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February 7, 2008 Conference Notes No Comments

Atlantic Coast Conference Notebook

by Michael Protos

The Super Bowl is over, and the first North Carolina/Duke clash is on tap Feb. 6. It’s early February, and as usual, ACC rivalries and battles for position in the standings come to the fore. The only significant change in the standings in the past two weeks has been Miami’s fall from the middle of the pack to the bottom third. The middle remains a muddled mess, with six teams within a game and a half of third-place Virginia Tech.

The Hokies are the biggest surprise in the conference this season at 14-8 and 5-3 in ACC play after their Feb. 2 overtime win against Virginia. After last season, Virginia Tech lost four of its top six scorers and all of its significant backcourt players. But coach Seth Greenberg has instilled a winning attitude in Blacksburg. The freshman class has stepped onto the court ready to follow the never-back-down mantra that Greenberg and the veteran Hokies established during the past couple of seasons.

The Hokies can attribute a significant amount of their success to senior Deron Washington and junior A.D. Vassallo. The two returning starters from last season have led this young squad by combining for 28.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. Although they are the most reliable scorers, they get plenty of assistance from the young Hokies. Freshman forward Jeff Allen leads the team in rebounding and blocked shots. He averages 12.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Guards Malcolm Delaney and Hank Thorns form an effective backcourt. They average 14.1 points and 6.3 assists per game as a tandem.

Five of Virginia Tech’s top seven scorers are freshmen, so the Hokies figure to build on this season’s surprising success. Entering February, the Hokies still need to pick up some quality wins to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. But for a team that was projected to finish near the bottom of the conference, remaining in tournament consideration this late in the season is an accomplishment that should net Greenberg the ACC’s Coach of the Year award.

Duke Blue Devils (19-1, 7-0)

Duke cruised through the past two weeks with four victories by an average margin of more than 15 points. The Blue Devils are proving that a legitimate national championship contender does not need a lot of beef in the post. On paper, teams like North Carolina State should wreak havoc against Duke, as the Wolfpack’s starters have an average two-inch height advantage on their Blue Devil counterparts. North Carolina State used the match up problems to build a nine-point halftime lead. But Duke rallied in the second half to outscore the Wolfpack 55-26 in one of their most impressive halves this season.

The key to Duke’s success is desire. Senior DeMarcus Nelson works hard to collect rebounds among players who are usually three or four inches taller than he is. Kyle Singler, Lance Thomas and Gerald Henderson also fly to the ball. Despite North Carolina State’s height advantage, Duke won the rebounding battle 26-25 and had two more offensive rebounds than the Wolfpack did. The Blue Devils’ athletic lineup can overcome the size disparity and create mismatches on offense for opposing defenses. A 6-8 forward can’t keep Henderson or Nelson from driving into the lane for a layup. And if they give the Blue Devils’ sharpshooters any room on the perimeter, Duke will hit three-pointers all night. Not surprisingly, Duke’s offensive firepower makes the Blue Devils the No. 5 most efficient team on offense in the country.

Up Next:
Feb. 6 at North Carolina
Feb. 9 vs. Boston College
Feb. 13 vs. Maryland
Feb. 17 at Wake Forest

North Carolina Tar Heels (21-1, 6-1)

Since losing to Maryland, the Tar Heels have responded by clobbering Miami and Boston College and beating Florida State 84-73 in overtime. However, North Carolina might be in trouble if sophomore point guard Ty Lawson misses time with a sprained ankle. Lawson left the Feb. 3 game against the Seminoles early in the first half after spraining his ankle. It’s the second time this season Lawson sprained an ankle – he played only two minutes against BYU and missed the subsequent game at Ohio State.

Without Lawson, the No. 4 most efficient offense in the country is far less effective. In the three games Lawson missed or played sparingly – against BYU, Ohio State and Florida State – the Tar Heels failed to score more than 73 points in regulation. North Carolina scored 17 in overtime against the Seminoles, and most of those points came at the free throw line. Opponents have been able to dictate the pace to the Tar Heels when Lawson is on the sidelines. The Florida State, Ohio State and BYU games were three of the slowest-paced games North Carolina played this season.

Equally important, Lawson’s absence has a negative effect on Tyler Hansbrough’s performance. A 54.0 percent shooter for the season, Hansbrough’s shooting dropped to 38.6 percent in those three games. Hansbrough can still score in bunches from the free throw line, but he must work harder to get those points.

Up Next:
Feb. 6 vs. Duke
Feb. 10 vs. Clemson
Feb. 12 at Virginia
Feb. 16 vs. Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech Hokies (14-8, 5-3)

As discussed earlier, the Hokies are the biggest story of the first half of conference play. At third place, Virginia Tech has a good opportunity to earn back-to-back NCAA Tournament bids – an impressive feat for a program that’s usually second fiddle to the football team. The Hokies took care of business against Boston College, Florida State and Virginia during the past two weeks to claim sole possession of third place. The season sweep of instate rival Virginia is especially sweet.

The next couple of weeks will probably decide whether Virginia Tech is a truly viable tournament candidate. The Hokies have three road games against North Carolina State, North Carolina and Maryland, and Virginia Tech probably needs to win at least one of those games to remain in third place. Besides the regular-season finale at Clemson, that stretch is the last opportunity for Virginia Tech to improve on its 4-6 road record and pick up some quality wins to bolster the résumé.

Up Next:
Feb. 5 at North Carolina State
Feb. 9 vs. Miami
Feb. 16 at North Carolina

Clemson Tigers (16-5, 4-3)

Clemson is on pace to get into the NCAA Tournament. However, the Tigers will probably need another four- or five-game winning streak to earn one of the coveted top four seeds. Since starting 10-0, the Tigers have not won more than two consecutive games. The remaining schedule does not favor Clemson because the Tigers have six road games vs. three home games. Although North Carolina is the only ranked team remaining on the schedule, the stretch run looks difficult.

In recent road losses to Duke and Miami, the Tigers struggled to hit three-pointers. Clemson shoots 38 percent from long range for the season, but the Tigers made only 28.0 percent at Miami and 33.3 percent at Duke. Without the consistent long-range shooting, the Tigers’ offensive attack is less efficient. If the three-pointers are not falling, Clemson cannot afford to make other mistakes. Against the Hurricanes, Clemson lost the rebounding battle by 11. In Durham, the Tigers committed 22 turnovers. Poor shooting coupled with rebounding or turnover problems will doom Clemson.

The Tigers play their next few games without freshman guard Demontez Stitt, who injured his knee in practice. He averages 8.9 points and 3.1 assists per game.

Up Next:
Feb. 7 at Virginia
Feb. 10 at North Carolina
Feb. 14 vs. Georgia Tech
Feb. 16 at North Carolina State

Maryland Terrapins (14-8, 4-3)

After losing to American before Christmas and falling to 6-6, the Terrapins have won eight of 10 games to get to 14-8 and 4-3 in conference play. More importantly, Maryland looks like an NCAA Tournament team. The Terrapins have scored at least 80 points in four consecutive games, and all five starters have reaches double figures in scoring against Virginia and Georgia Tech. Senior forward Bambale Osby has played with renewed passion in ACC play, registering four double-doubles. The Terrapins need Osby, James Gist and the rest of the starters to continue their tear to collect more big wins and make the selection committee members forget non-conference losses to Ohio and American.

Up Next:
Feb. 6 at Boston College
Feb. 9 vs. North Carolina State
Feb. 13 at Duke
Feb. 16 vs. Florida State

North Carolina State Wolfpack (14-7, 3-4)

North Carolina State has been treading water in the ACC during the past couple of weeks. The Wolfpack are doing just enough to avoid sinking to the bottom of the standings, but they need to pick up some big wins soon to rise to the top. Despite a relatively unimpressive non-conference slate, the Wolfpack have a strong computer profile with an RPI of 43 and strength of schedule of 35.

The Wolfpack have been plagued by inconsistency, however, and the past two weeks continued the trend. North Carolina State picked up a big win at Florida State and held off Wake Forest in Raleigh. But the Wolfpack blew a halftime lead at Duke and lost by 20 a week after losing a hard-fought game to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. For the Wolfpack to seriously entertain NCAA Tournament considerations, North Carolina State needs to reach 20 wins before the ACC Tournament, which means at least a 9-7 finish in the conference.

Up Next:
Feb. 5 vs. Virginia Tech
Feb. 9 at Maryland
Feb. 14 at Boston College
Feb. 16 vs. Clemson

Wake Forest Demon Deacons (13-7, 3-4)

Behind Seth Greenberg, Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio should be second on the short list for ACC Coach of the Year. Despite dealing with Skip Prosser’s death, the Demon Deacons have responded well with a 3-4 record near the midway point of conference play. Freshman guard Jeff Teague had a spectacular week against Miami and North Carolina State. He had 27 points, including five three-pointers, in the Demon Deacons’ 70-68 victory against the Hurricanes, then scored 17 points in a defensive battle that resulted in a 67-65 loss to the Wolfpack.

Teague and freshman forward James Johnson lead a promising nucleus, and they continue to improve as the season progresses. Wake Forest could be in a position to make another conference tournament push like the Demon Deacons did in 2006, reaching the semifinals before losing to Duke.

Up Next:
Feb. 6 vs. Georgia Tech
Feb. 9 vs. Virginia
Feb. 14 at Florida State
Feb. 17 vs. Duke

Boston College Eagles (12-8, 3-4)

Two weeks after sharing second place with North Carolina at 3-1, the Eagles have slipped back to the middle of the ACC pack with a four-game losing streak. Although losing on the road to North Carolina and Clemson is excusable, Boston College needed to take care of Virginia Tech in Chestnut Hill. The Hokies escaped with an overtime victory, spoiling a last-second comeback fueled by Rakim Sanders. The freshman hit a game-tying three-pointer in the closing seconds to force overtime, but Boston College’s defense allowed one of Tech’s freshmen, Hank Thorns, to dominate the extra period.

Junior guard Tyrese Rice continues to do all he can to lead Boston College. Rice is second in the ACC in scoring, averaging 19.8 points per game. He exceeded that total against Virginia, Virginia Tech and North Carolina, scoring at least 20 points in all three games. But Boston College’s supporting cast is not productive enough to overcome the team’s defensive lapses. Opponents have scored at least 78 points during Boston College’s four-game skid. Boston College has three games during the next two weeks to turn its season around.

Up Next:
Feb. 6 vs. Maryland
Feb. 9 at Duke
Feb. 14 vs. North Carolina State
Feb. 17 vs. Virginia

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (10-10, 3-4)

Georgia Tech has the worst overall record in the ACC, but the Yellow Jackets are a dangerous team with lots of depth. Senior guard Matt Causey, one of the best reserves in the conference, has scored at least 10 points in four consecutive games, including a 30-point outburst against Virginia Tech. Nine Yellow Jackets average at least six points and 17 minutes per game. Not surprisingly, Georgia Tech’s depth allows the Yellow Jackets to play at a fast tempo, although it’s still fourth in the ACC behind North Carolina, Duke and Maryland. However, the Yellow Jackets need to score in bunches to cover up a defense that has allowed the past seven opponents to score at least 70 points – and three have scored more than 80 points.

Georgia Tech already possesses the second-toughest schedule in the conference, and the Yellow Jackets have three road games during the next two weeks against Wake Forest, Connecticut and Clemson. The Yellow Jackets have played well away from Atlanta, with a 6-5 record, so Georgia Tech has an opportunity to pick up a couple of big wins. At 10-10, Georgia Tech needs a long winning streak to receive serious NCAA Tournament consideration.

Up Next:
Feb. 6 at Wake Forest
Feb. 9 at Connecticut
Feb. 14 at Clemson
Feb. 17 vs. Miami

Miami Hurricanes (15-6, 2-5)

Losers of five of their past six games, the Hurricanes are now in the ACC’s bottom three. The 12-0 start is a distant memory, and NCAA Tournament aspirations are more fantasy than reality. The lone win against a top 50 RPI team is the Jan. 27 victory against Clemson. In that game, Miami got balanced scoring, good perimeter defense and strong rebounding to upset the Tigers. Sophomore forward Dwayne Collins matched his season high with 18 points, only the second conference game in which he’s scored in double figures.

Miami’s frontcourt struggles to score. Senior forward Anthony King remains a defensive specialist as one of the conference’s best shot-blockers. But he has scored more than 10 points only once in conference play. Miami’s talented backcourt needs more support from the starting forwards to move back into the mix for a finish among the ACC’s elite.

Up Next:
Feb. 6 vs. Florida State
Feb. 9 at Virginia Tech
Feb. 17 at Georgia Tech
Feb. 20 vs. Duke

Florida State Seminoles (13-10, 2-6)

Florida State dropped a heartbreaking loss to North Carolina in overtime to fall to 2-6 in conference play. Barring a miraculous run in the second half of the ACC season, the Seminoles will continue their decade-long streak without an NCAA Tournament appearance. And that might jeopardize coach Leonard Hamilton’s job security.

The Seminoles have a veteran lineup that includes six juniors or seniors who play extensively. Junior guard Toney Douglas leads the group with 14.2 points and 3.2 assists per game. Florida State’s backcourt strength might actually be a weakness, as the Seminoles have too many cooks in the kitchen. Douglas, Isaiah Swann and Jason Rich all have the talent to lead the offense, and they each average at least 12 points and two assists per game. But the Seminoles need one leader to drive the offense. Florida State – and maybe Hamilton, too – is running out of time to figure it out.

Up Next:
Feb. 6 at Miami
Feb. 14 vs. Wake Forest
Feb. 16 at Maryland

Virginia Cavaliers (11-9, 1-6)

Like the other teams at the bottom of the conference, the Cavaliers are in the midst of a long losing streak that will likely squash their post-season hopes. Virginia has lost four in a row and seven of eight. None of the losses in the past two weeks have been by more than 10 points.

Virginia suffers from the Allen Iverson effect – the Cavaliers have a superstar in Sean Singletary, who can score in bunches or create opportunities for his teammates. But he can’t win games by himself. Virginia does not get enough production in the post or consistent shooting from the perimeter. The Cavaliers often seem to be watching Singletary on offense, waiting for him to deliver points on a contested jump shot or contact-laden drive to the basket. Like Iverson, Singletary will find more success when he has plenty of talent surrounding him – and he’ll have to wait to the NBA for that.

Up Next:
Feb. 7 vs. Clemson
Feb. 9 at Wake Forest
Feb. 12 vs. North Carolina
Feb. 17 at Boston College


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