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March 5, 2008 Conference Notes No Comments

Atlantic Coast Conference Notebook

by Michael Protos

The final week of the regular season is here, and it’s time to look ahead to the ACC Tournament in Charlotte. This year’s conference tournament could decide whether Duke or North Carolina get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Depending on the results from other conferences, both might be able to grab top spots. Another question is whether the ACC’s top team will get to play in the Charlotte regional in the NCAA Tournament – barely two hours from Durham and Chapel Hill.

In addition to the conference tournament’s importance to the top teams, it could decide the fates of several bubble teams. Maryland will have the most to gain from the tournament while Miami will probably have the most to lose. After the collapse in College Park to Clemson, the Terrapins likely need to make a run to the conference championship game, including a win against either Duke or North Carolina, to contend for an NCAA Tournament bid. For the Hurricanes, recent wins against Duke and Maryland probably have Miami in the field, but an opening-round loss to an ACC bottom-feeder could significantly dampen their tourney hopes.

With one week to go, the last first-round bye remains up for grabs. With 12 teams in the conference tournament, the top four teams get a pass into the quarterfinals while the remaining eight teams must battle on Thursday March 13. Clemson will likely join the Blue Devils and Tar Heels on the day of rest, and Virginia Tech has the inside track for the No. 4 seed. Maryland, Miami and Wake Forest have the best chance to catch the Hokies but will need help from Clemson next weekend when Virginia Tech travels to the Littlejohn Coliseum.

Duke Blue Devils (25-3, 12-2)

After losing at Miami, Duke has reeled off three consecutive wins to set up a conference-deciding clash against North Carolina March 8. To complete the season sweep of the Tar Heels, Duke will need to continue taking care of the basketball. In each of the past two games, Duke has committed only eight turnovers, which helped the Blue Devils overcome a dismal shooting performance against North Carolina State. The Wolfpack led by 10 points with 10 minutes remaining in the game, but Duke chipped away at the lead by forcing turnovers and consistently making free throws and three-pointers.

Duke used a similar formula to beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill earlier this season. The Blue Devils forced 20 turnovers and made 13 three-pointers. More than 60 percent of the team’s scoring came from behind the three-point line or at the free throw line.

Up Next:
March 5 at Virginia
March 8 vs. North Carolina

North Carolina Tar Heels (27-2, 12-2)

North Carolina has built a six-game winning streak during the past three weeks despite playing without sophomore point guard Ty Lawson for five of the games. He returned in North Carolina’s comeback win at Boston College. The Tar Heels fell behind by 18 points in the second half against the Eagles as Tyrese Rice exploded for 34 first-half points and finished with 46. But the Tar Heels clamped down on defense and held Boston College scoreless for more than six minutes while junior guard Danny Green and sophomore guard Wayne Ellington hit three-pointers to whittle away the lead.

As usual, junior forward Tyler Hansbrough led the Tar Heels against Boston College, scoring 25 points and grabbing nine rebounds, one short of notching his 16th double-double on the season. Hansbrough has scored at least 22 points in the last eight games. Entering the final week of the regular season, he and Kansas State freshman Michael Beasley are the favorites for National Player of the Year.

Up Next:
March 4 vs. Florida State
March 8 at Duke

Clemson Tigers (21-7, 9-5)

Until the Tigers’ win at Maryland, the signature moments of Clemson’s season were two heartbreaking meltdowns against the Tar Heels in which the Tigers blew late second-half leads. Clemson delivered a new story for this season in College Park that will help give the Tigers momentum heading into the post-season.

Down 20 points with less than 12 minutes remaining, Clemson ended the game on a 34-11 run, capped by freshman guard Terrence Oglesby’s three-pointer with 2.3 seconds remaining. The Tigers pressed Maryland to force turnovers, fueling the game-winning run. Senior forward James Mays completed the comeback by stealing the ball from Landon Milbourne and sprinting the length of the court to slam the ball for a 70-70 tie, setting the stage for Oglesby’s heroics.

Clemson has won four of five games since the loss in Chapel Hill. The Tigers end the season against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech and appear to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament. A strong finish and a decent showing in the ACC Tournament could deliver the Tigers a No. 5 or 6 seed. An upset of North Carolina or Duke in the tournament might push that seed to the much-coveted realm of No. 4 or better.

Up Next:
March 6 at Georgia Tech
March 9 vs. Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech Hokies (17-11, 8-6)

Coach Seth Greenberg has the Hokies poised to be one of the most hotly debated teams on Selection Sunday. If Virginia Tech handles Wake Forest and Clemson to end the regular season 10-6, Virginia Tech will claim the ACC’s No. 3 seed. That means for Clemson and Miami to get NCAA Tournament bids, the selection committee would have to invite the Hokies, too, or skip over the ACC’s No. 3 team. At first glance, the Hokies seem well-positioned to earn a second consecutive bid to the NCAA Tournament.

However, it’s not that simple. A win at Clemson would be Virginia Tech’s first victory against a team in the RPI top 50. Virginia Tech would have seven wins against the bottom half of the ACC and only three wins against the top half. According to the RPI, the best non-conference win is against UNC-Asheville. To get serious NCAA Tournament consideration, the Hokies need to upset Duke or North Carolina in ACC Tournament semifinals and make a strong showing against the other team in the championship. A loss to any other team would likely send Virginia Tech to the NIT. Considering the Hokies’ youth, any post-season play will be a positive experience for next season.

Up Next:
March 4 vs. Wake Forest
March 9 at Clemson

Maryland Terrapins (18-12, 8-7)

Maryland fans are getting a sick sense of déjà vu. In 2005, Maryland cruised through a lackluster non-conference schedule, losing the only games the team played against quality opponents. In ACC play, Maryland upset Duke twice but struggled down the stretch. However, a mediocre Clemson team was the Terrapins’ kryptonite. The Tigers surprised Maryland after the Terrapins scored back-to-back upsets against Duke and Georgia Tech. They did it again in College Park, sparking a three-game losing streak to end the regular season. Then Maryland lost to Clemson in the opening round of the ACC Tournament – held in Maryland’s backyard in Washington. The result was an NIT bid.

This season is eerily similar. The Terrapins were unimpressive in non-conference play, beating a slew of average teams and losing at home to Ohio and American. However, Maryland handed North Carolina its first loss of the season in Chapel Hill to gain instant credibility. But Virginia Tech might be the team that banishes the Terrapins to the NIT once again. The Terrapins dropped the first game in Blacksburg 67-66. The second loss, a 69-65 decision in College Park to the Hokies might not be excusable. And if the standings set up correctly, Maryland might play Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. A loss there would definitely leave the Terrapins outside the 34 best at-large teams for the NCAA Tournament.

Up Next:
March 9 at Virginia

Miami Hurricanes (20-8, 7-7)

The Hurricanes control their own NCAA Tournament destiny right now. With remaining games against Boston College and Florida State, Miami could finish the regular season with 22 overall wins and a 9-7 conference record. More importantly, Miami has good wins against VCU, Mississippi State, Clemson, Maryland and – the icing on the cake – Duke. The Hurricanes were on fire against Duke, shooting 57.4 percent from the field, and weathered a three-point storm in the closing minutes to escape with a 96-95 victory.

Junior guard Jack McClinton delivered 22 points for Miami in the win, but the big story was forward Dwayne Collins, who led the team with 26 points and seven rebounds. The sophomore had scored in double figures only twice in conference play before that game. He averages 9.6 points per game, but he has had at least 11 points in three of the last four games. If Collins continues to play well, coach Frank Haith will have a legitimate third scoring option behind McClinton and sophomore guard James Dews.

Up Next:
March 5 vs. Boston College
March 8 at Florida State

Wake Forest Demon Deacons (16-11, 6-8)

After beating Duke to tally a huge quality win and a 6-5 conference record, Wake Forest whiffed on three opportunities to move up the ACC standings. The Demon Deacons have lost three consecutive games to North Carolina, Maryland and Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels and Terrapins took advantage of the Demon Deacons’ poor defense to shoot at least 49 percent from the field. Georgia Tech built a 13-point lead in the second half before Wake Forest rallied to force overtime. However, the Demon Deacons could not come up with enough defensive stops to complete the comeback.

Against Georgia Tech, freshman forward James Johnson proved why he might be the most valuable freshman this season. He played only four minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, and the Demon Deacons struggled on offense. Johnson finished with four points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes. With Johnson saddled with foul trouble, sophomore forward Chas McFarland stepped up with 28 points and 12 rebounds.

Wake Forest’s slim at-large hopes for the NCAA Tournament require wins against Virginia Tech and North Carolina State to close the regular season. Wake Forest almost certainly will be playing in the opening round, so the Demon Deacons must be prepared to win three games in three days to reach the conference championship if they want to play in the NCAA Tournament.

Up Next:
March 4 at Virginia Tech
March 8 vs. North Carolina State

Florida State Seminoles (17-12, 6-8)

Entering the final week of play, the Seminoles are as hot as any ACC team not named the Tar Heels or Blue Devils. Florida State is back in the middle of the pack after winning three straight games against Clemson, Boston College and North Carolina State. If Florida State can beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill and complete the season sweep of Miami, the Seminoles will have a better profile than the Terrapins and many other bubble teams across the country. Non-conference wins against UAB and Florida might help the Seminoles leap frog those bubble rivals.

To come up with the wins, though, Florida State will need to reprise its defensive effort against Clemson. The Seminoles held the Tigers to 30.8 percent shooting from the field, including 3-of-27 from three-point territory. In addition, junior guard Toney Douglas will need to continue to lead this team. He has scored at least 20 points in each of the past three wins. The Seminoles need Douglas to play under control, as he had one assist and seven turnovers in the win against Clemson. Like the Tigers, North Carolina frequently pressures the ball, and Florida State probably doesn’t want to rely on the Tar Heels shooting as poorly as Clemson did to overcome turnover problems.

Up Next:
March 4 at North Carolina
March 8 vs. Miami

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (12-15, 5-8)

Georgia Tech has been the ACC’s tough luck team of the year. The Yellow Jackets have played well against the sixth toughest schedule in Division I, but they haven’t won many of those games. At 12-15, the Yellow Jackets’ only NCAA Tournament hopes rely on a run to the ACC championship next week, which will require four wins in four days.

The Yellow Jackets will get a primer for that kind of pace with three games in six days this week. Because of a leaky roof, Georgia Tech and Virginia had to postpone their Feb. 21 match up to March 3. The Yellow Jackets will then host Clemson before ending the regular season at Boston College.

Up Next:
March 3 vs. Virginia
March 6 vs. Clemson
March 8 at Boston College

Boston College Eagles (13-14, 4-10)

If Tyler Hansbrough were in any other conference, junior guard Tyrese Rice would be the easy pick for ACC Player of the Year. Rice outplayed Hansbrough in the Eagles’ head-to-head battle with the Tar Heels in Chestnut Hill, but the Tar Heels won the game, overcoming an 18-point second-half deficit. Rice scored 46 points, including 34 in the first half, in one of the most impressive performances by any player this season. Rice made 14-of-25 shots, including eight three-pointers. The outburst bumped up Rice’s scoring average to 21.4 points per game. In addition, he keeps the offense flowing with 4.8 assists per game. Without a doubt, Rice is the most valuable ACC player to his team. Without Rice, the Eagles would probably be at the bottom of the conference and struggle to reach double-digits in wins.

Up Next:
March 5 at Miami
March 8 vs. Georgia Tech

North Carolina State Wolfpack (15-14, 4-11)

After a promising start to conference play, the Wolfpack have lost every game in the second half of the conference season. The most recent loss might be the most painful one as North Carolina State dropped its second game of the season to Duke, losing 87-86 in Raleigh. The Wolfpack squandered an 11-point lead in the final 12 minutes. In the first match up of the season, the Blue Devils rallied from a nine-point deficit to beat North Carolina State.

On senior night, freshman forward Tracy Smith had his best game of the season, scoring 14 points for the Wolfpack. Junior forward Ben McCauley also played well, scoring 19 points to lead North Carolina State. His buzzer-beating three-pointer was off the mark, however, as the Wolfpack fell closer to the bottom of the ACC standings.

Up Next:
March 8 at Wake Forest

Virginia Cavaliers (13-13, 3-10)

Thanks to the postponed game against Georgia Tech, the Cavaliers have played only two games since Feb. 17. Like the Yellow Jackets, they will finish the regular season with three games this week. Senior guard Sean Singletary will play his final home games against Duke and Maryland before preparing to take his game to the NBA. Singletary had a great game at Miami in the Cavaliers’ 95-93 loss. He scored 41 points and grabbed nine rebounds. An easy first-team all-conference selection, Singletary averages about 20 points, four rebounds and six assists per game. His turnovers are a concern, however, as Singletary commits about four turnovers per game.

After a disappointing season, Virginia figures to play the spoiler role during the next couple of weeks. Duke and Maryland should expect tough games at John Paul Jones Arena, and the Terrapins cannot afford any more losses if they want to maintain hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Up Next:
March 3 at Georgia Tech
March 5 vs. Duke
March 9 vs. Maryland


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