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Key Players On Top Teams Still Working Through Inconsistencies

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

By John Delong
Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal
February 21, 2006

Early in the second half of N.C. State's loss at Georgia Tech, Cedric Simmons made just about every mistake a center can make on one play.

He allowed Ra'Sean Dickey to establish position on the block. He backed off as Dickey received an entry pass, then was slow to react as Dickey spun past him and slammed home a dunk. Then he made matters even worse with a needless foul from behind out of frustration, after Dickey already had scored.

Herb Sendek jumped off the bench, threw his hands up in disbelief, then turned and stared incredulously at assistant Mark Phelps. The expression on Sendek's face said something the coach never would verbalize: "What in the world is going on with Ced?"

It hadn't been Simmons' first major gaffe of the game, and it wouldn't be his last. He wound up fouling out with only six points and three rebounds in 17 minutes, getting his fifth foul on another three-point play by Dickey that proved to be one of the most crucial plays of the game.

"I was embarrassed by the way I played at Georgia Tech," Simmons said later.

Problem was, this wasn't a one-game anomaly. Simmons has been State's best player at times, and he'll be State's most important player once the NCAA Tournament rolls around, as its major inside force. But he has absolutely disappeared at times, and he seems to be regressing instead of continuing to improve. That's what had Sendek so baffled at Tech, more so than one specific play or game.

Simmons' inconsistency started showing after his 28-point, nine-rebound, seven-block monster game at Duke. He slipped to nine points, six rebounds and fouled out in 14 minutes in the next game, against Wake, then was held under double figures twice shortly thereafter.

What in the world is going on with Ced, indeed?

Several things. He feels he may have hit the proverbial wall, not just from playing 30 minutes per night (already more minutes than all of last season), but also from Sendek's extended practices. Several State players have complained lately about feeling worn down.

Simmons also has become foul-prone, especially early in games, partly from teams going at him, partly from his own carelessness. By his own admission, his defense has slipped. He has been sloppy flashing out to double-team at the top of the key, and he has too easily given up position on the block.

Teams are forcing him to go left offensively, and he's putting up too many funky shots. Not that he's getting too many shots. Sendek's offense didn't change after the Duke game; in fact, Simmons has not taken more than nine shots in a game since Duke. He's averaging seven attempts per game for the season.

Simmons isn't a fundamentally sound rebounder, even with his size and long arms. He rebounds on talent, but not on instincts. And his desire to block shots often takes him out of good rebounding position.

Simmons may not have been emotionally equipped to handle the expectations that arose from his performance at Duke. He said he didn't suddenly envision becoming a 25-point scorer nightly, but others did, and he seems uncomfortable with the fallout.

But his situation is not unique in the ACC. In fact, every coach of every top team has at least one player who has been driving him crazy as the season has progressed. Everyone has a player who can look great and make his team look great, or can head south in a hurry.

Here's a look at similar situations elsewhere:

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has set the bar high for Greg Paulus.

If you're going to win a national championship with a freshman point guard, you have to set the bar high. Krzyzewski has talked on several occasions about being harder on Paulus than on others, and Paulus understands the dynamic.

"He demands perfection," Paulus said, "and I do, too."

Maybe that makes some of Paulus' inconsistency more glaring, more vital to be addressed in the closing weeks of the season. Whatever, it makes him the biggest variable in Duke's title run, even more so than Josh McRoberts or DeMarcus Nelson.

It's not really a matter of numbers. Paulus' numbers aren't bad for a freshman point guard, especially if you consider what Shamaine Dukes and Harvey Hale have done at Wake Forest alongside Justin Gray. Paulus leads the ACC in assists and has the fifth-best assist/turnover ratio.

What Krzyzewski wants is for Paulus to grasp the system completely, and to run the show like an upperclassman. It's more about decision-making and standing up to pressure and losing the tunnel vision that so many young point guards have. Krzyzewski has talked specifically about the need for Paulus to "see everything (Coach K sees) and more," and to understand his options on each play as it unfolds.

Then there's the whole issue of having the courage and confidence to step up and take the open shot. Krzyzewski and various players, particularly J.J. Redick, have taken turns urging Paulus to shoot the ball more. He did in a win at Maryland, hitting four three-pointers and scoring a season-high 16. It did wonders for the entire offense.

Krzyzewski beamed afterward, and Paulus said all of the right things about being assertive. But Paulus couldn't build on the performance three nights later in a win over Wake. Redick remained baffled by it all.

"We've been preaching to him the past few weeks about shooting the ball," Redick said. "For me, it just doesn't make sense. If someone says, ‘Shoot the ball, J.J.,' I'm like, all right. I'll shoot it every time I get it."

What is likely to happen the rest of the way, especially in the NCAA Tournament, is that opponents will go to greater lengths than ever to shut down Redick with gimmicks.

That'll put the onus on Paulus in two ways. As the floor general running the offense, he'll have to recognize and operate against looks under pressure that he wasn't getting early in the season. And as the player opponents will dare to beat them, he'll have to step up or risk seeing opponents exaggerate their defenses even more.

One thing to keep in mind: Krzyzewski remains committed to Paulus, despite all of the criticism, despite all of his perceived worries. If Krzyzewski wasn't sold on Paulus as the guy he wanted to go into March Madness with, he would be shifting these burdens onto senior Sean Dockery. That's not happening.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams has spent the season scratching his head, trying to figure which Reyshawn Terry will show up from game to game -- the explosive, ultra-athletic Terry, or the sloppy, uninspired Terry who plays with a lesser understanding of the system than most of Carolina's freshmen.

The good Terry showed up at Kentucky with a 25-point, seven-rebound effort, and twice recently -- 20 points and nine rebounds against Maryland, 19 and 11 against Clemson.

The bad Terry was a no-show at Southern Cal (scoreless), against Illinois (3-11 shooting, six points, three rebounds) and versus Duke (5-14).

Usually, the good and bad intertwine in the same game, and that has prompted some priceless expressions from Williams on the sidelines.

The biggest rap is that Terry simply has never developed the mindset to play all-out at all times -- at practice, and then on every possession in every game. Part of that is just a matter of Terry's personality. Part of it can be traced to earlier in his career.

He was such a natural talent in high school that he wasn't pushed to play all-out all the time. During his freshman year at Carolina, it was understood that he was not going to play much and could ease into his college career. Last season, he again was behind the veterans and only a spot contributor.

This season, he has been thrust into a prominent role, but he has been unable to suddenly throw on the switch and push himself to the limits on a daily basis. Many players go through similar processes, and the ones who succeed eventually figure it out. There have been signs lately that maybe Terry is figuring it out.

Some of the problem also comes from Terry's struggles in truly comprehending Williams' system. Some wonder if it is all sinking in and making sense, even now in Terry's junior year.

One thing that seems to catch Terry's attention is the threat of losing playing time. After UNC's loss at Virginia, Williams talked of perhaps moving rookie Danny Green into Terry's starting spot. Terry responded with 17 points, eight rebounds and some clutch play at the end in the next game at Florida State.

"He said, ‘You're not going as hard as you need or as you're capable of, and you've got to pick it up,'" Terry said. "He said, ‘If you're going to be a big-time player for us, we can't have setbacks like that.' He wants to be able to rely on me in big-time situations, because he said I'm a big-time player. My part as a big-time player is to step up to the challenge."

Williams has seen Terry lock down good offensive players in practice, so he knows that Terry can be good defensively if he concentrates. Most of the offensive inconsistency also involves mental lapses, particularly the sloppy passing. Some wonder if Terry doesn't take the soft way out at times, too, pulling up for mid-range jumpers instead of going strong to the basket. Again, that's a situation where he has to push himself to be more aggressive.

"I told Reyshawn to set a goal and when he reaches it, to set a higher goal," Williams said. "He's better in his focus, but I'm still not satisfied. He knows I'm going to push him. He's had some impressive moments. But I'm a bad guy. If I see you do it once, I think you can do it again."

Just say "Sean," and Boston College coach Al Skinner is likely to get nervous.

Sean Williams set a freshman record for blocked shots last season, and some insiders saw him on a fast track to the NBA. But since coming back in late December after being suspended from school over the summer, following a marijuana arrest, he has failed to assert himself and has seen his minutes vary greatly from game to game.

If Williams could get it together for the stretch run, BC would have a bona fide 6-10 force in the middle to go with Craig Smith and the rest of a solid front line. Williams' shotblocking was vital in a win over Clemson, and it would be vital at tournament time. But he played just five minutes and did nothing against Duke, when his presence was needed.

Sean Marshall is averaging in double figures, but that doesn't accurately reflect his inconsistency, especially lately. He started well, scoring in double figures in the first nine games and 12 of the first 13, but he has been up and down since. He was 1-of-10 against Georgia Tech in early January, then failed to score in double figures seven times in a 12-game stretch after that. In those seven games, he was a combined 14-for-60 from the field, or 23.3 percent.

Marshall's contributions down the stretch may be even more vital than Williams', simply because of his position. He's one of Skinner's few outside threats, and he could ease the burden on Smith and Jared Dudley if he can provide outside shooting.

Otherwise, it's anybody's guess who might step up from game to game.

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