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The X-factors

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

With some ACC basketball players, you know you're going to get a big performance almost every night. With others, you know the contributions will be minimal. In the middle are the X Factors — the conference's unpredictable variables — and they often mean the difference between winning and losing. By Dave Glenn and Staff,
ACC Area Sports Journal

January 19, 2004 Duke: Duhon Coming Full Circle DURHAM — Learning leadership from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is like practicing painting with Picasso or taking piano lessons from Mozart. With the Blue Devils, if you don't get it after four years, you never will. Chris Duhon ascended to the throne of leader of the Duke basketball team a year ago, as the immediate heir to NBA-bound point guard Jason Williams. Prior to his junior season, Duhon was voted the ACC's preseason player of the year. Rarely have the media looked so foolish. Burdened by the weight of high expectations, Duhon's stress level was as apparent in his often-pained expression as it was in his subpar performances. He finished with career-worst numbers in three-point shooting percentage (27.3) and field goal shooting percentage (38.6). That marked the third year in a row Duhon's statistics degenerated in those important categories. “I just didn't play with a lot of confidence last year, and it was all my fault,” Duhon said. “It wasn't that anybody did anything to me. It was just me. I didn't enjoy playing as much last year. … There were times when I felt alone out there. This year, I don't.” With his senior season ahead of him, Duhon decided over the summer that the answer to his problems was to simplify. The task was made easier when his existence was not acknowledged in the preseason all-conference voting. “A lot of the pressure I felt last year was caused by me. I put too much pressure on myself,” Duhon said. “My perspective on being a leader was that you had to be perfect. I realize that you don't have to be perfect. You have to be consistent.” Buddhism teaches that anybody is capable of achieving perfection because each person is responsible for his own salvation. When Duhon finally freed himself from delusions and suffering, the Duke point guard became awakened to the wisdom he had been seeking. The results have been sublime. Duhon has grown into the role he had been pursuing for so long, and Duke's success is a reflection of his self-discovery. Duhon is doing more by trying to do less. He concentrates on the things he does well, such as pushing the Blue Devils' offense up the court, passing and playing defense, and leaves the rest in the capable hands of his teammates. “Chris is the most unselfish player I've ever been around,” forward Shavlik Randolph said. “He goes out there and looks to make reads. If his shot's there, he's going to take it. If it's not there, he's going to make a good pass.” Duhon's assist-to-turnover ratio was almost 3-to-1 through mid-January, and that is hardly the most impressive facet of his game. He is simultaneously Duke's best on-the-ball and off-the-ball defender, hounding opposing ball-handlers magnificently and spending more time in passing lanes than an impatient Autobahn driver. Although frontcourt teammates Nick Horvath and Randolph have received more publicity for bulking up in the offseason, Duhon's physique also is significantly more impressive than it was last year. In addition, his added quickness has allowed him to get to the basket like never before. Duhon had what many observers deemed the best performance of his career when he recorded 20 points, nine assists, seven steals and only two turnovers against Fairfield on Jan. 6. He followed that with 15 points, eight assists, three steals and one turnover at Virginia five days later. “Duhon is our best player,” Krzyzewski said. “No question about it.” Ironically, Duhon's de-emphasis on offense has coincided with the highest scoring average of his career. He is in double figures for the first time, but most of his points are coming on fastbreaks — often created by his own steals — and drives into the lane. Duhon's outside shooting remains as poor as it's ever been, but the difference is that he no longer allows such things to bother him. “It's been a great four-year journey,” Duhon said. “I've had a lot of ups and downs, but I think the downs are going to help me become a better person and a better player.”

— Hermann Wendorff, Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer Strickland Attempting Big Step WINSTON-SALEM — Last season, as a freshman, Trent Strickland showed enough flashes of talent to remind many of a young Josh Howard. But Strickland also fell so far out of the rotation that he averaged less than four minutes over the final five games. While Wake Forest's success in 2004 may ride on many variables, including the health of Vytas Danelius, the shot of Justin Gray or the fouls of Eric Williams, a consistent Strickland could help put the Deacons over the top. Wake coach Skip Prosser understands he can get offense from his three talented guards or his big center, but he's struggled to figure out another source. Danelius has been limited by injuries, and Jamaal Levy has the skills but not the scorer's mentality. Reserves such as Todd Hendley, Kyle Visser and Chris Ellis are really just garbage men at this stage of their careers. Prosser has been trying to put a finger on Strickland. As with most young players, almost everything good Strickland does comes with something bad. On offense, he has the dribbling ability and quickness to create his own offense, plus the leaping ability to shoot over most defenders. But he also can take that too far and start hoisting ill-advised shots. On defense, Strickland is pretty good on the ball. He's 6-5, has long arms and is athletic, so he can guard multiple positions and be valuable on the press. He takes a lot of charges, but he also flops a lot. Off the ball, he tends to struggle. Recently, he was beaten back-door for a huge basket by Jawad Williams late in the UNC game. And it's not just major talent that does it to him: Players from Brown went back-door on him twice. Despite his physical skills, he also doesn't steal the ball much — 10 times in his first 43 career games — which also suggests he has plenty of room for improvement as an off-the-ball defender. His emotion can be raw. No Wake player can fire up the crowd or his teammates faster. He delights in big dunks or blocks, and his leaping ability has provided some major highlights in his short career. But he also can let his emotions sidetrack him, if he's looking for the big play or struggling or complaining. One recent Strickland outburst drew a technical foul during a Clemson rally.

What Prosser wants from Strickland is pretty simple: play defense, rebound, run the floor, let the points come to you. That approach certainly was successful for Howard. “We didn't have to run any plays for (Howard), and he still could get you 15-16 a game,” Prosser said. “Trent has those same kind of capabilities.” Because of his unpredictability, Strickland's minutes often have resembled a roller-coaster ride. Last season, he averaged double figures for the first 12 games, but 20-plus minutes only once. After falling to six minutes against Georgia Tech, he had three straight games of 20-plus, the last a 12-point, five-rebound, three-assist performance. Despite that, he averaged six minutes for the next three games, then helped Wake shock Duke with 12 points in 16 minutes, including several key baskets. But he played double-figure minutes in only three of the last 11 games, dropping to one minute in the last game of the year. This season started in a similar fashion. Strickland played OK early, then dropped to 12 minutes total against Richmond and SMU. But when foul trouble forced Prosser to go with him against North Carolina, Strickland responded with 15 points and more crucial plays. The Deacons played the third and decisive overtime with him at shooting guard. Since that game, Prosser has tried various combinations of larger lineups, which has benefited Strickland, who can play shooting guard or small forward. The UNC game started a six-game run where he scored in double figures five times, including a career-high 22 at Texas, averaged 5.3 rebounds and shot 61 percent (28-46) from the field. He shot 38 percent last season and 36 percent in the first six games this season. The one thing that is consistent about Strickland is his work ethic, which Prosser pointed out immediately last year. Strickland is a conditioning freak, and he said he wants to be Wake's leading rebounder, an area where he still needs to improve. Strickland also said he prefers extra shooting to going out at night, and it appears to be paying off. “He has to do what Vytas, Taron (Downey) and Jamaal have done, and that's make a real positive step from his freshman to his sophomore year,” Prosser said. “He just has to have a consistent sophomore year, and I think he has to understand what he does well.” McCants: Most Complex Variable CHAPEL HILL — Rashad McCants is the biggest X factor in the ACC, because he possesses such great talent and yet is so inconsistent and difficult to understand at times. McCants, who sometimes forms an X with his arms when he plays well, said the symbol stands for “domination.” Yet he epitomizes the X factor because he often sulks and fails to display his skills when the team needs him most. On more than one occasion, he has left his teammates shaking their heads and wondering the same thing as everyone else: What's with this guy? “Last year, he was kind of the outcast,” said sophomore center Sean May, who has conceded he didn't care much for being around McCants off the court during their freshman year. “Everybody was blaming stuff on him.” One of first-year UNC coach Roy Williams' greatest challenges has been to figure McCants out and devise a way to get the most from him. Williams benched McCants twice for playing poorly, and another time he sent McCants to the locker room during a game for failing to stand and cheer his teammates. But here is the thing: While the two players Carolina can ill-afford to lose the most are May and point guard Raymond Felton, the one who clearly could push the Tar Heels over the top is McCants. He can be the most explosive scorer on the team. He set a school record for freshmen a year ago by averaging 17 points per game. With his lengthy wingspan, he can block shots, create turnovers and generally play solid defense — when he decides to do it. In Carolina's 103-88 victory against Georgia Tech on Jan. 11, McCants put his mind to playing defense. He blocked two shots, made three steals and was where he should be more often for help defense. “I told him,” Williams said, “it was the best defense he had ever even dreamed, much less played.” Then a few days later, against Maryland, McCants committed a silly technical foul in the final moments of a close road loss to the Terps. He stepped out of bounds to slap the ball as one Maryland player attempted a (legal) pass along the baseline to a teammate who also was standing out of bounds. McCants later said he didn't understand the rule. In the same game, he again lost his man on defense several times, yielding easy baskets. Meanwhile, gauging his various moods has been one of the toughest things for teammates and coaches. “He's got that stone face,” Williams said, “and his mannerisms and looks make him seem like he's pouting all the time. He is a complex kid; there's no question about that. He is an enigma to a lot of people.” But McCants has immense talent as well, the kind of talent that could make a difference as the Tar Heels strive to return to the NCAA Tournament and return the program to what it once was. To get there, McCants will need to play at both ends of the court and find a balance between utilizing his scoring ability and taking the smartest and best shots for the team. For him to do that, McCants must learn how to play more for the team and worry less about himself. “You know who's the most selfish player I've been around in my life?” Williams said. “Michael Jordan. But he did everything he could for his team to win. If he scored 40, he wanted 50. He wanted to beat you. Every one of the players I've coached has been selfish to some extent. And the great players are the ones who fight that selfishness off if it's hurting their team.” As for McCants, he just wants the world to stop analyzing him and let him play ball. In his eyes, he has the same ups and downs as everyone else. “I can look stone-faced but still be real happy and having a great day,” McCants said. “Just because I'm not smiling doesn't mean I'm not having a great day. I just wish people wouldn't take anything from me.”

— Eddy Landreth, Chapel Hill (N.C.) News

Tech Seeking More From Moore ATLANTA — Clarence Moore has provided Georgia Tech with immeasurable leadership this season, both during games and in practice. His veteran presence has helped coach Paul Hewitt and individual players, including center Luke Schenscher, point guard Jarrett Jack and wing guard Marvin Lewis. But it's how Moore, who sat out last season for personal reasons, plays the rest of the year on the court that will go a long way toward determining the success of the 2003-04 Yellow Jackets. If Tech is going to sustain its hot early season pace, then Moore will have to flash the form he displayed at the end of the 2001-02 season more often. In the final game of that season, Moore's last before this one, he scored 17 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out six assists in an ACC Tournament loss to Wake Forest. After the game, Hewitt describe Moore as one of the top returning players in the league. That's exactly the kind of effort the Tech staff is looking for from Moore as this season wears on, and he's starting to come around. He had 14 points, including nine in a row in the second half, and six rebounds in the Yellow Jackets' victory against Virginia Commonwealth. He had 12 points, nine rebounds and three assists in their loss to Georgia. “He's getting back into the form or closer to the form he had when he left two years ago,” Hewitt said. “I said when are we going to 17 (points), seven (rebounds) and six (assists) again, like we did against Wake Forest. Because as much as he's doing for us off the court, I know when he gets in gear, he could be our best player — our best all-around basketball player.” The dread-locked Moore certainly is doing a lot off the court. He's chewed out his teammates a few times in the locker room this season, and he has taken some of the off-court leadership burden from Lewis and some of the on-court burden from Jack. In practice, Moore constantly hounds Schenscher, trying to toughen up the 7-1 center for games. Moore is among the best-liked players on the team, and everyone respects him greatly. The Yellow Jackets needed that leadership. But what they need more at this point in the season is productivity on the court. As the ACC season heats up, Moore will have to play better than he did in the conference opener against North Carolina. He fouled out in 11 minutes, with just three points and three rebounds. At 6-5 and 215 pounds, Moore often is asked to stop opposing power forwards and centers for the Yellow Jackets, who are beginning to feel the losses of forwards Chris Bosh (NBA) and Ed Nelson (Connecticut transfer). But Moore is capable of holding his own in the post, as he is quick enough to front post players and athletic enough to get back behind them. One of the team's best defenders, he led the Yellow Jackets in deflections in 2001-02. Offensively, Moore can dribble, drive, shoot the three-pointer and work inside. Those are all reasons Hewitt feels Moore can be the team's best all-around player. His overall shooting accuracy this season (45 percent) is right in line with his career numbers, and Moore is shooting the three-pointer much better (50 percent) than he has at any point in his career, although he did miss a potential game-winner against Georgia at the end of regulation. The emergence of Moore offensively would take some of the burden off of guard B.J. Elder and Lewis, the team's primary offensive weapons. Jack has tried to supply the extra scoring as teams clamp down on Elder and Lewis. Tech also has received some contributions from Will Bynum and Isma'il Muhammad, but neither is the same type of all-around player Moore already has shown he can be. Terps: McCray In Prime Position COLLEGE PARK — On a young and inconsistent Maryland team, there are many X factors. Coach Gary Williams still has no idea what he'll get from power forwards Ekene Ibekwe and Travis Garrison on any given night. Sophomore point guard John Gilchrist has been surprisingly steady, but his shaky outings (eight turnovers versus West Virginia, five-for-14 shooting against Gonzaga, six turnovers at Florida State) have coincided with losses. And then there's Mike Jones, the talented freshman guard who could emerge as an impact player late in the season, once he becomes more comfortable and improves his overall skills. But the real X factor for Maryland this season may be shooting guard Chris McCray, whose development as a perimeter shooter and scorer is essential to this squad reaching its full potential. In the Terps' flex offense, the wing guard simply must be a reliable scorer. Past history proves that the position gets a high percentage of scoring opportunities, particularly on kick-outs following entry passes into the post. It is no coincidence that Maryland's starting shooting guard has led the team in scoring in seven of the past eight seasons, with Johnny Rhodes, Laron Profit, Steve Francis, Juan Dixon and Drew Nicholas all rising to the occasion. A skinny sophomore, McCray has yet to meet the standard set by his predecessors, although most observers agree he has the skills to do so. The 6-5, 180-pounder ranked fourth on the team in scoring in mid-January with an average of 11 points per game, a figure that easily can be higher if he becomes more assertive. “Chris has much more confidence right now than he did last year at any time,” Williams said, “but it's a process.” McCray often has hesitated to take even wide-open three-pointers, passing up the same looks Dixon and Nicholas lived off. He has not been effective creating his own shot off the dribble, and he hasn't yet shown an ability to consistently make pull-up jumpers coming off screens. Maryland fans know the foul line jumper off the curl play is a staple of the flex offense, and it's most often run for the wing guard. Aggressive shooters such as Dixon and Nicholas knew how to use the non-stop pattern of screens and cuts to create open shots for themselves. McCray, who fell out of the rotation toward the end of his freshman season, still is learning the nuances of the position and has yet to develop the confidence to become a catch-and-shoot threat. Dixon and Nicholas were like assassins, with the way they spotted up and drained three-pointers without hesitation, and that's a trait McCray still must develop. During a terrific offseason, McCray added much-needed strength through weight training and gained valuable experience as part of a U.S. national team that toured Europe. Later, in College Park, there were numerous reports that McCray was the star of preseason pickup games with his teammates and NBA players. Billed as a pure shooter and slasher, McCray has shown flashes of those abilities during an up-and-down season. He scored a career-high 16 points in big games against Wisconsin and West Virginia. He netted 15 points, making four of five shots, versus Florida State. However, he also has been held to single digits four times this season. He managed just six points in important games with Florida and North Carolina. He misfired on four three-pointers against the Gators and took only four shots versus the Tar Heels. On a team desperate for a reliable three-point shooter to help open up the offense, McCray so far has been unable to deliver on a consistent basis. He was shooting 37.8 percent from beyond the arc through mid-January, but he was attempting far fewer threes (about three per game) than previous Maryland wing guards. “Coach has told me to look for my shot a little more,” McCray said. “At the same time, I'm not supposed to try anything I really can't do.”

NCSU Better With Old Evtimov RALEIGH — A whole season's worth of rust is an amazingly difficult thing to scrape off. Maybe that's why it seemed, to many observers of N.C. State basketball, that sophomore forward Ilian Evtimov was so far away from his old precision-passing self that he may never regain the productivity of his freshman season. Evtimov didn't just have the reconstructive surgery to rebuild his left knee, which suffered a rupture in the anterior cruciate ligament and partial tears in the other two ligaments that stabilize the knee. He also had to recover from an infection in his knee immediately after the first surgery, then a second invasive procedure to clean everything up. Then he developed tendonitis in the latter stages of his rehabilitation. That caused him to scale back some of his workouts at the end of the summer, heading into individual workouts. That's a lot for anyone to get over, and many wondered if Evtimov still could be the contributor everyone came to expect after his surprisingly successful rookie season. “I was probably more guilty than anybody about wanting him to be right where he was when he got hurt,” Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek said. “But the minute common sense prevails, you know that it is going to take some time. As time goes on, he continues to get more comfortable and his confidence is growing. That is important for our team.” That's an understatement, even from the understated Sendek. Evtimov's numbers — he averaged 7.3 points and 3.6 rebounds through the Wolfpack's first 11 games — won't stop traffic. But his ability to defend like a center, make pinpoint passes and contribute hustle plays is critical to the Pack for the rest of the season, especially if senior Scooter Sherrill continues his prolonged shooting slump. Evtimov is the key component in the team's Princeton-style offense, so much so that Sendek had to almost completely revamp his team's offense last year when Evtimov was lost for the season. It took a while for star swingman Julius Hodge and company to get comfortable with Evtimov's absence, but things improved dramatically once State got into ACC play. Similarly, it took a while for Evtimov to learn how to play with the bulky brace he wore on his left knee until the start of the new year. Now that he's wearing a smaller brace, his game has taken off, almost to the point that he's matching his play from the end of his freshman year. That development is key for a team that relies on a pair of inexperienced (and sometimes overmatched) freshman point guards, Engin Atsur and Mike O'Donnell. Evtimov seems to click a little better with Turkish-born Atsur, who has been described as a smaller version of Evtimov. After Atsur recently entered the starting lineup, Evtimov's game immediately took off. He had back-to-back double-figure games, a rarity in his career. More importantly, against Brigham Young and Florida State, he had seven assists and only one turnover, making the no-look backdoor passes Sendek is counting on for the Wolfpack offense to be effective. Evtimov's 3.1 assists per game ranks in the ACC's top 15. Evtimov also seems to have rediscovered his shooting touch, a big plus considering Sherrill's troubles. After making only four of his first 16 three-point attempts, Evtimov made seven of his next 17 long-range shots, including three of four in the Wolfpack's whipping of BYU. With Hodge — the ACC's leading scorer — on the team, the Wolfpack isn't looking for Evtimov to be a double-digit scorer every night. But being able to count on consistent shooting, some strong defense and all those hustle plays Sendek loves makes him, when healthy, a factor the Wolfpack will need as it gets deeper into ACC play. “We need him to be at his best,” Sendek said, “and that is going to come.” FSU: Richardson Must Rebound TALLAHASSEE — It was more than mere coincidence that Florida State's recent slide, following a school-record 10-0 start, occurred just as junior forward Anthony Richardson fell into a six-game funk. Richardson opened the year playing like the McDonald's All-American the Seminoles signed out of Leesville Road High in North Carolina, averaging 12.4 points while shooting 55.4 percent from the floor (43.4 percent from three-point range), grabbing 5.2 rebounds and contributing blocks, steals and assists at career-best rates. After pumping in a career-high 27 points in a 71-53 victory over Northwestern, Richardson said he was beginning to feel as comfortable as he did as a high school senior. He genuinely seemed excited that his patience through two up-and-down seasons finally was paying off. As a sophomore, Richardson blossomed into a competent No. 2 scorer behind guard Tim Pickett, averaging 12.4 points on 41 percent shooting. He scored no fewer than nine points over his final 12 games and reached double figures in 21 of 29 contests. Under the watchful eye of assistant coach Stan Jones, he began to grasp some important concepts (especially good shot selection) and worked diligently to improve himself as a defender and rebounder. Just when it appeared that Richardson had begun to get a handle on how to best fulfill his role, his patience — and confidence — are being tested again. The Seminoles lost four of six on the heels of their 10-0 start, and while the level of competition undoubtedly improved, Richardson's contributions were nearly cut in half across the board. Over that six-game stretch, he shot just 30 percent (nine-of-30) from the field (12.5 percent from three-point range) while averaging 6.1 points. To illustrate the significance of Richardson's six-point dip in production, the Seminoles lost three games — Pittsburgh, N.C. State and Clemson — by five points each. The spidery small forward is clearly aware of his slump. Instead of looking for his shots, he's running from them. He did not make a field goal and attempted only nine shots total against Pittsburgh, Maryland and Clemson, despite averaging 21 minutes a game. More troubling, the slump appeared to carry over to the defensive end of the floor. His rebounding average dipped to 3.8, and he averaged one fewer block and steal per game. Regaining his waning confidence is critical if the Seminoles hope to avoid wasting their sterling start. To this point, Pickett has been the only player to sustain any level of scoring consistency. Freshmen Alexander Johnson and Von Wafer have shown flashes of productivity, but it's probably unfair to burden them with the expectation of consistency in league play. With offensive inconsistency chiseled into the career resumes of senior point guard Nate Johnson, senior forward Michael Joiner and senior center Mike Mathews, the Seminoles simply don't have the firepower to make their first postseason appearance in six seasons without significant contributions from Richardson. The opportunity should be there, particularly if FSU continues to see a steady dose of zone defenses. Though Richardson's ball-handling skills still need refining, he is capable of penetrating and creating mid-range jumpshot opportunities, or getting fouled. Fortunately, he remains one of the league's best free throw shooters, connecting on better than 81 percent from the stripe. That's one area that was not negatively impacted by his slump. Time, however, is not on the Seminoles' side. The decision to redshirt high-post forward Diego Romero, after the juco transfer missed half the season while battling NCAA eligibility complications, meant coach Leonard Hamilton had no option but to play out his current hand. That significantly reduced FSU's margin for error and the timeline for Richardson to cure whatever's ailing him. Barring his revival, the Seminoles could be headed down the same path as last season's Clemson team, which won its first nine games but never did find a complementary scorer to Edward Scott and failed to make a postseason appearance. UVa: Byars Fighting ACC Funk CHARLOTTESVILLE — In his two seasons at Virginia, Derrick Byars has been a different player in non-conference games than he has in ACC play. In the non-conference portion of the UVa schedule, Byars has shot with range, dunked at the end of fastbreaks, soared for rebounds, paid attention to defense and generally looked like a potential All-ACC player. In conference games, he has gotten into early foul trouble, exercised poor shot selection, become tentative on defense and the boards, and he frequently has looked out of place. The situation came to a head Jan. 11, when Byars went scoreless in a 93-71 loss to No. 2-ranked Duke. Byars picked up three fouls before the first TV timeout, missed all three of his shots from the field and grabbed one rebound in a season-low 10 minutes. After scoring 20 points Dec. 31 in an 85-74 victory over previously unbeaten Iowa State, Byars scored a total — total! — of seven points in his next three games. He made just three of 19 attempts from the field despite shooting at familiar University Hall rims over the three-game span. In a teleconference two days before the Duke game, UVa coach Pete Gillen said he would meet with Byars on the subject of his wavering confidence. “I did talk to him,” Gillen told the media after the Duke game. “It didn't do much good. He's a perfectionist and fights himself a little bit, but he's a terrific player. We've just got to get him playing the way he's capable.” A 6-7, 215-pound sophomore, Byars is such a talented athlete that he takes the center jump for Virginia and actually won the opening tip against Duke. As a senior at Ridgeway High School in Memphis, Tenn., he was named the Gatorade state player of the year in 2001-02 and was a fourth-team Parade All-American. The Cavaliers were recruiting four players for the small forward spot. Byars was the first to accept their offer, and Virginia considered him the best prospect of a group that included Denham Brown (Connecticut), Brandon Bowman (Georgetown) and Armein Kirkland (Cincinnati). Byars made an immediate impression, averaging 10.4 points over the first seven games of the 2001-02 season and 9.5 over the first 11. He scored six points in the ACC opener against N.C. State but followed that with scoreless outings against North Carolina and Duke. He went on to average 5.1 points in 16 regular-season ACC games and 9.5 in other games. That included an 11-point night against Duke in the first round of the ACC Tournament, when he played 33 minutes, but he went scoreless in a season-ending, eight-minute stint against St. John's in the NIT. Byars put on 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason and twice grabbed nine rebounds this season before notching the first double-double of his career, when he had 17 points and 11 boards against Coastal Carolina. That followed a career-high 21-point outing on the road against Loyola-Marymount. After Byars' foul-shortened first half against Duke, Gillen called a play for Byars on the first possession of the second half. The forward's three-point attempt barely struck iron. Later, the Cavaliers called another play for Byars after a timeout. Post player Elton Brown went to the wing, with Byars posting up 6-4 guard J.J. Redick on the inside, but by the time Byars attempted a turnaround, he had slid to the baseline and was forced to shoot from a horrible angle. Again, he missed. Clearly, Gillen's well-intentioned attempts to restore Byars' confidence were in vain. Few would challenge the idea that Byars' problems are mostly mental, but there is one area in which improvement shouldn't be so hard. Starting with the first two games of the season, in which Byars fouled out in 23 and 25 minutes, respectively, he hasn't been able to stay out of foul trouble. He also fouled out in the ACC opener against N.C. State, and he had four fouls in three of the next four games. If Byars can play more intelligently, he could play less tentatively the rest of the way. Hamilton Holding Tigers' Hopes CLEMSON — Early in the season, Clemson coach Oliver Purnell sometimes referred to freshman point guard Vernon Hamilton as “a work in progress.” The work is starting to pay off. Hamilton, a 6-0, 192-pound rookie from Richmond, Va., has been hit by a double whammy at Clemson. In addition to following All-ACC selection Edward Scott at point guard for the Tigers, he entered the ACC during a year when the league has some extremely talented players (Chris Duhon, Raymond Felton, John Gilchrist, Jarrett Jack, Chris Paul, etc.) at his position. But if the Tigers are going to have a chance to be competitive in the league this season, Hamilton's development will have to continue in a positive direction … and quickly. That's why he's Clemson's biggest X factor. Hamilton already has made a mark. He led Clemson in scoring, rebounding and assists twice in the first 14 games. They represented just the 14th and 15th times in the last 33 years that a Clemson player led the team in all three categories in a single game. “In the early part of the season, I was playing like a freshman,” Hamilton said. “I'm far from satisfied, but I'm learning where not to go and how to control the offense.” Through 13 games, Hamilton's statistics were better than what most would expect from an unheralded first-year player at his position. In 28 minutes per game, Hamilton was averaging 8.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. He also had 50 assists against 40 turnovers and was the team's steals leader with 28. On Dec. 30, he missed a triple-double against Boston College by one assist. He had 13 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in Clemson's 72-62 victory over the Eagles. That game marked the Tigers' best win to date. Hamilton had a stellar career at Benedictine High in Richmond. As a senior, he averaged 24.1 points, 7.3 assists, 5.7 rebounds and two steals per game, leading his team to its first VISBA Division I title. In the state tournament, he scored 35 points in the semifinals and 31 in the championship game. When it came time to pick a school, Hamilton picked Clemson and then-coach Larry Shyatt over Utah, West Virginia, Colorado, Virginia Tech and Richmond. Hamilton should be a Clemson fan favorite, in part because he also has a football background. An all-conference wide receiver in high school, he caught 71 passes for 1,272 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior in 2002. He used those skills in the second half of the Florida State game on Jan. 13. Midway through the second half, the Seminoles had a fastbreak against Hamilton. Looking like a defensive back, he faked moving forward, then dropped into the lane to knock a lob pass away from 6-7 Florida State forward Anthony Richardson. “I had an idea they were going for the lob,” Hamilton said. “I faked toward the ball, then deflected it before Richardson could catch it. I went back to my football cover skills.” That play against Richardson was one of seven steals Hamilton had against the Seminoles. Two of them came in the final minute, allowing Clemson to hang on to Purnell's first ACC victory as a head coach in the conference. “He (Hamilton) had the presence of mind to make those plays,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “I think he can be an outstanding point guard in this league.” Dowdell Handles, Passes, Scores BLACKSBURG — For a team struggling to find its identity, handing the point guard spot to a freshman might not appear to be the best prescription for success. But in Virginia Tech's case, it may be fitting. Zabian Dowdell, a 6-2 freshman, embodies the idea Hokies coach Seth Greenberg hopes his other young players can warm up to — make the most of ample playing time, even if you might not be ready for it. On a team composed of 80 percent freshmen and sophomores, Dowdell may be one of the nation's youngest floor leaders, but he's not out of place. Now he has to prove he can continue to handle the responsibility while playing 35 minutes a game. Dowdell assumed a stranglehold on Tech's point guard position from the first day of practice, but there was no way he could've known exactly what he was facing. Greenberg was shoveling loads of new information at Dowdell, force-feeding him a playbook in a matter of three weeks. It was a test, and Greenberg hoped his rookie didn't crack. “I was concerned because there was a lot to learn, and it was coming at him fast,” Greenberg said. “We did our best to give it to him in small bites, but there was really no time to slow down.” Dowdell hasn't disappointed. Through the Hokies' first 13 games, he was second on the team in scoring (13.3 points per game) and assists (3.8) and by far the team's most consistent three-point shooter (29-of-72, 40 percent). Most importantly, he was displaying sound decision-making skills. When Virginia Tech was at its best during its quick early start, Dowdell also was at his best. He had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.25-to-1 through the middle of January, which would be excellent for any point guard but is astounding for a freshman directing a team with only one senior starter. In Tech's first eight wins, Dowdell's assist-to-turnover ratio was an even more impressive 3.38-to-1. Seeing a freshman point guard listed as the team's second-leading scorer might cause an observer to toss up a red flag from the get-go. However, Dowdell is making equally bright decisions with his shot selection as he is with his ball-handling. To the Tech coaches, it's little wonder he's showing so much intelligence on the floor. After all, he graduated from high school with a grade-point average near 4.0, and he was known as a bright player on the court as well. In that aforementioned early stretch of games, more than half of Dowdell's shots came from beyond the three-point arc. That's because Dowdell understands his role, which already has started to evolve more than expected. With senior shooting guard Carlos Dixon out for the season with a broken foot and freshman shooting guard Jamon Gordon likely out until late February with a knee injury, Dowdell has become the Hokies' primary option to take the long-range jumper.

Dowdell has become an unlikely complement to the scoring of senior forward Bryant Matthews, who has emerged as one of the nation's biggest surprises this season. Despite shooting more than two times as many three-pointers as any of his teammates, Dowdell still was connecting on 45 percent of his overall shot attempts through mid-January. He was the team's leading scorer with a career-high 20 points in a 69-67 victory at West Virginia on Jan. 14, which represented Tech's third Big East road win ever. Of course, torching the lowly Mountaineers is one thing. Stacking up with the top point guards in the Big East is another. Dowdell may get his education in back-to-back games later this month. He will match up with Connecticut senior Taliek Brown, a four-year starter, on Jan. 28, then Syracuse sophomore Billy Edelin on the road Jan. 31. If Dowdell gains the upper hand against those more experienced opponents, he'll have served notice to the rest of the Big East (and maybe even a few future ACC opponents) that opposing point guards shouldn't expect a night off against him.