By Dave Glenn and Staff
December 21, 2006
DURHAM -- The Duke basketball team that will show up for the San Jose State game on New Year's Eve may have a very different look than the one that opened the season 9-1 while sputtering badly at the offensive end.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski hinted at some major changes after completing that early season run of 10 games in 25 days.
"We've played so many games that what we need to do is practice," Krzyzewski said. "We've played all these games thinking we were one thing. ... Some of those things are still right, but we know as we're playing them that we have to do other things. You can change it the day before a game, but it's not instinctive. So you have to wait for a period like we have right now to make those changes."
Krzyzewski was looking forward to a 10-day layoff, followed by two pre-Christmas games in three days, followed by another 10-day layoff. It's during that stretch of just two games in 23 days that he hopes to restructure his team.
"I think the most obvious change," Krzyzewski said, "is to establish DeMarcus (Nelson) and Josh (McRoberts) and (guarantee them) a number of shots and a number for touches. And have Jon (Scheyer) and Marty (Pocius) to stretch defenses, and when Brian (Zoubek) comes in, have a menu (for plays) that will go to him."
Krzyzewski's preseason preparations for this team were disrupted by the foot injury that sidelined sophomore point guard Greg Paulus for a little more than a month. The player Coach K expected to pull his young team together was hurt on the second day of practice and returned to action only three days before the opener. Not only has Paulus been out of sync with the offense (averaging just 3.7 assists and 3.1 turnovers), he's been struggling to get into game shape.
Paulus said he expects to use the holiday layoff to take care of that problem, and to get comfortable with his new teammates.
Krzyzewski sounds as if he's more concerned with tailoring his gameplan to take advantage of McRoberts' unique collection of skills. The 6-10 sophomore is a good athlete and a superior ball-handler/passer (team-high 4.1 assists per game), but he hasn't been able to establish himself as a consistent scorer.
"He could be really different when we add the stuff I think we need to add," Krzyzewski said. "Because he can really pass the ball. And he wants to pass the ball, probably to a fault. I guess that's a good problem to have. But we have to get him in a position where we can get him the ball to score and not just to pass."
Fixing the offense would make a big difference with this team. Duke, which climbed in the national polls after a number of less-than-impressive victories, clearly was overrated as it headed into the break. But there were signs that this team has the potential to eventually deserve its lofty ratings.
This team rebounds better than most Duke teams, and it's shooting a better three-point percentage than last year's J.J. Redick-led team. Through the first month of the season, it also was one of the nation's best defensive teams, allowing fewer points per possession than any team in the country.
But Duke won't be a real top-10 team until the Blue Devils find a little more offensive consistency and stop turning the ball over in almost one out of every four possessions. If Coach K can fix that problem over the break, it will be a very happy holiday for the Devils.
MORE CHANGES IN THE WORKS
BC, Williams Block Out Worries
Jackets: Better Defense Crucial
Maryland Needs Ibekwe, Jones
Clemson (10-0) Progress Obvious
Cavaliers Slowed With Injuries
Miami Tinkering With Frontcourt
Shooting Guru Aiding Seminoles
Hokies Have Plenty Of Concerns
Recruiting Behind Wakes Woes
Wolfpack Needs Healthy Atsur
Tar Heels Working On Defense
BC, WILLIAMS BLOCK OUT WORRIES
CHESTNUT HILL -- Every time Sean Williams blocks a shot, you have to think that some Boston College people cringe, thinking that he's one step closer to leaving early for the NBA. Every time the big fella makes a move and scores, that feeling probably gets a bit stronger.
When you consider the number of high school players who once decided (before the NBA rules changes) to skip college entirely and enter the draft, most of them too early, you look at a kid like this, who blocks shots the way he does, and you think he might be done after this, his junior year.
Williams had 38 blocked shots in his first seven games (12 in his first game) back from his latest suspension, this one a two-gamer for an unspecified violation of team rules. The numbers left him on pace to smash his own school record of 63 blocks, which he set as a freshman.
"That's something you can't teach," said former BC assistant Ed Cooley, now the head coach at Fairfield, which recently lost to the Eagles. "You can't teach a kid to block shots like that."
If his offensive game is simply adequate -- and he averaged about 12 points per game through his first seven -- you'd have to think the 6-10 kid from Houston is a possible first-round pick. In addition, he has had too much trouble at the school to think he'd want to play another year if he had a better option.
Many at BC thought he would have been gone after last year, but his on-campus arrest and suspension from school for the first semester set him back. Now you have to wonder if he'll join seniors Jared Dudley and Sean Marshall in leaving a gaping hole in the Eagles' lineup next year.
Speaking of having to wonder, it's often puzzling what goes through the minds of Associated Press voters as the season gets rolling.
BC was picked 14th (third in the ACC) in the opening AP poll. Some thought both placements were too high. But when you have Dudley, one of the best players in the conference or anywhere, and enough talent around him, the feeling was that the losses of Craig Smith (NBA) and Louis Hinnant (Europe) wouldn't be devastating.
Then, the Eagles opened with a win over New Hampshire and moved up a slot. Playing without Williams and valuable forward Akida McLain (both suspended), BC then suffered a terrible home loss to Vermont. Then, Williams returned, McLain missed the third of his nine, and BC fell at unranked Providence, dropping to 1-2.
BC turned things around and beat Michigan State, unranked at the time, but still a quality opponent. The Eagles, out of the Top 25, kept winning. Michigan State moved into the rankings at No. 25, and BC received one vote in the poll. The Eagles then opened the ACC schedule with a win over No. 23 Maryland, and they received 30 votes, good enough for what would amount to No. 36. Michigan State? The Spartans kept winning, dropped out of the Top 25, but were No. 31 in the latest poll.
It just didn't seem to make any sense -- either the No. 14 at the start, or the No. 36 in a week that saw BC win its fifth straight to go to 6-2.
How badly will the Eagles (7-2, 1-0 ACC) get buried if they lose at No. 11 Kansas on Dec. 23? Obviously, they don't want to know.
JACKETS: BETTER DEFENSE CRUCIAL
ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech's late December schedule resembled a holiday feast, full of edible opponents for the Yellow Jackets to hone their play against heading into the ACC slate and pad their record for the March Madness selectors.
Starting with a Dec. 18 game against Centenary, Tech was set to face five lightly regarded opponents -- all at home -- before traveling to Clemson on Jan. 6 for the first of nine straight league games. The other opponents: Georgia, Troy, St. Francis and Winston-Salem State.
Considering Tech's play since its runner-up finish in the Maui Invitational, those teams might not be the pushovers they appear to be. The Yellow Jackets struggled to close out games and were dreadful defensively in edging Penn State on Nov. 28, then losing to Miami and Vanderbilt in their next two outings.
Those three opponents shot 54 percent from the floor and 44 percent from three-point range. They abused the Jackets' man-to-man defense, using penetration and good ball movement to get open shots.
"We have to generate just a little bit more pride in our defense," Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "We have to figure out a way ... no, not figure out a way, we have to decide to get stops. Nothing technical. Nothing fancy about it."
Penn State used sharp shooting to rally late. Tech led by eight points with three minutes to go, but the Nittany Lions had a shot to tie the game in the closing seconds. The Yellow Jackets faltered down the stretch against Miami and Vanderbilt as well, but without a lead.
The Hurricanes out-scored the Jackets 13-7 in the last three minutes to stretch a two-point lead into a 90-82 victory. Against Vandy, Tech scored just four points in the final four minutes.
The Yellow Jackets need to snap out of their funk over the holidays. They must be sharp defensively and confident in pressure situations by the time they play Clemson or risk a repeat of last season, when they went 4-12 in ACC play.
Plus, Tech needs the five wins to solidify its tournament resume. Those victories would put the team at 11-3 going to Clemson with 16 games remaining -- 15 ACC games, plus a non-conference showdown with Connecticut.
A 9-7 finish would give the Jackets 20 wins heading into the ACC Tournament and almost ensure them an NCAA spot.
"We need Ws -- wins," junior forward Jeremis Smith said. "We definitely need to use this stretch to stack up wins."
That's not to mention the momentum and confidence that would come with the victories. Only one member of this year's team played on the 2004 Final Four squad, and the Jackets showed last year that too much adversity can lead to a complete collapse. Tech lost 13 of its last 15 games last season.
"The next three weeks are crucial for us to get back guarding and doing the things we were doing early in the year to be a good defensive team," Hewitt said. "That will kick our offense back up."
MARYLAND NEEDS IBEKWE, JONES
COLLEGE PARK -- It's becoming obvious that in order for Maryland to make marked improvement in the win-loss column, it will need more consistent play out of two seniors whose careers have been defined by inconsistency.
When swingman Mike Jones and center Ekene Ibekwe play well, the team seems to play well. When Jones and Ibekwe are missing in action, as still happens too often, there is usually a clear dropoff in the Terrapins' performance.
Maryland desperately needs the inside scoring and defensive presence Ibekwe can provide. The Terps also rely on the three-point shooting and overall scoring ability of Jones.
Potential is the word most often used in association with Jones, who still has not lived up to his advanced billing as a McDonald's All-American. Enigma is a word that's come up in connection to Ibekwe, whose attitude and demeanor sometimes have left observers scratching their heads.
People have been saying that Jones was poised for a break-out season ever since he was a sophomore. Coach Gary Williams talks in the preseason about how Jones has developed into a more complete player, and that inevitably leads media and fans to believe that Jones finally will live up to expectations.
Instead, Jones continually has disappointed -- mixing spectacular shooting displays with atrocious ball-handling and inexcusable lapses on defense. Williams always has been forced to weigh whether Jones' scoring punch outweighs his deficiencies in other areas when determining how much playing time to give the 6-5 wing.
It would not be outrageous at this stage to wonder if Ibekwe is simply a head case. The 6-9 Nigeria native has tremendous physical tools -- explosive leaping ability, superb quickness, long arms and outstanding overall athleticism. It seems that the only thing holding the California resident back is what's above the shoulders and between the ears, as his decision-making, court awareness and general basketball IQ clearly are lacking, even in his final year of college.
Jones and Ibekwe have been up to their old tricks already this season. After starting well they slumped, and Maryland's chemistry and cohesiveness suffered as a result.
Ibekwe was terrific in Maryland's first big victory of the season, totaling 22 points and 14 rebounds against St. John's in the semifinals of the Coaches Vs. Cancer Tournament. But he was a complete non-factor in the Terps' ACC opener, managing just six points and three rebounds in a loss to Boston College.
Jones was outstanding in Maryland's huge road victory over Illinois, scoring 19 points on 7-for-11 field goal shooting. But he completely disappeared in an upset loss to Notre Dame during the BB&T Classic, going scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting and sitting glumly on the bench for most of the second half.
It appears that Williams has begun to give a significant amount of Jones' minutes at wing guard to freshman Greivis Vasquez, who is a better ball-handler and passer as well as a tougher defender.
What annoyed Williams most about Ibekwe's performance against BC was that he repeatedly tried to dribble through traffic on senseless drives to the basket and committed four turnovers. The veteran coach then sent a strong message by starting junior college transfer Bambale Osby in Ibekwe's place against Missouri-Kansas City.
Sources within the program said Williams was not pleased that Ibekwe basically benched himself against Illinois, apparently because of a mild ankle injury. Trainer J.J. Bush said Ibekwe was 75 percent healthy and cleared to play, while the player claimed he was only 35 percent and couldn't go.
What's clear is that Williams wants Ibekwe to get his head together and start playing with the consistency and leadership expected of a senior who is basically a third-year starter.
Meanwhile, Jones flashed his enormous potential by setting a school record with nine three-pointers against Missouri-Kansas City. He made 9 of 13 from beyond the arc in surpassing the previous mark of eight, initially set by Walt Williams in 1992 and tied by Jones last season.
Undersized Missouri-Kansas City was forced to play a variety of zone defenses to prevent getting killed down low. That gave Jones plenty of open looks outside, and the streaky shooter got into a comfort zone.
It will be a different story against ACC opponents, who have scouted Jones for years and who try to make sure that they have a strong defender in his face at all times. Jones has never been able to create his own shot, and for unknown reasons Williams rarely runs him off screens in order to set up open treys.
CLEMSON (10-0) PROGRESS OBVIOUS
CLEMSON -- At most schools, a Top 25 ranking isn't exactly stop-the-presses stuff. But Clemson reacts a bit differently when its basketball team creeps into one of the major polls.
The Tigers landed at No. 25 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll in mid-December, and the press releases and newspaper articles that followed made it sound as if something had been accomplished.
In a way, it had. After all, the Tigers' most recent ranking was in January 1999. That's when the team was beginning its gradual descent from national power to ACC laughingstock under Larry Shyatt.
At Clemson, whose basketball pedigree can be stuffed into a thimble, success is measured in more humble increments. And the Tigers have shown some evidence that more success could come in coach Oliver Purnell's fourth year.
In October, Purnell made no secret of his expectation for this team. His past two squads ended up in the NIT, and Purnell wants an NCAA trip this time.
The Tigers took a big step toward that goal with a 10-0 start that witnessed road victories over Old Dominion, Minnesota and South Carolina. Those were games Clemson could have lost, and the clean sweep could mean something come March.
Purnell speaks and acts like a man who is watching something unfold according to plan. The pre-conference schedule contained some potential stumbling blocks, particularly for a team that lost a solid low-post presence (Akin Akingbala) and its best shooter (Shawan Robinson).
For quite some time, Clemson's coaches believed that freshman Trevor Booker would make an immediate impact. There was reason to be skeptical of a 6-7 center coming in and looking comfortable right away, but Booker has completely validated his coaches' forecast.
Booker and 6-9 frontcourt mate James Mays aren't physically imposing, but they make up for it with tenacity on the glass and on defense. And Booker is probably more polished on offense than most folks expected.
Meanwhile, sophomore sixth man K.C. Rivers has showcased a shooting touch that makes up for Robinson's loss. Rivers isn't starting because Purnell needs him to help back up starting point guard Vernon Hamilton, but there's little doubt that Rivers is the most complete and skilled player on the team.
This team is still streaky at shooting from long range and from the free throw line, as proved in uneven performances against Minnesota and South Carolina. But there's reason to think the Tigers are more dangerous because they can score in different ways.
Freshman wing David Potter should play only 10-15 minutes per game, but he has a nice three-point shooting stroke and a deceptive mid-range game. Sophomore forward Julius Powell isn't as timid, and he'll hit his share of three-pointers after popping off picks.
It's early, but the signs are pointing toward more progress under Purnell.
"I think this is as good of a Clemson team as they have had in the past couple of years," Wofford coach Mike Young said after a Dec. 5 loss to the Tigers. "They are tenacious on defense and maniacal on the glass. They are very physical, and I think they are a legitimate Top 20 or 25 team."
CAVALIERS SLOWED WITH INJURIES
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The first ejection of Dave Leitao's coaching tenure at Virginia, and the first for any UVa coach since 1976, did not remove all of the focus from a team that remains a work in progress.
In a 91-69 victory over a Hampton team that dropped to 2-8, the Cavaliers led by six points early in the second half, in a performance that was reminiscent of earlier efforts against low-major opponents Morgan State and UNC Asheville. In both of those games, UVa raced to early 20-point leads, only to play down to the level of the opposition over the final 30 minutes.
Leitao continued to tinker with different combinations heading into a trip to the San Juan Shootout. Some of that was in an effort to build depth. However, injuries continued to plague a Virginia team that figured to be one of the deepest in recent memory.
Solomon Tat, a 6-5 freshman who caught Leitao's eye with his defense against Arizona veteran Mustafa Shakur, continued to nurse a groin injury that kept him off the floor since the opening game Nov. 12. Tat has not undergone surgery, but two other players have -- center Tunji Soroye (sports hernia) and wing Will Harris (bone spurs).
Most puzzling has been the decline of Lauris Mikalauskas, a 6-8, 255-pound sophomore who played nearly 24 minutes per game as a freshman. Mikalauskas averaged about eight minutes over the first seven games this year and played three against Hampton, his second three-minute outing in a row.
Mikalauskas has displayed little of the explosiveness that marked his play as a freshman, mostly as a result of preseason injuries to both ankles. Mikalauskas' involvement with a Lithuanian all-star team this summer kept him away from the UVa facilities, and the injuries left him further behind his teammates, but mostly he seems unable to elevate.
Soroye's season debut occurred in a Nov. 29 visit to Purdue, where he played well enough defensively in a late-game stretch that he got the start four days later in Virginia's ACC opener against N.C. State. Then, when Hampton came to town at the end of a 12-day UVa exam break, Soroye played one minute.
Some of that resulted from the play of Ryan Pettinella, a 6-9, 235-pound transfer from Pennsylvania. Pettinella was 6-for-6 from the floor and finished with the first double-double of his college career, 12 points and 10 rebounds, in 24 minutes.
Pettinella made only two of six free throws, and that's going to be a problem for him in close games. He shot 47.1 percent from the line on 102 attempts in his two seasons at Penn, and he was 5-of-19 (26.3 percent) after seven games this season.
Virginia continues to rely heavily on its perimeter players, most notably junior point guard Sean Singletary and senior J.R. Reynolds, although Reynolds has not been sharp since taking a finger to the eye prior to the Arizona game.
Reynolds, a 78.3 percent free throw shooter in his first three years, was only 24-of-36 from the line over the first seven games and had a 28-24 assist-turnover ratio. Singletary, on the other hand, made 39 straight free throws during one stretch and was 55-of-58 from the line, with a 41-22 assist-turnover ratio.
After three games in the San Juan Shootout, Virginia (6-1 before the trip) will return home for a Dec. 28 visit from American, coached by Jeff Jones, a former UVa point guard and eight-year head coach. Jones admittedly never felt comfortable returning to his old home, University Hall, after his 1998 firing.
MIAMI TINKERING WITH FRONTCOURT
CORAL GABLES -- Miami coach Frank Haith is struggling to find the best way to utilize his roster without senior forward Anthony King, who will be sidelined until at least early January with a right wrist injury he suffered in the team's early December win over Georgia Tech.
UM has plenty of athletic big bodies this season, but without King, who entered his third season as a starter, the team is missing a defensive force. His absence has led the Hurricanes to change the way they play defense, relying even more on zones than usual.
"He was a guy we were counting on to be a double-double guy," Haith said of King, who averaged 7.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game before spraining a tendon while bracing a fall. "We're going to miss his leadership and rebounding, but we've got to figure out a way."
Freshman forward Dwayne Collins has been UM's most pleasant surprise this season. His 14 points, six rebounds and five blocks in an embarrassing 70-52 loss to Mississippi State earned him a spot in the starting lineup. But the Hurricanes must weather Collins' inconsistencies, which are caused by his steep learning curve.
Collins is shooting 62 percent from the field, which leads Miami, but he's scoring mostly on put-backs. He still needs to develop a spot-up jumper and a reliable move with his back to the basket.
"Dwayne can be special," Haith said. "He's got to work every day, continue to grow as a player. As long as he plays with that type of energy level, he's going to be good."
Haith joked that Collins doesn't know whether he's "going or coming" half the time, because of his limited basketball IQ, but he does make it seem easy.
Fabio Nass was tried out as a starter, playing alongside Collins in mid-December, because his skill-set (handle and the ability to shoot from distance) is complementary to Collins. However, Nass' defensive shortcomings limit the amount of minutes the rail-thin junior college transfer can play.
UM tried inserting Raymond Hicks into the starting lineup when King initially went down, and while the junior is UM's best scoring option in the post, it was determined that he's more of an asset coming off the bench.
Hicks, a small forward with a power forward's game, is shooting nearly 60 percent from the field, and is turning into a reliable spot-up shooter. But he's grabbing fewer than three rebounds per game and leads the team in fouls, despite playing only 21 minutes per game.
Jimmy Graham started the first 10 games of the season, and while he's a physically imposing forward who can push around almost anybody in the ACC, he lacks the leap and perhaps the dedication to become a defensive force.
Haith has challenged Graham to study more film and commit himself to living up to his athletic ability.
"I want to see Jimmy look at basketball as something that's more important than he does," Haith said. "He can give us more."
SHOOTING GURU AIDING SEMINOLES
TALLAHASSEE -- In its 15 seasons of ACC membership, Florida State has never finished better than fourth in free throw percentage.
The Seminoles' maladies from the line undoubtedly have had an effect on their efforts to climb from the league's second division, especially in the first four years of coach Leonard Hamilton's tenure.
Hamilton came into this season with a 65-58 record, which could have been significantly better had the Seminoles been able to pull out a few more close games, of which there has been no shortage. Of those 58 defeats, 27 have come by six points or fewer, including 12 decided by two or fewer points.
"There's no question that the little things make the difference," Hamilton said. "That's one reason why we're placing so much emphasis on free throw shooting. ... Those statistics bear out the fact that free throws are extremely important, especially during close games."
The Seminoles were not in many close games early this season, but their accuracy from the line improved tremendously. FSU led the ACC in free throw percentage at .757 through mid-December. That pace, if maintained, would shatter the single-season school record.
The addition of assistant coach Andy Enfield to the staff obviously has made a difference. Enfield is the NCAA's career leader in free throw percentage (.925), set as a player at Division III Johns Hopkins. His teaching skills led him to assistant jobs in the NBA with the Bucks and Celtics, as well as the personal coach for stars such as Paul Pierce, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd and Dwayne Wade.
"He's a specialist in those areas, and it's paying off," Hamilton said. "We hope that, over the long haul, it can make a difference in the season this year."
It already has. Senior forward Al Thornton came into the season as a .641 career free throw shooter, but under Enfield's guidance he was connecting at an .827 pace one-third of the way into the season. Thornton is one of five Seminoles who is connecting at a pace better than his career average.
The next challenge for Hamilton, Enfield and the Seminoles is to get to the line with greater frequency. FSU is averaging just 17.3 free throw attempts per game. Only Clemson (14.4) is worse in the ACC.
HOKIES HAVE PLENTY OF CONCERNS
BLACKSBURG -- By the end of the season, Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg may sound like a broken record. For the last three seasons, poor rebounding has been his biggest concern.
Though Tech (7-3, 1-0 ACC) got off to a decent start, there's a good chance that rebounding will become a huge issue again, which might not be such a big deal if it was the Hokies' only major worry. In addition to the drought on the boards, though, guard Jamon Gordon simply hasn't been himself. Add the two issues together, and there's cause for a little heartburn.
This season was supposed to bring some built-in remedies for Tech's continued rebounding troubles. A healthy Robert Krabbendam at center and a refocused Coleman Collins at power forward (his natural position) were expected to provide more punch on the boards.
It hasn't worked out that way. Tech out-rebounded just four of its first nine non-conference opponents. Preseason optimism about rebounding prowess has evolved into nothing but more questions, as Tech prepares for January ACC games against Duke, North Carolina, Miami and Georgia Tech. All four opponents showed a penchant for strong rebounding in the early season.
By mid-December, Tech was still in the bottom half of the conference in rebounding margin (eighth through the first nine games). Krabbendam averaged just 11 minutes and a mere 1.5 rebounds per game in the first month and a half. Collins dropped off the face of the planet during the same span, losing his starting job and averaging just four rebounds per game.
Collins, a senior, may be close to reaching the point of no return. He needs to make a move to get back into the starting lineup at the start of the ACC slate, or he may find himself in a semi-permanent role coming off the bench for the rest of his college career. Freshman forward Lewis Witcher continues to steal Collins' playing time.
"I'm surprised coach actually made the move to start Lewis," Tech guard Zabian Dowdell said, "but he's definitely shown that he's capable. I think Coleman can use it as motivation, but as long as Lewis continues to play, I think coach will keep bringing Coleman off the bench."
Why is Witcher starting? It all comes down to that dirty word again -- rebounding.
"That's the biggest area where we need to improve," Greenberg said. "I mean, the guy rebounds. That's the best thing about him."
Gordon joins Collins in the mysterious disappearance category. Gordon went a stretch in early December where he failed to score in double figures in four of five games. Of course, there's no reason to think Gordon's woes will continue.
He went through a six-week stretch last season in December and January when he was unable to reach double figures in eight of 12 games. He responded by scoring double figures in six of Tech's last seven games, including 21 and 24 points in back-to-back road games against Clemson and Virginia, respectively.
Despite on-going rebounding issues, and the slow development of Collins and Gordon, the Hokies were able to engineer a 7-3 start, but they still don't have an eye-catching non-conference victory.
Tech's most significant win in November or December was probably its 72-55 victory Dec. 6 against Old Dominion. A 69-65 win against Iowa on Nov. 29 looks much less impressive for Tech, considering that the Hawkeyes went on to lose another Dec. 16 non-conference game to Drake.
Clearly, the start of the regular ACC schedule will have to be "moving time" for Tech.
RECRUITING BEHIND WAKE'S WOES
WINSTON-SALEM -- While the Wake Forest football program is reaching new heights, the basketball program continues to struggle.
Two years ago, any observer would have scoffed at that idea. Wake had reach-ed the No. 1 ranking in basketball, and coach Jim Grobe's football team had finished 1-7 in the ACC.
So what happened?
The football road has been well-chronicled lately, and much of it stems from very solid, smart recruiting. The same can't be said for basketball.
One of the big knocks on previous coach Dave Odom was his recruiting. Odom was criticized for taking too many longshots, many of which -- predictably -- didn't pan out.
Coach Skip Prosser landed strong players such as Justin Gray, Chris Paul and Eric Williams. Although he missed on others, Prosser had Wake mentioned with a lot more highly ranked players. As Wake gained national attention, it seemed to follow that more of those recruits would land in Winston-Salem.
It hasn't happened. The last two years have looked a whole lot like Odom-type teams: some athletes, but a lack of defined skills, and little star power.
Let's look back:
2002 -- Williams and Gray were success stories, playing roles in some of Wake's best moments. Still, they weren't strong enough to carry the program as seniors. Richard Joyce was a complete miss. Chris Ellis was a role player, and Trent Strickland was a great athlete who never fully developed.
2003 -- Paul ranks as one of the best ever at Wake. Todd Hendley and Jeremy Ingram were misses, transferring to UNC Wilmington and East Carolina, respectively. Neither has even been dominant at that level. Kyle Visser never averaged more than five points per game before this year. He's playing well as a senior, but it's difficult to wait three full years for a player to develop.
2004 -- Cameron Stanley was the only recruit. He fits the Strickland athlete profile, but he added a severe knee injury. He redshirted as a freshman, and he's barely playing now as a sophomore. Whether he'll ever develop that athleticism remains questionable.
2005 -- Prosser brought in Harvey Hale, David Weaver, Kevin Swinton and Shamaine Dukes. Hale is the best, but he's a complementary player. Weaver redshirted, and it would be a stretch to project him as more than a backup. Swinton has no offense and barely looks like an ACC player. The same can be said for Dukes, a little-known spring signee.
2006 -- Prosser landed six players and several question marks. Can 7-0 Chas McFarland develop or fit with a running style? Casey Crawford is a better version of Hendley, but is that enough? L.D. Williams is in the Strickland/Stanley mode, although he seems more focused, so maybe that means he'll develop. Anthony Gurley is a big guard who can shoot but can't play defense. Jamie Skeen and Ish Smith appear to be the most complete. Neither, however, is going to be able to carry a program immediately.
Also, Michael Drum walked on and has seen significant playing time. That probably says much of what needs to be said about the state of the program.
In 2007, Prosser has two recruits -- James Johnson and Jeff Teague. Both are good, but neither is rated in the top 50 nationally, so they may be in the "developing" mode.
The scorecard shows 21 players, including Drum, over five classes (not including 2007). Four have been impact players early: Gray, Eric Williams, Paul and Smith. Eight players either haven't had any or much impact or seem unlikely to: Joyce, Hendley, Ingram, Stanley, Weaver, Swinton, Dukes and McFarland.
That leaves nine: Ellis, Strickland, Visser, Hale, Skeen, Gurley, L.D. Williams, Drum and Crawford. Only Skeen and Hale appear to be solid four-year contributors, but will either become a star? Perhaps Gurley or Williams will.
That's not a great record, and you can't miss that much in a sport where you have only a few scholarships each year.
What really stands out is the lack of impact players. Prosser has chased them, including Mike Conley and Greg Oden, but he's come up empty. Prosser isn't in the Atlantic-10 but the ACC, where some other teams are bringing in one or more McDonald's All-Americans every year or two.
Many of Prosser's recruits might be good players surrounding a star or two, but when asked to play the top roles, they don't have the skills. Think of what last year's team could have been like with Smith on hand.
Of course, you can make the point that Grobe doesn't recruit many big-impact players, either, but he's having success identifying the right longshots and then developing those players into stars. The jury appears to be out on whether Prosser and his staff can do either of those things on a consistent basis.
WOLFPACK NEEDS HEALTHY ATSUR
RALEIGH -- The case could be made that Ben McCauley is the one player N.C. State's basketball team can least afford to lose. He's the only bona fide big man and power player inside capable of holding up against ACC-caliber competition.
The case could be made that Gavin Grant is the one player State can least afford to lose, because he's the best athlete, the most versatile player, potentially the most explosive scorer, and the most assertive and confident player in clutch situations.
But through nine games, maybe the truest can't-do-without-guy became evident. Senior Engin Atsur missed four games with a pulled hamstring in early December, and State suffered its first two losses of the year -- at Virginia, at West Virginia.
Maybe State would have lost both even with Atsur, and maybe State would have lost by more had McCauley or Grant been out. Probably not, though, since Virginia whipped State badly on the boards with McCauley, and Grant proved that he can't do it all, all the time, as he ran the point in Atsur's absence.
One might argue that State rose to the occasion when Atsur went down early against Michigan, and that others picked up the slack and State proved it could win without him. But that's a skewed argument, since Michigan's bricklayers acted as if they had never seen a zone defense, and that one was more a matter of Sidney Lowe out-coaching Tommy Amaker with both hands tied behind his back.
Here's what Atsur brings to the table and why he is so vitally essential to this State team, this season, under these less-than-ideal circumstances.
He brings senior experience and stability, after starting 90 games in his first three seasons. He brings a subdued ego, a calming influence and a unique, steadying personality to a group that has some far more outgoing and flamboyant teammates, including Grant.
Atsur is the best outside shooter on the team, which is going to be vital, particularly with the lack of a dominant offensive force inside. Through five games, before his injury, he shot 62.8 percent from the field and 43.5 percent from three-point range. Granted, the competition was not ACC-caliber, but the ball went in.
He is capable of big numbers when he's on, as evidenced by 24- and 26-point nights in two of his first four games. He's one of two players -- forward Brandon Costner is the other -- with the capability of heating up from three-point range and bringing State back from deficits.
Atsur is the safest bet with the basketball, despite the fact that he is making the transition from full-time wing guard to point guard/combo guard this season. His assist/turnover ratio of 3.0 before the injury would rank second in the ACC if he had enough numbers to qualify, which he doesn't since he missed four games.
He is perhaps State's smartest player, which goes with being an experienced veteran.
It is unfortunate for Lowe that any one player is so vital, because ideally the coach would like to have a team where one injury would not be devastating. Given the lack of depth that arose for various reasons before Lowe ever coached his first game at NCSU, it is really, really unfortunate that there can be a debate over the importance of Atsur versus McCauley versus Grant, because that underscores the gravity of the depth problem.
Atsur's absence early made one thing clear. He needs to get healthy, and he needs to stay healthy, because he is absolutely vital to this team's success.
TAR HEELS WORKING ON DEFENSE
CHAPEL HILL -- What did North Carolina coach Roy Williams ask his players for this Christmas? What do you get for the guy who has everything?
UNC earned its 8-1 start and top-five national ranking for many reasons. Most importantly, the Tar Heels have the deepest roster in the college ranks, with at least 11 players capable of contributing productive minutes, even against quality opposition. Through mid-December, the Heels had 10 men averaging double-figure minutes, from sophomore big man Tyler Hansbrough (29.0) to freshman post reserve Deon Thompson (10.3).
They have a proven commodity in Hansbrough, steady hands in guards Bobby Frasor and Marcus Ginyard, and rising stars in power forward Brandan Wright, wing guard Wayne Ellington and point guard Ty Lawson. Along with senior forward Reyshawn Terry, they make up a clear-cut top seven in the rotation.
The Heels have plenty of scoring options inside and outside, they handle the ball pretty well, they shoot free throws OK, they play hard, they have a pretty high basketball IQ as a team, and they're more than competitive on the boards.
So what did UNC practice most in and around exams in December, when the team had only four games in a 25-day period, from Dec. 3-27?
Defense. Lots of defense. Getting back to fundamentals, the Tar Heels spent much of two mid-December practices simply reinforcing the proper way to take a defensive stance, given the position of the ball, the opposing man and the defensive basket. They did it over and over and over.
"We're learning," Wright said. "Get in the passing lanes, get down in your stance, play harder, play smarter, communicate. If we do those things, we can be a very good defensive team, and that's what we want to be."
The team's only early loss, 82-74 to Gonzaga in the NIT Season Tip-Off, came in a game when UNC both shot poorly and played bad defense. Williams told his players that shooting can go hot or cold for any team. The coach said he wants them to take better, smarter shots in some situations, but that he was most concerned with the team's porous defense against the Zags.
Gonzaga shot 52.5 percent (32-61) from the field and 57.1 percent (8-14) from three-point range against UNC, in a game that was even in most other categories. Unlike most college teams, the Zags had legitimate threats inside (Josh Heytvelt) and outside (Derek Raivio, Matt Bouldin), but the Tar Heels came away with a lesson they want to apply against all foes the rest of the way.
"We can't accomplish our goals playing defense that way," said Ginyard, one of the team's best defenders. "There are always going to be nights when the ball doesn't go down (offensively) the way you want it to. But you can always control your effort and your execution on defense. If you don't, especially in March, you'll be going home early. We know that."
In their first three December games, the Tar Heels first held Kentucky (a 75-63 win) to 46.3 percent shooting and 20 percent three-point accuracy. Against High Point (94-69), those percentages were 43.5 and 25. Against UNC Asheville (93-62), they were 33.9 and 27.8.
Those statistics brought down the most alarming number on Carolina's statistical sheet heading into the holidays, the opponents' three-point percentage. Through nine games, the Tar Heels made 36.7 percent of their threes, but they also gave up 36.9 percent from long range to their opponents.
If Williams has his way for Christmas, the latter number will continue to go down, as UNC's defense continues to crank up.
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