By Dave Glenn and staff
ACCSports.com January 10, 2006
Duke Needs Better Rebounding
Heels Must Maintain Intensity
Eagles Overcome Foul Shooting
Board Work Vital For Wolfpack
Terps Must Tackle Press, Traps
Point Guard Confounds Deacons
Free Throws Tearing Up Tigers
Seminoles Need Road Warriors
Jackets Still Searching For Point
Tech Desperately Seeking Depth
Cavaliers Offer Few Resolutions
UM Needs To Rediscover Offensive Style
DUKE NEEDS BETTER REBOUNDING
DURHAM -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski entered 2006 with the nation's top-ranked team, unbeaten thanks to a miraculous end-of-game shot by senior Sean Dockery against Virginia Tech. The pieces seem to be in place for a national title run, led by two senior All-Americans, two other solid seniors and a pair of precocious freshmen.
But if the Blue Devils hope to deliver on that promise, they must resolve to improve as a rebounding team.
Krzyzewski's teams rarely have been a powerhouse on the boards. His 2001 national title team averaged barely one rebound more than its opponents. His 1991 and 1992 champs were only slightly better. A year ago, Duke ranked seventh in the conference in rebound margin, despite the presence of ACC rebounding leader Shelden Williams.
Well, Williams is back, challenging once again for league leadership on the boards. But as a team, Duke has been abysmal, worse than even Coach K's weakest rebounding teams. On New Year's Day, Duke ranked last in the ACC with a minus-1.5 margin.
It started in the opener, when the Devils were out-rebounded by Boston University. Drexel enjoyed a 10-rebound advantage as Duke was out-rebounded in six of its first 11 games. That's not a formula for a national championship team.
"We can't have just certain guys rebound," Williams said.
Duke held its own on the boards against a physically imposing Texas team, largely because of the work of its guards. Dockery led the team with seven rebounds, while Greg Paulus and J.J. Redick combined for eight more. That was an impressive contribution from the backcourt, but can Coach K afford to base his team's rebounding hopes on his guards?
The truth is that Duke has a very obvious potential solution to its problems: freshman forward Josh McRoberts. The 6-10, 230-pound post player pulled down 10 rebounds in his collegiate debut against Boston U., but he didn't get more than six in any game over the next month, and he was at four or fewer in eight of his next 10 games.
Through 11 games, McRoberts averaged just 4.5 rebounds a game, exactly what 6-3 guard DeMarcus Nelson averaged last season as a freshman. There's no excuse for that. McRoberts isn't weak, and he isn't a stiff. He's strong and agile with good hands, and he has as much hops as any 6-10 player in the ACC. He should be a rebounding machine.
Krzyzewski, asked about the rebounding problem earlier in December, didn't single out McRoberts by name, but he suggested that his youngsters were the key.
"Some of these kids aren't ready to assert themselves like I think they will," Coach K said. "That's something we have to work on if we want to be as good a team as we hope."
It's obvious that Krzyzewski addressed his team's board issues over the holiday break. When Duke played for the first time after Christmas, the Blue Devils out-rebounded UNC Greensboro by a wide margin. Two days later, Duke enjoyed a 38-31 advantage over Bucknell.
Now, out-rebounding UNCG and Bucknell might not sound like much, but when you've been battered on the boards by the likes of Boston U. and Drexel, it's a step in the right direction. Best of all, there were signs that McRoberts was starting to assert himself. After getting six rebounds against Greensboro, he came back with a 10-rebound effort (and his first career double-double) against Bucknell.
Of course, the real test of Duke's rebounding strength will come as the Blue Devils embark on the early part of their ACC schedule. But if McRoberts continues to hit the boards as he did during the week after Christmas, Duke's resolution to get tougher on the boards may not be all that hard to achieve.
-- Al Featherston, ACCSports.com
HEELS MUST MAINTAIN INTENSITY
CHAPEL HILL -- Ask coach Roy Williams and senior David Noel for a specific couple of areas on which this year's North Carolina team must work, and they'll tell you every aspect of the game.
With a team built on relatively inexperienced upperclassmen and a large group of freshmen, they no doubt are giving an honest answer. But if there was one single area the Tar Heels must have been concerned about as they entered 2006, it was maintaining their intensity and poise on the road.
"It's the first time this year they've played like freshmen," Williams said after Southern California whipped the Tar Heels 74-59 on Dec. 22, outscoring UNC 44-24 in the second half. "The focus was not there. There were breakdowns on just about every single play. There was a breakdown in every area of the game. It was the worst defensive grades (this year) by far. It was the worst execution on the offensive end by far. We missed shots; they made shots.
"It was about as bad a night as you could possibly have. ... We didn't play very well, we didn't play very hard, we didn't play intelligently. That combination of all three is not very good. It was a total breakdown for us on both ends of the court."
This is the same Carolina team that went to Kentucky earlier in the season and beat the Wildcats in Rupp Arena, and UNC looked very good doing it. So the debacle at Southern Cal does not necessarily mean there will be a pattern.
The problem is, those were the only away games for a young team getting ready to hit the road in conference play. Anyone who ever has watched ACC basketball knows that those eight road games do not merely constitute a schedule, they present a test of survival. The gyms are usually packed. The home team is juiced. The intensity can match anything a team will see in March.
"We're getting ready to play in some awfully difficult places," Williams said after the loss at USC. "We're getting ready to play in places that are going to be much better home-court advantage than this place was."
When the Tar Heels returned from their Christmas break, Williams drove his point home by making them watch every minute of the loss at Southern Cal. Noel said Williams rewound the tape a few times along the way.
Until that night, UNC had played hard, if not always well. So the freshmen were shocked when they saw themselves falling apart and getting beat to loose balls.
"I couldn't speak after watching the film," freshman guard Marcus Ginyard said. "I felt so terrible to see them out-play us the way they did. We're not going to let that happen again this year."
Of course, saying that and doing it on the road in the ACC are two different things. How the Tar Heels fare in the blue uniforms will go a long way toward determining where they spend the postseason.
"When we go play a team, they are always going to be pumped up because we're North Carolina," freshman center Tyler Hansbrough said. "You can't have an off-day against any opponent. We have to bring our A' game every day.
"(The game at USC) was a wake-up for me. You hear it all the time, about how bad people want to beat a dominant program. When you experience it in real life, it's a lot different."
-- Eddy Landreth, Chapel Hill (N.C.) News
EAGLES OVERCOME FOUL SHOOTING
CHESTNUT HILL -- Coach Al Skinner is hoping that foul free throw shooting doesn't cost his Boston College team any more games.
The Eagles' inability to convert at the stripe was the prime reason they lost at Maryland in their ACC debut. BC converted just five of 15 from the line in the 73-71 defeat.
In the team's previous game, against Michigan State at Madison Square Garden, the Eagles went 18-for-27 from the line. That wasn't as bad as 33 percent, obviously, but it was nothing to write home about, either. Things went from so-so to worse at Duquesne, when BC went just 11-for-25 from the stripe, converting its last three just to get to that number.
No wonder Skinner was relieved when forward Jared Dudley stepped to the foul line early in the New Year's Day game at Rhode Island and, after being fouled behind the arc, calmly drained all three free throws. That ultimately led to a 16-for-20 effort for the team.
"Obviously, our free throw shooting improved tremendously since last game," Skinner said. "That's who we are. I think we are a good free throw shooting team."
That's why Skinner had his guys living at the foul line in practice in the days leading up to the URI game, taking as many extra foul shots as you can jam into a single session. He didn't do it just for the heck of it. The coach has a theory about this sort of thing.
"We did it that way because we are a good free throw shooting team," Skinner said. "Sometimes, guys are not good free throw shooters, so it's a waste of energy. If you don't shoot the ball well, you don't shoot the ball well, and that's something you have to accept."
That's not the way the coach sees his club. Reminded that BC had gone 16-for-32 over the previous four games, Skinner smiled and said, "I'm well aware of that. But I'm also well aware that my guys can make free throws. That's why we keep working at it."
The next time out, at home against Massachusetts, the Eagles were 13-for-20, another 65 percent effort, leaving the 13-game percentage for the season at .678. That will have to get better in ACC play, at least if the Eagles want to compete for something special.
"It's just more of a focus thing," said guard Sean Marshall, who shot an airball free throw at Rhode Island, his only miss in four attempts that day. "We just have to go to the line focused and make our free throws."
Dudley symbolized the inconsistency. He converted only two of his 11 total attempts at Maryland and at Duquesne, but he was a very strong 67-for-82 in the other 11 games.
"We hit our free throws, we'll be a tough team to beat," Dudley said. "But you have to hit the free throws, especially on the road."
BC learned that lesson the hard way.
-- Mike Shalin, ACCSports.com
BOARD WORK VITAL FOR WOLFPACK
RALEIGH -- N.C. State's biggest resolution for 2006 likely is to continue to do all of the things it did during the 2005 portion of the season.
The 12-1 start was the best in Herb Sendek's 10 seasons, and most facets of the team's play went as well as the coach hoped they would in the preseason. The one exception came via a horrific offensive night in the Wolfpack's only loss, at Iowa.
The defense was right where Sendek hoped it would be. State led the nation in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to .366. There was balanced scoring, with five players averaging in double figures. There was great chemistry, and a real good vibe among the players that this could be a special season. Several players clearly have improved significantly from last year, and injuries have not been a big factor.
But Sendek is always a little bit uneasy about what could go wrong, and his biggest on-going concern will be rebounding.
State held only a slight edge (plus-0.4) over opponents on the boards through early January, and it was out-rebounded four times -- by The Citadel, Notre Dame, Iowa and Alabama. It was out-rebounded by a whopping 48-32 margin by The Citadel.
Nobody is putting up great numbers individually. Center Cedric Simmons is the leading rebounder at 6.8. No. 2 is sophomore guard Gavin Grant at 5.5.
Sendek seemed relieved when State out-rebounded George Washington 37-28 in a thoroughly impressive 79-58 win, but he acknowledged that it will continue to be a point of emphasis.
"The rebounding is getting better," Sendek said. "But that's really been an Achilles heel for our team. Going back to the Mt. Olive game (exhibition), it seems like we've been licking our wounds about how we've got to do a better job rebounding defensively. We've been really trying to get better in that area. Hopefully, we're turning the corner on that."
The hope is that Simmons will continue to develop and that forward Andrew Brackman (5.0 per game) will continue to get more aggressive inside. Brackman bulked up during the offseason to where he should be able to be more physical in the post this year, and he has started to come on in the past few weeks. They're both sophomores, and they're still adjusting to playing bigger roles, so there's no reason to think they won't continue to get better.
But Simmons and Brackman aren't used in tandem very often, especially against teams where Sendek likes to go with three guards. The lineup that has worked best has Simmons, senior forward Ilian Evtimov, senior guard Tony Bethel, senior forward Cameron Bennerman and junior guard Engin Atsur in the starting lineup, with Grant and Brackman coming off the bench. Sendek has another potentially good rebounder in freshman forward Ben McCauley, but the coach likely will keep his rotation tight in ACC games.
Basically, State is just going to have to keep stressing the importance of rebounding, and continue to improve. Obviously, if you're forcing opponents to miss 63 percent of their shots, there are a lot of defensive boards to be had. Just as obviously, if you don't take care of the defensive boards, you have to play defense all over again, and you risk giving up easy put-backs.
Beyond that, State would like to rebound well enough to be able to run occasionally and get some easy fastbreak baskets now and then. That likely would make an already-strong Wolfpack team even better.
TERPS MUST TACKLE PRESS, TRAPS
COLLEGE PARK -- On Dec. 5, an extremely quick and athletic George Washington team harassed Maryland into 25 turnovers en route to a 78-70 victory. In the process, the Colonials seemingly provided everyone else with a blueprint on how to beat the Terps.
Coach Karl Hobbs had GW apply non-stop, full-court pressure, forcing a frenetic pace that exposed Maryland's shaky ball-handling. Point guard D.J. Strawberry wilted under the all-out assault, committing a season-high seven turnovers while making numerous bad decisions. Seven other Terps also were charged with at least two turnovers.
"They're trying to convert some guys to point guard, so we really wanted them to have to make decisions and to have to make decisions at a quick speed," Hobbs said. "I thought that was the difference in the game for us."
Maryland hasn't faced a team capable of pressing and trapping since. However, the Terps certainly will at some point during the ACC schedule, which is why their New Year's resolution is to do a better job of handling full-court pressure.
Coach Gary Williams knew this could be a problem when he decided to go with Strawberry, a career swingman, at point guard. The 6-5 junior rarely had been asked to handle the ball under pressure during his first two seasons with the Terps, and it's simply going to take him time to get used to the role.
GW succeeded in getting Strawberry to play faster than he was comfortable. By the second half, the normally calm and collected youngster was visibly frustrated. He even yelled at his teammates after throwing passes four feet over their heads.
How Maryland wound up without a true point guard on its roster is a story for another day, but the reality is that Strawberry is the best option at this stage. Reserves Sterling Ledbetter and Parrish Brown, both of whom would best be described as combination guards, clearly are not ready for prime time. Ledbetter has a tendency to play too fast and force things, while Brown still is learning the offensive system.
Maryland's best bet is to get Strawberry more accustomed to dealing with full-court pressure, while finding ways to give him more help in such situations.
One of Strawberry's biggest mistakes against GW involved picking the ball up in the backcourt. By doing so, he allowed himself to get trapped and was forced to make difficult passes under duress. It's important for the primary ball-handler to maintain his dribble while moving the ball up-court. At the same time, that individual must keep his head up in order to scan the court for open teammates.
All of that is easier said than done, and it requires a player who is completely confident in his handle. Previous Maryland point guards such as Terrell Stokes, Steve Blake and John Gilchrist had little trouble with full-court pressure, and they often attacked it for easy baskets. Strawberry isn't at that point yet, and thus he has been tentative when confronted with any sort of defense in the backcourt.
Williams no doubt had Maryland work extensively on getting the ball up-court against man-to-man or zone pressure in the wake of the GW disaster. Knowing that Strawberry does not yet dribble well under pressure, it would make sense for the Terps to install some press breaks that involve screens and secondary ball-handlers.
GW's primary goal was to prevent Maryland from getting into its half-court offense. Hobbs didn't want the Terps to take advantage of their distinct size advantage, and thus he used pressure to take a significant amount of time off the shot clock. Even when Maryland managed to break the press, it was unable to run the flex long enough to get open looks.
It's likely that several ACC teams, especially underdogs such as Miami (a Jan. 7 winner over the Terps), Georgia Tech and Florida State, will employ similar strategies.
POINT GUARD CONFOUNDS DEACONS
WINSTON-SALEM -- Skip Prosser's greatest desire for 2006 is hardly a secret. The coach would love to wake up and find Chris Paul playing out his junior season in a Wake Forest uniform, as Prosser's coach on the floor.
Of course, Prosser knows that Paul will be wearing his New Orleans Hornets jersey all spring, so instead the coach dreams that he will have someone to fill Paul's shoes, or even just one of them. Wake Forest's point guard play has been a mess all season, no matter whom Prosser has tried.
"We've just been very ineffectual at a key decision-making position consistently," Prosser said. "When that happens, it puts everybody off-kilter a little bit."
Prosser started by trying to convert his All-ACC shooting guard, Justin Gray. Though Gray spent all of his time preparing for the switch after Paul declared for the draft, it didn't take long for Prosser to dump the experiment. He hasn't looked back.
Gray turned the ball over 29 times in the first four games of the season, which shouldn't have been a surprise to those who took note that he had more turnovers than assists for his career. It's pretty difficult to teach a shooter to be a point guard as a college senior. Worse, Gray's shooting suffered as he labored at the point. He hit just 36 percent from the field in those games.
Then it was on to freshman Harvey Hale, whose main positive was that he wasn't Gray. Hale, also a shooting guard, didn't do much of anything at the point, which did have a certain charm after Gray's antics. Hale had 14 assists and 14 turnovers in seven starts, and he, too, lost his shooting touch, hitting 19 percent in those games.
Finally, after the Deacons lost to DePaul and sleep-walked through much of the Princeton and Richmond games, Prosser decided that lineup wasn't working, either. He admitted that he was asking too much of his shooting guards, especially the freshman, to make the transition to point guard.
"I just didn't like the way that we were playing," Prosser said. "I just felt like every trip down the court was sort of like a grind. I just wasn't comfortable with the way we were playing. The first time we took Justin off the point, it wasn't an indictment on Justin. It wasn't an indictment on Harvey Hale. It was just my unwillingness to accept the status quo."
So Prosser switched to the only actual point guard on his roster, freshman Shamaine Dukes. At the time, Dukes had one point and four assists in his 11 college games.
For many around the program who had watched Dukes, it seemed to be a desperation move. Dukes was a late signee after Paul declared, and it seemed apparent why he was still available at that time. In practice and in his little game action, Dukes often looked lost and displayed a penchant for lazy or reckless passes.
But Prosser wanted to try to get Wake's offensive tempo back up, and he decided that Dukes was the only guard who could do that, so the risks might be worth the rewards.
"We play a faster pace with him in there," Prosser said. "I'm more comfortable with that pace."
All looked a little better when Dukes opened with 11 points and 10 assists, as Wake put up 87 points against Charleston Southern. But by the next game, Dukes was on the bench for the whole stretch run in a tight game against ECU, and Wake's offense was back to scoring 58 points and turning the ball over 21 times.
So Prosser is fielding a lineup without an assertive leader or someone who can create easy opportunities. He doesn't have anyone on the floor who can take charge of the offense, and hence his team often plays tentatively and is indecisive. It particularly hurts because this is a unit that needs that kind of leadership. It's a group that easily can lapse into its own world.
Actually, although he wasn't officially at the point, Gray's performance against Wisconsin was the backcourt's most take-charge showing of the season. He played like a scoring point guard, controlling the ball and the offense. But that was a one-time shot for some reason, as he's never
re-assumed that role. The Deacons could use it.
If not, they'll be left with some combination of Gray, Hale and Dukes. Senior swingman Trent Strickland said he thinks Dukes can do it if he gains a little bravado.
"We have a young point guard, and he needs more confidence," Strickland said. "I think when he does get the confidence that he needs, he's going to be the player that we need to step up and help us win games."
When will that happen? Maybe later this year. Maybe not.
FREE THROWS TEARING UP TIGERS
CLEMSON -- After watching his team put forth a particularly foul exhibition from the foul line earlier this season, a Clemson assistant was asked how the Tigers could improve on their freebies.
"You got any ideas?" he asked in an exasperated tone.
Having watched an increased preseason emphasis on free throw shooting fail to produce improvement from last year's abysmal numbers, Clemson's coaches might start soliciting advice sometime soon. When conference play began, the Tigers were shooting just under 59 percent from the line, even less than last season's ugly 60.1 clip.
For a team that could struggle to win in the ACC after the loss of sophomore forward James Mays (academics), improved free throw shooting will be a must in close games.
Shortly after his second team finished the 2004-05 season 16-16 and 5-11 in the ACC, coach Oliver Purnell realized that his guys had to get better from the line. The Tigers' percentage was the second-worst in school history, and their struggles were costly because nine of their 11 conference losses were decided by eight points or fewer.
During the offseason, Purnell addressed the issue by changing some of his players' mechanics and devoting more time to free throws. During practice, he tries to replicate game pressure when, without warning, he'll pick a player to shoot a one-and-one. The team gathers around, and the player is alone on the line. If he misses, the entire team runs.
"It simulates a game situation, where all eyes are on you and you're shooting," Purnell said. "Nothing else in the gym matters."
Purnell also tried to slow down the players' pre-shot routines to keep them from hurriedly throwing up shots that clang off the rim.
"It's really being patient at the line and not working so fast," Purnell said, "almost like a pitcher."
Clemson's players said the emphasis has improved free throws during practice, but the Tigers have yet to carry that success over to the court. Through 13 games, they had six players who were hitting less than 55 percent from the line.
Senior wing guard Shawan Robinson led the team (93 percent), and freshman wing guard K.C. Rivers had hit nine of his 12 tries. But otherwise, teams can take their pick of which players to foul in late-game situations.
Senior center Akin Akingbala made just 30 of his first 55 attempts (54.5 percent). Sophomore guard Cliff Hammonds missed nine of his first 14. Starting point guard Vernon Hamilton was shooting just 53.4 percent.
"I just think it's confidence," Robinson said. "It's just a matter of transferring it to the game. Once somebody gets one to roll in in the game, then they just relax more. We've shot free throws very well in practice. It's just a matter of confidence."
Clemson's history from the free throw line doesn't inspire an abundance of confidence. Frankly, the Tigers' struggles from the stripe over the past 20 years make some observers wonder if there's something in the water in Clemson.
Since the 1986-87 season, when Cliff Ellis' team shot 71.6 percent, Clemson has shot less than 70 percent in 17 of 18 seasons. The only exception was a 70.2-percent figure in 2000-01.
Shooting 70 percent from the line is not an extraordinary occurrence elsewhere. Just last season, four ACC teams (Maryland, North Carolina, Duke, N.C. State) managed to do it. Virginia Tech and Clemson were the only teams that finished the season shooting less than 65 percent from the line.
Purnell was trying not to make too big a deal of his team's free throw woes as the Tigers headed into ACC play. But the inaccuracy could become a big deal if it starts costing his team games.
-- Larry Williams, Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier
SEMINOLES NEED ROAD WARRIORS
TALLAHASSEE -- It didn't take long for self-doubt to threaten Florida State's feel-good 9-1 start in non-conference competition.
Playing to his team's strengths -- depth and athleticism -- coach Leonard Hamilton unleashed an up-tempo attack that appeared to shake the Seminoles from 12 seasons of offensive lethargy. Averaging nearly 83 points per game, albeit against mostly inferior competition, FSU carried its newfound confidence into its ACC opener at Clemson.
Surely, there would be some carryover against the Tigers, who had lost their most productive post player (James Mays) and were coming off an unsightly loss to Elon.
"I think we're growing up a little bit," Hamilton said, after his Seminoles dispatched two-loss Nebraska 74-60 in their final ACC tuneup.
Following the 61-55 loss at Clemson, Hamilton and the Seminoles were left to reassess their growth.
Like so many other ACC teams over the past decade, the Tigers forced the Seminoles to execute in half-court sets. Predictably, FSU unraveled. The Seminoles entered the season with a 1-31 ACC road record over the past four seasons, and they are just 16-80 away from home in league play since their 12-4 conference mark in 1993.
"It starts running through the back of your mind, Here we go again,'" FSU sixth-year senior swingman Andrew Wilson said, following the Clemson loss.
The Seminoles have flirted with success on the road in recent seasons, despite their deplorable record. And there is little debate that Hamilton's current crop of players is the program's most talented collection in at least eight seasons, if not longer.
But getting over the hump on the road, Hamilton suggested, is the biggest challenge he and his staff face in trying to build a winning program. Scoring a handful of road wins, as difficult and precious as they have become, will be the only way Hamilton's fourth team can get there.
Wilson suggested that the responsibility of being mentally sharp and playing with passion rests with him and his fellow seniors, point guard Todd Galloway and forward Diego Romero.
"We're the ones who have been through all of that," Wilson said. "These younger guys haven't experienced three-, four-, five-, one- or two-point losses on the road."
In reality, the answer to the road woes may rest even more upon the play of the sophomores and juniors who form the core of Hamilton's reclamation project. Junior forwards Al Thornton and Alexander Johnson, along with sophomore guards Jason Rich, Isaiah Swann and Ralph Mims, form the backbone of this year's team, which has visions of capitalizing on an ACC race that's potentially wide-open beyond front-running Duke.
With four of FSU's first six ACC games on the road -- and a loss in hand against one of the weaker opponents -- the Seminoles don't have much margin for error. Clemson merely provided the rest of the league with a blueprint for success against the Seminoles, by controlling the tempo offensively and playing aggressive, half-court defense.
Executing in the half-court will be pivotal for FSU. That's an area that has proved to be the team's undoing in recent seasons, when the Seminoles ranked among the league's worst offenses. Those areas were not improved while running roughshod through Alcorn State, Louisiana-Monroe, Campbell and the like.
Likewise, the importance of rebounding from out of the half-court, which requires fundamental execution and want-to, were not improved. Somehow, Johnson and Romero were shut out on the boards in 40 minutes of play against the Tigers.
"I think our players learned an awful lot, by watching the (Clemson) film, that will make an impression on them that they will never forget," Hamilton said. "It was a different demeanor than what we were accustomed to. ... We have come out, for the most part, and played with the aggressiveness that we've been very proud of. Hopefully, this is the last that we'll see of that (Clemson) approach."
If not, the Seminoles will have spent the ACC preseason tuning up for what has been an all-too-familiar refrain.
-- Bob Thomas, Florida Times-Union
JACKETS STILL SEARCHING FOR POINT
ATLANTA -- Ever since 5 p.m. on June 21, 2005, Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt has known what his team would need most this season: consistent point guard play.
Three-year starter Jarrett Jack let the deadline pass on that June afternoon for him to pull out of the NBA draft. Jack was the only true point guard on Tech's roster, and another wouldn't arrive until fall 2006 in prep phenom Javaris Crittenton.
Still, Hewitt entered this season cautiously optimistic about Zam Fredrick's potential as a point guard. Fredrick, a sophomore, practiced at the spot last year but played limited minutes behind Jack and senior Will Bynum.
As the calendar turned to 2006 and the Yellow Jackets began their ACC schedule in earnest, Hewitt's optimism had turned to skepticism. Fredrick's play had been erratic, so much so that he lost the starting job for two games. He got it back only when Mario West suffered a toe injury.
"He's capable. He's very, very capable," Hewitt said of Fredrick. "It's just a matter of playing with a high level of energy. I think there are times when he looks a little tired. He can't ever look tired. We need to play and push the ball up the court and create a tempo that we're comfortable playing at, and not that the other team is comfortable playing at."
Ball movement is the underlying key to Georgia Tech's offensive success. Hewitt recruits athletic scorers almost exclusively, but when the ball stagnates, the Jackets struggle to get open shots. Their three-point shooting is atrocious, with one huge exception. Sophomore wing guard Anthony Morrow is hitting 48 percent of his attempts from behind the arc, but the rest of the team is making less than 25 percent.
Fredrick has shown flashes of brilliance in running the team, one reason why he continues to play more than 25 minutes per game. He had 10 assists against Michigan State and six in a victory over Jacksonville. But he had as many or more turnovers than assists in six of Tech's first 11 games.
In Fredrick's defense, the transition from scorer to distributor was bound to be a difficult one. He is the all-time leading scorer in South Carolina high school history, with 3,481 points. He maintains a scorer's mentality, with a habit of trying to break down defenders one-on-one and taking mistimed jump shots.
Should Fredrick find a balance in his offensive game and show consistent intensity on defense, Georgia Tech could challenge for a postseason berth. Hewitt doesn't mind his point guards pouring in points; Jack led Tech in scoring a year ago. Fredrick is a more accurate shooter than his predecessor.
Hewitt is trying to find ways to counteract Fredrick's inconsistency. Freshman Paco Diaw replaced him in the lineup for two games, with West, a junior shooting guard, moving to the point. Diaw is a tenacious defender and unquestionably the team's best passer. Tech's ball movement improves dramatically with Diaw on the floor.
Diaw averaged close to 15 minutes per game after the Dec. 10 matchup against Tennessee State, and he dished a career-high eight assists in a Jan. 3 victory over Vanderbilt.
"His ability to move the ball and play defense sparks us," Hewitt said of Diaw. "We need to understand that when you move that basketball instead of pounding it and holding it, you start to get better shots."
-- Adam Van Brimmer, Morris Newspapers
TECH DESPERATELY SEEKING DEPTH
BLACKSBURG -- Something Seth Greenberg looked forward to with his Virginia Tech team this season was the simple matter of having some options. Last year, the Hokies didn't have enough depth. This year? It appeared they'd have plenty.
Guess what? As the season neared its halfway point, Tech had less depth than it had a year ago. A bad combination of injuries and illnesses left the Hokies ridiculously thin, and that was the team's most pressing concern as ACC play heated up.
Coleman Collins, Jamon Gordon, Zabian Dowdell, Deron Washington and Markus Sailes are going to have to be the Iron Five.
One sophomore who figured to contribute heavily (center Robert Krabbendam) appears headed for a redshirt season because of injuries. Another, forward Wynton Witherspoon, flirted with the same fate before his surprising Jan. 7 performance (25 minutes, 19 points) against Florida State. Freshman forward Terrance Vinson also will redshirt, though it is unlikely that he would have been a major factor. Senior forward Allen Calloway, a very valuable reserve, has cancer and has barely played. Freshman forward Chieck Diakite simply isn't ready for major minutes yet.
That leaves Greenberg with few options on his bench, where Witherspoon joined walk-on Chris Tucker and freshman swingman A.D. Vassallo. Also available is senior guard Shawn Harris, who was limited by a shoulder injury earlier in the season. The latter three simply aren't capable of starter-type minutes. All have some limitations.
Harris can spell either of the guards or even Sailes at small forward, but he's not quick or athletic enough to play for long stretches. Vassallo has yet to prove he can guard at the ACC level, and he needs to work on ways to create a shot. When he's open and has time, he can shoot, but that window will close considerably in league play. Tucker is a solid defender and passes well but also isn't quick enough for major minutes.
Tucker and Harris at this stage of their careers aren't going to change significantly. The best bets to ease the burden on the Iron Five are Witherspoon and Vassallo, who are getting the most playing time of the non-starters. Still, Greenberg is using his Iron Five for the bulk of the game. Four are averaging more than 30 minutes, with three at 34.5 or more.
One more injury could turn into a major, insurmountable problem.
"It is what it is," Greenberg has said countless times, though he's obviously frustrated with the way things have worked out.
Tech's big goal this season is to make the NCAA Tournament, a reasonable aim given the Hokies' success last season in their first year in the ACC. They figured to be slightly better, the rest of the league figured to be slightly down. It was a fair assumption that Tech could duplicate or maybe even improve upon its 8-8 league mark from last season.
The Hokies probably need to win nine of their final 15 games to have an at-large shot. Ten would be better, because that would put Tech at the 20-victory mark and make them 10-6 in the league, but that appears unlikely.
In any event, there are going to be some awfully tired players by the time the season ends. There just aren't enough ways for the team's depth situation to get too much better.
CAVALIERS OFFER FEW RESOLUTIONS
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- After watching J.R. Reynolds score 12 points in the span of four possessions at Western Kentucky, first-year Virginia coach Dave Leitao substituted for him at the next ball.
The TV timeout with 12 minutes remaining was approaching, and Leitao's plan was to give Reynolds a break before the timeout, leave him on the bench, then send him back in the game at the first dead ball after the timeout.
Leitao's strategy didn't pay immediate dividends. A refreshed Reynolds had only one field goal the rest of the way (on two attempts), but Leitao is determined to preserve his backcourt of Reynolds and Sean Singletary.
Leitao isn't much on New Year's resolutions, however, as he revealed in a news conference following a Dec. 31 victory over Hartford.
"We talked about resolutions today," Leitao said, "and decided it's not a real good thing to make resolutions. The next three weeks, every gym in America is going to be flooded with people who want to lose weight. Two months from now, they won't be there, so most resolutions are made to be broken."
Nevertheless, with his seven able-bodied scholarship players, Leitao has been placed in a situation that has caused him to break from his normal coaching philosophy.
"When you coach, you don't want to coach through saving' guys," Leitao said. "But unless I have (Reynolds and Singletary) at 35-plus minutes, we're not going to be as good a team. I've got to try and steal possessions just before or right after TV timeouts -- those sort of things -- to get them rest."
After 10 games, Reynolds and Singletary clearly were feeling the wear and tear of carrying the team. Singletary was dealing with a hip pointer that caused him to miss a home game with Fordham, won by the Rams 62-60, and Reynolds was bothered by a tight hamstring.
"If we're not careful, we'll wear them down," Leitao said, "and by the time we get into conference play they could be spent."
Singletary has been playing 33 minutes per game, a jump from 29.9 last year, and Reynolds has averaged 31.8, which actually was down from 32.3 last year. The only reason his playing time hasn't been higher was the two or three occasions when Leitao sat him down for ineffective play.
Presumably, junior point guard T.J. Bannister could alternate with Singletary and Reynolds, but Bannister underwent abdominal surgery before the season for what is commonly known as a sports hernia.
Bannister played Dec. 4 at Georgia Tech and again three days later against Fordham, but Leitao apparently didn't like the way he was moving against Fordham and removed him after a six-second second-half stint. Although Bannister has been cleared medically to play and has been practicing with the team, he has gone a month without playing or even dressing in a game.
While some might wonder if Bannister has found his way into Leitao's doghouse, that doesn't make sense. Bannister and Singletary are the only two natural point guards in the program, and there are no point guards in UVa's five-man recruiting class.
Leitao thinks Bannister needs to move better from side to side before he will be able to help the Cavaliers defensively. Until he can, breaks for Singletary and Reynolds will have to come wherever Leitao can find them.
-- Doug Doughty, Roanoke (Va.) Times
UM NEEDS TO REDISCOVER OFFENSIVE STYLE
CORAL GABLES -- It's a legitimate concern when a Miami team with a dangerous three-guard lineup can't push the pace more often. It's downright alarming when the same team is putting up fewer points than anyone in the ACC.
Miami shoots the second-lowest field goal percentage (.443) in the league. The Hurricanes' half-court attack isn't very efficient (11.57 assists per game), and their post-up game is just about non-existent.
Coach Frank Haith knows that for his team to survive in conference play this season, he must address its anemic offense. Miami needs to find a way to get easier baskets, needs to feed its top post player consistently, and must become a more up-tempo team by pushing the ball on fastbreaks.
Last season Miami ran in spurts and averaged 71.4 points per game doing it. But this offseason, the coaches emphasized better defense, which has been accomplished. But it appears that there has been a tradeoff, and finding the right balance is Haith's new mission.
"To be honest with you, we're not a great on-ball defensive team. Our perimeter guys don't defend well on the ball that way, but we've done a good job finding ways to make people shoot contested shots and keep percentages down," Haith said. "Now we've got to see ourselves take the next step offensively."
That means using the team's speed to its advantage, helping junior Guillermo Diaz to become the attacking guard he was last season, getting senior Rob Hite to shy away from being strictly a spot-up shooter, and getting junior Anthony Harris to push the pace from his point guard position.
"I want us to get into running more. We were so good in transition last year, and we're not playing at that pace right now," Haith said. "Somehow, we've got to distinguish the difference between slowing people down defensively, but we want to speed up the game offensively because that gives us the best chance to win."
The Hurricanes have quickness. Denis Clemente, UM's speedy freshman point guard, is as quick as anyone in the conference. But when he enters the game, the opposition usually ratchets up its defense a notch, trying to rattle him into a turnover. He averaged about two miscues per game into mid-January.
Harris has a calming influence on the offense, but he's still a bit rusty from the stress fracture in his right foot that sidelined him for the first month of the season. Since he's returned to the starting lineup, however, the Hurricanes have become more efficient offensively, particularly at running their half-court sets.
"We're gaining stability, getting everybody back and everybody jelled in," said Harris, who missed the first seven games of the season. "We're learning from our mistakes, getting to play with each other again. It's tough, not being able to play with these guys for seven games. It's been an adjustment period."
When in the half-court, Harris has looked to feed junior center Anthony King. Last year, King's offensive game left much to be desired. He scored mostly on put-back baskets. His post-up game improved this summer to the point where he can carry the team's inside scoring at times with an array of back-to-the-basket moves.
However, King is not being fed enough. He's averaging fewer than seven shots per game, despite shooting 54 percent from the field. He often struggles passing the ball out of the post when the defense collapses.
"King is getting better," Haith said. "He started out the year being more assertive, and we have to get him back to that point. We have to consistently get him the basketball in opportunities where he has a chance to score."
Omar Kelly, South Florida Sun-Sentinel