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Happy Tales

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

By Dave Glenn and Staff,
ACC Area Sports Journal

February 2, 2004   Williams Among Most Improved

DURHAM — Shelden Williams is usually as impassive as he is massive. Trying to extract a quote from the 6-9, 250-pound Duke center is like drilling for oil on the lawn in front of Duke Chapel. Getting him to smile? Forget about it.

But there was Williams at Georgetown on Jan. 24, sporting a gap-toothed grin after knocking down his first collegiate three-pointer. Not known for his delicate touch, Williams had attempted only three long-range bombs up to that point.

Maybe fans of the Blue Devils will have to wait a long time to see his face light up again, but they shouldn't worry. Williams has plenty to be happy about.

Williams, a sophomore, is among the most improved players in the ACC. Duke's chances for a fourth national title also are getting better, as he continues to add facets to his game. He surprised many by becoming a defensive force from the beginning of the season. He leads the conference in blocked shots by a wide margin, and he is on pace to shatter Mike Gminski's school record for blocks.

Williams' teammates speak in reverential tones when describing the difficulty they have trying to score on him in practice.

“Shelden is strong, man,” forward Luol Deng said. “Going against him is tough.”

Williams has saved his best for the Blue Devils' opponents. His six blocked shots in the first half against Wake Forest on Jan. 17 effectively cowed the Demon Deacons, even with their big front line, into submission.

“I knew it was going to be physical,” Williams said. “I was just physical first.”

Williams finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks against the Deacons, and he's continuing to earn a scarier reputation than ever.

“Knowing he's right there to help you out, he's been great doing that,” Deng said. “After he blocks a couple of shots, even if he doesn't get the next one, the (opponent's) shot won't be as good.”

At times during his freshman year, Williams looked painfully uncomfortable playing offense in the post. He would receive the ball and not know which way to turn, as if he had just been dropped in the middle of traffic on I-40. He averaged 8.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 19.2 minutes per game for the season.

Williams has smoothed out many of the rough edges this season. His averages are up to 11.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game. He looked positively graceful while scoring a career-high 26 points in the Blue Devils' win at Georgetown. After getting Hoyas center Courtland Freeman into foul trouble in the first half, Williams dazzled with a variety of offensive moves the Georgetown coaching staff had not seen in their meeting last year.

“Courtland was trying his best, but Williams was just a beast down there,” Hoyas guard Ashanti Cook said. “We tried to help him but couldn't.”

That has been a problem for many teams, but you wouldn't know it from the coverage Williams has gotten. He is not an enthusiastic interview, often deflecting praise to his teammates or keeping his comments centered around his specific role on the team rather than his skills. His star power is far out-shined on his own team by the talented Deng, sharpshooting J.J. Redick and anointed senior point guard Chris Duhon.

Even Mike Krzyzewski doesn't include Williams on his list of elite players in the ACC, although the Duke coach recently did draw a favorable comparison between Williams and former Blue Devils big man Carlos Boozer. Another impressive but unpolished gem when he arrived on campus, Boozer gradually developed into a first-team All-ACC selection and a second-round NBA draft pick during his three seasons in Durham.

“Shelden is right up there with the good players in our league,” Krzyzewski said. “He's really consistent, and that's who Carlos became for us.”

If Williams does become anything like Boozer, it bodes well for Duke. Remember, Boozer was part of the 2001 national championship run. Another banner in Durham might just cause Williams to crack another one of his rare smiles.

Levy Offers Deacs Sweet Blend

WINSTON-SALEM — Jamaal Levy's college basketball career couldn't have begun on a more sour note. Right before Wake Forest opened the 2001-02 season, Levy's mother passed away, and he returned home to Panama.

In addition to suffering a devastating emotional blow, Levy missed valuable practice time and exhibition games. Already saddled with being a freshman on a senior-dominated team, he fell off new coach Skip Prosser's radar for a while, scoring just two points in the team's first seven games.

At the time, Levy seemed to be a mystery. At 6-9, he appeared to be athletically versatile, yet he was not very comfortable with any individual skill. His outside shot looked technically sound, but he fired some real bricks. He seemed to be able to handle the ball well, but he often was soft with it when challenged by opponents. About the only thing for certain about Levy was that he was extremely skinny.

Then Prosser began to experiment a little. Out popped a 15-point, seven-rebound effort against Florida State in Levy's first ACC game. But two games later, he played only four minutes at St. John's. The rest of the season followed that pattern: Long stretches of bench time, broken up by brief chances here and there. Near the end of the season, Levy played two minutes over four games. Then, in Wake's two NCAA Tournament games, he averaged 16.5 minutes and 7.5 points.

Prosser went from comparing Levy to Ichabod Crane to making references about James Posey, a versatile NBA player whom Prosser coached at Xavier.

Three things became apparent during Levy's otherwise forgettable season. First, he had the potential to become a dominant defender. Second, he had a knack for sliding his skinny frame into the right position for rebounds. Though he obviously needed more strength, Levy surprisingly found his hands on a lot of missed shots.

“He's really a good blend guy,” Prosser said. “He doesn't go out hunting shots. He's a good defender. He's a good rebounder. He's a good guy in your offense to set screens and reverse the ball. He doesn't have a big ego. He settles things down. He's handled every situation in a very positive way.”

Finally, Levy just needed to get more comfortable. Four times that season, Prosser played Levy more than 20 minutes in a game. Two came in ACC action, including one at Duke, and one came in the NCAA Tournament. In those games, he averaged 10.5 points, six rebounds and shot 58 percent from the floor. In his other 26 games, he averaged 1.5 points, 1.8 rebounds and shot 30 percent.

Last season, despite having a much bigger opening in playing time, Levy didn't start strong. Prosser still seemed reluctant to give him a bigger role, though Levy showed flashes, such as nine points and 12 rebounds against St. John's.

His break came when Wake started ACC play. Justin Gray was late for a team meeting, and Levy started. In the game, Gray broke his jaw, and Levy had 10 points and seven rebounds. Levy didn't leave the starting lineup for the rest of the year.

Again, he seemed to blossom with more playing time, largely because it gave him confidence. As a starter, he averaged 8.2 points and 7.8 rebounds. This season, Levy finally seems more comfortable, and he's scoring in double figures (10.4) and leading the team in rebounding (8.1).

Levy's strength is his versatility. His ability to handle the ball, play big inside and defend virtually any position on the floor allows Prosser the chance to shift lineups. Last season, it let Prosser play a center-less but strong and fast lineup of Josh Howard, Levy and Vytas Danelius up front when he didn't want to use Eric Williams in the middle. This season, Levy's ability to slide between small and power forward has allowed Prosser to move players such as Trent Strickland and Danelius in and out of the lineup in various combinations.

Levy's weakness is his lack of assertiveness on offense, especially compared to his intensity for defense and rebounding. He simply isn't much of an offensive weapon in a halfcourt game, getting most of his points in transition or off rebounds.

While the Deacons would like more offense from him, Levy is the kind of player coaches love, especially Prosser. Levy bases his game on effort, especially on defense and in rebounding.

“I think sometimes, even as a coach during the course of a game, you don't appreciate it as much as when you watch a tape,” Prosser said. “You'll see he did a lot of little things that aren't glaringly apparent when you're coaching the game.”

Tech: Jack Makes Maturity Jump

ATLANTA — He wears No. 3, a nod to his favorite player — and former Georgia Tech point guard — Stephon Marbury. Now Jarrett Jack, the Yellow Jackets' sophomore point guard, is trying to take the program back to the heights where Marbury left it.

Marbury guided the Yellow Jackets to their last ACC regular-season crown, then the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, in his lone season in Atlanta in 1995-96.

A true sophomore, Jack has established himself this season as one of the best all-around point guards in the ACC. He's also established himself as the Yellow Jackets' most important player.

Gone are some of the mistakes that plagued him last year, especially near the end of games. Jack did not play poorly a year ago, with 9.5 points, 6.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game in a starting role. However, he did look like a freshman point guard trying to compete in a rugged league.

“I was put into the fire, so to speak, with a very competitive conference,” Jack said. “I was put in some situations I wasn't familiar with. I resorted to what I did back in high school. Now I know what I'm supposed to do on the college level.”

A summer of increased film study with Tech assistant coach Cliff Warren gave Jack a better idea of why he made some mistakes and what to do with the ball in specific situations. Meanwhile, hours on the practice floor hoisting jumpers helped make him a more consistent shooter.

Now Jack is putting it all together. His scoring (12.7), assists (6.3), rebounds (4.6), field goal percentage (48.4) and importance to the team are up. His turnovers (3.1) are down. He's also more vocal as a leader, often the first one off the bench to explain something to backup point guard Will Bynum.

“You're seeing this kid mature before our eyes. He continues to be the general out there,” Hewitt said. “I've said that B.J. Elder is probably our best player, and in my mind, Jarrett Jack is probably our most important player.”

None of this was unexpected by Hewitt, who argues passionately that young players, including Jack, need to be given time to develop. The media, Hewitt often says, is too quick to pass judgment on young players and categorize them.

“I've always felt good with him. It's just a matter of time. You have to be patient,” Hewitt said. “That's something that has been lost in how we evaluate sports. I don't think you can have the time and patience to develop a team and a program. It's got to be, if you're not doing it today, you're a bum.”

Jack is certainly not a bum. He's the lone Tech player averaging more than 30 minutes per game this season, and the team's halfcourt offense bogs down without him on the floor. Despite the emergence of Bynum, a transfer from Arizona who became eligible seven games into the season, Jack is still the more trusted ball-handler when the game is on the line.

Jack has been in tough spots before. He played at three of the top high school programs in the country — DeMatha High in Maryland, Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina, and Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. He's played in the Global Games and in the star-studded USA Basketball Youth Development Festival in 2001. After a rough first season on the road in the ACC, he's certainly battled-tested.

“I like to look at myself as one of the leaders on the team, and I like to lead by example as well as being a vocal leader,” Jack said. “Just me trying to come out here and be focused. I think that's part of my job.”

UNC: Manuel Embraces Change

CHAPEL HILL — The occupants of North Carolina's Smith Center no longer cringe when Jackie Manuel has his hands on the basketball at any moment in a game, and sometimes they even chant his name in admiration.

They appreciate the hustle and determination that Manuel, a 6-5 junior swingman, has given UNC this season. In a near-total makeover of his game, Manuel is scoring inside, keying the defense, helping a small team rebound and packing a lot into his usual 20 minutes off the bench.

Without Manuel's help early in the season, when forward David Noel was sidelined because of a thumb injury, UNC might not have won 12 of its first 16 games.

“I try to bring energy when I go into a game,” Manuel said. “If we're up by 10, I want to go up by 20. If we're down by five or something, I want to go up by 10. I do whatever I can. If somebody's hot, I go in there and try to stop him.”

Manuel is often the first reserve for UNC, coming into the game with less than five minutes played. He is no longer an offensive liability, as in his first two seasons, when he shot 38.3 percent from the field and sometimes helped the other team more than UNC when he fired three-pointers or any shot outside of eight feet. He also had serious problems with his ball-handling, leading to lots of turnovers and easy baskets for the opposition.

He is playing to his strengths this season, slashing to the hoop and using his quickness to score layups or get free for dunks. He played that way in high school in West Palm Beach, Fla., and a talk with UNC coach Roy Williams was the impetus for returning to his old style.

Williams, in his first season back in Chapel Hill, didn't want Manuel shooting 26.4 percent on three-pointers or 42.1 percent from the field in a repeat of last season. The coach wanted Manuel attacking the basket for better shots. Manuel was told he could shoot three-pointers only when UNC was in desperate situations.

“I didn't understand it at first,” Manuel said. “I was kind of like, ‘OK.' Then once I sat back and let it settle in, I was, ‘OK, the guy knows what he's talking about, so I'm going to listen.'”

Williams indeed knew what was best for UNC and for Manuel. The layups and dunks have forced other teams to pay attention to Manuel, and that has opened shooting lanes for Rashad McCants, Melvin Scott and Jawad Williams. Because of his mobility, Manuel also has helped UNC race down the floor in the fastbreak game of exhaustion that Williams desires.

Almost any game serves as an example of Manuel's turnaround. He hit five of his first six shots in a win over Georgia Tech, and almost every shot was from point-blank range. He had no fear of Emeka Okafor, Connecticut's 6-10 center, and kept driving to the basket even after Okafor forcefully blocked one layup.

Manuel hurt Virginia by scoring 12 points. All five of his field goals were right at the basket. He was shooting 58 percent from the field after 16 games and was at 62.3 percent earlier in the season. When Manuel has the ball now, especially as an offensive rebounder or the recipient of a fastbreak pass, there's a good chance UNC is going to score and not return possession to the other team.

Of Manuel's first 54 rebounds this season, 25 came on offense. He had one defensive breakdown at Kentucky, when his man slipped free for a layup, shocking Williams, but Manuel was looking around to see if he could help a teammate when his man got free.

Manuel said he does in games only what Williams has told him to do, but not every UNC player has taken that simple approach. Williams is not surprised that Manuel has been among his more willing students.

“I believe he was hungry to change, hungry for somebody to give him a role that he could do,” Williams said. “His play in the first two seasons was not what he wanted it to be, and he was willing to make some changes to put it at that level. He didn't feel like what was being done was working for him, so he was more willing to try something else. He's done that and accepted some things that's hard for kids to accept nowadays, because everybody who has made a basket once in the last 17 years thinks they're going to be an NBA player.”

— Bill Cole, Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal

Atsur An International Success

RALEIGH — Coming into the season, N.C. State freshman Engin Atsur was one of the more intriguing newcomers in the league. Not because he was so obviously gifted that he would make a huge impact for the Wolfpack, but because absolutely no one knew what to expect from the 6-3 native of Istanbul, Turkey.

His recruiting was practically an internet affair, with N.C. State assistant coach Mark Phelps doing most of his research on Atsur via websites and e-mail exchanges with the family. Fortunately for the Wolfpack, Atsur's older brother, Emre, plays at Western Carolina, so Engin and his parents knew a little bit about how college basketball works in the United States. That kept him from signing any contracts that would have put his amateur status in jeopardy, even though he had to sit out the first three games of this season because of games he played against professional competition in the summer of 2002.

But, as international players go, Atsur's background was relatively clean. He experienced none of the complications that affected players such as Florida State's Diego Romero or even teammate Ilian Evtimov's older brother, Vasco, who encountered eligibility problems while at UNC.

Still, no one knew if Atsur, the ACC's first-ever recruit from Turkey, would be a contributor for the Wolfpack this year. He made his reputation on the international scene as a shooter, scoring 22.3 points for the Turkish national team at the European Junior World Championships last summer. In one game, he scored 41 points against Croatia. He even was named the best shooting guard at the event, despite his team's fifth-place finish.

But there have been many international players whose careers have flamed out when they came to the United States, and Atsur faced the additional burdens of trying to understand Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek's complicated offensive system and extensive vocabulary. Besides, Atsur was really a point guard at heart who played shooting guard in international competition to help get noticed by foreign coaches.

Atsur, whose father is Turkish and mother is German, always knew he wanted to play collegiate basketball in America. It didn't hurt that he comes from a family of means; his father runs a Daimler-Chrysler bus manufacturing plant in Istanbul.

But, even though he speaks Turkish, German, French and English, language was a huge problem for Atsur when he first arrived in Raleigh. Luckily, he had the benefit of Evtimov's five years in the United States, plus his teammate's ability to translate Herbisms from English to French.

Atsur slowly has gained confidence as a contributor for the Wolfpack. In hindsight, sitting out those three games was probably a blessing, because it forced him to watch what was happening on the court and better understand his responsibilities. By the end of December, Atsur had replaced fellow freshman Mike O'Donnell in the starting lineup.

Atsur is not exactly a point guard and not exactly a shooting guard, but he has been effective as a three-point shooter and as a ball-handler. He's someone who is capable of beating a pressing defender and hitting an open three-point shot. He was particularly good during a four-game stretch in January, when he went 16-of-25 from the field. He converted six of seven attempts against Duke, when none of his teammates could generate any kind of scoring.

Another big plus for Sendek has been Atsur's defense. The hard-working guard is at his best making the hustle plays that coaches love. His strip of the ball from Florida State center Alexander Johnson set up Levi Watkins' game-winning three-pointer, and he averages 6.5 deflections per game, an off-the-books stat Sendek loves to quote regularly.

By the time the postseason rolls around, Atsur should feel completely comfortable in the Wolfpack's system. If his game continues to progress, he'll also be a surprising candidate for the ACC all-rookie team. That would translate as an impressive accomplishment in any language.

Smith Seizes Moment For Terps

COLLEGE PARK — Jamar Smith was somewhat of a wild card last season. Coach Gary Williams never knew what the undisciplined junior college transfer was going to do out on the court.

For much of the season, Smith frustrated the coaching staff with his inability to operate within the framework of the offense. He stood around too much, frequently got caught out of place and didn't set the picks he was supposed to set. Even more maddening was Smith's penchant for firing up a shot nearly every time he touched the ball. Also, like many juco players, Smith was not a fundamentally sound defensive player. He had a tendency to pick up silly fouls as a result of falling for pump fakes or failing to move his feet.

Teammates expressed surprise at Smith's inability to make more of an impact, because he often dominated practices. The 6-9, 239-pound leaper would showcase his raw athleticism in spectacular fashion when the Comcast Center was empty, then appear completely lost in the glare of television cameras and 17,000 fans.

Smith grew more comfortable as the 2002-03 season progressed, and he gained a good enough understanding of Maryland's system to earn more playing time down the stretch. He seemed to peak during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 7.0 points and 3.7 rebounds in three games. Fans got a glimpse of Smith's potential when he scored 12 points, converting all six of his field goal attempts, during a solid 15-minute stint against Xavier.

Yet Smith remained an enigma coming into the 2003-04 campaign. How would he handle being thrust into the role of anchoring the frontcourt, after having played a complementary role behind Ryan Randle and Tahj Holden a year ago? Could he develop into the legitimate post threat that is so important in the Terrapins' offense? Did he have the ability to defend opposing centers in the ACC?

Some of those questions remain unanswered, but the results to date have been encouraging. Smith has become a more consistent player who has provided reliable production and (surprisingly) solid leadership. The native of Sicklerville, N.J., averaged a double-double through the end of January, with 13.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Through 16 games, he had notched eight double-doubles, four shy of the single-season school record held by Lonny Baxter and Terence Morris.

On a team desperate for rebounding, Smith has been a savior, at times single-handedly keeping the Terps competitive on the boards. To the surprise of many, he leads the ACC in rebounding and is averaging twice as many boards as any other Maryland player.

Smith's scoring is not as much of a surprise, since he showed strong offensive skills as a junior. He is very comfortable facing the basket and has a tremendously quick first step that is too much for many opposing centers. That advantage was most obvious against Wisconsin, as Smith repeatedly waltzed past slower big men in scoring a career-high 25 points.

Smith also abused North Carolina's Sean May, pulling him away from the basket and driving past him en route to 22 points in an important Maryland victory. Smith scored 10 of the team's initial 15 points as Maryland erased a halftime deficit.

“I can't say enough about Jamar Smith, the way he responded at the start of the second half,” Williams said. “Our guys did a good job of getting him the ball, but he was able to put it in the basket against some pretty good inside people.”

Some questioned whether Smith would assume more of a leadership role this season. While he was the team's lone senior, he had spent only one season in the program as a reserve. But his performance in the two upsets of highly ranked opponents answered some of those doubts. He had stepped up strong prior to the Wisconsin game, calling it a “must-win.” Williams was happy that Smith was leading by example with forceful play, after questioning his intensity and focus at times last season.

There aren't many 6-9 players as athletic as Smith, who has the speed to get up and down the floor in a hurry and the hops to play above the rim. What teammates saw routinely in practice last season is being routinely displayed in games this season.

Smith still has weaknesses. The most obvious is free throw shooting. He's a woeful 43 percent from the line so far this season and easily could cost the Terps a close game with that liability. He also still has a tendency to leave his feet on defense, which has occasionally led to foul trouble.

Overall, though, Smith has stepped up and been a more reliable scorer, rebounder and leader than most expected.

“I think Jamar feels like it's his turn,” Williams said. “He waited behind Ryan Randle and Tahj Holden, just like those guys waited behind Chris Wilcox and Lonny Baxter. It's a pretty good progression to be a part of.”

FSU: Wilson A True Inspiration

TALLAHASSEE — Florida State sophomore Andrew Wilson knows pain like few others. A fourth-year player, he played only six games over the previous two seasons and 36 over his first three.

A pair of serious injuries following the 6-6 swingman's first season, when he averaged 4.3 points, 1.7 rebounds and 13 minutes as a reserve, might have derailed some careers. A medial collateral knee ligament injury, seven minutes into his first sophomore season, led to a medical hardship. Wilson started the first five games last season under first-year coach Leonard Hamilton, then broke his right (shooting) wrist on a spill in the lane.

Season over. Again.

“I don't look at it as being unlucky,” said Wilson, who reclaimed his starting spot after 16 games this season. “I look out there and see a lot of people worse off than I am.”

The NCAA already has indicated it will grant Wilson a sixth year of eligibility, which will give him two more years after this season.

It may be hard for some people to understand what they're seeing when Wilson takes his spot in the starting lineup. Through FSU's first 21 games, he averaged just 2.8 points and 2.2 rebounds in less than 11 minutes of action per outing. Wilson's season high is seven points, compiled in a rout of Wagner, and his career-best output is just 11.

But from Hamilton's unique vantage point, Wilson's contributions extend well beyond the numbers. After replacing No. 2 scorer Anthony Richardson in the starting lineup, Wilson was a part of consecutive wins over North Carolina and Wake Forest. That marked the first time FSU had beaten top-10 teams in consecutive games.

Hamilton said Wilson is his “smartest player,” someone who understands the importance of offensive spacing and ball rotation. While toughness and an eagerness to defend are easily discernible, Wilson's ability to penetrate and pitch and occasionally knock down the opener jumper also are vital to FSU's success.

“This team has so many talented players,” Wilson said. “What we really need is experience and guys to do the little things.”

Diving for loose balls, keeping rebound opportunities alive and fighting over screens are among Wilson's trademarks. So much so that coaches, teammates and fans often hold their breath when he crashes to the floor, anticipating the worst possible outcome.

Playing with reckless — not careless — abandon doesn't come without a high price. Wilson probably would have been in the starting lineup earlier this season, if not for a series of foot and heel problems that prevented him from getting essential practice time. In an attempt to run himself back into shape, Wilson suffered recurring blisters in the preseason, which left his feet a bloody mess. And just about the time those began to heal, he started suffering from inflammation where the heel bone and the Achilles tendon attach on both feet.

When the season opened, it pained Wilson to walk, let alone run for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Worse still, when he sat down, the Achilles began to tighten. That's why he spent the first 10 games of the season stationed near the end of the bench, where he rode a stationary bike, jogged in place and stretched in an attempt to be ready when Hamilton called his name.

“They aren't getting any better,” Wilson said.

The bulging knots on the back of both feet most likely will require corrective measures in the offseason.

Following a demoralizing loss at Clemson, Hamilton gave Wilson his first start, at Virginia. Though he contributed only three points and a pair of assists in 17 minutes of an overtime loss, FSU's execution at both ends of the floor was markedly improved.

“To be perfectly honest, it's not a huge deal to be starting,” Wilson said. “I just want to be out there playing and helping the team win.”

Prior to the victory over UNC, which snapped FSU's four-game losing streak, Wilson said he hoped his mental toughness could help prevent the season from getting away.

“More than anything it's a mindset, and mindsets are very contagious,” Wilson said, sounding very much like Hamilton. “Right now we're going through a little losing streak, and I've been around a few of those. The mindset is you just can't give in.”

The Seminoles didn't, and though the numbers may say otherwise, Wilson's subtle contributions as a starter helped get FSU back to .500 in league play (3-3) before heading to No. 1 Duke, where another admirable effort ended in defeat.

More than anything, Wilson's maladies have given him a great appreciation for his time on the floor, whether it's starting or coming off the bench.

“I can appreciate (starting) because it gives you self-confidence,” Wilson said. “I'm just happy and relieved to be healthy enough to be out there and help out.”

Reynolds A Remarkable Rookie

CHARLOTTESVILLE — There was a passing of the torch on Jan. 20, when Virginia needed a basket late in a must-win home game with Clemson.

With a team that had five double-figure scorers at the time, UVa coach Pete Gillen called timeout with seven seconds remaining on the shot clock and 3:03 left in the game. He diagrammed a play for freshman guard J.R. Reynolds.

When Clemson came out in a zone, it disrupted Gillen's plan for Reynolds to beat his man off the dribble. But Reynolds quickly improvised, hitting a 25-foot jumper for his third three-pointer of the second half.

Reynolds, a 6-2 guard from Roanoke, Va., finished with a career-high 11 points against the Tigers, all in the second half. He followed that up with a 15-point effort in a 96-77 loss at North Carolina. That was the first game for Reynolds at the Dean Smith Center, but he didn't seem the least bit intimidated, and that's with good reason.

Few players have entered the ACC with Reynolds' playing background. A starter on the Roanoke Catholic varsity since his eighth-grade year, he transferred to Oak Hill Academy for his senior season. The two teams combined played a total of 157 games, compiling a record of 120-37. Oak Hill's reputation for playing in big games and playing on the road is well-known. At Catholic, coach Dick Wall also scheduled ambitiously and won three state private-school championships, as well as two state Catholic-school titles.

“None of those teams were one-man shows,” Wall said. “I have said many times that his best quality is that he makes other people better.”

Reynolds finished his career with 2,812 points — third in state history — but was not invited to any postseason all-star games. He didn't even get a bid to the Capital Classic preliminary game, although he was the second-leading scorer on the No. 4 team in the country.

“I think that I deserved to play in at least one all-star game,” said Reynolds, who was named Mr. Basketball in Virginia by his hometown paper, the Roanoke Times.

Reynolds was not as highly rated as fellow Virginia signee Gary Forbes, a consensus national top-50 choice, and had a setback Sept. 27 when he suffered torn ligaments in his left (non-shooting) thumb in a pickup game with UVa recruits. Reynolds immediately underwent surgery but still had a cast on his left forearm for the official start of practice nearly three weeks later.

That didn't prevent Reynolds from earning a spot in the starting lineup for the Cavaliers' opener Nov. 23 against Mount St. Mary's. Although he lost his starting spot after three games, that had more to do with the condition of junior Devin Smith, who had — and has — been plagued by a herniated disk. Reynolds was playing more than 22 minutes per game as the Cavaliers headed to California for a Dec. 19 game with Loyola-Marymount.

Reynolds never made it to the Loyola game, returning home Dec. 18 as the result of a high fever. When his skin broke out, it was feared that he had chickenpox, a possible cause that was never completely ruled out. Reynolds missed only two games but was rusty upon his return Dec. 28 at N.C. State, where he did not attempt a shot and went scoreless in eight minutes.

In his next eight games, Reynolds averaged 8.9 points, eventually regaining his starting job against Clemson. He made at least one three-pointer in all eight games and hit 15 of 18 free throws over that span.

“Plus, he's our best perimeter defender,” said Gillen, impressed by the strength that Reynolds, who now weighs 196, has added since he committed to UVa as a Roanoke Catholic junior in the fall of 2002.

First projected as a combination guard, Reynolds has spent little time at the point, although his 33-21 assist-turnover ratio after 15 games was more than acceptable. He set an Oak Hill record with 13 three-point field goals in one game last year and, with Duke's J.J. Redick and UVa career three-point leader Curtis Staples, has helped give Roanoke a “cradle of shooters” reputation.

“Garf told me he's a streak shooter,” said Gillen, speaking of one of his mentors, camp guru Howard Garfinkel, “and I told him, ‘I think he's better than that.' Usually, when the ball's in J.R.'s hands, good things happen.”

— Doug Doughty, Roanoke (Va.) Times

Purnell Offers Hope At Clemson

CLEMSON — For years, Oliver Purnell dreamed of being a head coach in the ACC.

He had been exposed to the conference during his three years as an assistant to Lefty Driesell and Bob Wade at Maryland. Purnell knew he wanted to lead a program in the nation's best basketball conference some day.

First, though, Purnell had to learn how to be a head coach. He directed programs at Radford (three years), his alma mater Old Dominion (three years) and Dayton (nine years). At all three stops, his teams hit bumps in the road early, before taking off. Eventually, he won 20 games at all three schools. In four of his last five seasons at Dayton, the Flyers won 20 or more games.

When Rick Barnes bolted Clemson for Texas after the 1997-98 season, Purnell was on the school's short list, but the timing just wasn't right. The Tigers instead picked former Barnes assistant Larry Shyatt, who had put together one successful season at Wyoming.

After reaching the NIT championship game in his first season, Shyatt's program went into a steady decline. Three losing seasons were followed by a 15-13 campaign, and by that point even a winning year wasn't enough to save Shyatt's job.

Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips went hunting for a coach, and Purnell's name resurfaced during the search. Phillips ultimately gave Purnell a seven-year contract worth $700,000 a year to take over as the head coach of the ACC's worst program.

“This is as strong a league as there is in the country, and it's a great challenge to come into this situation and build a program,” Purnell said in April. “We are coming to build something, to make it sprout and grow, and I'm as excited as I can be to get started.”

Just by taking the job, Purnell made history. He is the first African-American to be the head coach of a major program at Clemson. The hiring of Purnell gave the Tigers instant credibility on the hardcourt, where they historically have found little success.

Purnell hit the ground running. In addition to recruiting, he had to fulfill his obligation to USA Basketball over the summer. He is an assistant coach for the U.S. team and will be at the Olympics in Greece later this year. Purnell spent so much time on the recruiting trail in 2003 that he missed a lot of the individual workouts.

Purnell's practices are closed, because he says that's his classroom. When he did open a practice for the media in early January, there were a lot of stories written about the coach's no-nonsense approach, and he clearly expects things to be done his way. Discipline is a new thing to Clemson basketball, and many of the players still are trying to adjust.

The Tigers are defending, rebounding and getting on the floor after loose balls. Purnell believes defense and rebounding will keep his team in a lot of games, so he constantly preaches those two facets of the game.

Purnell also understands motivation. Before the home game against Florida State on Jan. 13, he put a line of tape on the floor in the Clemson locker room and then asked the players who wanted to battle that night to cross the line. That game turned out to be Purnell's first ACC victory as a head coach, a 53-48 decision over the Seminoles.

“As the clock was winding down, it was a special moment,” Purnell said. “But you don't have a lot of time to be satisfied in this league — a double round-robin with no layups.”

During games, Purnell doesn't jump up and down, but he's extremely active. He yells, he points, he encourages. He gives as much effort as a coach can during a game.

Purnell is in it for the long haul. He's where he dreamed he would be — a head coach in the ACC. He is 50 years old, and he has a long-term contract. Like so many before him at Clemson, he plans to build a program. Unlike many before him, however, he isn't looking to use the Tigers simply as a stepping stone.

Off the floor, Purnell has been successful recruiting and trying to build interest in the program. On the floor, there have been some early frustrations. Clemson doesn't have ACC-caliber talent, and the school's fans are paying little attention because the team is struggling. But Purnell is happy because he's living a dream, as a head coach in the ACC.

Matthews: Hokies' Unsung Hero

BLACKSBURG — Five days in Las Vegas last summer were all Bryant Matthews needed to prove he could hang with the big boys. It was the high point of the most grueling summer in Matthews' life.

Playing with the likes of all-star forward Jermaine O'Neal, former Maryland guard Steve Blake, former UNC center Rasheed Wallace and former Boston College guard Troy Bell — all NBA players now — Matthews more than held his own. He earned rave reviews. More recently, his performance for Virginia Tech this season has proven all the kind words he received were warranted.

“After seeing that and being around those kinds of people, it kind of was an ‘OK' for all the things I was doing to get better,” Matthews said. “As the camp went along, I could compete with them, and that's all I can ask for until I get up there (in the NBA) and start working with those guys every day.”

Through 16 games this season, Matthews, a senior forward, led the Big East in scoring (23.9 points per game) and steals (2.62) and was third in rebounding (10.1). Wallace, Bell and the rest probably weren't surprised.

During the five-day summer camp Matthews attended, Wallace pulled Matthews aside after a scrimmage. Based on Wallace's bad-boy reputation, Matthews said he didn't know whether to put up his fists or curl into a little ball. But Wallace had nothing but love in mind. He told Matthews he was impressed with his tenacity. It was a shock for Matthews.

“Trust me, when you get a comment from Rasheed, you deserved it,” said Matthews, who also played with college players such as Miami forward Darius Rice and St. Joseph's guard Delonte West at the camp. “Whether it's good or bad.”

Bell had similar pleasantries to share with Matthews.

“You work harder than anybody out there,” said Bell, according to Matthews. “Keep working. You'll get there.”

“There” is the place Matthews has dreamed about since he came to Blacksburg four years ago as a rail-thin 6-7 freshman. Now Matthews is knocking on the door of achieving his ambition of being “there” … in the NBA.

Getting to this point has meant lots of sacrifices for Matthews. Other than attending a few camps here and there, he rarely has stepped off Virginia Tech's campus during the last four offseasons, choosing instead to spend his summers in Blacksburg to work on his game and conditioning. Last summer, he enlisted the services of a personal weightlifting coach to help him bulk up.

The results have been astonishing. He has evolved from an able-bodied slashing-type player who shot under 40 percent in his first three seasons to one of the nation's best all-around talents and one of the Big East's best shooters (47 percent through 16 games). And he's done it despite the constant attention of every opponent in a brutal basketball league.

“(Bryant Matthews) gets the absolute snot knocked out of him every single game, and he just keeps on coming,” Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “The kid is unbelievable. He is one of the toughest human beings I've ever seen. You cannot take the beating he takes each and every day. … There can't be a tougher kid on this campus.”

Despite doubling his career output of double-doubles through 16 games with nine, Matthews has been most thrilled by his improved shooting.

“The double-doubles are something I can control, but the scoring is something that surprises me,” Matthews said. “I'll just have to wait until after the season to marvel at it, because my teammates and I don't have time for that kind of thing right now.”

As much improvement as Matthews has made this season, it still may not be enough to get him a spot on the All-Big East first team. Though he has earned such accolades through the midpoint of the season, there is speculation that Tech's lack of success and visibility will hurt Matthews when it comes time to select the all-conference squad.

That doesn't seem to matter to Matthews. All the hard work he has put in hasn't been to impress writers. He's more interested in what NBA scouts have to say about him.

“After last year, I thought I should've been at least third-team All-Big East,” Matthews said. “It's politics. I know some of those guys didn't work nearly as hard as I did. So, if it happens again this year, and I'm left off the all-conference team, it won't bother me.”