Atlantic Coast Conference Notebook
Dissecting Yellow Jackets
After a run to the Final Four in last season’s NCAA Tournament, Georgia Tech entered this season with hopes of winning a national championship.
But at 16-9 and 7-7 in the ACC, the team’s critics would have fans believe that the Yellow Jackets are one of this season’s biggest busts. Georgia Tech may be in danger of playing its way out of the NCAA Tournament, likely needing at least a split in the last two regular season games against Wake Forest and Clemson to feel more secure about a bid.
Despite the much-discussed struggles, partially attributable to an injury to senior marksman B.J. Elder, Georgia Tech is not in unfamiliar territory. Turn back the calendar exactly one year. Entering March 1, 2004, Georgia Tech was 20-8 and 7-7 in conference play. That’s one less loss than this season. Those four extra victories came in the Preseason NIT, in which the Yellow Jackets upset Connecticut and picked up another good win against Texas Tech. But besides those wins, the rest of the non-conference schedule was unimpressive, including a bad loss at Georgia.
This season, coach Paul Hewitt scheduled a decent but not difficult schedule. The best wins are against Michigan and Air Force. The Wolverines don’t appear frightening today, but in the beginning of the season, Michigan appeared ready to contend for a tournament bid. If not for a spate of injuries and off-court problems, the Wolverines could have been a contender. Georgia Tech’s two non-conference losses are at Kansas and against Gonzaga in Las Vegas – much more understandable than against SEC powderpuff Georgia.
A year ago, Georgia Tech ended a stretch of three losses in four games with a blowout against Clemson. Right now, Georgia Tech is 5-4 in the team’s past nine conference games. Just like last year, the Yellow Jackets are looking to end the season with some semblance of consistency to build momentum for the post-season.
In terms of players, the loss of graduating seniors Marvin Lewis and Clarence Moore may have been more detrimental than anyone could have foreseen. Lewis and Moore gave Hewitt senior leadership and were consistent three-point threats. This year’s Yellow Jackets are unreliable from long range, shooting less than 33 percent from three-point territory. With several freshmen playing significant minutes, Hewitt has a far less experienced squad that commits more than 15 turnovers per game.
One of the most significant factors to watch at the end of the season and in the conference tournament is who steps up as the team’s go-to player in crunch time. The Yellow Jackets have lost four games by four points or less. Georgia Tech’s guards, Elder, Jarrett Jack and Will Bynum will dictate how far this team advances in the post-season. Only Jack has been consistent from three-point range, and Georgia Tech needs Elder or Bynum to play better or else this team will not meet expectations.
But because this team has big-game experience and plays sound defense, Georgia Tech has an opportunity to become one of the most dangerous lower seeds in the tournament. No. 1 and 2 seeds beware.
- Duke’s already thin lineup trims down by a guard while junior Sean Dockery recovers from a partially torn MCL. Dockery only averaged 6.5 points per game, but he is a defensive whiz and one of the players coach Mike Krzyzewski uses for significant minutes. Freshman guard DeMarcus Nelson must grow up fast as he plays more minutes during Dockery’s absence. If Duke were to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament with such a shallow lineup, coach K would deserve serious consideration for ACC coach of the year.
- Meanwhile in Maryland, coach Gary Williams will be posting a job opening for assistant coach soon. Current Terrapin assistant Mike Lonergan will move on to his first Division I head coaching position after this season when he leaves for Vermont. Lonergan succeeds the Catamounts’ beloved Tom Brennan, as the local legend is retiring after 19 seasons at Vermont. Lonergan coached Division III Catholic University to a national championship.
- North Carolina junior swingman Rashad McCants missed a few games recently with an intestinal disorder. While McCants stocks up on Pepto Bismol, the Tar Heels rack up the wins. North Carolina is on top of the ACC thanks to a five-game winning streak. My money is on McCants returning this weekend when North Carolina hosts Duke.
- Fans of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge will be pleased to know the conferences and ESPN agreed to continue the early-season match ups though 2010. The only change will be the addition of two games to accommodate all 11 Big Ten teams. One ACC team will sit out the challenge each year after Boston College becomes ACC team No. 12 next season.
Player of the Week
Sharrod Ford, Clemson
Ford had two huge games last week against Maryland and Florida State, averaging 22.5 points and 12 rebounds in the two Tiger victories. He also swatted 11 shots in the two games.
Rookie of the Week
Marvin Williams, North Carolina
Williams contributed 9.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game in North Carolina’s two wins against North Carolina State and Maryland last week.
ACC Coach Watch
Pete Gillen, Virginia
The Cavaliers are not heading to the NCAA Tournament, which means Gillen is heading out the door. The final games will be interesting because the Cavaliers could easily give up on their coach. But Virginia still could reach the NIT if the team wins at least one of the final two games.
North Carolina Tar Heels (24-3, 12-2)
After two more wins last week against North Carolina State and Maryland, the Tar Heels sit alone atop the ACC standings and can win the regular season title if North Carolina beats Florida State and Duke in the Dean Dome this week. As long as the Tar Heels avoid ugly losses, North Carolina will almost certainly be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The wins last week came without junior guard Rashad McCants, who missed the games with an intestinal disorder.
In McCants’ absence, junior guard Raymond Felton had a sensational game against North Carolina State in the 81-71 win, leading the team with 21 points. Junior forward Sean May had another double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds. Against Maryland, Felton had another great game with 10 points and 10 assists. He helped push the Tar Heels’ offense up and down the court, often leading to easy baskets against Maryland’s porous defense. May had yet another great game with 22 points and 11 rebounds, and senior forward Jawad Williams added 21 points, including a late three pointer that helped North Carolina survive 85-83.
The Tar Heels host Florida State Thursday as an appetizer for this weekend’s main course, the season-finale against Duke Sunday.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons (24-4, 11-3)
Wake Forest continues to look up at North Carolina in the ACC standings, but the Demon Deacons could easily steal the ACC title if North Carolina falters. Because the Demon Deacons beat North Carolina in the teams’ only meeting, Wake Forest would win the regular season title if the two teams finish tied atop the standings. The best opportunity for a Tar Heel loss is Sunday against arch-nemesis Duke. Wake Forest finishes the season with Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, two teams that desperately need wins to feel comfortable about the NCAA Tournament. The Demon Deacons will need to bring their A game or risk slipping out of the contest for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Last week, Wake Forest took care of business against Longwood and Virginia. The Demon Deacons stomped the overmatched Lancers, a Division I newcomer, 88-47 as four of five starters reached double figures, led by senior guard Taron Downey with 13 points. Four bench players logged at least 16 minutes, led by junior guard Justin Gray, who came off the bench to score eight points in 21 minutes. Against Virginia, Wake Forest blew the game open in the second half en route to a 90-68 win. Gray again came off the bench and led the team with 20 points. Wake Forest shot better than 61 percent from the field against a Virginia team struggling to play defense. The Demon Deacons also wiped up the glass with a 37-20 rebounding advantage, including 13 offensive rebounds.
Wake Forest will finish the regular season with games against Georgia Tech Wednesday and at North Carolina State Sunday.
Duke Blue Devils (21-4, 10-4)
With the absence of junior guard Sean Dockery, Duke cannot afford to get in foul trouble or play a lightning-quick game. The Blue Devils’ two wins last week reflect Duke’s adjustment to life without Dockery. Duke won at Georgia Tech 60-56, the game in which Dockery hurt his MCL. Lee Melchionni and DeMarcus Nelson are the two players who must play big in Dockery’s absence. They stepped up for a combined 12 points and seven rebounds against the Yellow Jackets. Junior guard J.J. Redick continued to torch the nets with 21 points. Against St. John’s, Redick failed to reach 20 points for only the third time in the past 13 games. He scored 13 points, one of only two Blue Devils in double figures in an ugly 58-47 win. Melchionni led all scores with 16 points. Duke’s defense held the Red Storm to 33 percent shooting from the field, and the Blue Devils collected most of those rebounds, winning the battle on the boards 37-26.
Duke faces the tough task of playing Miami on Thursday in Durham, then turning around to visit North Carolina in the regular season finale Sunday. The rematch with the Tar Heels will be a major test for the extra-shallow Duke bench against the 10-man rotation used by North Carolina. If Duke sweeps the Tar Heels, the Blue Devils will re-enter the discussion for teams that could earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Virginia Tech Hokies (14-11, 7-7)
Entering the Hokies’ first trip through the ACC, no one could have expected Virginia Tech would be competing for fourth place at the end of the season. But the Hokies can claim that spot with wins at Clemson and versus Maryland. Virginia Tech lost an opportunity to grab a stranglehold on the position when the Hokies lost at North Carolina State. The Hokies should be worried about their NCAA chances following a 74-54 shellacking in Raleigh. Only sophomore guard Zabian Dowdell reached double figures with a paltry 12 points. As a team, Virginia Tech shot only 38 percent from the field. Turnovers killed the Hokies as they committed 18 mistakes while only forcing nine Wolfpack turnovers.
The Hokies need a better performance Tuesday at Clemson, which is playing its best basketball of the season at the end. A Saturday showdown in Blacksburg against Maryland could be the difference between finishing in fourth or seventh.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (16-9, 7-7)
No one expected the Yellow Jackets to be in the bubble discussion, but Georgia Tech has struggled to win consistently. Georgia Tech has flip-flopped wins and losses for the past nine games. For Georgia Tech to make a deep run, the Yellow Jackets need to achieve consistency. Wins against Wake Forest and Clemson to end the regular season would do wonders for the team’s confidence, not to mention the team’s seeding in the tournament.
Last week, Georgia Tech split games against Duke and Miami, losing to Duke 60-56 in Atlanta but beating the Hurricanes 76-72 in Miami. Offense continues to be a struggle for the Yellow Jackets as only two players reached double figures against the Blue Devils. Junior guard Jarrett Jack led the team in both games, scoring 20 points against Duke and 21 against Miami. But for Georgia Tech to advance far in tournament play, the Yellow Jackets need alternative scorers. Luckily, the team’s defense keeps Georgia Tech in most games. Duke shot less than 34 percent from the floor, and the Hurricanes shot less than 44 percent.
The regular season ends with Wake Forest Wednesday and Clemson Saturday.
Miami Hurricanes (16-10, 7-8)
Throughout Miami’s surprising run this season, the guard tandem of Guillermo Diaz and Robert Hite has been the Hurricanes’ key to success. The two continued to lead Miami last week as the Hurricanes beat Florida State 65-49 and a loss against Georgia Tech 76-72. The loss to the Yellow Jackets hurts Miami’s hopes of earning an at-large bid as the Hurricanes fell below Georgia Tech in ACC standings. The Hurricanes’ best conference win is at home against Maryland. For Miami to seriously contend for an at-large bid, the Hurricanes need to upset Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
In the win at Florida State, Diaz led the Hurricanes with 19 points and Hite added 17. But Miami’s defense was the difference, holding the Seminoles to 28 percent from the field. The defense held up for most of the game against Georgia Tech, but the Yellow Jackets rallied late in the second half to steal a 76-72 win. Diaz scored 24 points and Hite had 20, but they were the only Hurricanes to reach double figures. With more offensive balance, Miami will be able to steal more wins and become more difficult to defend. But at this point in the season, the Hurricanes would be well-advised to stick with what works.
The Hurricanes end the regular season at Duke Thursday. Miami could move up to fourth place depending on the results of other games.
Maryland Terrapins (16-10, 7-8)
The enigma that is Maryland basketball became no clearer last week as the Terrapins dropped games to Clemson and North Carolina, both in College Park, Md. The name of the game for Maryland is sweeps. Of the five teams Maryland has played twice (Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Clemson and North Carolina State), the Terrapins have either lost or won both games. No splits here. Therefore, based on the trend, Maryland will beat Virginia Tech Saturday to sweep the Hokies and move to 8-8 in conference play. And that could be the magic record for Maryland to make the NCAA Tournament without worrying about ACC tournament performance.
Maryland lost against Clemson and North Carolina because the Terps’ defense allowed both squads to shoot at least 50 percent from the field. It’s hard to win, even at home, when your offense has such a narrow margin of error. Juniors Nik Caner-Medley and Chris McCray have been exceptional in the losses. Caner-Medley scored 23 points against Clemson and 16 against North Carolina, while McCray scored 21 and 25 in the two games, respectively. Maryland grabbed 23 offensive rebounds, but all of the offensive second chances couldn’t help the Terrapins avoid a 97-93 upset. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s Jawad Williams saved the Tar Heels with a three pointer, and Raymond Felton provided the winning deuce on a layup around a great screen by Sean May.
At 7-8, Maryland can ill afford another loss Saturday at Virginia Tech. If the Terrapins do lose, they likely need to win two games in the conference tournament.
North Carolina State Wolfpack (16-11, 6-8)
The Wolfpack are back on the bubble after splitting games at North Carolina and versus Virginia Tech last week. If not for a disastrous four-game losing streak to end non-conference play and start the ACC schedule, the Wolfpack would be on the positive side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, rather on the outside looking in. But the Wolfpack have the slight excuse to hold onto that losses to St. John’s, West Virginia and Miami occurred while North Carolina State was balancing illnesses and injuries to major contributors like junior forward Cameron Bennerman and junior point guard Tony Bethel. If the Wolfpack can sweep through Virginia and Wake Forest and win a game or two in the ACC tournament, North Carolina State could easily sneak into the NCAA Tournament as one of the last bubble teams.
Despite playing the Tar Heels without one of their stars, Rashad McCants, North Carolina State could not muster an upset. Senior guard Julius Hodge had another good performance in a losing effort, scoring 20 points. The Wolfpack’s perimeter-oriented offense produced 12 three pointers, including four from Hodge, but failed to produce second-chance points. North Carolina won the rebounding battle 31-21. The Wolfpack don’t usually win that statistical match up, but it didn’t matter in the team’s 74-54 win against Virginia Tech. Against the surging Hokies, the Wolfpack played suffocating defense, holding Virginia Tech to less than 38 percent shooting from the field. Sophomore guard Engin Atsur led the Pack with 18 points. North Carolina State allowed only one Hokie to reach double figures.
As previously mentioned, North Carolina State closes out the regular season with games at Virginia Wednesday and at home against Wake Forest Sunday.
Virginia Cavaliers (13-12, 4-10)
Nobody except diehard Cavalier fans seriously believed Virginia would win at Wake Forest last week. But coach Pete Gillen needed a better performance than a 90-68 blowout. Gillen’s team has failed to play good defense for most of the year, and the beatdown in Winston-Salem was no different. The Cavaliers allowed Wake Forest to shoot 61 percent from the floor. The lack of defense spoiled a 22-point performance for senior forward Devin Smith, who is ending his career at Virginia with another losing season. Barring a miraculous run through the ACC and NCAA tournaments, Gillen will be joining Smith and the other seniors out the door after the season.
If Virginia wants to remain eligible for NIT consideration, the Cavaliers must finish with an overall record of at least .500. That means Virginia needs to split its final two games against North Carolina State Wednesday and at Florida State Sunday.
Clemson Tigers (14-13, 4-10)
Clemson has resurrected its season with back-to-back wins against Maryland and Florida State. The Tigers swept the season series against both squads, which accounts for all four of Clemson’s conference wins. Senior forward Sharrod Ford has been on a tear with 24 points and 10 rebounds in the 97-93 win at Maryland and 21 points and 14 rebounds in the 83-74 win against Florida State. Clemson has had one of the ACC’s least productive offenses all season, but the Tigers managed to shoot better than 58 percent from the field against the Terrapins and better than 47 percent against the Seminoles.
Young guards Cliff Hammonds and Vernon Hamilton played well in the wins, which bodes well for the future of the Tigers’ program. Ford has been Clemson’s best player this season, and few other Tigers have been consistent until now. If Hammonds and Hamilton can regularly post double figures in scoring, Clemson will have a solid foundation to build upon for next season, despite the graduation of Ford.
The Tigers wrap up the regular season with an opportunity to pass Virginia for ninth place in the ACC. But Clemson likely needs to beat Virginia Tech Tuesday and Georgia Tech Saturday.
Florida State Seminoles (11-17, 3-11)
The Seminoles are in the midst of an eight-game losing streak and earned their position at the bottom of the ACC standings. Last week’s struggles produced losses against Miami and Clemson. Only two Seminoles reached double figures in a 65-49 loss to the Hurricanes. Florida State shot an abysmal 28 percent from the floor. One of the team’s problems was shot selection as the Seminoles hit only 5-of-30 three point attempts. That’s far too many missed shots. Coach Leonard Hamilton needs to find somebody to handle the ball and run the offense as no Seminole had more than two assists.
Offensive inconsistency was less detrimental than rebounding futility against Clemson as the Tigers won the battle on the boards 38-22. Sophomore forward Al Thornton led Florida State with 17 points and four rebounds. But few other Seminoles managed to find the basket consistently. Yet again, assists were few and far between. Freshman guard Isaiah Swann led the team with three assists. The Seminoles are a young bunch and need to end the season with a win to build some confidence for next season.
The Seminoles end the regular season with games at North Carolina Thursday and versus Virginia Sunday. Florida State will definitely play in one of the opening round games in the ACC tournament, likely against the No. 5 team, whomever that may be.