By Al Featherston
February 14, 2005 DURHAM Great rivalries often breed great rivalries. No, that's not redundant. It's just that great rivalries between teams often generate great personal rivalries between players. Or maybe it's those personal rivalries that make the team rivalries so compelling.
How much a part of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was the long personal duel between Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, or the more recent one between deluxe shortstops Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra? The Lakers-Celtics matchups were great when it was Chamberlain-Russell or Magic-Bird. NFL old-timers can remember when Bart Starr versus Don Meredith was at the heart of the Packers-Cowboys rivalry.
Duke-North Carolina, justly celebrated as the best rivalry in college sports, often is portrayed as a battle of coaches Dean against Vic, K against Dean, now Roy against K.
But the rivalry also has been blessed with a series of intriguing player-player duels. Go back to Doug Moe versus Art Heyman in the early 1960s, when basketball first took center stage in what long had been primarily a football rivalry. Or ACC fans can savor the memories of the on-court confrontations (and sometimes off-court sniping) between Danny Ferry and J.R. Reid, King Rice and Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner and Eric Montross, Ed Cota and Will Avery, etc.
The latest installment of this rivalry within a rivalry is playing out on the ACC's basketball courts this season. North Carolina's Rashad McCants and Duke's J.J. Redick are a pair of 6-4 wing guards who arrived on the ACC scene together and have in very different ways generated very similar offensive contributions to their teams. In fact, no two ACC players have scored more points since the start of the 2002-03 season than McCants and Redick. And after their sixth career confrontation (on Feb. 9), their career totals were separated by a mere eight points: 1,542 for McCants and 1,534 for Redick.
But the similarities between Redick and McCants go beyond numbers. Both arrived as key members of heralded six-man recruiting classes. Both were McDonald's All-Americans who shined in the showcase game at Madison Square Garden. Both came into the league as brilliant scoring machines, and both have worked hard to expand their games. And while it's possible that neither is his team's MVP (you could argue that Raymond Felton at UNC and Shelden Williams at Duke are more indispensable), both have become lightning rods for critics and opposing fans.
In a league dominated by brilliant point guards, McCants and Redick are two glorious wings. The former was the media's preseason pick as the ACC player of the year. The latter probably ranks as the current frontrunner for that award.
Misunderstood Or Misanthrope?
Opposing coaches are in awe of McCants' talent.
"Rashad is an incredibly gifted player," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "You see more of it on offense. Defensively, he can block shots, or he could guard a second big if you wanted him to. He has great versatility, offensively and defensively. He's as talented a player as you're going to play against."
The Asheville, N.C., product led the ACC in scoring last season, averaging 20.0 points per game, while shooting a very solid 47.9 percent from the floor (third-best in the ACC) and 40.8 percent from three-point range (second-best in the league).
But something very odd showed up in the postseason award voting. McCants was the leading vote-getter on the All-ACC team, but he finished a distant third behind N.C. State's Julius Hodge and Duke's Chris Duhon in the player of the year vote.
Was that vote a reflection of UNC's mediocre 8-8 league record, or an indication that many voters bought into the perception that McCants was a moody, selfish and one-dimensional player? Teammate Sean May, asked about the improvement in McCants' game this season, implied that at least some of the perceptions last year were true.
"Going into this year, I told him, 'Everybody knows you can score. That's not the question mark on you,'" May said. "The question mark on him was, 'How good a teammate is he, and can he play with his teammates, and can he be a leader on this team?'"
May is convinced that's just what McCants has done. His scoring average is down about four points a game, but his shooting percentages are up, and his assist-turnover ratio is better than it's ever been. He's also no longer platooned on defense, as he was at times last season.
"Rashad, he's a great player," teammate Raymond Felton said. "I don't want to say he's playing better this year. ... Rashad, he's just being himself. People were saying, 'He's shooting too much. He's shooting too much.' I guess now he's proving to everybody he can pass, and he can do other things besides shoot all the time."
Before the season, McCants predicted what was going to happen in an interview with Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated.
"My scoring average will have to drop," McCants said. "There will be a whole lot more bonding with the team, a whole lot less jealousy and a whole lot more comfortable feelings around one another. Everything else will take care of itself."
Just about everything has taken care of itself, finally. After three forgettable seasons (at least by UNC standards), the Tar Heels are a top-five team again and everybody's favorite to make the Final Four. McCants' transformation has played a large role in the team's improvement.
"In the spring, I sit down with each individual player and talk to them about areas of the game to work on," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "One of his was being able to put the ball on the floor and take it to the basket and becoming more of a basketball player and not just a jump shooter. He's done a marvelous job of that. He's better defensively. ... He's emphasizing the defensive end of the floor more than he ever has. I think he is each and every day and each and every practice becoming a more complete basketball player, and he still has that dynamite ... of being able to shoot the ball in the basket (while) being guarded as good as anyone I've ever coached."
Yet McCants remains a magnet for criticism. Obviously, he brings some of it on himself. Williams could have done without his comparisons of playing for North Carolina with being in jail, and his body language often appears to be negative. But much of what is said about the Tar Heel star is unwarranted.
For example, during the second half of the mid-February game at Duke, McCants missed several three-pointers, and as his teammates fought for the rebound, he drifted back toward midcourt. TV commentator Billy Packer blasted McCants for pouting, claiming, "all his teammates are battling (for the rebound), and he's standing 25 feet from the basket, saying, 'Woe is me.' If you miss, you've got to go rebound."
Moments later, when McCants missed again, Packer wailed, "You see where he
that shot hit the rim? He was backing up over halfcourt."
Which is exactly what McCants was supposed to be doing. His job after missing a long shot was to rotate back to defend against transition. Williams doesn't want five players crashing the boards. A player missing an outside shot is supposed to drop back while his teammates go for the rebound.
The odd thing is that Wake Forest's Chris Paul was much praised for doing exactly the same thing against North Carolina, a tactic that was credited with stopping UNC's transition game. But McCants does it, and he's accused of pouting.
Is it any wonder that McCants sometimes acts paranoid with the media?
Redick Expanding Strong Game
It's hard to understand why Redick is the target for so much fan abuse. He's not a vicious or even a particularly physical player, but his frequent emotional displays on the court seem to trigger the worst in opposing fans.
Maryland found itself in the center of a national controversy last winter, when thousands of students showed up wearing x-rated t-shirts directed at Redick. That fashion statement, coupled with an obscene chant that was loud enough and clear enough to be heard by millions watching on TV, brought the school so much national criticism that the administration finally cracked down on the ACC's most behaviorally challenged fan base.
But Redick still gets it from opposing fans. The normally somnambulant FSU crowd in Tallahassee subjected the Roanoke, Va., product with the same kind of vile verbal bile that he hears at the Comcast Center.
"It's weird to me. It really is," Redick said. "I can understand rooting for your team and being passionate about wanting to see them win. I can't so much understand some of the vicious heckling that goes on and how personal it's gotten."
Fans love to taunt Redick as a one-dimensional player who can do little more than catch and shoot. That may have been true early in his career, but his game has expanded.
"It seems as though he is refining some of the things he's doing," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. "He's moving extremely well without the ball. I think he is defending a lot better. I think he is reading screens very well. He's one of those guys, he doesn't need very much space to get a shot off. We had a much more difficult time defending him than we did last year."
Krzyzewski believes Redick was the best player in the ACC through early February last season. But he faded down the stretch, physically exhausted by the long season. Redick, anxious to prevent a repeat of last year's fade, remade his body in a vigorous offseason conditioning program. He lost 15 pounds and added quickness and durability.
The offseason work appears to have paid off on the court. Redick is leading the ACC in scoring (up from 15.9 per game last year to more than 22 this season), free throw shooting (naturally), three-pointers made and minutes played. When he went all 40 minutes in the victory over UNC, it was his fifth complete game of the season.
His three-point percentage is just over 42 percent good, but not great. Indeed, for his career, Redick already ranks ninth on the ACC career three-pointers list (and almost certainly will pass Virginia's Curtis Staples for the top spot if he stays for a senior season) but is a mere 20th on the conference's list for career three-point percentage.
McCants even has a better career three-point percentage. But at least one ACC coach believes that Redick's three-point percentage is misleading.
"I think it's phenomenal that he can shoot that percentage," Maryland's Gary 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."
The fact that Redick is still leading the ACC with more than 3.8 three-pointers a game is a tribute to the difficulty of stopping him on the perimeter.
Victories Trump Better Statistics
When Duke and North Carolina clash, Redick and McCants only rarely are matched against each other not intentionally, at least. UNC prefers to use defensive ace Jackie Manuel on Duke's shooting star, while the Blue Devils usually like the more athletic Daniel Ewing to check the Tar Heels' best weapon.
But fate and switching defenses seems to keep bringing the rivals together at dramatic moments.
Go back to last year's game in Cameron, when Duke led by three in the closing seconds. McCants came away with a long rebound and broke over midcourt with a chance to tie the game. Who was the only defender in position to challenge him?
You guessed it. And while Redick did not slap the ball away from McCants, as many fans believe (replays show that McCants lost it on his own as he tried to get his feet behind the three-point line), he did beat his UNC rival to the floor for the loose ball. His dive and subsequent timeout with nine seconds to play cost the Heels any chance to win in Durham.
Flash forward to this year's matchup in Cameron, when Redick and McCants sometimes seemed locked in a personal duel. McCants beat Redick badly on the drive in the first half, but Redick's presence on a breakaway a few moments later caused McCants to lose the ball out of bounds. McCants hit his only three-pointer of the game to tie the score at 38, but Redick immediately answered with a three to put Duke back on top. And it was McCants driving on Redick for the layup that cut the Duke lead to one in the final minute.
That set up a bizarre final sequence. It started when Redick air-balled a long three-point try to give UNC an opportunity to win the game in the final 18 seconds. Most of the postgame attention was focused on Felton's hesitation when he had a chance to go one-on-one after Ewing missed a steal. Instead, he elected to stick with the play called from the bench.
That's where Redick made a subtle but decisive defensive play. Felton wanted to go to McCants, coming off a screen by May. But Redick, who recognized the play as the one UNC used to beat UConn last season, fought through the May screen and denied the pass to McCants. Felton was forced to go to David Noel on the other wing, and the reserve forward lost the ball out of bounds as the buzzer sounded.
It's ironic that Redick, often derided by North Carolina fans as nothing but a shooter, now has made two game-saving plays in a row against UNC, and neither involved him taking a shot.
After the latest loss to Duke, McCants found himself in the role of Ted Williams in the rivalry. He puts up good numbers against Redick and the Blue Devils he's averaged 15.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 52 percent shooting versus Redick's 14.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 33 percent shooting but he has a 1-5 record in six career games against Duke.
Redick is this rivalry's DiMaggio. He has started on an ACC regular-season championship team, an ACC Tournament championship team and a Final Four team. Duke was 75-15 in his career after the latest matchup with UNC, 56-30 in the McCants era.
Of course, it's as silly to suggest that Redick is the reason Duke has dominated McCants and UNC as it would be to suggest that DiMaggio is the reason the Yankees owned Williams' Red Sox. One player doesn't make a team in baseball or basketball a winner.
Still, the McCants-Redick duel is at the heart of the Duke-Carolina series as it stands today. Two great scorers ... two great wing players ... two controversial stars who are lavished with praise and scalded with criticism.
It's not really fair, but it's part of what makes ACC basketball and the Duke-UNC rivalry so fascinating to watch. March 6 in Chapel Hill?
Don't miss it.
Top-Five Forward Likes UNC, Duke
In other basketball recruiting news (please see our column on pages 12-13 and 16-17 of this issue for more), numerous prominent underclassmen continued to place ACC programs at or near the top of their most recent college lists.
One of the nation's very best junior prospects, rangy 6-9 BF Brandan Wright (No. 3) of Nashville (TN) Brentwood Academy, scored 18 points on Jan. 25 in a 67-62 victory over Pulaski (TN) Giles County, whose star is 6-7 senior WF/BF Tyler Smith (No. 66), a Tennessee signee. Among those in the audience for that contest was UNC's Roy Williams. The Tar Heels are among the three leaders for southpaw Wright, along with Kentucky and Duke, although he's also giving serious consideration to entering next year's NBA draft.
Carlton Young (top 400), a 6-1, 170-pound junior PG who's a teammate of Wake commitment Jamie Skeen at Huntersville (NC) North Mecklenburg, is averaging 12.5 points, 7.5 assists and six steals per game while being the once-beaten team's floor leader. He's no higher than a mid-major prospect right now in our estimation, but he's been offered a scholarship by the College of Charleston, and his progress also is being monitored by Boston College, Virginia Commonwealth, Clemson and UNC Wilmington, among others.
Superb Thaddeus Young (No. 4), a 6-8 junior WF at Memphis (TN) Mitchell who's as outstanding in the classroom (over 4.0 GPA in honors courses) as he is on the hardwood, is still another left-hander in a class filled with southpaws. He insists that he will play in college rather than go directly from high school to the NBA, and he claims to be "wide open" on colleges. Among the horde of salivating hoops programs are those at Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Arkansas, Stanford, UNC, Alabama and Duke. All of them except the Blue Devils watched him in action recently, and Coach K's staff viewed Thaddeus (whose credentials are impeccable) previously.
While diverging from alphabetical order, there are two more promising juniors we want to mention before completing this column. They are 6-5 Winnebago (IL) High WG/WF/PG Devan Bawinkel (top 100) and 6-3 Lyman (FL) High PG/WG Sanchez Hughley (top 125).
While neither strong nor a great athlete, Bawinkel is smart (another 4.0 student) and highly skilled, and he's averaging 20 points, nine rebounds and 4.5 assists this season. Among the many schools in touch with Devan are Michigan State, Wisconsin, Georgetown, Notre Dame, N.C. State, Miami, California, Stanford, Iowa, Northwestern, DePaul, St. Louis, Marquette and Northern Illinois. In the offseason, he'll play again for the Illinois Wolves, and he'll also attend the Reebok ABCD Camp in New Jersey.
Hughley has received relatively little notoriety outside of his immediate area, but he's a cloud-piercing leaper with a 37-inch vertical jump, and he also is very quick both off the dribble and in releasing his accurate jump shot. Thus far this season, he's averaging 28 points per game, and he accumulated two triple-doubles (points, rebounds, assists) during one four-game period. Add in a 3.3 GPA and a desire to major collegiately in either architecture or sports management, and you have a better than advertised underclassman who's been watched recently by coaches from Florida State, Miami, Marquette, Virginia Commonwealth, Florida International and Central Florida.
Brick Oettinger, ACCSports.com
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