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March 2, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments



Atlantic Coast Conference Notebook

by Michael Protos

Geniuses At Work

As the regular season draws to a close, several ACC teams will be dancing in the NCAA Tournament while other teams will be reflecting to figure out exactly what went wrong. In the ACC, every team has the same standard – make the NCAA Tournament.

The man who ultimately must explain the success or failure to meet that goal is the coach. This season there are several coaches who have vastly exceeded the preseason expectations. The three that stand out are Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, NC State coach Herb Sendek and Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton. One of these three coaches deserves to be the conference’s coach of the year.

By honoring these three coaches, the other coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Wake Forest’s Skip Prosser or North Carolina’s Roy Williams. But their teams have all met expectations, or in North Carolina’s case, failed to live up to them. The coach of the year award should go to the geniuses who strategize a way to maximize the team’s talents and to find a game plan to match those talents.

It’s much easier to preach a single approach and stick with it no matter what. The most successful coaches, however, find a way to win – both in preparation and during games – even if that way is slightly different from the original plan.

For example, Sendek benched the conference’s best player, junior guard Julius Hodge, at the beginning of a tough road game at Georgia Tech. Sendek was displeased with several players’ effort in a lackluster home victory against Washington in the previous game. He said the starters would be those players who earned the spot, not who posted the best statistics. Hodge apparently learned the lesson, as he came off the bench to lead the team with 22 points and, more importantly, lead the team to victory.

On the opposing sideline, Hewitt has mastered the ability to win games without a dominating inside presence. With all respect to junior center Luke Schenscher, he’s no Chris Bosh, who comprised nearly all of the Yellow Jackets’ inside offense last season. Georgia Tech’s strength is in its guards, and Hewitt has devised a suffocating defensive strategy that maximizes his guards’ talents. He pressures the ball, forcing turnovers and limited open looks at the basket. On offense, he has so many perimeter weapons that few teams can account for all of them.

Hewitt has engineered the emergence of junior guard Isma’il Muhammad as one of the conference’s best players – not just one of the conference’s best athletes. Muhammad was a skywalker last year who could dunk on anyone in the conference. But that’s all he could do on offense. This season, Muhammad has developed a comfort zone that extends beyond two feet away from the hoop. Hewitt has guided Muhammad and the Yellow Jackets to the top of the ACC standings.

Meanwhile, Hamilton had resurrected Florida State from a program many had left for dead. Now the Seminoles are in the middle of the ACC pack, between perennial contenders North Carolina and Maryland. Hamilton is in his second year at Florida State and appears to have convinced the entire team that his method will bring success.

Hamilton preaches a gospel of strong defense and efficient offense. He enjoys the benefit of a superstar in senior guard Tim Pickett. But he also has a fantastic base of freshman and another great recruiting class due on campus this fall. The team Hamilton inherited lacked the talent to regularly beat the ACC’s best, but he has infused fresh faces and a winning strategy that gives the Seminoles a chance to beat anybody on any given night.

The Seminoles claim the scalps of North Carolina, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. All those teams were ranked when they visited Florida State, now one of the most difficult places to steal a win in the conference.

Give Hamilton a couple of more years and the general public and other media sources will be talking about Florida State as an annual NCAA team in the same sentence with Wake Forest and Maryland.

Three ACC Players Make Rupp Short List

The Adolph Rupp Trophy rewards the nation’s best player, and three ACC players have earned a spot in the Sweet 16 for the award. NC State junior guard Julius Hodge, Duke senior guard Chris Duhon and Duke sophomore guard J.J. Redick are among 16 finalists. They are all sensational players worthy of awards. But are any of them the nation’s best player? My guess is that any one of them can prove to be the best player by leading his team to the Final Four in San Antonio, where the award will be presented April 1.

Clemson Tigers (10-16, 3-12) Last week: 0-2

Clemson struggled in every facet of the game against Maryland, losing an ugly game 70-49. The Tigers shot only 31 percent and made only 16 field goals in the entire game. Five of the field goals were by junior forward Sharrod Ford, who led the team with 14 points. Ford was the only player to reach double figures for Clemson. The Tigers also lost the battle of the boards 37-26, indicating that the Terrapins outworked the Tigers at both ends. Another problem for Clemson is the lack of ball movement, the Tigers had only six assists, which equals the total of Maryland’s John Gilchrist. Freshman guard Vernon Hamilton will be a good player for Clemson but has not emerged as a proficient ball handler against a conference filled with terrific point guards, such as Gilchrist, North Carolina’s Raymond Felton, Duke’s Chris Duhon, Georgia Tech’s Jarrett Jack and Wake Forest’s Chris Paul.

Senior day ended with another loss for Clemson as Georgia Tech thumped the Tigers 79-60. Junior forward Sharrod Ford had a marvelous game with 20 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks. He was a beast in the paint, collecting 10 offensive rebounds. But his teammates struggled to find a way to support him, as the team shot 36 percent from the field.

The Tigers will finish the regular season in ninth place, meaning that they will have to play the eighth place team – either Virginia or Maryland – in opening game of the ACC tournament. The winner gets to play the ACC’s best team, Duke. Clemson finishes the regular season this week at North Carolina March 2.

No. 4 Duke Blue Devils (24-3, 12-2) Last week: 2-0

Duke picked up consecutive home victory number 41 against Valparaiso, slamming the Crusaders 97-63. The Blue Devils jumped out to a 53-29 halftime lead and never looked back. Junior guard Daniel Ewing led all scores with 20 points and helped his teammates squash Valparaiso’s offensive rhythm, holding the Crusaders to 31 percent shooting. Freshman forward Luol Deng had yet another solid game with 18 points and eight rebounds.

With NC State’s loss to North Carolina, Duke had an opportunity to clinch at least a share of the regular season title with a win at Florida State. The Blue Devils also sought to avoid a third consecutive road loss to the Seminoles. And they responded with a hard-fought 70-65 win. As a freshman, Deng has never tasted defeat at Florida State and appeared determined not to discover the experience this season. He led Duke with 20 points, nine rebounds and a pair of assists, blocks and steals. Duke’s defense forced 19 turnovers, especially in the crucial moments of the game.

Duke will look to stretch its home winning streak to 43 with two wins against two tough opponents, Georgia Tech on March 3 and North Carolina on March 6.

Florida State Seminoles (18-11, 6-9) Last week: 0-2

The Seminoles have not won on the road in the ACC this season, but last week’s 90-87 overtime loss at Wake Forest was by far the most difficult one to swallow. The Seminoles led by double digits for most of the game, including as late as 12 minutes to go in the game. But Florida State could not handle intense full-court pressure toward the end of the game, allowing Wake Forest to tie the score at 75 on nine consecutive points at the end of regulation. Senior guard Tim Pickett led the team with 23 points, but it was not enough to avoid a late collapse that hurt Florida State’s NCAA chances. The Seminoles desperately need to prove that they can win on the road. Their final opportunity to do will be in the regular season finale at Georgia Tech.

Florida State dropped a second game last week at home against Duke, 70-65. The loss marked Florida State’s first home loss to a ranked opponent. The Seminoles lost to NC State at home earlier this season before the Wolfpack entered Hoopville’s Top 25. Senior guard Tim Pickett hit Duke with his best shot with 24 points and five rebounds. But Pickett appeared injured at the end of the game, limiting his effectiveness at both ends of the floor when the Seminoles needed him most. Senior swingman Michael Joiner and freshman forward Alexander Johnson each had 10 points, but the Seminoles lacked a reliable threat on offense to support Pickett.

The Seminoles have all week to prepare for a must-win game at Georgia Tech March 6. This game could easily determine whether or not Florida State plays in the NCAA Tournament or in the NIT.

No. 19 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (20-8, 7-7) Last week: 1-1

The Yellow Jackets let an opportunity to gain ground on second-place NC State slip by when Georgia Tech lost at home 79-69. Junior center Luke Schenscher and junior guard B.J. Elder each scored 16 points and grabbed four rebounds, but they could not spark the team to victory. Georgia Tech played well with 45 percent shooting and only 10 turnovers. But Georgia Tech struggled to box out the Wolfpack, yielding 12 more turnovers for NC State, which shot better than 50 percent. The Yellow Jackets also struggled from the free-throw line, making only 8-of-18 free throws. NC State had the same statistic – for three-point shooting.

The Yellow Jackets responded with a crucial win on the road at Clemson, 79-60. Another loss would have damaged the Yellow Jackets’ momentum heading into the postseason, especially a loss to the ACC’s bottom-feeder. Sophomore guard Jarrett Jack did a little bit of everything to help Georgia Tech win, finishing with 11 points, eight rebounds, nine assists and two steals. Senior guard Marvin Lewis led the team with 18 points, including 4-of-9 from three-point territory.

The Yellow Jackets wrap up the regular season with a pair of intriguing games. Georgia Tech could make a statement that the Yellow Jackets deserve a high seed if they beat Duke on the road March 3 and win at home against Florida State March 6.

Maryland Terrapins (14-11, 5-9) Last week: 1-1

The Terrapins sit in the precarious position of realistically finishing conference play anywhere between fourth and eighth. Maryland also holds a similarly uncomfortable spot on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Maryland needs to play its best basketball of the season right now to earn a spot in the tournament, rather than depending on the whims of the selection committee. The Terrapins started last week right by slamming Clemson 70-49 in College Park, Md. Maryland’s defense erased an already mediocre Tiger offense, holding Clemson to 31 percent shooting and only 16 field goals in the entire game. Sophomore guard John Gilchrist continues to be Maryland’s most reliable player, leading the team with 19 points, six assists and five steals. Three other Terps reached double figures, and Maryland pounded Clemson on the boards, 37-26. This game was the type of complete domination that Terrapin fans have grown accustomed in the last decade or so.

But Maryland could not continue the dominance against Wake Forest in a game that the Terrapins had to win. They lost 91-83 as Maryland could not overcome a large first-half deficit. Trailing 46-34 at halftime, Maryland chipped away at the lead in the second half but could not complete the rally. Gilchrist had a great game with 26 points, four rebounds and five assists. Sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley added 20 points. But Maryland’s usually stingy defense was more than generous, allowing Wake Forest to shoot better than 49 percent and yielding 91 points. Now Maryland is in a position in which the Terps have to win at NC State to feel any semblance of comfort about making the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid.

Like Florida State, it’s do or die time for the Terrapins. Maryland could be in the tournament right now, but a road win against NC State March 3 would seal the deal. A win at home against Virginia March 7 is also mandatory.

No. 12 NC State Wolfpack (18-7, 10-4) Last week: 1-1

Give coach Herb Sendek some credit. He rolled the dice against Georgia Tech by not starting his best player, junior guard Julius Hodge, in an important conference road game because he did not feel that Hodge had earned the right to start. The move sends a message to every player on the team that nothing can be taken for granted. NC is in the midst of a great season, but the team has had some lackluster performances, such as the previous home game against Washington that the Wolfpack won despite trailing for much of the game. Junior center Jordan Collins earned the starting spot instead of Hodge but was ineffective against Georgia Tech. Enter Hodge. Off the bench, he exploded for 22 points to lead the Wolfpack to a 79-69 victory. The team worked hard to outrebound Georgia Tech 36-24. Offensively, NC State was efficient, shooting better than 50 percent, including 8-of-18 from three-point range. Those numbers are down from several recent games in which the Wolfpack have heaved more than 25 three pointers. Good shot selection is the mark of an experienced, well-coached team, which NC State resembles more and more down the stretch. And experienced, well-coached teams with a star like Hodge often have a great chance to perform well in the NCAA Tournament.

The Wolfpack came home looking to keep pace with Duke atop the ACC standings by beating their hated rival, North Carolina. NC State fell behind early, trailing 40-27 at halftime. But the Wolfpack would not go down without a fight. Senior forward Marcus Melvin drained a three pointer to tie the game and then later drained another one to give the Wolfpack a one-point lead. North Carolina responded as sophomore guard Rashad McCants buried a pair of threes to reclaim the lead. NC State could not quite come back a second time, losing 71-64. Melvin finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds while Hodge had 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Senior guard Scooter Sherrill left the game in the second half with a sprained ankle. X-rays were reportedly negative, but Sherrill did not return to the game and would be a major loss if he must miss any length of time. With Duke’s win against Florida State, NC State can only hope for a share of the regular season title.

The Wolfpack will look to pick up wins at home against Maryland March 3 and at Wake Forest March 6 to close out the regular season.

No. 16 North Carolina Tar Heels (17-8, 7-7) Last week: 1-1

The Tar Heels entered the mired in the middle of the ACC standings with an opportunity to compete with Wake Forest for third place. But North Carolina dropped a must win-game at Virginia, 74-72. Virginia senior guard Todd Billet victimized the Tar Heels, draining his third game-winning three pointer in four game. But North Carolina never should have let the game come down to a final possession. The Tar Heels had an eight-point lead at one point with under 10 minutes remaining. Sophomore forward Sean May led the Tar Heels with 20 points and nine rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to give the Tar Heels a rare but necessary ACC road victory. North Carolina just appears to run out of gas toward the end of many games. The lack of depth could haunt the Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament.

After the loss at Virginia, a road trip to NC State did not look promising. Compounding the Tar Heels’ road woes, junior guard Jackie Manuel did not play because of a sprained ankle, cutting into the depth of an already shallow team. Coach Roy Williams challenged his players to rise to the occasion and play tougher than they have this season. And they responded with a tough 71-64 win. Sophomore guard Rashad McCants led all scores with 22 points and added five rebounds and three assists. McCants hit a pair of three pointers to reclaim the lead for the Tar Heels in the second half after North Carolina had squandered yet another double-digit first-half lead. Williams essentially rotated only six players, but frequently used a zone on defense to avoid fatigue. It worked as NC State shot under 36 percent in the game. On the other end, North Carolina shot better than 55 percent.

The Tar Heels desperately need to built some momentum heading into the conference tournament. North Carolina has never lost at home to Clemson and March 2 would be a horrible time to change that streak. The Tar Heels close the regular season with the second chapter of this season’s Duke/North Carolina rivalry. North Carolina visits Duke March 6.

Virginia Cavaliers (15-10, 5-9) Last week: 1-0

The Cavaliers beat North Carolina 74-72 last week in another fantastic game punctuated by the newly crowned Mr. Clutch – senior guard Todd Billet. Billet has a knack for waiting until the end of the game to deliver his best performances. For the third time in four games, Billet delivered the game-winning three pointer, bouncing off a screen to get just enough separation from North Carolina’s Raymond Felton to hit the shot. The basket was Billet’s only field goal in the entire second half. He finished with 12 points, three rebounds and six assists. More importantly, Billet may have single-handedly saved coach Pete Gillen’s job. Take away those three wins and Virginia would sit in last place, trailing Clemson by more than a game.

The Cavaliers will have had a week to prepare for Wake Forest March 2. Virginia will close out the regular season at Maryland March 7.

No. 11 Wake Forest Demon Deacons (19-6, 9-5) Last week: 2-0

Talk about drama. Wake Forest trailed Florida State 60-45 with less than 12 minutes remaining in regulation, and sophomore guard Justin Gray, who led the team with 31 points, had picked up his fourth foul. Coach Skip Prosser proved why he is one of the best coaches in the ACC by adjusting his defensive scheme to take advantage of Florida State’s lack of a superior point guard. By switching to a full-court defense, the Demon Deacons suffocated Florida State’s hot shooting and forced turnovers that let Wake Forest creep back into the game. The Demon Deacons ended the game on a 30-15 run, including nine straight points to end regulation. In overtime, Gray hit two three pointers that helped send Wake Forest to a huge 90-87 win that created some more separation between Wake Forest and the rest of the pack for the third place position in the conference. Freshman guard Chris Paul had another great game with 21 points, six rebounds, eight assists and three steals.

Junior forward Vytas Danelius led Wake Forest to another victory, a 91-83 win at Maryland, and offered a glimpse of the dominance he frequently displayed last season. Rankled by injuries this season, Danelius has not played as one of the conference’s most versatile forwards, which he is when healthy. Against Maryland, Danelius finished with 23 points and five rebounds, including 4-of-7 from three-point range. His inside-outside game is the best of any player on the team and can terrorize opposing defenses. With Paul, Gray and junior guard Taron Downey, opposing defenses already have their hands full trying to slow down the perimeter game. Sophomore center Eric Williams and junior forward Jamaal Levy area a formidable force in the paint. Adding a healthy and effective Danelius to either attack instantly makes Wake Forest as good as the team last season, which won the ACC regular season title.

Wake Forest will close the season with two homes games against Virginia March 2 and against NC State March 6.

     

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