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ACC Notebook

February 20, 2008 Conference Notes No Comments



Atlantic Coast Conference Notebook

by Michael Protos

The ACC is entering its final lap of the regular season, with the conference tournament quickly approaching. For the fourth time in five years, the conference is No. 1 in the RPI. But that might not translate into a slew of invitations to the NCAA Tournament for the ACC’s 12 teams.

The conference is heading toward a greater number of teams playing in the NIT than in the NCAA Tournament. Duke, North Carolina, Clemson and Maryland are nearly locks for the Big Dance. But beyond those four, no team should feel good about its résumé. Wake Forest and Miami figure to have the best shot at earning a fifth bid to the tournament, but the ACC’s two bubble teams still have plenty of work to do.

The Demon Deacons joined the NCAA Tournament conversation by beating Duke in Winston-Salem to hand the Blue Devils their first loss in conference play. Wake Forest has relatively weak computer numbers at No. 61 in the RPI and 88 for their strength of schedule. The Demon Deacons’ best non-conference victory is against BYU at home. Wake Forest has struggled on the road, losing seven of nine games. At 6-5 in the conference, Wake Forest needs to get to 10-6 and win a game in the ACC Tournament to remain in the at-large discussion. That run would give the Demon Deacons 21 wins and would include at least two road victories and a win against either North Carolina or Maryland.

After an excellent start, the Hurricanes are treading water at 4-6. An eight-loss conference season would likely sink Miami’s at-large chances because the Hurricanes don’t have enough big victories to anchor their résumé. The best victories are at Mississippi State and against Clemson. The Hurricanes have strong computer numbers with a No. 36 RPI and No. 49 strength of schedule. A 7-5 road/neutral game record is the catalyst for the team’s apparent strength. Miami gets Duke, Maryland and Clemson in a critical eight-day span that will likely decide the team’s NCAA or NIT fate. If Miami can win two of those games and handle an opening round ACC Tournament opponent, the Hurricanes have a good chance to get to 23 wins. No ACC team has been left out of the NCAA Tournament this decade with 22 wins or more.

Duke Blue Devils (22-2, 10-1)

During Duke’s 12-game winning streak, the Blue Devils were beginning to resemble the dominant Duke teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The team was forcing nearly 19 turnovers page game while hitting nearly nine three-pointers per game. The suffocating defense and prolific offense fueled wins by double figures in every game except one during the streak. So what happened in Winston-Salem?

In short, Duke can’t afford to shoot poorly from long range and commit turnovers. Next to Virginia, the Blue Devils rely on three-pointers more than any other ACC team. Nearly one-third of the team’s points have come from behind the arc, as Duke has a lineup filled with sharpshooters, led by junior guard Greg Paulus at 42.9 percent. Senior DeMarcus Nelson and freshman Taylor King also shoot better than 40 percent from three-point range, with sophomore Jon Scheyer and freshman Kyle Singler within percentage points of that mark.

Since the first two games of the season, Duke has committed more than 15 turnovers in only five games, two of which they lost. In those two losses, the Blue Devils also made less than eight three-pointers. The only game Duke won when it put up those statistics was at Florida State, and the Seminoles could not capitalize on their opportunity. The Seminoles shot only 35.5 percent from the field, including 3-of-13 from three-point range, and allowed Duke to collect a dozen more rebounds than they did.

Wake Forest was more effective. The Demon Deacons shot 45 percent from the field, made 5-of-11 three-pointers and won the rebounding battle 41-33. The good news for Duke is that of the remaining teams on the schedule, only St. John’s and Georgia Tech excel at guarding the perimeter and forcing turnovers, and the Blue Devils play both in Durham.

Up Next:
Feb. 20 at Miami
Feb. 23 vs. St. John’s
Feb. 27 vs. Georgia Tech
March 1 at North Carolina State

North Carolina Tar Heels (24-2, 9-2)

North Carolina has played the past two weeks without sophomore point guard Ty Lawson, who continues to nurse a high ankle sprain. Without Lawson, the Tar Heels lost to Duke in Chapel Hill, somehow overcame a double-digit deficit against Clemson in the final three minutes to beat the Tigers in double overtime, and escaped Charlottesville with a one-point victory. North Carolina needs Lawson to help make the offense run smoothly. The Tar Heels managed to put the pieces together against Virginia Tech in an important blowout in Chapel Hill.

Despite North Carolina’s inconsistency on offense without Lawson, the Tar Heels are playing better defense, holding Virginia to 37.8 percent shooting and Virginia Tech to 25.9 percent. Based on Ken Pomeroy’s statistics, North Carolina has improved its defensive efficiency ranking from No. 33 a couple of weeks ago to No. 21 as of Feb. 18. If North Carolina can get Lawson back in the next week or two while continuing to improve on defense, the Tar Heels could peak at the right time for a long run in the NCAA Tournament.

Up Next:
Feb. 20 at North Carolina State
Feb. 24 vs. Wake Forest
March 1 at Boston College

Clemson Tigers (19-6, 7-4)

The Tigers emerged from the past two weeks into the ACC’s elite, despite a heartbreaking double overtime loss at Chapel Hill. With that loss, Clemson has set an NCAA record for futility in one location, losing 53 consecutive games in Chapel Hill. Since the Tigers first played the Tar Heels in North Carolina in 1926, the Tigers have never won.

Coach Oliver Purnell deserves a lot of credit for keeping this team focused after that loss, in which Clemson gave up a double-digit lead in the final minutes of regulation. Since then, Clemson has hammered Georgia Tech and survived at North Carolina State despite shooting only 37.1 percent from the floor. The Tigers have a balanced offense that features five players who average in double figures, led by junior swingman K.C. Rivers with 15.6 points per game. Rivers is emerging as Clemson’s clutch player. He hit several big three-pointers at North Carolina.

In many ways, Clemson resembles Duke in its attack. The Tigers guard the perimeter well while relying heavily on three-pointers to spread the opposition’s defense. And Clemson’s shooters hit nearly 40 percent of their three-point attempts. Clemson plays efficiently at both ends of the court. The biggest difference is that Duke plays at a much faster tempo than the Tigers do, and Clemson is more susceptible to turning over the ball.

Up Next:
Feb. 19 at Florida State
Feb. 27 vs. Miami
March 2 at Maryland

Maryland Terrapins (17-9, 7-4)

In Maryland’s resurgence during ACC play, sophomore point guard Greivis Vasquez has emerged as the team’s emotional and statistical leader. Coach Gary Williams has helped Vasquez direct his passion on being the team’s leader, and he has responded well. Vasquez has scored at least 20 points in three of the Terrapins’ last four games. In that other game, against North Carolina State, Vasquez finished one rebound short of a triple-double with 13 points, nine rebounds and 15 assists. He has dished out at least seven assists in the past five games and eight of the last nine. With Vasquez playing at a high level, the Terrapins have shot better than 50 percent in six of their last seven games.

Maryland needs to maintain its momentum against Virginia Tech, Miami and Wake Forest before playing a big game against Clemson in College Park that might determine third place in the ACC.

Up Next:
Feb. 20 vs. Virginia Tech
Feb. 23 at Miami
Feb. 28 at Wake Forest
March 2 vs. Clemson

Wake Forest Demon Deacons (16-8, 6-5)

Wake Forest started the second half of the ACC season by winning three consecutive games and moving into fifth place. Freshmen James Johnson and Jeff Teague have the Demon Deacons poised to make a run at an NCAA Tournament bid. Johnson might be the leading candidate for ACC Rookie of the Year after posting 24 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks in Wake Forest’s upset of Duke. He outplayed Duke freshman phenom Kyle Singler, who had 17 points and six rebounds. In addition to Johnson, Teague is playing strongly, averaging 12.8 points per game. He shot 5-of-8 from three-point range during Wake Forest’s recent winning streak.

Defense has been a bugaboo for the Demon Deacons for the past couple of seasons. But coach Dino Gaudio has Wake Forest playing good defense recently. In the last three games, no team has shot better than 41 percent from the field or 29 percent from three-point range. The Demon Deacons will face back-to-back tough tests against North Carolina and Maryland, which do not rely on the three-point shot as much as the team’s recent opponents do. A split against those two would put Wake Forest in good position to finish the conference season at 9-7 or 10-6.

Up Next:
Feb. 24 at North Carolina
Feb. 28 vs. Maryland
March 1 at Georgia Tech

Virginia Tech Hokies (14-11, 5-6)

The Hokies might be running out of steam after starting conference play 5-3. Virginia Tech is in the midst of a three-game losing streak, including a 39-point loss to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. Hokie starters A.D. Vassallo and Deron Washington average about 35 minutes per game, and the next six leading scorers are all freshmen who must adjust to a longer season than they played in high school. The team is showing signs of fatigue on defense as the last three opponents have shot at least 45 percent from the field and collected at an average of 16.3 more rebounds per game.

The Hokies have a difficult remaining schedule with games against Maryland, Wake Forest and Clemson, three teams that are playing their best basketball toward the end of the season. Although Virginia Tech appears to be fading, the Hokies have plenty of young talent that will keep Virginia Tech in the thick of the ACC for years to come.

Up Next:
Feb. 20 at Maryland
Feb. 23 vs. Georgia Tech
Feb. 26 vs. Boston College

Miami Hurricanes (17-7, 4-6)

Just when Miami appeared finished at 2-6 in conference play, the Hurricanes won back-to-back road games at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech to remain alive for an NCAA Tournament bid. Junior guard Jack McClinton has put this team on his back, scoring 23 points against the Yellow Jackets and 19 in Blacksburg. He hit big three-pointers in both games to help the Hurricanes win. In Atlanta, McClinton broke a 60-60 tie in the final minutes, and he hit crowd-silencing three-pointers at Virginia Tech to hold off the Hokies’ comeback attempts.

McClinton is following in the footsteps of recent Hurricane sharpshooters Guillermo Diaz and Robert Hite. With a surprisingly strong season this year, Miami fans must hope McClinton opts to return for his senior year – a wise idea considering the depth of this year’s NBA Draft class. The Hurricanes have several young players, like James Dews and Lance Hurdle, who might carry Miami to a surprising NCAA Tournament bid this year.

Regardless of this season’s outcome, if McClinton returns, expectations entering next season will be much higher than they were this season, when nearly everyone picked the Hurricanes to finish in the bottom three.

Up Next:
Feb. 20 vs. Duke
Feb. 23 vs. Maryland
Feb. 27 at Clemson
March 1 vs. Virginia

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (11-13, 4-6)

With three weeks remaining, Georgia Tech is the only ACC team with an overall losing record. The Yellow Jackets remain competitive, despite playing the 12th-toughest schedule nationally. Georgia Tech has lost nearly every game in which it had an opportunity to beat a highly-touted opponent.

Most recently, the Yellow Jackets lost at Connecticut and Clemson. Georgia Tech is starting to struggle offensively, shooting no better than 43.8 percent in any game during the team’s three-game losing streak to Connecticut, Clemson and Miami. For the season, Georgia Tech has been averaging 47.1 percent from the field. After scoring 77 points in six consecutive games, the Yellow Jackets have failed to break the 70-point mark in the last three games. Senior guard Anthony Morrow, the team’s leading scorer with 14.1 points per game, is especially cold, shooting only 26 percent from the field and scoring only 16 points in the last two losses. He had seven turnovers and six made shots against Clemson and Miami.

Up Next:
Feb. 21 vs. Virginia
Feb. 23 at Virginia Tech
Feb. 27 at Duke
March 1 vs. Wake Forest

North Carolina State Wolfpack (15-10, 4-7)

North Carolina State’s NCAA Tournament hopes are on life support, and the Wolfpack probably need to beat North Carolina and Duke in Raleigh to keep them alive. Like several other teams that were in the middle of the pack two weeks ago, North Carolina State has dropped games recently to fall out of contention for a spot among the ACC’s elite.

The Wolfpack are finding different ways to lose, too. Against Maryland and Boston College, the team’s defense lapsed, allowing the Terrapins and Eagles to shoot better than 55 percent and score more than 80 points. North Carolina State averages only 67.6 points per game and is one of the least efficient offenses in the ACC, so the Wolfpack cannot afford to let opponents score at will.

In a 71-64 loss to Clemson, the Wolfpack’s defense fared better, holding the Tigers to 37.1 percent shooting. However, North Carolina State struggled on offense, shooting 40.4 percent and committing 16 turnovers. The Tigers also made timely three-pointers, shooting 45 percent from behind the arc.

Sophomore forward Brandon Costner continues to struggle in his sophomore season after a great freshman year in which he averaged 16.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. This season, his numbers are down to 9.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. He has scored in double figures against only three ACC teams this season. He played well in the loss to Boston College with 14 points and seven rebounds, but followed that with a dismal one-point, one-rebound performance against Clemson.

Up Next:
Feb. 20 vs. North Carolina
Feb. 24 at Virginia
Feb. 27 vs. Florida State
March 1 vs. Duke

Boston College Eagles (13-11, 4-7)

Boston College ended a six-game losing streak by beating North Carolina State 82-65 in Chestnut Hill. But the Eagles could not maintain momentum from that victory, losing to Virginia by five and dropping further in the standings. Junior guard Tyrese Rice continues to play like a first-round NBA Draft pick, but the Eagles are not getting a lot of support from other players.

Freshman swingman Rakim Sanders, the team’s second-leading scorer, has found ACC play more challenging than games against New Hampshire and Northeastern, when he scored 22 and 20 points, respectively. He has scored more than 10 points only once in the last five games. However, Sanders’ potential is high, as he demonstrated in the win against North Carolina State by posting 14 points and 12 rebounds. Corey Raji, another freshman forward, also has shown coach Al Skinner a lot of potential, averaging 8.2 points and 3.9 rebounds per game in only 18.8 minutes per game. He is third on the team in average points per 40 minutes.

Up Next:
Feb. 23 at Florida State
Feb. 26 at Virginia Tech
March 1 vs. North Carolina

Florida State Seminoles (14-12, 3-8)

Senior guard Isaiah Swann has missed Florida State’s last two games with a torn ACL that might end his season. Swann averages 11.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game as a member of the Seminoles’ talented backcourt.

In his absence, senior guard Ralph Mims is getting more playing time. However, the results have been the same as Florida State has lost to Wake Forest and Maryland with Swann out. They have lost eight of their last 10 games and fallen to 11th in the conference.

Florida State gets three of its final five games in Tallahassee to prepare for the conference tournament. The Seminoles are probably on the bubble for an NIT bid and need to finish with at least six conference wins to maintain hope for any post-season appearance.

Up Next:
Feb. 19 vs. Clemson
Feb. 23 vs. Boston College
Feb. 27 at North Carolina State

Virginia Cavaliers (12-12, 2-9)

For only the third time in 2008, the Cavaliers got at least 10 points from four players. Unfortunately for Boston College, the Eagles were the victim twice. The Cavaliers are 2-0 against the Eagles in 2008 and 0-11 against everyone else.

Senior point guard Sean Singletary helped the Cavaliers end a seven-game losing streak by leading the offense rather than supplying all of it. Junior swingman Mamadi Diane led Virginia with 20 points, and the Cavaliers shot well from three-point range to hold back Boston College. Virginia has a tough schedule to end the regular season, so the Cavaliers might continue their losing streak against teams not named the Eagles.

Up Next:
Feb. 21 at Georgia Tech
Feb. 24 vs. North Carolina State
March 1 at Miami

     

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