Dave Glenn and staff
ACCSports.com December 22, 2005
DURHAM -- J.J. Redick was the ACC player of the year and a unanimous first-team All-American as a junior.
But through the first month of his senior season, his statistics were significantly better in several key areas. He raised his scoring average from 21.8 in 2005 to 24.9 through nine games this season, second nationally to Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison. More significantly, Redick raised his overall shooting percentage from 40.8 last year to 49.0. He raised his three-point average from 40.3 in 2005 to an ACC-best 47.1 this year.
The latter number is an interesting response to last year's comments by Arizona coach Lute Olsen. Late in the season, when Redick was being touted as the nation's best shooter, Olsen complained that his own sharpshooter, Salim Stoudamire, shot a higher percentage from three-point range. The truth was that a lot of players shot a higher percentage on three-pointers last season than Redick, including eight other ACC players.
Surprisingly, Maryland coach Gary Williams -- hardly a Duke admirer -- stepped up last February to defend Redick from Olsen's criticism.
"I think it's phenomenal that he can shoot that percentage," Williams said. "Going into this year, if you took a poll across the country and asked, Who is the best three-point shooter?' it would be Redick. So obviously every team that goes in, you're trying to take Redick away from the three-point line as much as possible."
That's still the case, but Redick has raised his three-point percentage significantly so far this season.
"I think it's a function of me becoming a better all-around player offensively," Redick said. "And also I think I'm a little more selective in the threes that I take. I feel like I can create a good shot for myself where I don't have to force up a three from 30 feet."
That's reflected in a more obscure number. Through his first three seasons, the great majority of Redick's points came from three-point range (almost 53 percent) or from the foul line (almost 25 percent). Less than 25 percent of his points came on two-point field goals, and he never hit better than 43.9 percent on two-point attempts.
This season, Redick has scored 35.6 percent of his points from inside the three-point arc, and he is hitting a healthy 50.6 percent on his two-point attempts.
The change in his game made Redick a far more effective player in the early going than he was as a 2005 All-American. It's also driving him toward a couple of significant ACC career records. If he stays healthy and maintains his current scoring rate, Redick would finish the regular season with 2,526 career points, within easy postseason range of Dickie Hemric's 50-year-old ACC career scoring record of 2,587.
Even more likely to fall is Curtis Staples' ACC and NCAA career record of 413 three-point field goals made. Redick hit the 350 mark with his last three-pointer against Texas and, barring injury or a major slump, will pass the former Virginia star before the end of the regular season.
"It is interesting because Curtis Staples is from my hometown," Redick said. "At the first basketball camp I ever went to, he was at Oak Hill at the time and had left Patrick Henry, which was one of my rival high schools, and he was actually my coach at the camp."
Not only do Staples and Redick hail from Roanoke (Redick played at Cave Spring High), but Radford's Doug Day, currently the No. 3 man on the NCAA career three-point list, also hails from Roanoke. That could mean that by the end of this season, three of the only four players in NCAA history to top 400 career three-pointers come from the same moderate-sized Virginia city.
MORE SOUNDINGS FROM AROUND THE LEAGUE
Maryland Rotation Needs Jones
Eagles Will Wait For Williams
Defense Again Deacons' Demon
Sendek Tackles Princeton Tag
Fredrick, Dickey Remain Keys
Leitao Battling Losing Feeling
FSU Winning Hamilton's Way
Greenberg Leans On Iron Five
Clemson Early: Press, Run, Win
Harris, Verdejo Lead UM News
UNC Freshmen Carrying Load
MARYLAND ROTATION NEEDS JONES
COLLEGE PARK -- There is no more hotly debated topic among Maryland basketball fans than the playing time (or lack thereof) afforded Mike Jones. It has been a sore subject for some ever since Jones arrived as a McDonald's All-American, ranked as the nation's No. 2 high school shooting guard behind LeBron James by some scouting services.
Jones supporters rail at coach Gary Williams for his apparent unwillingness to use the athletic swingman for extended stretches. They can't understand why Jones is kept on a short leash -- inserted into games, then yanked after one mistake or bad decision.
This season was supposed to be different. Jones worked harder than ever during the offseason, and it seemed clear during the preseason that he had improved some of his shortcomings. Yet Jones still isn't getting the type of minutes (19.5 per game) some think he deserves. He still is not allowed to play long enough to get into the flow of the game. He still seems to be looking over his shoulder, wondering if the next turnover or missed shot will result in a seat on the bench.
Further fueling the anger of those who want to see more of Jones is the fact that Nik Caner-Medley is playing about 30 minutes per game this season, the second-highest total on the team. Some argue that Jones has a much greater upside than Caner-Medley and provides more production per minute played.
Perhaps versatile junior D.J. Strawberry should get more action at small forward, thus creating increased minutes for reserve point guards Sterling Ledbetter and Parrish Brown. Based on both numbers and overall performance, forwards Ekene Ibekwe (22.3) and James Gist (19.6) also deserve additional time.
It remains a mystery why Williams considers Caner-Medley so invaluable. It has been pointed out here and backed up with tangible statistics that the senior forward consistently disappears in big games. Fans have been waiting for four years to see the 6-8, 240-pound tweener develop some sort of signature style. Yet Caner-Medley is basically the same player as a senior that he was as a freshman.
How about that scathing yet accurate analysis provided by ESPN commentator Rick Majerus during the Maui Invitational? It came at halftime of the Gonzaga game, in which Caner-Medley scored three points and converted just one of seven field goals.
"I don't know why Caner-Medley is our star of the game' because he doesn't really do any one thing well," Majerus said. "He's not a great outside shooter, doesn't have a post-up game and isn't really much of a driver."
Ouch! That statement also can be summed up nicely by the Cameron Crazies' chant about Caner-Medley. It goes: "Two names, no game."
Caner-Medley's scoring this season is down, partly because wing guard Chris McCray finally has been identified as the team's go-to guy. Caner-Medley ranks third on the team in scoring (11.2) despite taking the most shots (87), and he is tied for second in rebounding. Ibekwe is averaging more points and the same number of rebounds, despite playing eight fewer minutes per game.
Caner-Medley once again leads the team in turnovers (26), an inexcusable statistic for a small forward who isn't asked to handle the ball much. Despite repeated reports that Caner-Medley had improved his foot speed during past offseasons, he remains a step slower than most small forwards and repeatedly is beaten off the dribble.
Should some of Caner-Medley's minutes be shaved and awarded to Jones? Perhaps. But Maryland's chemistry is working well right now, with Caner-Medley and Jones in their current roles. Starting Jones over Caner-Medley would make little sense, since Jones is content as the sixth man and Caner-Medley might pout about a demotion.
Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that Caner-Medley's minutes should be reduced and distributed elsewhere.
EAGLES WILL WAIT FOR WILLIAMS
CHESTNUT HILL -- After losing a pair of tough decisions to ranked teams -- one of them ruining the school's ACC debut -- Boston College faced the end of the calendar year, a series of non-league games and further speculation about the potential return of center Sean Williams.
Having risen all the way to No. 6 in the country, the Eagles lost to No. 14 Michigan State at Madison Square Garden, then to No. 21 Maryland in their initial foray into the ACC. By dropping two very winnable games, they fell to 6-2, 0-1 in the conference.
Against the Spartans, BC rallied to within two with 80 seconds left. In College Park, a late rally and a big Maryland turnover left the Eagles with the ball under the Terps' basket with 2.2 seconds left and down by two. A turnover took away the last chance at a tie or win in a game where BC made just five of 15 from the line and turned the ball over 18 times.
Both games may have turned out differently if Williams was playing. Instead, he was finishing the fall semester at Houston, waiting to find out if and when he'll be re-instated at BC after a May arrest for possession of marijuana and a bottle of wine.
While most of the early talk had Williams coming back as soon as Dec. 22, the legal side of things likely will keep the sophomore from returning before mid-January or even Feb. 1, if he's reinstated at all.
Without Williams, who set the school record for blocked shots as a freshman last season, BC is a good basketball team. With Williams, the Eagles, still led by veteran forwards Craig Smith and Jared Dudley, figure to challenge for the ACC title. BC was picked by the media to finish second to Duke in the league, and the assumption is that the media vote was cast based on the projected return of Williams.
Sophomore Akida McLain, suspended for the first seven games of the season by coach Al Skinner for his role in the passing of a couple of counterfeit $20 bills, returned at Maryland and looked rusty (four points, four rebounds, 12 minutes). He missed open layups in both halves, but his size (6-8) and athleticism will be important to this team.
If Williams returns, the Eagles will be a deeper group than Skinner normally employs. Sophomore center John Oates, considered a major project, has played well at times with Williams out, thus apparently earning himself minutes even if Williams comes back.
Freshman Tyrese Rice, one of two rookie guards getting time, scored 43 points in the two Las Vegas Invitational wins. He then struggled in both losses, though the first came hours after he was hit with the news of the death of his high school coach and mentor.
Marquez Haynes, the other freshman, also provided some decent minutes. Before McLain returned, the two first-year guards were the only players available off the bench.
After the loss at Maryland, BC folks played down the effect of being in the new league, with the alleged extra intensity.
"It was pretty intense in the league we came from (Big East), so once the game got started, it was no different than any game we played last year," Skinner said. "If anything, we just have to get adjusted to the personnel and the coaching styles."
"There wasn't anything really special about it to me," said Smith, who had 23 points and 12 rebounds in his ACC debut. "Basketball is basketball once you get out on the court."
DEFENSE AGAIN DEACONS' DEMON
WINSTON-SALEM -- As ACC play approaches, Wake Forest is bothered by plenty of questions, including turnovers and poor free throw shooting. But one recurring trait continues to plague coach Skip Prosser's team -- shaky defense.
As Trent Strickland said recently, "Guarding is really tough for us."
Over the past two seasons, Prosser's teams were among the league's worst on the defensive end, and it cost the Deacons in the postseason, when games got tighter.
When Prosser arrived at Wake, he followed one of the more defensive-minded coaches in the country in Dave Odom. Prosser promised a much more exciting brand of ball, which Wake fans embraced after years of games in the 50s and 60s.
But Prosser unfortunately appears to have swung to the other end of the spectrum. While Wake has been one of the league's higher-scoring teams, it also has struggled to stop its opponents. Prosser admitted as much to Joe Dean, the Princeton coach, whose team was coming off a 21-point effort when it arrived in Winston-Salem.
"We have an inclination to cure people's shooting woes," Prosser said. "I told Joe before the game. He said, We can't make a shot.' I said, We'll take care of that for you.'"
Sure enough, Princeton went 10-for-22 from three-point range, after missing 18 of 20 attempts in its previous game.
Prosser's first two Wake teams featured defensive stopper Josh Howard and other combinations of tough-minded defenders, including Taron Downey, Ervin Murray, Broderick Hicks, Darius Songaila and Jamaal Levy. Those two teams finished in the top six in the league in field goal percentage defense, three-point percentage defense and blocked shots. Neither finished higher than seventh in steals.
Prosser's last two teams went the other way. They finished ninth and eighth, respectively, in the league in field goal percentage defense, ninth and 10th in three-point percentage defense, and eighth and 10th in blocks. However, they did finish third and fifth in steals.
The teams have similar problems -- concentration on passing lanes and one-on-one defense, which often leads to trouble with backdoor cuts and picks, then terrible help defense, which leads to open shots and a lack of shot blocks. Teams that have good athletes and can spread Wake out, making team-help defense even more of a challenge, often can get good shots. While Wake has looked better in some games this year (Texas Tech shot 31.7 percent), other games have been the same old story.
In the Deacons' two losses, Florida shot 48 percent and DePaul 51.6. Wake again is allowing opponents to shoot better than 37 percent from three-point range, putting it back at the bottom of the league. The only difference this year has been that Wake is blocking shots -- 6.2 a game, the best figure of Prosser's tenure.
So what's the solution?
Prosser has tried a zone at various times for several years, but he's been reluctant to stay with it. A zone can cover some individual problems, but if you have a lazy defensive team, it can just further encourage that laziness.
"We need to work on our zone, so that's why we played it a little bit today," Prosser said after the Princeton game. "It was a sure-fire remedy for their three-point shooting woes. We'll look at the tape and see the errors we made in the zone, because we played almost exclusively man-to-man against DePaul and got torched. So the zone is going to have to be something we do a little bit more of as the season progresses."
The real key to defense, though, is players who have adequate athleticism and the mental toughness to play hard without letting down. Once Odom's recruits cycled through, Prosser hasn't had many of those kinds of guys you'd want next to you in the foxhole. Perhaps the best news from this year's recruiting class is that guard Harvey Hale and forward Kevin Swinton appear to be that kind of player.
If Prosser wants to develop a better defensive team in the future, he'll need to try to teach it better, while also emphasizing it more on the recruiting trail.
SENDEK TACKLES PRINCETON TAG
RALEIGH -- It was inevitable, after N.C. State's 45-42 loss at Iowa on Nov. 30, that the team would come under attack from critics of coach Herb Sendek's Princeton-style offense.
You didn't have to be a long-time critic of the system to watch that game and have some questions about what was going on offensively. State shot 34 percent from the field, committed 24 turnovers, converted just three of 18 three-pointers, broke down for two extended stretches, and couldn't make plays at the end when a win was there for the taking.
Sendek's initial reaction was to acknowledge that the offense needed some work. Then State entered an exam-break stretch, where it played only two games in a 14-day span.
Somewhere along the way, Sendek apparently decided that he'd heard enough bashing of the system, and he went on the offensive. He spent an extended period on his weekly radio show talking about the offense and generally disputing the notion that it should be called the Princeton offense.
Then, after an 86-56 win over UNC Asheville, he made it clear to reporters that he was upset with the perception of the system. There was sarcasm in several of his responses, including one in which he referred to some transition baskets being "just a component of our Princeton offense." He also suggested that some of the critics were "people who don't know the Princeton offense, so you have to sometimes consider that." And he talked about people with a "propensity to put labels on things."
This was out of character for Sendek, who long has maintained that he's not concerned about image, only reality and results. Considering that State was 8-1, and that most early season indicators (Tony Bethel's improving health, Cedric Simmons' development, plenty of depth) were positive, many wondered why the coach would be so concerned about labels around the holidays.
What does it really matter if a television analyst or a sportswriter or a sports-radio caller refers to it as the "Princeton offense" or a "Princeton hybrid" or a "flex variation" or, as Sendek would prefer, "the N.C. State offense?" Only Sendek and his hairdresser know for sure, although Sendek probably wouldn't use the term hairdresser, either.
There are several plausible reasons.
Perhaps this shows that Sendek is a little more image-conscious than he has let on. He withstood all of the criticism about being a dull guy in his early years at State, and a lot of that has died down thanks to four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. But he quietly hired a consulting firm a couple of years ago, with the charge of (among other things) helping him to become more sensitive to media and fan perceptions. He also has done other behind-the-scenes things that indicate he is aware of, and concerned about, image issues.
One also must wonder if the term "Princeton offense" isn't getting thrown back in his face in recruiting. That's the only valid reason why it should get Sendek's dander up, because if image costs him recruits, then image is important.
The conventional thinking is that this offensive system helps and hurts Sendek in recruiting. He may have lost out on some pure point guards or low-post-only big men because of this system, but it definitely has helped him lure some mobile big men who like going outside some. Sendek insists on the record that the system isn't affecting recruiting. However, his November signees, as a whole, don't rate near the top in the ACC.
There are some who wonder if the whole "dull offense" seed planted in fans' minds might be partly to blame for poor attendance at some early non-conference games.
Perhaps Sendek has sensed a change in the connotation of the term "Princeton offense" within the basketball community. There was a time when the Princeton offense was perceived to be a disciplined, precision offense that would give opponents fits when run properly. Back when Princeton ran it to perfection, the connotation was positive. Maybe that can't be said anymore.
Or maybe this is just some hair-splitting. Sendek, and his players, have been emphatic that the system isn't the problem, that the problem comes in the execution of the system. The turnovers and poor shooting aren't a product of the system, they insist, they're a product of players committing turnovers and shooting poorly. Fair enough.
Whatever, the whole issue definitely has struck a nerve with Sendek. And that was more significant and surprising than anything else that happened over exams.
FREDRICK, DICKEY REMAIN KEYS
ATLANTA -- Paul Hewitt is an active sideline coach. He works the officials, calls out offensive plays and defensive sets, and shuttles players into the game so liberally that radio announcer Wes Durham nicknamed Georgia Tech's bench the "Hotel Hewitt."
The coach has added a new feature this year, albeit on a subconscious level: a patience-meter. The telltale sign that Hewitt has reached his limit? He strikes an exasperated pose, folding his hands behind his head with his elbows sticking out.
The Yellow Jackets' fifth-year head coach knew that this year's team would test his patience like few others. Four sophomore starters, including a point guard who learned the position just last season and played less than seven minutes a game, would stress any coach, let alone one who directed a veteran lineup for the previous two years.
Georgia Tech's inconsistency during its 4-3 start bordered on maddening. The Yellow Jackets repeatedly played well for a half or part of a half, only to lose their focus.
They led Elon by 22 points at halftime, only to win by 12. They led Virginia by 15 with nine minutes left, only to see the lead shrink to four late before holding on for victory. They trailed Illinois-Chicago by four points at the half, only to lose by 22. They trailed Michigan State by 10 points with 97 seconds left, only to rally and lose by two.
"You can't take any possessions off," Hewitt said. "That's a tough thing for us."
Play at the point guard and center positions remains Tech's biggest hurdle.
Point guard Zam Fredrick grows more comfortable with every game but is inconsistent in distributing the ball. Tech's ball movement ground almost to a halt in the Dec. 10 game against Tennessee State. Hewitt inserted Paco Diaw, a seldom-used freshman, simply to pass the ball and get the offense back in rhythm.
Center Ra'Sean Dickey, meanwhile, is an enigma. He showed the potential to be one of the conference's best post players in the game against Michigan State, scoring 24 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking four shots. But one week later against Georgia, he finished with five points and one rebound.
Dickey lost his starting spot for the next game against Tennessee State, replaced by senior journeyman Theodis Tarver. Hewitt said afterward that Tarver had earned the spot, that Dickey's benching wasn't his way of sending a message. But he also said it was time for Dickey to start finding his own motivation to become a consistently good player.
"If you find yourself motivating someone all the time, you're basically counting the days until you lose or until disaster," Hewitt said. "If you have to constantly motivate somebody, your team's not going to win."
The Yellow Jackets won't win consistently without better play from Fredrick and Dickey. Fellow starters Jeremis Smith, Anthony Morrow and Mario West are playing well -- particularly Smith, who posted three double-doubles in a four-game span going into a Dec. 22 game against Jacksonville.
But without an inside presence and better ball movement, Tech's string of three consecutive postseason appearances -- the 2003 NIT, and the 2004 and 2005 NCAA Tournaments -- will be put in jeopardy.
LEITAO BATTLING LOSING FEELING
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- If it was true that former Virginia basketball coach Pete Gillen was too easy on his players, there could not be a greater contrast than the Cavaliers' new head coach, Dave Leitao.
Leitao doesn't hesitate to scream at his players on the court and, if they happen to lose, he is not one to look for silver linings. When previously nondescript junior Jason Cain had back-to-back double-doubles against Georgia Tech and Fordham, Leitao wasn't about to go overboard in praising him.
Leitao was seething after the 62-60 loss to Fordham, which came into University Hall on Dec. 7 with six losses in its first seven games. Never mind that UVa's best and most indispensable player, sophomore point guard Sean Singletary, was not in uniform as the result of a hip problem that apparently had been bothering him for a while.
"I don't know that I was any more disgusted that game than I was the two losses before that," Leitao said in a teleconference during the middle of exams, one week after the Fordham game. "I just don't like losing. I'm a little bit taken aback, not just at the media, but by everybody who says, You were upset at the guys.' I think you should be. I think the players should be. I think your program should be upset when you lose."
In that case, the Cavaliers are going to be upset a lot this season. Virginia should win non-conference games with Loyola, UMBC and Hartford at home, but then it's on to Western Kentucky before the ACC schedule begins in earnest.
Virginia is so depth-shy that, when Singletary was ruled out of action less than three hours before the Fordham game, senior walk-on Billy Campbell got the start and played 22 minutes. Campbell, famous for hitting the floor two hours before game time and taking hundreds of practice shots, isn't even a point guard.
Backup point guard T.J. Bannister, recovering from sports-hernia surgery, played seven minutes against Fordham but got an immediate hook after a six-second, second-half stint resulted in a turnover. With freshman center Sam Warren having dropped off the team and junior center Donte Minter hobbled following offseason knee surgery, UVa has used only eight scholarship players this year.
"That's part of the dilemma that I feel," Leitao said. "This year, it's been more about managing issues like that -- not having players healthy, limited roster, inexperience -- than it has been about coaching. That's the most challenging part of getting this team ready to play."
With Bannister hurt, 6-2 junior J.R. Reynolds has received playing time at point guard and has not been an unqualified success. Reynolds played a total of 51 minutes in back-to-back losses and made just three of 15 shots from the field, missing all seven of his three-point attempts. He had five assists, compared to 10 turnovers, and missed six free throws, including two at the back end of one-and-ones with the Fordham game on the line.
"Is he a natural-born point guard? No," Leitao said. "But in a role that he's in for a few minutes here or there, I think he can do that. What's going on overall is, it's not something that he factored in and it's not something that he really prepared for over the summer and the fall. Couple that with, as opposed to being a complementary player, he's adjusting to being a front-line player (and) to try to lead the team. So there's a lot of different things coming at him. He's probably, at some times, in a system overload."
Leitao had a long meeting with Reynolds after the team's return from Georgia Tech, as did one of UVa's assistants. Obviously, there's been an adjustment period for all concerned.
FSU WINNING HAMILTON'S WAY
TALLAHASSEE -- Coach Leonard Hamilton has raised more than a few eyebrows -- and questions -- with his liberal substitution rotation through his first three-plus seasons at Florida State. Those questions, apparently, won't be going away any time soon.
Through the first seven games of the season, Hamilton showed no signs of deviating from his system, despite toying with the idea of reducing his 11-man rotation. And why should he? FSU improved to 6-1 in mid-December, dispatching Bowling Green 71-60.
In an effort to counter teams with perhaps more firepower among a select few stars, Hamilton has been distributing 12 minutes or more to each of the 11 rotation players. The net result so far is an offense that's turning out better than 80 points per game. That's a significant improvement for the offensively challenged Seminoles of recent vintage.
Perhaps more importantly, the players appear to have bought into the share-the-wealthy mentality. There was no better example than a recent exchange on the bench between FSU assistant Stan Jones and sophomore guard Isaiah Swann. While catching a breather, Swann watched his replacement, junior college transfer Jerel Allen, drain three consecutive jumpers. Swann then shared some thoughts of his own when Jones told him to re-enter the game for Allen.
"(Swann) said, Jerel's hit three in a row. Let him stay in,'" Hamilton recounted. "That just shows the unselfish spirit this team is developing. Not many times will you have a guy starting and a guy playing for him go out and hit three in a row and he says, Let him stay in the game because he just hit three in a row.' That's the kind of spirit I see developing with this team that is very refreshing."
If the Seminoles are going to make a run at their first .500 or better season in ACC play since 1993, it will require a sum-of-all-parts effort. Thus far, that's exactly what Hamilton is getting from his deep and athletic team.
While junior forward Al Thornton, sophomore guard Jason Rich and junior center Alexander Johnson are the lone double-figure scorers, five others are contributing at least six points per game. In a recent win over Texas Southern, six Seminoles reached double figures.
Though clearly improved offensively, the Seminoles remain something of an unknown heading toward the start of the ACC season. Aside from their loss at Florida, when they squandered a 14-point lead, they have been relatively untested. That was evident during a three-game stretch against Purdue, Louisiana-Monroe and Texas Southern, when they outscored their opponents by an average margin of 31 points.
That was one reason Hamilton looked forward to facing Bowling Green in Mobile, Ala. He expected that the Falcons' man-to-man defense would dictate a slower tempo and require the Seminoles to better execute their half-court offense.
Though the Seminoles managed 12 points fewer than their 83-point average, they did show progress, shooting better than 46 percent from the floor while getting to the free throw line 31 times. That was yet another sign of the team's improved athleticism.
They also pulled away over the final three minutes of a close game. That was particularly encouraging, since FSU likely will face just one more test -- against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl Classic -- before traveling to Clemson for its Jan. 4 league opener.
Hamilton did decrease the minutes of three players in his 11-man rotation against Bowling Green. Still, 10 saw action in the first eight minutes, as the Seminoles bolted to a 12-0 lead.
While Hamilton never has been reluctant to go deep into his rotation, it appears that he has enough capable contributors, who have unselfishly embraced the team concept, to make some noise in the ACC for the first time in years.
GREENBERG LEANS ON IRON FIVE
BLACKSBURG -- The Virginia Tech basketball team is playing quite well in the aftermath of its disappointment at Duke. The Hokies had the Blue Devils beaten on their own court, only to see them saved by a 45-footer at the final buzzer by guard Sean Dockery. Tech got over it quickly, winning its next three in impressive fashion.
The Hokies were 8-3 in mid-December, and they easily could have been 11-1 if not for the Duke buzzer-beater and a painful loss to Bowling Green. In that one, Tech freshman A.D. Vassallo tipped in the winning basket for the Falcons, also at the buzzer.
A dream of going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996 is still very much alive, but there's one potential trouble spot to keep an eye on as the season progresses. It may turn out to be nothing, it may be something Tech handles. It bears watching nonetheless.
Last year, the Hokies had three players average more than 30 minutes per game, and another not far behind at 29.8. This year, the depth was supposed to be better. After 11 games, though, four Hokies were averaging 31.1 or more minutes per game, and a fifth was at 26.5. The most-used reserve was Vassallo at 12.9 per game, but a lot of those minutes came earlier in the season.
Part of this development was unavoidable. Tech had an amazing rash of injuries and health problems early. Sophomore forward Wynton Witherspoon broke a foot. He's just now coming back into form. Senior guard Shawn Harris hurt a shoulder. He's playing again. Even healthy, he helps only in small doses. Senior forward Allen Calloway was diagnosed with cancer. The treatments leave him weak, and he's been able to play only seven minutes over two games.
Robert Krabbendam, a 7-0 sophomore center who added 35 pounds during the offseason to get up to 240, had knee surgery in the preseason and has yet to return. If he's not ready to play by the end of December, Tech might decide to redshirt him rather than use a year of eligibility on a half-season's worth of games.
Part of it was avoidable. Seth Greenberg, Tech's third-year coach, keeps saying that he needs to develop his bench. He said it a lot last season, he's said it a lot this season.
Yet he's a big "trust" guy. He wants his players to trust each other on the court, and he clearly wants guys he trusts out there. It's not that he doesn't have any faith in his non-starters. In some cases, he does. He just has so much faith in his regulars that he finds it hard to take them out.
The way Zabian Dowdell, Jamon Gordon, Markus Sailes, Deron Washington and Coleman Collins are playing lately, it's hard to blame Greenberg. Collins missed a couple of games to be with his ill father and has pretty much had a double-double every night since his return. Sailes has picked up where he left off two years ago (a foot injury cost him last season), doing a little bit of everything and doing very little wrong. Dowdell and Gordon are as solid a backcourt as there is in the country.
Games have been spaced far enough apart lately that rest isn't much of an issue. Tech had a week off before it beat Stanford, then a 10-day break after that one. Soon, though, the games will come at a much quicker clip, and few figure to be easy once ACC games are all that remain.
The Iron Five may be just fine.
CLEMSON EARLY: PRESS, RUN, WIN
CLEMSON -- As he traded out his parka for his swimsuit before a trip to Puerto Rico, Oliver Purnell didn't have much to complain about.
Clemson's third-year coach had watched his team start 8-0, and included were thorough beatings of South Carolina and Penn State. Questions about replacing last year's star, center Sharrod Ford, didn't seem as glaring as the Tigers made up for his loss with a blend of pressing and running.
Then Purnell, who lost power at his home during a nasty winter storm, left it all behind to take his team to more desirable climes against a highly desirable field in the San Juan Shootout.
Purnell never shies away from building up the competition, but even he had to admit that his Tigers were the favorite in a tournament that also included Mount St. Mary's, Liberty, Akron, Chattanooga, Holy Cross and host Puerto Rico-Mayaguez.
Struggling Mississippi State joined Clemson as the only name programs in the tournament, and Purnell probably needed a good sales pitch to get his team to focus on such a weak field. He tried to get his team's attention by mentioning another tournament -- the one that begins in March, and the one Clemson hasn't attended since 1998.
NCAA Tournament talk at Clemson is far premature at this point, because the Tigers have yet to consistently measure themselves against good competition. A lack thereof was the primary reason they didn't get serious Top 25 consideration despite the 8-0 start. But there's no doubt that, while Purnell isn't talking much publicly about his team's NCAA prospects, he's letting his players know that the possibility exists if Clemson takes care of its pre-January business.
"Our team has talked on many occasions about our long-term goals for postseason play and those kinds of things," Purnell said before he left for Puerto Rico. "And certainly a tournament like this can play into that, because all games count."
Most pundits weren't counting on much from this team after the loss of Ford, who was the Tigers' go-to scorer in the post. His replacement was Akin Akingbala, a senior who often looked helpless last season against bigger and more talented players. Meanwhile, junior point guard Vernon Hamilton was considered average at best, capable of solid defense but a liability on the offensive end.
Given those concerns, Purnell had to be ecstatic early, particularly given that redshirt freshman point guard Troy Mathis was mostly on the shelf because of soreness from offseason knee surgery.
Hamilton cemented his status as a defensive stopper while showing much more offensive assertiveness and aggression. He took his intensity to another level in an 82-63 manhandling of the Gamecocks on Dec. 3, creating his own shot and plunging for loose balls.
Akingbala was plagued by awful footwork and limited stamina last season, but he came into 2005-06 carrying more weight and more edge to his game. Akingbala never will be confused with one of the ACC's better big men, but he's showing signs of doing just enough in Purnell's perimeter-oriented offense. Akingbala was doing so well early that Raymond Sykes, a freshman coaches like as someone who can come off the bench and block shots, wasn't getting as much playing time as Purnell initially envisioned.
Purnell knows that his early season schedule can't be considered even remotely difficult, but that doesn't keep him from being more than remotely pleased.
"(The 8-0 record) is about as good as you can get," he said. "If somebody would have told me this at the beginning, I'd be pleasantly surprised."
HARRIS, VERDEJO LEAD UM NEWS
CORAL GABLES -- Apparently, the theory that you don't really know what you have until it's gone applies to more than just love. It also can be fitting for a basketball team.
Playing without returning starter Anthony Harris during Miami's non-conference portion of the season made UM's players and coaches learn to appreciate the junior point guard even more than they did last season, when he was part of the Hurricanes' dangerous trio of guards.
Without Harris, UM's offense struggled and seemed out of sync. Junior wing guard Guillermo Diaz was forced to handle the point guard duties, and that limited his aggressiveness. In the first game after Harris came back from the stress fracture to his right leg, UM seemed like a different team because the ball was moving effectively.
"It's his understanding," coach Frank Haith said of Harris' impact. "You rely on that position to not only know what you're supposed to do, but to know what other guys are doing. With him out there you see the flow, the cohesiveness. Anthony knows our system."
Harris said his leg still isn't at full strength, after a month of wearing a cast. His stamina isn't where it was when he was playing nearly 30 minutes per game last season. He's presently being held out of some portions of practices, but he anticipates being at full strength by mid-January, when his team will need him the most.
"Being there last year in the fire, he knows what to expect," senior guard Robert Hite said. "We definitely need his leadership out there on the court. He's a tough matchup. He opens up the floor for me and Guillermo."
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes' roster is starting to look like the collegiate version of the Puerto Rican national team. Already in the fold are Diaz and freshman point guard Denis Clemente, two Puerto Rican childhood friends.
This spring Miami is expecting the enrollment of Jesus Verdejo, a sophomore guard who plans to transfer from Arizona. If allowed to enroll, Verdejo, a high school teammate of Diaz, will become the third member of coach Art Alvarez's Miami Tropics AAU basketball program on the UM roster.
"Arizona wanted very badly for him to remain there," Alvarez said on hoops-rap.com, a website dedicated to his South Florida AAU team, which is turning into a feeder system for the Hurricanes. "They love Jesus and his potential as a great scorer. But he wanted to be closer to me and to Guillermo and Denis, and to his family in Puerto Rico."
By making his transfer effective on Dec. 14, Verdejo, a 6-4, 195-pound shooting guard who averaged 2.3 points last season, will be able to practice with UM for the remainder of this season if everything goes smoothly. However, he won't be eligible to play until Dec. 14, 2006, under NCAA transfer rules.
Because he didn't play at all this season for the Wildcats, Verdejo, who averaged 11.9 points and 2.3 rebounds for the Puerto Rican national under-21 team last summer, will have three years of eligibility remaining. His addition could provide a replacement for Hite.
UNC FRESHMEN CARRYING LOAD
CHAPEL HILL -- Coming into the 2005-06 season, nobody had any doubts about which North Carolina players would make up the team's rotation. (Rule of thumb: If you can play at all, you'll play a lot.) The main questions involved who would make up the starting lineup and how many minutes the backups would play.
During the Tar Heels' surprising 6-1 start, which included a 68-64 home loss to Illinois and an impressive 83-79 victory at Kentucky, coach Roy Williams provided the answers.
In all seven games, the starters were freshman point guard Bobby Frasor, freshman wing guard Marcus Ginyard, junior wing forward Reyshawn Terry, senior power forward David Noel and freshman center Tyler Hansbrough. Then, especially in close games, there was a significant dropoff in playing time to the top four players (in order of average minutes) off the bench: junior guard Wes Miller (17.3), freshman forward Danny Green (17.0), sophomore point guard Quentin Thomas (15.0) and senior center Byron Sanders (13.0).
The good news for Williams is that his four key freshmen all showed up in shape and ready to play, while exhibiting the coachability, intelligence, work ethic, unselfishness and winning attitude the coach typically seeks out (along with basketball skills) on the recruiting trail. Hansbrough has been an absolute monster inside, Frasor has stabilized the all-important point guard position, Ginyard has excelled as a perimeter defender, and Green (as advertised) does a little bit of everything.
One of the many nice things about the four rookies is that they haven't exhibited the confidence problems, defensive woes or lack of aggression often found with first-year players. All of them are very good at putting bad plays behind them quickly, and they aren't easily rattled, not even at Kentucky.
In addition, the freshmen are not at all one-dimensional. The 6-9 Hansbrough clearly is an interior player, but he takes care of the ball with sure hands, exhibits smart shot selection, rebounds well and has nice form on his (many) free throws. Ginyard, Green and Frasor all have been solid (for rookies) or better defensively, and on offense they limit their turnovers, have the green light on three-pointers, and are capable of driving to the basket.
The bad news for Williams is that, with the exception of Noel (who has been fabulous in every way and averages a team-high 33.7 minutes), the other guys in his rotation are exactly the kinds of players he typically has avoided on the recruiting trail.
Terry, Miller and Sanders are (along with Noel) leftovers from the Matt Doherty era. UNC's beat writers can't forget some of Williams' initial comments about the trio upon his arrival in 2003. Terry, a North Carolina product, "wasn't even first-team all-state." Miller, a James Madison transfer, "found (at JMU) a level that matched his ability." Sanders was a "nice, hard-working kid who's a good student and does everything right off the court."
Williams will need some help from all nine rotation players if the Tar Heels are going to make the NCAA Tournament, but it's easy to see the serious limitations -- especially among the reserves, and especially among the Doherty leftovers. Unlike all but one (Thomas) of Williams' signees, Terry, Miller and Sanders are extremely one-dimensional.
Terry, a talented offensive player, may drive his coach crazy if he doesn't gain a better understanding of what UNC wants in terms of consistent effort, shot selection and defense. Miller is a three-point specialist (42.9 percent so far) and not much more. Sanders tries hard but has terrible hands and doesn't do anything particularly well.
It's fair to say that Williams didn't have much of a choice when he created a rotation in which four of his top seven players are freshmen. By mid-December, though, it also was fair to say that all four have turned out to be very good choices.