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Jan. 6, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – It’s time to ratchet things up.
Conference play begins this weekend for all ACC basketball teams, and that’s what everyone has been waiting and preparing for during November and December. Most coaches say that they want their teams to prepare for all games, nonconference and conference alike, the same way. But in their most candid moments, they admit ACC games take on a different tone.
“It’s an exciting time of year for all of us in the league,” said North Carolina’s Roy Williams, “because once you start playing ACC games the level of intensity is up another notch from what you’ve already had.”
Excitement increases for coaches and fans alike because of the environment and atmosphere. Students who have been away for holiday breaks return to campus arenas. Players on opposing teams are more familiar.
“It’s league play,” Williams said. “It’s Duke-North Carolina, it’s Miami-Florida State, whatever it is. The fans are more excited about it. A lot of (nonconference) teams we’ve played aren’t as gifted as we are, not as big, don’t have the speed and quickness. Now it’s a whole different ball game for everybody.”
The Tar Heels (13-2) open the ACC season Saturday against Boston College (5-9), which has struggled with a young roster. Williams said his team has improved but still needs work, especially on defense and rebounding.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton agreed that ACC games elevate the senses.
“The conference season does bring on added emotion,” he said. “You have schools with a lot of tradition, great emotional student bodies that have gotten involved with the process – the fans almost feel like they’re part of the game and they’re playing the game with the players.
“I have to admit that the games take on such an added importance that players do step it up with their focus. As coaches we would like for them to be just as emotional and focused at the beginning of the season, but there’s no doubt that the conference brings on a different level of focus than we sometimes like to admit.”
Injuries have plagued the Seminoles (9-5), who open ACC play Saturday at Clemson (8-6). The FSU roster has settled and Hamilton believes a more stable rotation will help his team become sharper. One area of concern is ball-handling – the Seminoles have 170 assists against 257 turnovers.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell, whose team has struggled on the offensive end, said the media and fans are more involved in basketball as the football bowl season winds down.
“I think the players do get a little more excited for ACC play,” Brownell said, “because of the publicity that comes with playing in the league, the prestige that comes with playing in the league.”
Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, who enters his eighth season of ACC play, said the games themselves are different although the preparation is not.
“I think that all the kids that are in our program came here to play in the ACC,” he said. “But having said that, we try to be as consistent as we can in everything we do on a daily basis. The preparation for an Oklahoma State or a Syracuse is not a whole lot different than our preparation for a league game.
“The stakes are higher when you get to league play. League play is, in a lot of ways, how you’re judged because it should be a more level playing field. I think the anticipation, the anxiety of league play is different but I don’t think the preparation is much different.”
The Hokies (11-3) open Saturday at Wake Forest (9-5), which has already won one more game than all of last season. Greenberg said he enjoys coaching this team, which includes six players with limited or no college experience. He wants to see his club become tougher, rebound well on the defensive end and continue to trust each other and share the ball.
To the surprise of many, Virginia came through the nonconference schedule with the best record at 13-1, including a solid road win over LSU on Monday. But Tony Bennett, like every other coach, may be pleased with where his team is but he’s not satisfied.
“Like everybody at this stage you’re still trying to figure out exactly who you are,” Bennett said. “You want to be as ready as you can but know you still need to keep improving and getting better to compete and be successful in league play.
“Not a whole lot changes but there is an excitement level or anticipation for getting into league play and you sense that with your players and your staff. But the preparation and practice is fairly similar to what it was as we were preparing for our last game at LSU.”
The Cavaliers host Miami Saturday to start ACC play. Bennett said his team realizes it must come locked in to play every game or it becomes “susceptible” and below average. He likes the way it plays hard and is trying to establish itself as “a team that’s hard to play against.”
Early in the week Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said his team was playing well and he hoped a tough nonconference schedule would prepare it for ACC play. Then the Blue Devils were defeated on the road by Temple on Wednesday. Duke (12-2) opens its league schedule on the road Saturday at Georgia Tech.
Two of the league’s four new coaches begin their journey into ACC play against each other Sunday when Maryland (10-3) visits NC State (11-4).
Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said his team is guarding better and sharing the ball well. Improvement is a gradual process that he hopes will lead to the Pack playing its best basketball in February.
One unusual aspect for State is having five players average between 12.2 and 12.9 points (Richard Howell, Scott Wood, C.J. Williams, Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie). Gottfried said it wasn’t planned that way but he likes it.
“For our team it’s a good thing that we have balanced scoring,” he said. “I don’t think there’s one player that is good enough to carry the load (and) I’m not saying that in a negative way. All five of those guys who are scoring for us are doing it within the framework of our offense, they’re very unselfish. On different nights it’s been different guys. I do think we have a number of players who can step up and get 20 points on a given night. I like that.”
At Maryland, coach Mark Turgeon’s club has been boosted by the recent addition of two players – Pe’Shon Howard is back from an early-season injury and seven-footer Alex Len has served an NCAA suspension.
Turgeon said Howard’s presence bolsters the backcourt and enables the Terps to move leading scorer Terrell Stoglin (21.8 ppg) off the ball. Howard is also one of the team’s best perimeter defenders. Len gives the Terps a fourth post player who can score, pass, rebound and block shots.
Like most new coaches, Turgeon described his team as one in transition that is continuing to grow. The defense has picked up and the Terps are running more on missed shots and steals.
“It’s been fun coaching lately,” he said. “The guys are getting a little bit better, a little more confident and hopefully we can improve a lot between now and Sunday and be ready for the ACC.”
Miami (9-4) is in a situation almost identical to Maryland’s. Coach Jim Larranaga recently added two more pieces to his roster – big man Reggie Johnson (ready after an injury from last season) and DeQuan Jones (reinstated by the NCAA).
“The initial plan that we had included DeQuan and Reggie,” Larranaga said. “Then we had to adjust our players when they were not available to us. Then when they became available we had to adjust again.
“Those guys are adding a lot at both ends of the court. Reggie gives us an inside presence, both offensively and defensively. DeQuan gives us a very talented athlete who can guard different size players. Now we’ve got a full complement of players and we’re a little bit deeper than we were and that helps.”
The first ACC game for Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory will be at home, but it will be against a Duke team no doubt upset at the way it played against Temple. The Yellow Jackets (7-7) have lost three straight and are coming off a 73-48 thumping by Alabama.
Gregory said his club is still building its identity as a team and has such a small margin for error that it has to execute pretty close to perfectly.
“One of the biggest challenges whenever you take over a program and try to instill some new program priorities, there’s going to be some inconsistency and that’s what you’ve seen,” he said. “(The players are) on a different path than before, so the consistency is what you keep focusing on. The daily habits in practice are so important. Sometimes you can’t have a win or loss determine your evaluation of your progress “
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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