Atlantic Coast Conference Notebook
by Michael Protos
With less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, a slew of ACC teams are jockeying for position near the top of the standings. Besides the likely right to an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, a top four finish in the ACC also means a bye in the conference tournament. And it’s a whole lot easier to win that automatic bid when you only need to win three games instead of four.
Four teams have six losses as we enter the home stretch: Duke, Florida State, Maryland and Georgia Tech. Add Clemson, which is 5-5, to the mix of teams chasing Boston College, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Based on the strength of their remaining schedule, North Carolina and Virginia will likely earn one of the ACC’s four first-round byes in the conference tournament. At 9-2, Boston College would have to collapse to fall out of the top four. That leaves Virginia Tech, which still must play all three of the other top ACC teams.
Of the teams chasing a first-round bye, only Clemson plays Virginia Tech during these final weeks, which gives the Tigers the best chance to steal the first-round bye. That would give the Tigers a day off to prepare for the No. 5 seed in the tournament. A win against a team such as Duke or Virginia Tech in the quarterfinals in addition to a fourth-place regular-season finish would likely seal an NCAA Tournament bid.
Meanwhile, the teams that finish in the No. 8 and 9 slots, which are currently occupied by Maryland and Georgia Tech, will receive a mixed blessing. While the other three opening round games will likely pit an NCAA Tournament bubble team against North Carolina State, Miami or Wake Forest – none of which offer any help to the résumé – the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game will likely feature two bubble teams. The winner will pick up a relatively quality win on a neutral court. The loser will almost certainly be playing in the NIT. In addition to winning the game, that No. 8 team will then have an opportunity to play the top seed – at this point, that appears to be either Boston College or North Carolina – and claim the scalp of an elite opponent, possibly solidifying an NCAA Tournament bid.
The ACC Tournament almost certainly will determine the NCAA Tournament fates of teams like Maryland, Florida State and Georgia Tech. All three of these teams will probably struggle to finish better than 8-8. They will need to win two tournament games to realistically feel good about their NCAA Tournament hopes. The higher they finish in the standings, the more likely that feat will be.
ACC Player of the Week: Jared Dudley, Boston College
Dudley is Boston College’s man of steel. He led the Eagles to two road wins last week and played all 40 minutes in each game. Dudley finished the week with 49 points and 19 rebounds after beating Miami and Florida State.
ACC Rookie of the Week: Brandan Wright, North Carolina
Welcome to the Duke/UNC rivalry, young man. Wright was a difference-maker in North Carolina’s come-from-behind victory at Duke last week. He scored 19 points against the Blue Devils to lead North Carolina. Wright posted 34 points and 16 rebounds in only 46 minutes of action last week.
ACC Coach Watch: Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
Duke is facing rare adversity this season as losers of four consecutive games for the first time in a decade. The newsworthiness of such a development is a testament to Coach K’s Hall of Fame-earning consistency. But now he must find a way to guide this sinking ship through troubled waters against a difficult slate of opponents in the final three weeks.
Boston College Eagles (18-6, 9-2)
Won at Miami 75-68
Won at Florida State 68-67
With two road wins last week against the ACC’s Florida schools, the Eagles likely wrapped up an NCAA Tournament bid, even though it’s still mid-February. The Eagles remain perched atop the conference standings despite the loss of junior forward Sean Williams. Since the dismissal of Williams and teammate Akida McLain, Boston College is 5-2. With home games this week against Duke and North Carolina, the Eagles have an opportunity to pick up a couple of high-profile victories and close in on the team’s first ACC regular-season title. A win against North Carolina would put Boston College in the discussion for a top three seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Senior forward Jared Dudley is a significant reason for the Eagles’ recent success. He led the team with 26 points and nine rebounds against Miami and 23 points and 10 rebounds against the Seminoles. Dudley is the heart and soul of this team, and he has shouldered the responsibility of leading it to success.
Dudley received help from an unlikely source in Tallahassee when junior center Tyrelle Blair hit the game-winning jumper, blocked six shots and collected six rebounds, reminding Eagle fans of the recently banished Williams. Blair played extensive minutes because starting center John Oates picked up four fouls in only nine minutes of action. If the Eagles continue to receive sensational performances from sources such as Blair, Dudley’s MVP-worthy performances will vault the Eagles to an unlikely conference title.
Feb. 14 vs. Duke
Feb. 17 vs. North Carolina
North Carolina Tar Heels (22-3, 8-2)
Won at Duke 79-73
Won vs. Wake Forest 104-67
North Carolina bounced back from the loss at North Carolina State by beating Duke 79-73 in Cameron Indoor Stadium in a thrilling come-from-behind victory. The first installment of college basketball’s greatest rivalry featured a fired-up Duke team that started strong and led by five at halftime. Coach Roy Williams challenged his team at halftime to outlast the Blue Devils, especially on defense, and the Tar Heels responded by whittling away the Blue Devils’ lead and sapping all of their energy. Led by freshmen Brandan Wright and Ty Lawson, North Carolina took the lead with less than 10 minutes remaining, then held off Duke down the stretch.
The momentum from the emotional victory in Durham carried over to the weekend. North Carolina blasted Wake Forest from start to finish in a 104-67 win. Twelve different Tar heels played at least eight minutes. Senior swingman Reyshawn Terry delivered 23 points on 7-of-8 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds in only 17 minutes of action. If he could have maintained that rate for an entire 40 minutes, Terry would have finished with 54 points and 19 rebounds.
The Tar Heels enter a big week against two of this season’s strongest ACC opponents – Virginia Tech and Boston College. North Carolina will be looking to avenge the loss at Blacksburg when the Hokies roll into Chapel Hill. The match up in Chestnut Hill is the Tar Heels’ only regular-season game against Boston College and could provide a conference-deciding tiebreaker.
Feb. 13 vs. Virginia Tech
Feb. 17 at Boston College
Virginia Cavaliers (16-7, 8-3)
Won at Maryland 69-65
Lost at Virginia Tech 84-57
After winning in College Park to start last week, the Cavaliers looked ready to contend for the ACC title. Virginia sported a seven-game winning streak that included three road wins as the Cavaliers traveled south to visit in-state rival Virginia Tech. But the Cavaliers ran into a buzz-saw in Blacksburg, losing by 27 to the Hokies. Virginia was cold from the field throughout the game, shooting less than 33 percent. Junior point guard Sean Singletary and senior guard J.R. Reynolds, who recently have received praise as one of the best backcourt duos in the country, struggled and hit only 12-of-29 shots. Despite their problems, they were the only Cavaliers to reach double figures in scoring.
Coach Dave Leitao needs to refocus his team for the stretch run because Virginia faces a favorable schedule that could give the Cavaliers a chance to win the conference title. Virginia plays only one ACC team with a winning record in the final five conference games. The schedule turns up a well-timed near-exhibition game against Longwood, a Division I independent that should be fodder for an angry Cavaliers squad. Virginia will get Florida State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in Charlottesville with the only road trips at bottom-feeders Miami and Wake Forest. Virginia has a realistic shot at running the table and going 13-3, and anything less than 11-5 will be a disappointment.
Feb. 13 vs. Longwood
Feb. 17 vs. Florida State
Virginia Tech Hokies (17-7, 7-3)
Won vs. Virginia 84-57
Following an inexplicable home loss to North Carolina State and a rout at Boston College, Virginia Tech needed to make a statement that the Hokies are a legitimate NCAA Tournament team. A 27-point pounding of previously white-hot Virginia was the perfect response. Virginia Tech torched the Cavaliers with 57.7 percent shooting from the field. The tandem of junior Deron Washington and sophomore A.D. Vassallo confounded Virginia’s defense all afternoon. They each scored 22 points, combining to shoot 16-of-25 from the field. Their efforts masked the absence of senior guard Zabian Dowdell, who played only 15 minutes because of foul trouble. Virginia Tech was firing on all cylinders, even at the free throw line where the Hokies hit 17-of-19 attempts.
Virginia Tech will hit the road again this week, heading to the Triangle to play North Carolina State and North Carolina. The Hokies need to split those games to remain a candidate for a finish in the top three. A win in Chapel Hill would give Virginia Tech a shocking season sweep of the Tar Heels.
Feb. 13 at North Carolina
Feb. 18 at North Carolina State
Clemson Tigers (19-5, 5-5)
Won vs. Florida State 71-58
After losing five of six games, Clemson beat Florida State for the second time this season to complete a critical season sweep of the Seminoles. The Tigers’ defense stymied Florida State, holding the Seminoles to 36.5 percent shooting from the field. Only superstar Al Thornton scored in double figures against the Tigers, who blocked eight shots in the game. Sophomore guard K.C. Rivers came off the bench to lead Clemson with 17 points. After a recent stretch of poor shooting, Clemson demonstrated better shot selection, attempting only 10 three-pointers. Instead, Clemson attacked the Seminoles’ defense, which led to 33 free throw attempts.
Coach Oliver Purnell needs his team to continue its renewed emphasis on smart basketball, with defense being the catalyst for the offense. The Tigers play at Wake Forest and get Maryland in South Carolina. Two wins will give Clemson an excellent opportunity to finish the season with a winning conference record. The final four games are difficult, however, with road games at Boston College and Virginia Tech and a home game vs. Duke.
Feb. 14 at Wake Forest
Feb. 18 vs. Maryland
Duke Blue Devils (18-7, 5-6)
Lost vs. North Carolina 79-73
Lost at Maryland 72-60
All is not well in Durham these days. Duke dropped two games to rivals North Carolina and Maryland last week, giving the Blue Devils their first four-game losing streak in 11 years. The Blue Devils possess a sub-.500 conference record late in the season and face must-win situations this week to avoid seemingly blasphemous talk of being on the wrong side of the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. During the losing streak, Duke has encountered a combination of offensive struggles that has produced only 66.5 points per game. Turnovers, cold shooting and fatigue have led to two home losses and two road losses.
Despite Duke’s struggles, freshman guard Jon Scheyer has been a revelation for Blue Devil fans. He scored 26 points against the Tar Heels to lead Duke and demonstrated a special connection with sophomore point guard Greg Paulus that bodes well for the next two years. Scheyer, however, clearly looked exhausted by the end of the game after playing 38 minutes. After looking like a J.J. Redick clone in the first half, Scheyer labored through the second half, his shots looking progressively more forced. As coach Mike Krzyzewski continues to reload Duke’s roster and add depth, Scheyer will be able to get more rest and remain deadly throughout a game rather than just 20 minutes.
In the meantime, however, Duke faces a do-or-die week with games at Boston College and vs. Georgia Tech. The Eagles will be looking for revenge after losing badly in Durham less than three weeks ago. The Yellow Jackets, on the other hand, will be trying to sweep Duke in what could become a bubble elimination game – an unfathomable idea for many Duke fans.
Feb. 14 at Boston College
Feb. 18 vs. Georgia Tech
Florida State Seminoles (17-8, 5-6)
Lost at Clemson 71-58
Lost vs. Boston College 68-67
After overcoming an 0-3 start to conference play, the Seminoles have now dropped two consecutive games to fall back below .500 in the ACC. Florida State has a pair of good victories against Florida and Duke, but those may not hold up when the selection committee evaluates the Seminoles. The win against Florida occurred early in the season, and Corey Brewer missed the game for the Gators. Duke’s recent struggles tarnish that win a little, although any win at Duke is always good.
But if Florida State fails to make the NCAA Tournament again this season, don’t blame senior forward Al Thornton. Once again, Thornton is having a sensational season. He single-handedly kept the Seminoles alive at Clemson with 21 points, the only Florida State player to score in double figurers. And Thornton works hard for his points, 14 of which came from the free throw line. He followed that performance with 19 points against Boston College, including a clutch three-pointer late in the game.
Feb. 13 vs. Georgia Tech
Feb. 17 at Virginia
Maryland Terrapins (18-7, 4-6)
Lost vs. Virginia 69-65
Won vs. Duke 72-60
Maryland saved its season – and possibly coach Gary Williams’ job – with a win vs. Duke Sunday evening. After dropping a home game against Virginia to start the week, the Terrapins rebounded with a convincing 72-60 win vs. Duke in which Maryland jumped out to a 29-9 lead in the first half. Forced to play from behind the entire game, Duke expended all its energy cutting the lead to six. But Williams refused to let his team wilt under the Blue Devils’ pressure, answering in the second half with a 10-2 run that iced the victory. With the win, Maryland moves to 4-6 in conference play, just a half game behind Duke and the top half of the standings. Freshman guard Greivis Vasquez played well for Williams in one of his best games this season, scoring 18 points. Junior forward James Gist also flashed his enormous potential in putting up 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Maryland still needs to do more work to get into the NCAA Tournament, which the Terrapins have not participated in since 2004. But the Terrapins draw North Carolina State twice and play Florida State in College Park. Maryland likely needs to win all three of those games and split games vs. North Carolina and at Duke to get to 8-8 and feel more comfortable about earning an NCAA Tournament bid.
Feb. 14 at North Carolina State
Feb. 18 at Clemson
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (16-8, 4-6)
Won vs. North Carolina State 74-65
Won vs. Connecticut 65-52
Granted, no one is going to mistake the 2006-07 version of Connecticut with the championship squad from 2003-04. But Georgia Tech’s 65-52 victory against the Huskies erased the demons from the 2004 championship game in which Connecticut dominated the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech smothered the Huskies with suffocating defense, holding them to 30.9 percent shooting from the field and forcing 16 turnovers. Georgia Tech shot poorly for much of the game, but the team’s depth produced four double-digit scorers.
Georgia Tech used the same formula to beat North Carolina State earlier in the week. After the Wolfpack dictated the pace of the game in the first half, Georgia Tech picked up the defensive intensity after halftime. The Yellow Jackets scorched North Carolina State with an 18-0 run that featured stifling defense. Freshman guard Javaris Crittenton was instrumental in the rally, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and three steals.
Like Florida State and Maryland, Georgia Tech is on the NCAA Tournament bubble, probably one of the last four teams in or out. With an 0-5 record on the road in conference road play, the Yellow Jackets must win two of their final three ACC road trips. This week offers two opportunities against Florida State and Duke. Two losses will likely pop Georgia Tech’s NCAA Tournament aspirations.
Feb. 13 at Florida State
Feb. 18 at Duke
North Carolina State Wolfpack (13-10, 3-7)
Lost at Georgia Tech 74-65
Lost at Miami 80-65
As the Wolfpack started the second half at Georgia Tech, North Carolina State appeared to be closing in on its third consecutive upset after beating Virginia Tech and North Carolina. But then the Wolfpack hit the wall. Georgia Tech’s shooting picked up, and the Yellow Jackets forced an overwhelmed Wolfpack team into turnover after turnover. The result was an 18-0 run that erased a double-digit deficit and put Georgia Tech in control of the game. The lack of depth burned North Carolina State, which couldn’t keep pace with Georgia Tech’s faster tempo.
The Wolfpack faced similar problems against Miami, as all three starting forwards were in foul trouble. Despite playing all but six minutes last week, sophomore forward Ben McCauley continued to deliver for North Carolina State. He scored 19 points against Miami despite picking up four fouls. That performance followed his 16-point effort in Atlanta. With every starter averaging at least 32 minutes per game, the Wolfpack need their starters to deliver, and McCauley is the team’s most productive post player. Despite the energy required to compete in the post, McCauley plays hard and smart to remain effective while minimizing the number of fouls he commits.
Feb. 14 vs. Maryland
Feb. 18 vs. Virginia Tech
Miami Hurricanes (10-15, 3-8)
Lost vs. Boston College 75-68
Won vs. North Carolina State 80-65
The Hurricanes split a pair of home games last week, losing to ACC leader Boston College but beating North Carolina State. Freshman forward Dwayne Collins had an excellent week for Miami with 11 points and 13 rebounds against the Eagles and nine points and 10 rebounds against the Wolfpack. With such a young lineup, the Hurricanes have reason to believe the future will bring success. The sophomore backcourt pair of Jack McClinton and Denis Clemente promise to deliver high-scoring performances for their remaining two seasons, and coach Frank Haith is developing some solid frontcourt prospects in Collins and Brian Asbury.
Miami has a full week to prepare for a trip to Wake Forest, one of three remaining road games on the Hurricanes’ schedule.
Feb. 17 at Wake Forest
Wake Forest Demon Deacons (11-13, 2-9)
Won vs. Winston-Salem State 87-71
Lost at North Carolina 104-67
Wake Forest is in a must-win situation this week if the Demon Deacons want to avoid the ACC’s cellar for a second consecutive season. The Demon Deacons split games last week against Winston-Salem State and North Carolina. The second loss of the season to the Tar Heels drops Wake Forest to 2-9 in the ACC, a game worse than Miami. The Hurricanes will come calling in Winston-Salem this week, and a loss to Miami would all but clinch a last-place finish for Wake Forest.
In the blowout in Chapel Hill, Wake Forest did little right – shooting worse than 37 percent from the field, committing 17 turnovers and letting the Tar Heels grab 12 more rebounds. Wake Forest looked crippled when senior forward Kyle Visser was saddled with foul trouble. He finished with 11 points and only three rebounds in 26 minutes before he fouled out. Freshman guard Anthony Gurley led the team with 12 points, his second consecutive game in double figures despite playing less than 20 minutes.
Feb. 14 vs. Clemson
Feb. 17 vs. Miami