UNC: Green Finding Peace, Success
Devils Showing Great Depth
Tigers: Another Superb Start
Virginia Keys: Singletary, Scott
Eagles Young But Promising
Lowe Pushing Pack Buttons
FSU Rebounds Depite Woes
Wake Dealing With Reversal
UM Balance Winning Quietly
Jackets Struggling On Defense
Vasquez, Gist Failing Terps
Young Hokies Staying Fresh
By David Glenn and staff
December 18, 2007
GREEN FINDING PEACE, SUCCESS
CHAPEL HILL Danny Green is one of the most good-natured players on the North Carolina basketball team, but it would be easy to understand if that were not the case.
Green must deal with circumstances in his life far more difficult than whether he will start or come off the bench. During his freshman year at Carolina, his father, Danny Sr., was arrested as part of an enormous cocaine ring in the New York area. Green is from Long Island.
According to public records, at the time of the arrest police executed search warrants and seized 462 pounds of cocaine officials claimed it had a street value of $40 million plus approximately $5 million in cash, six handguns, three semiautomatic assault rifles, three ounces of crack cocaine and one pound of marijuana. Police also seized eight homes and 10 vehicles.
According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "The North Babylon School District said Daniel Green (Sr.) worked as a per-diem substitute teacher, most recently in the 2002-03 school year. He was an assistant girls' varsity basketball coach, but that job (had) ended."
If the younger Green seemed distracted at times during his first season or two at UNC, it's easy to see why.
Now in his junior year, he is playing as well as any Carolina player outside of All-American big man Tyler Hansbrough, and Green obviously has learned to handle this horror story for his family.
"I put it aside when I'm playing," Green said. "I don't think about it when I play. In the past, it has been a factor. It has been something I would think about when it was fresh in my mind. After a while, I got over it and got used to it. I just put everything behind me (now) and play basketball."
Green did not cut his father from his life. Far from it. Until recently, he said that his dad would call him from jail a couple of times a week. (Inmates could not receive calls. His dad had to call collect.) The two often would discuss Danny Jr.'s game.
"Recently, I have not been able to communicate with him as much," Green said. "They moved him to another facility. Before, he would call me at least twice a week and write letters. I write letters to him now. That's how I keep in touch with him now. He gets to watch some of the games, but he says some of the guys in there like to watch movies and he gets into arguments with them over the game.
"But he gets to see some of the boxscores. Now we keep in touch with letters. Before, it was over the phone and letters."
What Green's father has been able to see in those boxscores is a productive player who is turning himself into a vital part of a superb team.
Green scored 20 points in 24 minutes at Kentucky, while also getting six rebounds. He had 19 points in 16 minutes against Penn, while grabbing five rebounds.
He still will do some unorthodox maneuvers on the court, but coach Roy Williams said there are plenty of pleasing (if unanticipated) moments, as well.
"He can always surprise you by something he does," Williams said, "whether it is get a deflection, get an offensive rebound, block a shot, pull up on one of those little floaters and it goes in, one of those things."
DEVILS SHOWING GREAT DEPTH
DURHAM When the Duke basketball team defeated Michigan on Dec. 8 in its final pre-exam game, the top two scorers for the Blue Devils were substitutes. In all, reserves scored 54 of the team's 95 points.
That wasn't just a one-time thing. In Duke's first nine games this season, a player off the bench led the team in scoring four times. Overall, the bench produced 13 double-figure scorers in those nine games.
For contrast, consider that a year ago, Duke received just 10 double-figure scoring contributions off the bench over the course of a 33-game season. Just once did a sub lead Duke in scoring; Brian Zoubek topped the Devils with 17 points in 20 minutes against UNC Greensboro.
A year ago, Duke's top five players (based on minutes played) played 76.6 percent of the minutes, took 78.1 percent of the shots and scored 78.5 percent of the points.
So far this season, the five players who have started every game are averaging 62.6 percent of the minutes, taking 62.2 percent of the shots and scoring 61.2 percent of the points.
Obviously, coach Mike Krzyzewski has a far deeper team in 2007-08 than he had a year ago. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1998 to find a Duke team getting a larger share of its minutes and points from the bench.
Where has the depth come from?
In personnel terms, Krzyzewski has subtracted Josh McRoberts, who averaged 35.0 minutes and 13.0 points per game in 2006-07, and added three freshmen. Forward Kyle Singler, who has taken McRoberts' place in the starting lineup, is averaging 13.3 points per game (in just over 26 minutes), while forward Taylor King (10.8 ppg; 14.1 minutes) and guard Nolan Smith (6.0 ppg; 15.1 mpg) have emerged as quality subs.
Smith's role has been more consistent. He has been mostly a backup to Greg Paulus at the point, usually playing between 14 and 20 minutes per game. His availability has made Paulus more effective in his average of 26.6 minutes per game than he was a year ago, when he averaged 32-plus minutes per game.
King has been a wild card. His playing time has fluctuated wildly from two and one minute in Maui victories over Illinois and Marquette to more than 20 minutes three times. He's topped the team in scoring three times, with a high of 27 in a victory over Eastern Kentucky.
In addition to the freshmen, the physical development of Gerald Henderson also has made a big difference. As a freshman, the high-flying Henderson was hobbled early by injuries and limited to just 6.8 points and 19.3 minutes per game, usually in a reserve role. This season, the 6-4 sophomore is healthy and in better shape, and he's become a fixture in the starting lineup, averaging 13.6 points and 23 minutes per game.
Henderson's development has allowed Krzyzewski to shift sophomore Jon Scheyer, who started 32 of 33 games as a freshman, into the sixth-man role, where he has excelled.
The 6-5 guard is second on the team in minutes played (despite not starting) and at one time or another has led the Devils in scoring, rebounding and assists. Like Paulus, his effectiveness has climbed as his minutes have been reduced, from 33.7 as a freshman to 27.0 as a sophomore.
It's the trio of Scheyer, King and Smith that has made the Duke bench so effective this season. All three are clearly quality players, and they offer skills that Krzyzewski can use to meet any situation.
King is a shooter who provides instant offense off the bench. Smith is a jet who can apply excellent on-the-ball pressure and turn up the tempo on offense. Scheyer is a jack-of-all-trades who can fill it at almost any position and can give Duke almost anything it needs scoring, ball-handling, defense and even rebounding.
When veteran forward David McClure, a defensive ace who has been hobbled by offseason knee surgery, returns to form, the strongest Duke bench in the last decade will be even stronger.
Duke's bench did take a minor hit when junior wing Martynas Pocius, who was averaging 4.0 points and 8.0 minutes per game, suffered an ankle injury that required season-ending ankle surgery.
TIGERS: ANOTHER SUPERB START
CLEMSON Clemson coach Oliver Purnell had a positive message for his team as it convened in the locker room following an 82-67 win at East Carolina on Dec. 5.
The Tigers were heading into a 15-day break for final exams, and the coach couldn't have been much happier with the way his team handled the eight games that preceded the respite.
"You aced your first on-court exam," Purnell said, referring to the 8-0 start that helped the Tigers rise to No. 15 in the rankings. The next time Clemson would return to the court was in a pre-Christmas trip to Puerto Rico, for the San Juan Shootout against Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, DePaul and Mississippi.
To be sure, last year demonstrated that it's not wise for Clemson fans to get too excited by a hot start. The Tigers began Purnell's fourth season 17-0 but managed to miss the NCAA Tournament for the ninth consecutive year anyway.
Still, this year's unblemished run out of the gate was impressive in how it was constructed. The Tigers did it against a schedule that included some respected opponents (Mississippi State, Purdue, South Carolina, Gardner-Webb), and they did it with their best player hobbled by injuries.
Senior forward James Mays, who opted against an early departure to the NBA during the offseason, came down with back spasms and an eye infection before the third game, an 84-82 win at Mississippi State. Mays played in that game but was noticeably bothered by the back ailment, and the same was true in home victories over Old Dominion (66-53) and Presbyterian (74-57).
Then, in the second half of a Nov. 24 win over Gardner-Webb, Mays was undercut as he went up for a dunk on a fastbreak. He tumbled to the floor and landed on his left hip.
Initially, the prognosis was not good. Team doctors feared that Mays had suffered a hairline fracture in his hip, an injury that would have put him on the shelf for four to six weeks and jeopardized his availability for the start of the ACC schedule.
The night Clemson gutted out a 61-58 home victory over Purdue in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, Mays told a few reporters that the worst-case scenario had materialized. He said his best hope was returning for the team's Jan. 6 ACC opener, at home against North Carolina.
The next day, however, team doctors received the results of a bone scan and determined that Mays had suffered a mere sprain. They projected his return for Puerto Rico, though he wasn't yet full-go as of Dec. 15.
The Tigers were playing without another senior, forward Sam Perry, for most of their hot start. Perry, a defensive menace who has been plagued by knee problems for the past year, missed six straight games after undergoing knee surgery. He also was expected to be ready by the Puerto Rico trip.
Playing shorthanded provided a stern test, and Purnell found out that his players were up to it. Junior Raymond Sykes and freshman Jerai Grant made valuable contributions in the frontcourt, and freshman guards Terrence Oglesby and Demontez Stitt showed steady improvement.
The victory at East Carolina, highlighted by a 6-of-7 effort on three-pointers by Oglesby, looked a lot more impressive when the Pirates upended N.C. State three days later in Greenville. And the win over Purdue became more attractive when the Boilermakers topped No. 22 Louisville on Dec. 15.
This Clemson team still has work to do, for sure, but Purnell has to like the way things are shaping up.
UVA KEYS: SINGLETARY, SCOTT
CHARLOTTESVILLE This much was clear about the Virginia basketball team after nine games: The Cavaliers aren't going to win when All-ACC point guard Sean Singletary isn't playing well, at least against quality opposition.
Virginia went into its exam break with a 7-2 record. In the two losses, Singletary was 10-of-34 from the field, including 4-of-16 on three-pointers, with eight turnovers.
Visiting Syracuse beat the Cavaliers 70-68, only their second loss in two seasons at John Paul Jones Arena, when Singletary missed his first five free throws and finished 2-for-8 from the line.
Singletary had made 22 consecutive free throws entering the Syracuse game and was 45-of-48 from the line for the season before missing the front end of a one-and-one and both ends of two two-shot opportunities. He was 8-for-8 in the Cavaliers' next game, a 76-57 victory over Longwood.
Although Singletary did not meet with the media after the Syracuse game, he acknowledged two days later that he had been suffering from strep throat and saw the images of three baskets when he went to the line.
Singletary played 35 minutes against the Orange but repeatedly left the floor for treatment. Team physician Dr. Daniel Mistry came out of the stands at one point and, as TV commentator Len Elmore left his post to monitor the situation, UVa coach Dave Leitao could be seen bellowing at trainer Jeff Boyer, who since has been reassigned.
Sophomore forward Jamil Tucker also missed the Syracuse game, and fifth-year senior Ryan Pettinella, who had been starting, missed the Longwood game. Would-be starting center Tunji Soroye had missed the first nine games after preseason knee surgery, and neither he nor sophomore Solomon Tat (sports hernia) had been in uniform all season.
Virginia has missed Soroye's shotblocking ability and size (6-11, 252), but the Cavaliers like what they're getting from Mike Scott, a 6-8, 233-pound freshman. Scott seemingly is best suited for the "four" spot, but he rebounds well enough to play the "five." Scott had a double-double (10 points, 13 rebounds) in a 19-minute stint at Pennsylvania, and he had nine points and 11 rebounds in 24 minutes against Longwood.
Moreover, Scott makes his free throws (19-of-23), and that gives him a big advantage over Pettinella (1-of-10) and Lauris Mikalauskas (13-of-22). Scott's emergence and the anticipated early January return of Soroye could mean reduced minutes for the Cavaliers' other post players, including 6-8, 245-pound sophomore Jerome Meyinsse.
Games with Hampton, Elon and Hartford wrap up a six-game UVa homestand before the Cavaliers head to Cincinnati for a Jan. 3 date with Xavier. That will be the last non-conference game before the Cavs finish the regular season with 16 ACC games.
UVa has not played the toughest non-conference schedule but has faced three low- to mid-major teams that won more than 20 games last year (Vermont, Drexel, Penn) to go with Arizona, Seton Hall, Northwestern, Syracuse and Xavier. It likely places the Cavaliers in the position of having the ACC slate determine their postseason destination.
EAGLES YOUNG BUT PROMISING
CHESTNUT HILL The first nine games of the Boston College basketball season produced some surprising results, along with some things that were quite predictable for a young team with three freshmen in the rotation.
On the surprising side, the Eagles, picked to finish eighth in the ACC, served notice that they may well be better than that. They won seven of their first nine, including games at Michigan and Maryland. While neither of those teams is expected to be the power it has been in the past, road wins at large-conference schools are nothing to ignore.
Now the other side. The two losses.
The Eagles, looking to go to 6-0, roared from 24 points down in the second half against old rival Providence at the TD Banknorth Garden. They took a six-point lead into the final minute, but then lost the game in overtime as the Friars hit a barrage of big-time three-pointers on the NBA floor.
Then came impressive wins over Saint Louis and Maryland before Massachusetts, another local rival, entered Conte Forum and hit the Eagles with a speed game. BC took control toward the end of the first half, then lost that control and had to make another comeback, this time from 15 points down.
They came up short when Tyrese Rice's three-pointer hit the rim at the buzzer. The shot could have completed a six-point comeback in the final 14 seconds.
"It's an experience, I believe, that will help us the next time and we will do better," BC coach Al Skinner said of playing against the up-tempo Minutemen, who forced the normally structured Eagles into a helter-skelter game and into making all kinds of mistakes a Skinner team doesn't normally make.
After the Providence loss, Skinner said that his team, which had a nine-day exam break after UMass, would learn from that one, too. And that's what this really is all about.
With Jared Dudley and Sean Williams in the NBA (Williams actually was gone last January via dismissal), and Sean Marshall taking four years of gritty play with him, this is about Rice leading the young guys to as many wins as BC can get in a rebuilding year.
Also in the surprise category was senior center Tyrelle Blair. He came to The Heights with the reputation of being a shotblocker, and he turned aside 62 attempts last year in his first season (after sitting out the transfer year from Loyola-Chicago) with BC.
This year, Blair has turned into a Williams-like machine. Through the first nine games, he led the ACC in blocked shots with 41, including eight and 11 in the back-to-back wins over Saint Louis and Maryland. He had almost twice as many blocks as any other player in the conference.
As far as the kids go, guard Rakim Sanders was fourth on the team in scoring at 10.4 points (and 23.7 minutes) per game. Forward Corey Raji, already an ACC rookie of the week, was at 10.3 points and 19.9 minutes. Point guard Biko Paris was clicking at 7.2 and a freshman-high 25.7 minutes per contest.
Rice, a preseason All-ACC pick, had 26 points against UMass to raise his season average to 21.5 per game. With the ball in his hands so much of the time, he had 48 assists compared to 23 turnovers, better than a 2-1 ratio.
Senior forward John Oates, who had been an offensive no-show in the first eight games, had 11 points (including his first three field goals of the season!) in 18 minutes against UMass.
LOWE PUSHING PACK BUTTONS
RALEIGH The on-going soap opera that has been the N.C. State basketball season took another intriguing twist when the Wolfpack played South Carolina State in mid-December.
After having paid lip service thus far to the concept of depth, coach Sidney Lowe went 10 deep, with nine players getting at least 10 minutes. Little-used reserves Simon Harris and Tracy Smith both saw significant time. Two other reserves, Dennis Horner and Ben McCauley, got more time than several starters.
Contrast that to State's loss in its previous game at East Carolina, when the Pirates posted their first basketball win over an ACC foe after an 0-57 start. At ECU, Lowe had stuck with the same lineup during the final minutes, without making a single substitution.
Why the change?
"We have to play people that are defending," Lowe said. "That's how you win these games. You have to shoot the ball well, but at least if you can stop your opponents, it gives you a better shot at it."
It was only one game, but a look at who got the minutes and who didn't would seem to give a good indication of who Lowe feels is or isn't defending.
Courtney Fells went into the S.C. State game averaging almost 32 minutes per game but played just 15. Farnold Degand played only 17 minutes, after averaging more than 31 per game. Brandon Costner played just 10 minutes in the first half, but after making several impressive blocks in the second half seemed to get back in Lowe's good graces and played 16 of the final 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, Horner played 24 minutes, eight above his season average of 16. Harris played 11 minutes, after playing just three total in State's previous seven games. Javier Gonzalez played 23 minutes, nearly tripling his season average of 8.3.
The question, though, was how long the new pattern would last. Was it a case of Lowe just emptying his bench against an overmatched S.C. State team? Perhaps. But it's more likely that he's finally lost patience with several standbys who played well for him last season but have underperformed this year.
Lowe had said several times that a deeper bench this season would allow him to keep his players on shorter leashes. Thus far, though, he had been very inconsistent in deciding when to give a tug.
McCauley, a player Lowe always spoke glowingly about last season, got a seat on the bench right from the beginning, losing out to talented freshman J.J. Hickson. Lowe seems to be taking steps to soften that blow, occasionally starting McCauley and gradually increasing his minutes.
Fells and Costner, though, had continued to earn major minutes despite inconsistent performances. Sometimes Fells has looked like a defensive stopper, at other times he plays very passively. Costner has appeared out of shape and far more interested in his role in the offense than in digging deep defensively.
For a game, at least, that changed. Now Lowe will need to figure out a way to switch from his good-cop stance of last season to bad cop now, without causing further friction in the locker room.
Or he'll have to come up with a new plot in the soap opera. Whatever Lowe does, he'll have to settle on something soon. Conference play is not the time for tinkering.
FSU REBOUNDS DESPITE WOES
TALLAHASSEE Consecutive defeats to Cleveland State and South Florida, in the midst of a season-opening, 10-game stretch in 22 days, may not have been the death knell for Florida State's NCAA Tournament hopes after all.
At the time, coach Leonard Hamilton said he hoped that the losses would serve as caffeine to his Seminoles, not that they should have needed an extra boost. With four fourth-year guards providing the leadership, and a pair of consecutive tournament snubs serving as motivation, Hamilton thought his team might have moved beyond the inconsistency that has plagued it in recent years.
Fortunately for FSU, the caffeine appears to have kicked in.
The Seminoles rolled off six straight convincing victories following the mid-November setbacks, including a 14-point win at Florida and a 14-point home rout of Minnesota. As of Dec. 14, those were the only blemishes on the records of the Gators and the Gophers.
But one of the most impressive efforts came against the worst team in that stretch. FSU eviscerated Maine 95-55, behind a school-record 20 three-point field goals.
"It's the first time we've put two halves together," said senior guard and scoring leader Isaiah Swann, who dropped in 22 points.
The Seminoles led by as many as 51 points in the wire-to-wire rout. That was a departure from previous Hamilton squads, which often would go through the motions against overmatched foes.
"That was part of our point of emphasis (against Maine)," Hamilton said. "I thought we played tremendously unselfish. We moved the ball. We knew they were going to play a lot of zone, and so we prepared for it. I'm not real sure we can expect to shoot that well every night, but I do think we're a better three-point shooting team than we had shown. I thought we played the game the right way."
FSU's execution against the zone a problem earlier in the season and improved shooting could be traced to the team's first full week of practice (without a game) since the season began.
"Although we did have some tough practices, my body felt better," senior swingman Jason Rich said. "I felt like we got somewhat of an organization, on how we need things to work. Don't get me wrong. We're still not to the level where we can play at, but I thought we did a good job playing together, and that's because of the practice."
The Maine game also marked the first career start for heralded 7-1 freshman center Solomon Alabi. Sidelined throughout the preseason with a right leg stress fracture, Alabi is being integrated into the system slowly, and the additional week of practice clearly was beneficial to him.
The roles of Alabi and fellow rookie forward/center Julian Vaughn clearly will have to expand with the ACC opener at Georgia Tech (Dec. 30) fast approaching. The temporary suspension of sophomore forward Ryan Reid for some academic shortcomings, and the likely departure of junior forward Casaan Breeden to a mid-term transfer, will necessitate it.
Specifically, Alabi and Vaughn must step up their rebounding production and continue to alter shots in the paint. The Seminoles already have received a big lift from junior forward Uche Echefu, who is averaging career bests of 10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.
Surprisingly, given FSU's backcourt experience, there is significant room for improvement in the assist-turnover ratio. Through 11 games, the Seminoles had handed out only 147 helpers, while turning the ball over 177 times.
Those areas will be the focus of preparation as the schedule continues with a more normal pace.
WAKE DEALING WITH REVERSAL
WINSTON-SALEM Coach Dino Gaudio's focus on defense this season at Wake Forest has been admirable.
For years under coach Skip Prosser, the Demon Deacons often had no problem scoring but seemed to lack defensive passion.
Gaudio spent the majority of fall practice on the defensive end, and he has made playing-time decisions based on defensive effort.
Unfortunately, while the Deacons have improved defensively, they've completely forgotten how to play offense. Through eight games, Wake averaged 68.8 points, shooting 40 percent from the field and 29.5 percent from three-point range.
Although Wake lost its only double-figure scorer, center Kyle Visser, from last season, it appeared that the Deacons had some versatile players who should be able to score.
"At the beginning of the season, I wasn't worried about our offense," shooting guard Harvey Hale said. "That's one thing we knew we could do. We knew we could score. We had scorers. Now we've got to be worried about it."
Perhaps most frustrating is that the problems don't seem to be consistent. Sometimes the Deacons shoot too many threes. Sometimes they aren't passing (last in the ACC in assists through eight games). Sometimes they don't have everyone running the same offense. Sometimes they shoot it because they're open, but not in any offensive flow. Sometimes they're out of control.
"Sometimes we play too fast," Gaudio said. "Sometimes we don't know when to hold them and when to fold them."
Sometimes they're standing around.
"On offense, we've got a lot of good stuff that we run," Gaudio said. "We don't run it hard enough. We've got to run our stuff harder to get open on the wings, screen harder, cut harder."
Sometimes, they just can't shoot.
"We obviously broke down the film, and we watched every shot that we took," Gaudio said after the USC Upstate game. "And we were like, Good shot, bad shot.' And a couple of them were just point-blank where we're going excuse my bad English we ain't getting closer than that.
"There were a couple of situations where we had the ball right there at the bucket. I don't care what you're doing on offense. You're not getting much closer than we're getting. We just have to finish plays."
After eight games, only L.D. Williams (49.2 percent) and Chas McFarland (48.7 percent) were shooting better than 45 percent. Guards Hale, Ish Smith, Gary Clark and Jeff Teague were a combined 76-for-219, or 34.7 percent.
"I told them: It's just right here for you guys,"' Gaudio said, pointing to his head. "And I'm not smart enough to be Dr. Phil. You've just got to play through it, and the shots will start dropping for you when you think they'll start dropping for you."
Smith seems to be the key. Through the first eight games of his freshman season last year, he averaged 10 points and 7.5 assists. Through the first eight games this season, he averaged eight points and 4.3 assists.
He seems unsure of exactly what he should be doing, which is not a good trait for a point guard. He's shown only glimpses of the aggressive driver who often sparked the offense last season.
Sometimes, Smith seems to be sitting back and letting Hale, Williams and freshman forward James Johnson create. Other times, Smith pushes the ball, only to find that the rest of the team isn't coming with him.
"Our break has to be a five-man break," Gaudio said. "It can't be Ish out in front of the pack by himself. But right now we're a one-man break."
Granted, Smith doesn't have the reliable Visser to dump the ball to when he gets in the lane. But Smith's game is built on being aggressive, and he can spark the whole team when he plays hard and fast.
Besides, judging by its shooting percentages, this is a Wake team that obviously needs him to create as many easy shots as possible.
UM BALANCE WINNING QUIETLY
CORAL GABLES Before the game, Miami coach Frank Haith worried that his team might not be ready for the challenge of playing against a tough opponent on the road.
At that point in the season, the Hurricanes had yet to play in an environment where they may have been at a disadvantage because of the crowd. The only games played away from BankUnited Center were on a neutral court in Puerto Rico and at nearby Florida International.
So Haith had reason to fear his team's game at Mississippi State on Dec. 13. But UM showed poise on the road and rallied late for a 64-58 victory.
The win proved yet again that the undefeated Hurricanes (9-0) are a team that shouldn't be taken lightly. After being picked to finish last in the ACC, they are off to their best start since 2001, when they won the first 14 games.
Haith's team has a realistic shot of entering ACC play without a loss. The Hurricanes finish up the non-conference schedule with games against Stetson, North Florida, North Carolina A&T, Winthrop and Penn. Although no game is considered a given, Miami should win all of them. It would set up a 14-0 Hurricanes team facing Georgia Tech at home in the league opener.
Perhaps then the Hurricanes will generate more fan interest at a school still mostly concerned with football. The struggles of the football program over the last three seasons continued in mid-December to be the buzz of internet message boards, again leaving basketball as mostly an afterthought.
But this year's basketball team has been a breath of fresh air.
Guard Jack McClinton leads the team in scoring and has fully recovered from a minor thumb injury that slowed him earlier this season. He has worn a soft cast on his left (non-shooting) hand but has proven he is over the pain. He was the biggest key in the Mississippi State victory, scoring a game-high 29 points. He scored 11 of his team's final 13 points.
But as has been the case all season, McClinton wasn't alone versus MSU. The Hurricanes have achieved so much success because of their balance. Center Anthony King, forward Dwayne Collins and guard James Dews each has been the leading scorer in other games this season. It's why you won't see any Hurricanes among the leaders in many statistical categories.
"If you look at our statistics, we don't have a lot of guys in individual stats in terms of scoring and a lot of those things," Haith said. "From a team standpoint, we're very high in a lot of those statistics."
The Hurricanes have been one of the league's top defensive teams. No opponent has scored more than 61 points. St. John's was held to 47 and shot 30 percent from the field.
"(Defense) is something we've really paid a lot of attention to," Haith said. "I think our defense is good for a couple of reasons. We're deeper and our kids have bought into it. It's something we've emphasized, and we've been consistent with it. That will enable us, when we have nights that we don't shoot the ball well, we can still keep ourselves in ballgames."
VASQUEZ, GIST FAILING TERPS
COLLEGE PARK It's going to take all of Gary Williams' vast coaching experience and acumen to keep Maryland away from the bottom third of the ACC this season.
By mid-December, it didn't take a college basketball analyst to see that this is just not a good Maryland team. Average fans easily can see that the Terrapins are seriously flawed, as the parts just are not in place to contend in the ACC.
Back in the early 1990s, when Williams was under the curse of NCAA sanctions and had little talent, Maryland finished seventh or eighth in the league for three straight seasons. In 1993-94, when the players in his first real recruiting class were sophomores and sensational freshman Joe Smith showed up, the Terps jumped to fourth in the ACC. They were annual contenders for the regular-season championship until 2002-03 but have finished sixth three times since.
In the expanded, 12-team ACC, a double-digit placement may not be out of the question for Maryland this season. When you lose at home to Ohio of the Mid-American Conference, it's a clear sign that you are going to struggle to beat most ACC opponents.
Williams often does his best work when his back is against the wall, so perhaps he can work some magic and figure out a way to get this club to play winning basketball. Improvement seems inevitable because the Terps are so young, with eight sophomores and freshmen in the 10-man rotation.
While that youth provides hope for the future, it produces wild inconsistency and innumerable fundamental mistakes in the present. Maryland is committing almost 18 turnovers per game, and that inability to handle the ball has hampered the flex offense, which relies heavily on crisp passing.
Most opponents are playing a mixture of zone defenses against the Terps, because they have not proven that they can knock down open perimeter shots. This team has a severe dearth of pure shooters, as point guard Eric Hayes is the only player who can make three-pointers at anywhere near a respectable percentage. Maryland fans likely never thought they would wish for David Neal to return from injury, but at least he's shown he can make an outside jumper.
Senior forward James Gist and sophomore guard Greivis Vasquez were supposed to lead Maryland this season. Both have been major disappointments so far. Vasquez is trying to do too much. Gist has not asserted himself at all.
Playing for the Venezuelan national team against NBA players in the FIBA Americas Championships last summer seems to have gone to Vasquez's head. He has been totally out of control all season, taking ill-advised shots and driving into traffic repeatedly. He's shooting a woeful 38 percent from the field and easily leads the team with 44 turnovers.
Several times toward the end of close games, Vasquez has tried to take over and do it all himself jacking up a quick jumper or unwisely taking the ball to the basket without even attempting to run the offense.
Meanwhile, fans were led to believe that this would be the season when Gist stepped up and performed like a future NBA draft pick. It was assumed that the 6-8 leaper would become a dominant inside force, similar to the way Al Thornton did as a senior at Florida State.
It just hasn't happened. Gist is averaging 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, respectable numbers but not nearly what was expected. Basically, Gist is playing the same way he did the last couple of seasons, when he was surrounded by better talent. He goes with the flow and avoids trying to take over the game.
Maryland has a myriad of other issues that need to be addressed in the coming weeks, but any hope of finishing close to .500 in the ACC begins with Gist doing more and Vasquez doing less.
TECH STRUGGLING ON DEFENSE
ATLANTA With a new football coach in place and only an innocuous bowl game left to play, Georgia Tech fans' focus finally has shifted to hoops.
The Yellow Jackets must beware, though, because the spotlight might burn. The football happenings had overshadowed the basketball team's 4-4 start.
Tech opened a five-game homestand Dec. 18 against No. 3 Kansas. Patsies such as Centenary, Tennessee Tech and Presbyterian comprise the remainder of the non-conference schedule, giving the Jackets an opportunity to build some momentum heading into ACC play.
Then again, even games against the lower-profile teams on the schedule have proven difficult for Tech thus far. The Jackets' four early defeats included losses to UNC Greensboro and Winthrop, and they barely beat two other cupcakes, Georgia State and Charlotte.
"This team needs to be tested and challenged," Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "People asked me, did we bite off too much? But if we're going to be any good this year, we've got to play with a lot more toughness."
Tech's problems lie in a familiar place: defense. Opponents are averaging 80 points per game and shooting 46 percent from the floor. The Jackets have held just one team under 70 points; Notre Dame scored 69 on Nov. 19.
The poor defense often has negated the Jackets' offensive firepower. Five players average in double figures, led by swingmen Anthony Morrow and Lewis Clinch. Post players Zack Peacock, Alade Aminu and Jeremis Smith all average between 10 and 12 points per game.
Tech has struggled on the defensive end since the core players of the 2004 Final Four team departed. Even last season, when the Jackets made the NCAA Tournament, they counted on outscoring opponents to win. They lack an imposing shotblocker in the middle, and their only lock-down perimeter defender is D'Andre Bell, who is playing out of position at point guard.
Indiana's guards repeatedly beat Tech off the dribble in an 83-79 win. The Hoosiers committed seven fewer turnovers than they passed out assists.
Yet there is hope for the Jackets. Hewitt praised Clinch's defensive progress in recent weeks, and Smith and Peacock are physical inside. And they could get another physical post player, senior Ra'Sean Dickey, back after the new year. Dickey was academically ineligible during the fall semester.
Next to improved defense, Tech's biggest need is gradual improvement by its newcomers. Forward Gani Lawal has scored in double figures in two games but has scored five points or fewer in five other games.
Meanwhile, point guards Matt Causey and Maurice Miller still are searching for a comfort level in the role, which is why Bell has started four games at the spot. Miller still is working his way back from a back injury that sidelined him for three games.
Point guard play is vital for Tech in the ACC, as evidenced by the last three seasons. With Jarrett Jack running the show in 2005, the Jackets played for the league title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. A year later, with Zam Fredrick in the role, Tech finished 11-17. Last season, Javaris Crittenton ran the team and led the Jackets back to the Big Dance.
Tech's slow start means that its postseason hopes will depend on its ACC success. And now the Yellow Jackets have their fans' undivided attention, for better or for worse.
YOUNG HOKIES STAYING FRESH
BLACKSBURG When Virginia Tech forward Deron Washington was a freshman, mysterious aches and pains started to rack his body in the last month of the season. He couldn't put his finger on the source of his discomfort, but he'd never experienced it before.
The trademark rise in his spindly legs was gone. His concentration just wasn't where it needed to be in the closing minutes of games. Though he started all 30 games as a freshman, he failed to score in double figures in eight of his last 11 games. It was a significant dropoff from the start of the season, when he scored in double figures in the first five games of his career, including two 20-plus-point efforts.
Washington, now a 6-7, 210-pound senior, had what could best be described as "ACC Freshman Disease."
With Tech dependent on the success of seven freshmen this season, Washington has taken a little time to warn his teammates to prepare for the grind of the ACC schedule. It's not high school anymore. Extended minutes and wear-and-tear will start adding up at the ACC level.
"I remember, during my freshman year, I just hit a wall," Washington said. "It was just like my muscles were sore and I'd tighten up really easy. I just tell these guys to make sure they're stretching and treating their bodies right at this time of year because you'll need it later on."
The bulk of the ACC season isn't here yet, but coach Seth Greenberg has been through it. He appears to be setting up his rotation and meticulously working his bench to keep some of his young players fresh, especially a few guys he's going to need down the stretch.
Point guard Hank Thorns and forward Jeff Allen, both full-time starters as freshmen, averaged fewer than 28 minutes per game in the first eight games.
Freshman guard Malcolm Delaney has yet to start a game, but Greenberg raves about Delaney's versatility at point guard and shooting guard. Delaney averaged 23.5 minutes per game in Tech's first eight games, which was right on target with what Greenberg said in the preseason he hoped to get Delaney.
Delaney averaged seven points, three rebounds and three assists per game in those eight games, entering most as Tech's sixth man. He shot 39 percent (10 of 26) from three-point range. That's solid production for a freshman off the bench, but it conceivably could get even better as the season progresses.
Greenberg could be setting Delaney up for more playing time (or maybe even a starting role) later in the season, when Thorns or shooting guard A.D. Vassallo needs a rest. Freshman forwards J.T. Thompson (17 minutes per game) and Terrell Bell (seven) probably are playing ideal minutes already.
What about Allen? Will he be fresh late in the season? There's at least a little reason for concern. At 6-7 and 258 pounds, he's the first to admit that he's probably not at his preferred playing weight. In mid-December, he said he'd like to lose 20-30 pounds, which could help him stay on the court longer in February and March.
"We mess with him all the time," Washington said. "We might go to the buffet and give him a hard time, like Jeff, you about ready (to leave)?'"
Greenberg did an excellent job of limiting Allen's minutes in the early going (27.5 per game in the first eight games). If Allen continues to have the kind of production he had in those early games (13 points and 8.3 rebounds per game; four double-doubles), his minutes surely will increase.
It's going to have to be a delicate balance with Allen, because nobody else on the team can provide his kind of role. He's a big man who can rebound and score under the basket, as well as run the floor. That's an invaluable presence in the ACC, especially late in the season.
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