and to lead this team back to victory. Elder completed one out of two of those tasks as he scored 26 second-half points and remained on the court until the end of the game. The Yellow Jackets stormed back to tie the game late, mainly through defensive pressure that forced 22 turnovers. But Georgia Tech could not quite stop Wake Forest in the final moments, losing a great game 80-76. Jack had another great game with 21 points, three assists and three steals.

The Yellow Jackets play a pair of dangerous teams this week as Georgia Tech hosts NC State Feb. 25 then travels to Clemson Feb. 28, where several of the ACC’s top teams have already fallen this year.

No. 18 North Carolina Tar Heels (16-7, 6-6) Last week: 1-0

North Carolina had all week to prepare for Florida State and appeared well-rested and ready to blow the Seminoles away in the first half. They jumped out to a huge lead and cruised into halftime winning 43-27. But then the ghosts of games past crept into the Dean E. Smith Center. Shots no longer seemed to fall. Calls no longer went the way of the Tar Heels. It’s as if the Tar Heels have sinned and karma destines them to give away every double-digit lead they build. And this game proved no different as North Carolina allowed Florida State to creep back and pull to within a single possession of taking the lead. But the Tar Heels prevailed, as sophomore guards Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton made several clutch free throws to seal the 78-71 win. McCants led the team with 21 points, and Felton had a great game with 17 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

Despite the victory, this trend of allowing large leads has to end or else North Carolina could easily become a first or second round knockout in the NCAA Tournament. Although it will be the first time North Carolina reaches the tournament in three years, anything short of a Sweet 16 appearance must be considered a failure. The same can be said for just about every ACC team expected to make the tournament. But the Tar Heels, who have one of the best starting lineups in the nation, seem to lack the discipline to play smart offense and stingy defense once they receive a big lead. Now is when we can find out how much new coach Roy Williams really means to this team.

North Carolina returns to the road needing to pick up at least one win to prove the Tar Heels deserve consideration for a seeding higher than No. 5 in the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels play a winnable game at Virginia Feb. 24 then travel to Triangle rival NC State Feb. 29.

Florida State Seminoles (18-9, 6-7) Last week: 1-1

The Seminoles took care of business at home against Virginia, winning 76-57 after going into halftime tied at 27. But Florida State exploded for 49 points in the second half while continuing to shut down opponents of defense. The Seminoles held the Cavaliers to 36 percent shooting. Freshman forward Alexander Johnson showed that he has the potential to become one of the best post players in the ACC before his career at Florida State is over. Johnson scored 16 points and grabbed three rebounds. As a team, Florida State shot nearly 50 percent, which bodes well for the Seminoles, who struggle on offense at times. Florida State still needs to pick up a few more wins to earn an NCAA bid. Despite the popular talk about the Seminoles being a sixth or seventh team to dance from the ACC, it just won’t happen if the Seminoles don’t prove they can win on the road. That means they must win at Georgia Tech or at Wake Forest or win at least two games in the ACC tournament.

Florida State missed an opportunity to pick up a critical road victory at North Carolina as the Seminoles lost 78-71. The Tar Heels built another huge first-half lead and did everything possible to lose it in the second half. Despite their desire to give Florida State another game, the Seminoles passed on the opportunity to steal the game with a few mistakes in clutch time. Florida State whittled the lead down to three a few times and then seemed to forget why they were having success. Senior guard Tim Pickett and junior forward Adam Wilson were automatic from three-point range. Wilson had a career-high 24 points and Pickett finished with 25 points. But the Seminoles did not run plays to Wilson down the stretch. Then he fouled out, removing one of only two Seminoles who played with any semblance of consistency. The Seminoles let another opportunity slip by when Pickett missed three free throws all alone at the line as the Tar Heels were hit a barrage of technical fouls. If the Seminoles watch the NCAA Tournament from their couches rather than playing in it, this game may stick in their minds as a difference maker.

But the world has not ended for Florida State. They play at Wake Forest, which has played inconsistently this season, Feb. 25 and need to win this game. If they fail to do so, a win at home against Duke Feb. 29 will greatly support the Seminoles NCAA argument.

Maryland Terrapins (13-10, 4-8) Last week: 0-2

Maryland entered the week with an opportunity to get back to .500 in the conference standings. The first game was at home against Georgia Tech, which Maryland needed to win to bolster the Terrapins’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament. But the Terrapins lost 75-64 as they could not buy a shot for most of the game. As a team, they shot 32 percent from the field and an ice-cold 3-of-20 from behind the arc. Ouch. Despite forcing 20 turnovers, Georgia Tech simply outshot the Terrapins, which produced the victory. Sophomore forward Travis Garrison had a strong game for Maryland, leading the team with 16 points. He also grabbed seven rebounds.

Maryland ended the week with the tough task of playing Duke, which had lost two previous games. A wounded Blue Devil squad playing at home is one of the most dangerous teams in the nation. The Terrapins learned that the hard way, falling 86-63 as they never really had a chance. Maryland kept the game close – for about 10 minutes in the first half. Duke’s defensive pressure caused 22 turnovers and fed fast break after fast break that seemingly sucked the life out of the Terrapins. Sophomore guard John Gilchrist was the only Terrapin who seemed ready to handle Duke, finishing with a team-high 14 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals.

The Terrapins play two must-win games at home this week against Clemson Feb. 24 and Wake Forest Feb. 28. Two more losses will almost certainly eliminate the Terps’ NCAA hopes.

Virginia Cavaliers (14-10, 4-9) Last week: 1-1

Virginia became the latest ACC victim to fall prey to Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla. The Seminoles have lost only one ACC home game this season, against NC State, so Virginia should not consider the loss as a terrible sign of doom. But how the Cavaliers lost is certainly disconcerting. Florida State annihilated the Cavaliers in the second half to cruise to a 76-30 victory. Virginia was competitive in the first half, keeping the score tied at 27 at halftime. The second half was a continuous struggle, as the Cavaliers finished with a 36 percent shooting. Only junior forward Elton Brow reached double figures, scoring 16 and grabbing seven rebounds.

The Cavaliers visited Clemson in a game that had major implications in determining which team could claim the rock bottom of the ACC standings. Virginia avoided the ignominy by winning on a last-second three pointer by senior guard Todd Billet. A final layup made the score 58-55 as the Cavaliers survived a cold shooting day on the road. Both teams shot below 40 percent for the game. Billet was the lone Cavalier with the shooting touch, making 8-of-13 field goals for 21 points. He added five assists. The Cavaliers did an excellent job of protecting the ball, committing only 10 turnovers. But Virginia struggled to compete against Clemson’s interior size, losing the rebound battle 43-27. But as the saying goes, the Cavaliers lost the battle but won the war.

Virginia plays only one game this week, at home against North Carolina Feb. 24. If the Cavaliers can upset the Tar Heels and win against either Wake Forest or Maryland in their final two games, the NIT could be in the Cavaliers’ future. And any post-season appearance should be considered a success after a relatively rough season.

Clemson Tigers (10-14, 3-10) Last week: 1-1

The Tigers started last week with a great win at home against NC State, 60-55. The Wolfpack, fresh off their victory against Duke, may have suffered a letdown. But the truth is that Clemson’s defense harassed NC State’s shooters to prevent them from finding a rhythm. As a result, NC State shot only 32 percent from the field in the game. Sophomore guard Shawan Robinson led the Tigers to victory with 20 points and five rebounds. The statistic of the game, though, was NC State’s three-point shooting: The Wolfpack made only six of 37 attempts.

Coach Oliver Purnell has done an excellent job to get the Tigers to play tough defense. The trend continued in Clemson’s second home game of the week, against Virginia. The Cavaliers struggled like the Wolfpack to find open looks at the hoop. But unfortunately for Clemson, the Cavaliers found the range when it counted as senior guard Todd Billet drained the game-winning three pointer to give the Cavaliers 56-55 lead. A layup as time expired made the final score 58-55 and all but sealed Clemson’s fate as ACC doormat, after the Cavaliers completed the season sweep of Clemson. Junior forward Olu Babalola was the team leader for Clemson with 19 points and nine rebounds.

The Tigers visit Maryland Feb. 24 before returning home the team’s final home game this season. The Tigers host Georgia Tech Feb. 28.

     

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