Welcome Guest. Login/Signup.
ACC Sports Journal Logo

Final Four ... Times Two!

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Michael A. Lough, Macon (Ga.) Telegraph
and Ken Tysiac, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer

March 29, 2004 ACC In the 2004 NCAA Tournament Tech Still Enjoying Wild Ride ST. LOUIS — Back in the middle of October, Paul Hewitt was going to hold a two-day coaches clinic in Atlanta. For $60 in advance, attendees would learn from the Georgia Tech coach about playing a fast game, trapping, running the motion offense, and practice preparation. A scheduling conflict led to the cancellation of the event, 10 days before it was scheduled to begin. No problem. Hewitt ended up turning the ensuing four months into something of a coaching clinic for anybody who was paying attention, and the result is Georgia Tech's first trip to the NCAA Final Four since 1990. Until now, that also was the Yellow Jackets' only trip to the national semifinals. And with a team that loses only two players from its regular 2003-04 rotation — guard Marvin Lewis and forward Clarence Moore — it's no stretch to believe that runs in the NCAA Tournament won't be much of a surprise for a while. “This is the reason I came here,” sophomore Jarrett Jack said. “This is the point we wanted to get the program back to.” The point, made by the second-year point guard after his stuff in the final seconds sealed Tech's 57-54 win over Boston College in the NCAA Tournament's second round, is to go fairly deep in the Big Dance on a regular basis, something the Yellow Jackets haven't done since the mid-1990s. “We've gotten back to that possibility,” Hewitt said. “But you still have to go out and do it.” Now a team with an Australian center, a senior forward who left the program for a full year and a transfer from the West, Tech has started recovering from years of early NBA departures and inconsistent recruiting. “It's an easy place to recruit to,” Hewitt said. “The city we have, the school, the conference … playing in the best and most televised conference in the country.” Still, the run to the Final Four is a surprising one, especially considering that Tech was picked to finish seventh out of the ACC's nine teams in preseason balloting by conference media members. There were questions, but Hewitt expected them to be answered. “When you add in Clarence Moore (returning) and bring back all of the experience that we had, we felt like, if given the opportunity … we could show what we could do,” Hewitt said. “We got a break that we got through the preseason NIT semifinals, and once we won that UConn game, I think everybody else around the country recognized what we knew very early on in practice, that this is a very good basketball team.” A few times, not so much. Despite a couple of slumps as 2004 started, when Tech went 4-5 and eventually fell to 16-5, the Jackets have had a season marked by impressive chemistry, consistency and work ethic. Tech hasn't won with a great inside game nor an overly deep bench, but rather with a blend of athletic basketball players who go extremely hard on defense at all times. “We pretty much go into every game with the same approach on defense,” said guard B.J. Elder, who missed most of Tech's victories over Nevada (72-67) and Kansas (79-71) with an ankle injury suffered against the Wolf Pack. “We pretty much think that's our strength and try to go out and put a lot of pressure on people and try to force a lot of turnovers.” The only player to start every game for Tech this season is Jack, and for good reason. The humble 6-3 sophomore from Maryland is a solid outside shooter (45.9 percent) and a strong rebounder, ranking second on the team with about five boards per game. More impressive is that Jack has 205 assists to 108 turnovers while averaging more than 31 minutes a game. He played 38 minutes in the Elite Eight matchup against Kansas, scoring a game-high 29 points and adding nine rebounds, six assists, four steals and a blocked shot. “People come to me and tell me I made third-team All-ACC, and I'm like, they could've put somebody else on the team,” Jack said. “I'm hard on myself. Sometimes I don't respect my own ability.” At this point, he's about the only one. “It's one of the things that has been a real positive for my basketball team, in that although Jarrett Jack is a sophomore, he played every single game last year and learned a lot in the ACC as a freshman,” Hewitt said. “Now, here he is, for all intents and purposes, really a junior.” Elder has matched Jack for efficiency, but in different areas. The 6-4 junior from Madison, Ga., leads Tech with 15.8 points a game and is a 38.1 percent shooter on three-pointers. “B.J. Elder,” Hewitt said, “is probably our most complete player.” The addition of Arizona transfer Will Bynum at midterm helped make Jack and Elder better, for it allowed Hewitt to substitute one quality guard for another and keep all three fresh. Hewitt pointed out before playing Nevada the importance of Bynum's contribution. “If we don't have him, we're not playing (in the Sweet 16),” Hewitt said. “A recipe for disaster in the NCAA Tournament is to have one of your top players get in foul trouble. When we had Jarrett Jack get into foul trouble against Northern Iowa (in the tournament opener), we didn't skip a beat. We put Will into the game, and he ran the club for 19 minutes and ran it extremely well.” Such was the case in the regional semifinal against Nevada. Elder went down with a sprained ankle a minute into the game and played only three minutes. So Bynum stepped in and had nine points and three rebounds in 21 minutes, with one bucket a fantastic dipsy-do on the baseline that put Tech ahead for good with barely a minute left. “That's definitely a Will Bynum-type play,” Jack said. “When you think he doesn't have any type of daylight, he always squeezes in, pulls it out.” The are other ingredients in Tech's success, including the explosiveness of 6-6 junior forward Isma'il Muhammad, who became one of the nation's most-watched dunkers this season, and the steadiness and scoring punch of 6-4 senior guard Marvin Lewis. Both defined their roles early in the year, and Lewis helped the backcourt live up to Hewitt's prediction that it would be among the nation's best. “You need guys who have been through this before and understand how to value the basketball,” Hewitt said of quality backcourt play. “Exceptional guard play means a lot in the NCAA Tournament.” The preseason question mark regarded the frontcourt, thanks to the early departure for the NBA of talented freshman center Chris Bosh. But 6-7 junior Anthony McHenry became a defensive force, Moore returned after a year and displayed the consistency and grit expected of a senior, and Schenscher surpassed the expectations of most as the season progressed. And one thing that developed from Bosh's departure was a mental edge that held the Jackets together despite a few slumps. “I think the most important thing is the level of toughness, mentally and physically,” Nevada coach Trent Johnson said. “(It's) probably the best in the country, from what I have seen.” That was evident when suddenly the Jackets had to play without Elder against Nevada and standout guard Kirk Snyder. Tech used several different defenders against the strong senior, and he was held to two-of-12 shooting in the second half, as the Jackets crept back into the game after a sluggish first half. “Our approach to Snyder,” Hewitt said, “was just to let him take as many tough shots as we can.” Meanwhile, off the court, one persistent battle for Tech has been the heavy speculation regarding Hewitt and the St. John's opening, which was created when the school fired Mike Jarvis in December. Hewitt already has made a name for himself in the New York area, having coached for three years at Siena before jumping to Tech. The Big Apple got a reminder of his ability with Tech's surprising 77-61 win over then-No. 1 Connecticut in a Preseason NIT game at Madison Square Garden, en route to the tournament title. Said Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight, after an 85-65 loss to the Yellow Jackets in the NIT finale: “I think they are really well put-together, extremely well-coached and beyond that, I wish I could've been a spectator tonight. I could have enjoyed the game.” As the Jackets remained in the nation's Top 25, Hewitt's name remained attached to the St. John's job. The talk intensified as the college basketball world had only 16 teams to focus on after the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, forcing Hewitt to spend an inordinate amount of time denying any interest in making a move. The inquiries died down after the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but they probably won't go away until Tech athletic director Dave Braine gets Hewitt to sign his new deal, which has been in the works for weeks. The NIT win over UConn put Tech into the national college basketball consciousness as part of a 12-0 start and No. 3 ranking. Then, though, the Yellow Jackets had to face down a few speed bumps that easily could've led to bigger slumps. Their season-opening winning streak died at 12 in an 83-80 overtime loss on the floor of Stegeman Coliseum at state rival Georgia, which had lost only four games earlier by 20 at home to Winthrop. A 15-point thumping by North Carolina in Chapel Hill followed eight days later. But Tech responded with a solid 75-57 win at Virginia, courtesy of a new lineup and a stepped-up defensive performance that held the Cavs to 34.8 percent shooting and forced 21 turnovers. “As long as our defense continues to play the way we've been playing all year,” Hewitt said after the game, “we're going to give ourselves a chance to win some basketball games this season.” Wins over Maryland and Wake Forest followed, and the 15-2 Jackets seemed to have righted the ship after the two straight losses. Or not. N.C. State then out-hustled Tech and took a 76-72 home win, marking the eighth straight time State had beaten Tech. The Jackets played well, but the Wolfpack had just a little more, and the loss began a month-long rollercoaster ride. Beat Clemson, lose to Duke and Florida State. Beat North Carolina, lose to Virginia. Beat Maryland, lose to Wake and again to State. That's ACC basketball. “We did have some humbling moments in the ACC, but that's what the ACC was all about this year,” Hewitt said. “You knew you weren't going to go through the league undefeated, but at the same time, we also realized that we were a very good basketball team. In the two games we lost back-to-back at home to Wake and N.C. State, I think the lessons that we learned in those games have come back to help us.” Tech more than proved that seven days after the 79-69 home loss to N.C. State. “We just maintained our confidence and said focus on each game,” Lewis said. “(The) ACC is a tough conference.” Re-energized a bit by a 19-point win at Clemson, Tech strode into the sacred ACC shrine known as Cameron Indoor Stadium and did what nobody had done since February 2001: beat Duke at home. The 76-68 win ended a 41-game winning streak for the Blue Devils at Cameron, and the Jackets were led surprisingly by Schenscher's 14 points and clutch second-half play. “We never could match their intensity for 40 minutes,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They just came in here and outplayed us.” It was the highest-ranked team Tech had beaten since a victory over No. 1 North Carolina in February 1994, and it completely restored Tech's confidence and sharpness. Still, it was a non-conference ride up I-75 and
I-40 to Knoxville that may have been this season's catalyst. Between a surprising 16-point loss at Florida State and an 11-point home win over North Carolina, Tech visited Tennessee. The Vols were 11-7 and had struggled after a hot start, but they welcomed Tech a week after knocking off Florida. The Jackets hit 52.1 percent of their shots, got three assists from five different players and held UT to 30 percent shooting from the floor in a
77-62 win. “The Tennessee game was the game where I felt like I saw things kind of fall into place,” Hewitt said. “We got off to a good start because of our defense and our rebounding and our transition offense. As you go deeper and deeper into the year, it's harder to get those kind of buckets, easy baskets in transition, getting steals. So the Tennessee game in my mind proves to the guys that we can hurt people in a lot of different ways.” The Jackets still had some rough moments ahead, and they went only 6-4 from the Tennessee game to the NCAA opener. Even under the bright lights against Northern Iowa (65-60), Boston College (57-54) and Nevada (72-67), the Jackets didn't quite click yet still found ways to win, just as they did after a slump in January, and again in February. The Jackets still have no real honest-to-goodness superstar, and they consistently pass the buck when it comes time to give credit. The balance and focus on defense has led to solid chemistry up and down the lineup, but young and old, the Jackets are pretty sure why they are where they are. “The main thing is that, with the guys we have, we can be successful if everybody plays together,” Lewis said. “In every huddle, we talk about family and the fact that we get it done as a family. I think it starts with him. It starts with Coach Hewitt.” Perhaps that coaching clinic wasn't canceled after all.

— Michael A. Lough, Macon (Ga.) Telegraph

Duke Dynasty Doing It Again ATLANTA — If America has had enough of Duke, well, that's just too bad. If the sight of the Blue Devils celebrating their return to the Final Four on the floor of the Georgia Dome left you cursing at the television screen, you won't be happy to gaze into the future. Four former McDonald's All-Americans who are just sophomores — J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph and Sean Dockery — could be together for two more seasons. Freshman Luol Deng hasn't announced whether he is returning next season, but he has hinted that he has more to learn at Duke before he leaves for the NBA. With junior guard Daniel Ewing also returning, the only significant loss for the Blue Devils next season might be point guard Chris Duhon. In other words, after Duke is finished in San Antonio, there is no reason to believe the Blue Devils won't set a successful course for St. Louis to participate in the Final Four next season. And for Indianapolis in 2006. That's a thought that will drive Duke's enemies crazy. “They obviously have (Mike) Krzyzewski, all the tradition, all the banners,” said Illinois center Nick Smith, whose team fell 72-62 to the Blue Devils in the regional semifinals. “And I think people just don't like them because they just get tired of hearing Duke, Duke, Duke all the time from everybody.” Krzyzewski may have created a story that won't die after the ACC Tournament, when he said a nationwide anti-Duke sentiment has grown to the extent that it actually can influence the outcome of games. It was easy to see his point. On opponents' home floors, most noticeably at Georgia Tech and Maryland, Duke and especially Redick were targets of chants so foul that they would cause a sailor to blush. During the ACC Tournament final in Greensboro, Maryland enjoyed a homecourt advantage in Duke's home state because otherwise neutral fans cheered hard against the Blue Devils as the Terrapins won 95-87 in overtime. Krzyzewski and Duke's players also said some of the teams in their NCAA bracket, especially No. 8 seed Seton Hall, No. 9 seed Arizona and No. 5 seed Illinois, seemed more talented than their seeds indicated. If true, this meant Duke faced more significant obstacles than other schools on its route to the Final Four. Not that it mattered. “We just have got to be stronger and do our best,” Krzyzewski said, “and hopefully that's going to be good enough.” It was — again — mostly because of the incredible collection of athletes who cause Duke's detractors to be so envious. The most significant change for the Blue Devils has been in the post, where the team has been vulnerable in recent years. Duke was pushed around on the block by Indiana's Jared Jeffries and Kansas' Nick Collison in consecutive regional semifinal losses before this season. Williams put a stop to that in 2003-04, leading the ACC in blocked shots, crashing the boards with a purpose and maneuvering his solid frame into position for dunks and layups. “They get him the ball in positions where he can be successful,” said Xavier coach Thad Matta, whose team fell to Duke in the regional final. “And he does a really nice job finishing.” When Williams drew double-teams in the post, three-point shooting aces Redick and Ewing were open on the perimeter. Redick went through a couple of slumps this season, and Ewing started slowly while a stress fracture in his right foot healed, but they still were the most feared three-point shooting duo in the ACC. Wake Forest point guard Chris Paul edged Deng for ACC rookie of the year honors, but the Duke freshman still had a marvelous season. He scored from three-point range, on slashing drives and on post-up moves, and he ultimately blossomed into a clutch player. Deng's remarkable story — including his family's escape from the civil war raging in his native Sudan — gained him instant respect and helped put basketball in perspective. He often marvels at the attention he receives for his athletic ability, while there are children struggling in anonymity just to stay alive in Africa. “There are kids out there,” Deng said, “working a lot harder than me and doing even bigger things.” Through it all, Duhon has held everything together with his courage, leadership and timely plays. With his ribs bruised and causing him so much pain that he had difficulty sleeping, Duhon persevered through four NCAA games to get Duke to the Final Four. Earlier this year, Duhon made a game-clinching three-pointer in a home victory over Florida State, and his coast-to-coast drive for the winning layup in overtime at North Carolina may have been the most memorable play of the ACC season. “It's just unbelievable, the heart he has,” said walk-on Andy Borman, who is Duhon's roommate. “The way he's playing, it makes it a lot easier for us just to follow him.” Twenty-two games into the season, the Blue Devils appeared nearly invulnerable. They were ranked No. 1 in the nation and had lost only once, to Purdue in the Great Alaska Shootout. They won their first 10 ACC games, and though some of those were close, they displayed an uncanny ability for making big plays down the stretch. Then, suddenly, they became utterly human. Consecutive road games against N.C. State and Wake Forest resulted in losses. On March 3, a fearless, deep Georgia Tech team went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and broke Duke's 41-game home winning streak. Later, the Blue Devils' seven-player rotation didn't prove deep enough when Maryland overcame a 12-point deficit with 3:30 remaining to win the ACC Tournament final. But what confounded Krzyzewski was that everybody seemed so happy that Duke finally was losing. “The magnitude of (anti-Duke sentiment) this year has been somewhat a surprise to me,” Krzyzewski said. “I've never experienced that.” It's difficult for Duke's opponents in the ACC to feel sorry for Krzyzewski or his team because the Blue Devils' tradition gives them so many advantages. When North Carolina played at Duke in the regular-season finale, ESPN brought its studio crew to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a day-long live celebration of college basketball's most cherished rivalry. North Carolina coach Roy Williams admitted that coaches throughout the nation probably were jealous that the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils received what amounted to an all-day recruiting advertisement. After Duke hammered Georgia Tech 85-71 in the ACC Tournament, Tech coach Paul Hewitt grew weary of answering questions about the Blue Devils' unprecedented 17-game tournament winning streak. “After a while, somebody is going to catch up,” Hewitt said. “Or they're going to give somebody else a chance to catch up. If it's not me, it's going to be somebody else.” The next day, Maryland did catch up — for one game, at least. But then Krzyzewski went public with his own frustrations, and a funny thing happened. Every time the Blue Devils faced a new wave of media in the NCAA Tournament, Krzyzewski and his players were asked about the anti-Duke sentiment sweeping across America. This perceived bias against Duke became the Blue Devils' newest, greatest enemy, and the team banded together against it. Redick shook free from his shooting slump. Duhon grimaced with determination. And Duke fought its way into the Final Four. Again. “There are certain expectations for us because of the past,” Redick said, “but each year is a different situation. I think this team has been through the battles and is more prepared to handle the expectations.” On one hand, it seems ridiculous. Ewing said Duke's players are perceived as preppies and choir-boy types. But at the same time, the Blue Devils said people view them as the evil empire of college basketball. Perhaps it makes sense only within the context of the culture. A faction of Americans love Martha Stewart because her trendy products and ideas brighten their homes and their lives, but many gloated when Stewart was convicted of obstructing justice and lying to the government. They were happy to see somebody rich, powerful and trendy knocked off her pedestal. For the same reason, many fans rejoiced when Duke was knocked off stride late in the season. But their enjoyment didn't last long and isn't likely to continue. If Duhon is the only player to depart this year, Duke might be just as formidable in 2004-05. Should Illinois prep star Shaun Livingston honor his letter of intent rather than jumping straight to the NBA, Duke might have the nation's top freshman point guard. Livingston obviously has yet to develop Duhon's leadership qualities, but he has much better skills with the ball. Meanwhile, everybody else on the roster will have an extra year of experience and maturity. The ACC was the nation's top conference this season and will be even stronger next year. But Duke likely will remain a favorite for the league title and maybe the NCAA championship. The only way for Duke to strike back at its detractors is to win, over and over again. People might grow to resent the Blue Devils even more as a result, but if people dislike Duke for winning, Krzyzewski can live with that. “The alternative is to lose or get out of it,” Krzyzewski said. “I'm not resigning.” Chances are, he won't lose much, either.

— Ken Tysiac, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer