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Jan. 8, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Four down, 92 to go.
Translation: Four ACC games played, 92 remaining.
With all but a handful of non-conference games out of the way, ACC teams turn their full attention to league contests, beginning this weekend. There’s a notable difference in the way games are played in what Clemson coach Oliver Purnell called “the deep end of the pool.”
“It’s just an intensity-level mentally, which should translate to a focus and intensity level from a physical standpoint as well,” Purnell said. “There’s certainly something in the air when you go to Duke to prepare to play, whether it be in the shoot-around or the practice the day before.
“I just think the intensity level once you get in the league goes up. It’s something that is clear, you can feel it. Teams every night are big, strong and physical and you’ve got to prepare yourself mentally and physically for that.”
The difference can be especially eye-opening for young teams. Miami, which has nine freshmen and sophomores, is 14-1 overall but its one loss came to ACC foe Boston College, 61-60, on the road.
“Our guys realize the game is quicker, the game is faster, some of those shots we were getting (against outside competition) may not be as easy in terms of teams closing in on you,” said Hurricanes coach Frank Haith.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt has four freshmen in his rotation and they noticed the increased intensity of league play during a 66-59 overtime loss to Florida State.
“(Freshman Derrick Favors said) he had never been in a game that physical in all his life,” said coach Paul Hewitt. “The other three perimeter players (Mfon Udofia, Glen Rice Jr., Brian Oliver) commented on how quickly the windows of opportunity close down, whether it’s a pass or a shot opportunity on the offensive end.”
So the fun begins in earnest. Or, as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski put it, “now the journey begins.” Here’s a glance at each team.
BOSTON COLLEGE (1-0 ACC, 10-5 overall): The Eagles have been inconsistent and, as a result, are not very well prepared for league play, according to coach Al Skinner.
“Obviously we’ve had our ups and downs and we’re hoping to make some improvements,” Skinner said, “but it’s always tough during league play.
“We just have a wide range of who we can be and that’s what’s troubling. The fluctuation is within us. A lot of times it has nothing to do with the opposition, it’s been us and that’s been our biggest challenge, overcoming our own shortcomings.”
The Eagles played well in road wins over Michigan and Providence, but have puzzling home losses to Harvard and Maine. Skinner said game preparation is the key and he knows where that needs to start as they prepare for a road game at Clemson Saturday.
“The games we’ve won we held teams to under 38 percent shooting,” he said. “The games we lost teams shot 50 percent. It’s almost been that simple. The nights we don’t defend well we’ve lost, the nights we defend well we’ve won.”
CLEMSON (0-1, 12-3): The Tigers were pounded by 21 points at Duke in their only ACC game. Before that, they struggled to beat South Carolina State.
“In three out of our last four halves we haven’t played a complete basketball game or a complete half,” Purnell said. “What I mean by that is defending and then really playing efficiently on the offensive end of the floor.
“Obviously we need to get that corrected here this week in practice. It’s not the end of the world when you go on the road and lose at Duke, but I would have liked to have played much better in the first half (12 points and 16 percent).”
Purnell said his team played much better on offense in the second half at Duke, which gives it something to build on.
DUKE (1-0, 13-1): Much has been made, rightfully so, of guard Jon Scheyer’s dazzling assist-to-turnover ratio. Through Wednesday night’s win over Iowa State in Chicago, those stood at 87 assists and 19 turnovers.
Krzyzewski said Scheyer plays within his abilities, which should serve the Blue Devils well in the ACC, continuing Saturday at Georgia Tech.
“Jon makes passes that he can make, for the most part, and doesn’t try to make passes he can’t make,” Krzyzewski said. “Therefore he’s been a very smart, very intelligent passer.
“I just think he’s a veteran and he values the ball and he values possessions. One of the biggest lessons to learn, especially once you get into conference (play) is to value every possession. His mind and his body are in one when he’s playing the game and that’s what makes him an outstanding player.”
FLORIDA STATE (1-0, 13-2): Another of the league’s young teams, the Seminoles have steadily improved, said coach Leonard Hamilton. Good team defense has helped and so has the improved offense of 7-1 sophomore Solomon Alabi.
As a redshirt freshman, Alabi took a back seat to Toney Douglas and averaged 8.4 points. Now he leads the team at 12.1, shooting 57.8 percent from the floor and 81 percent at the line. Hamilton said the Nigeria native understands the game better.
“He’s a tall, slender youngster without a tremendous lower base, so he’s easy to push off the block,” Hamilton said. “Many times when he gets the ball, the physicality of the game keeps him off balance. So what he’s learned to do now is be a little more patient, not rush things, if he’s uncomfortable he’s not putting it on the floor, he’s not trying to force things, and he’s kicking the ball out.
“I don’t even think he has come close to tapping his potential. He’s really a good facing shooter, he knocks his foul shots down and as he gets stronger I think he’ll hold his base and be a little more effective inside.”
GEORGIA TECH (0-1, 11-3): Hewitt is blending his freshmen with veterans Gani Lawal, Zach Peacock, Iman Shumpert, D’Andre Bell and Moe Miller. The results have been mostly good but sometimes uneven, shown by more turnovers than assists.
“I think it’s a function of playing as many young guys as we’ve played,” Hewitt said. “(The freshmen) have logged a lot of minutes. Getting Iman back (from injury) gives us another experienced player and kind of settles us down a little bit.”
Hewitt likes the way his freshmen have performed. Favors is averaging 12.4 points and 8.8 rebounds, Udofia 11.2 points, Oliver 7.2 and Rice 3.4. Udofia will learn to make an extra pass and take fewer ill-advised shots, the coach said.
“He’s got some work to do and I think he realizes his decision-making can be better,” Hewitt said. “But the one thing I love about him and one reason why he plays so much for us is he’s a very, very intense competitor. He doesn’t back down from getting loose balls, he plays with a great deal of intensity, and plays hard all the time.”
Tech, already one victory away from matching last year’s season win total, hosts Duke Saturday.
MARYLAND (0-0, 9-4): While working in freshmen frontcourt players Jordan Williams and James Padgett, the Terps have been getting solid play from forward Landon Milbourne (14.8 points). And now point guard Greivis Vasquez has rekindled his passion. Vasquez didn’t score in double figures until the fifth game, but now has five straight games with 20 or more.
Coach Gary Williams is encouraged that his team is approaching its best basketball as the Terps head into Sunday’s home game against Florida State. Vasquez put his name in the NBA draft last year and then withdrew it, and then played for his home country, Venezuela, in August. That took a toll on him.
“Greivis has started to let the game come to him instead of trying to force things early,” Williams said. “I suspect all that basketball, all that emotion, given the way he plays, took something out of him and it took awhile for him to get excited again. Emotion is part of Greivis’ game and I think he’s got that now and I think it will be there the rest of the year.”
MIAMI (0-1, 14-1): The Hurricanes have improved every week, Haith said, and are ready for ACC play. They host Wake Forest Saturday. As the Canes have been learning, so has Haith.
“I think we are deep (and) we can play a number of guys,” he said. “I think we’re a much better defensive team; although our numbers were good the last couple of years, this team is better, we have more length on the perimeter and inside with Durand Scott, who’s an outstanding defender.
“From an offensive standpoint we’ve got a number of different guys who can score and I like that about this team. We still need to establish that go-to guy and I think it will be Dwayne Collins and James Dews, our two seniors.”
NORTH CAROLINA (0-0, 11-4): Inconsistency has been a concern for coach Roy Williams, whose team must rebound from a road loss at College of Charleston on Monday. An assortment of injuries has made it difficult to get an accurate read on his team.
“It’s hard to show consistency when guys are going in and out of the lineup, getting hurt and not being able to practice,” Williams said. “That is what we had hoped to have answered by now in a positive manner but we haven’t gotten it yet.
“Last year we knew we could score, that was the bottom line, and the nights that we defended well we were really, really good. Right now with this team we don’t have that established yet.”
Marcus Ginyard and Will Graves missed the Charleston game with ankle injuries and Williams said he hopes one of them – he doesn’t know which – will be ready to play against Virginia Tech Sunday.
One other injury update: Williams will coach the upcoming game without the sling he’s been wearing after shoulder surgery.
“With the exception of one time when I went down to one knee, it hasn’t affected me at all during a game,” he said. “It hurts a little bit when I’m doing those gyrations but other than that I think it’s been fine.”
NC STATE (0-1, 11-4): At least for one game, the Wolfpack was able to bounce back from an excruciating loss to Florida on a 75-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer. The Pack used a strong second half to beat Holy Cross Wednesday, 87-70.
Coach Sidney Lowe wasn’t sure how his team would respond, but he was glad to have a game before the Pack hosts Virginia Saturday.
“I think it’s good to get back in the gym,” he said. You hate for a loss to linger on, especially one like that, so I’m glad that we actually have a game coming up and give us an opportunity to move forward.”
Lowe said he didn’t go to bed until 4:30 a.m. after the Florida game and was up at 6:30.
“You run an entire game through (your head),” he said. “What happened, what you did and then what happened at the end, just going back and forth. Was there anything I could have done? I felt bad, obviously; when you lose as a coach it hurts. But I really felt bad for our kids, they played their hearts out and put themselves in a position to win.”
Was the Pack completely successful in getting rid of the Florida game demons? The Virginia game may tell.
VIRGINIA (0-0, 8-4): As the only new coach in the league, Tony Bennett is still learning about his team and the players are still learning about him.
“As our team and our coaching staff learn about each other more and more,” Bennett said. “We’re realizing just how there’s a small margin of error for us. And when we’re executing well on both ends of the floor there’s some confidence that we can compete with a lot of teams. We’re just trying to knock on that door and reach our full potential.”
One point of emphasis for the Cavaliers is not beating themselves.
“We talk about that a lot, whether it’s making the extra pass or having a real certainness, a degree of soundness and toughness on the offensive end,” Bennett said. “We try to have them understand, without restricting them, the value of each possession, how they matter. We’re trying to establish and ask them to do things that are different from the style they’re used to.
“But basketball is basketball – good shot selection, good defense, and playing to win.”
VIRGINIA TECH (0-0, 12-1): While he has seen improvement since Thanksgiving, coach Seth Greenberg professes to be unimpressed with the Hokies’ start as they head into Saturday’s road game at North Carolina.
“I think we’re so far from where we need to be,” he said. “We need to rebound the ball more consistently; we sure need to improve our defensive transition, not just for Carolina but for everyone.”
Greenberg doesn’t know when guard Malcolm Delaney will return from a sprained ankle but said he “won’t risk the rest of the season just so he can play against Carolina.”
The Hokies scored an impressive win without Delaney against Seton Hall in Cancun, Mexico. The statistical standout in that game was guard Dorenzo Hudson, who scored 41 points.
“I was more impressed with his leadership,” Greenberg said. “If you were in the huddles, seeing him huddle guys up during timeouts, reinforcing things we talked about in the scouting report, his approach in terms of his choices of what to say and when, talking about the things we need to do to win to his teammates – to me that was as big a step forward as scoring 41 points because he had ownership and he had other people on the same page with him and I thought that was really important.”
WAKE FOREST (1-0, 11-2): The Deacons are one of the country’s best teams at defending the 3-pointer, holding opponents to just 24.3 percent. Coach Dino Gaudio said the technique his staff teaches comes from Dick Bennett, father of the Virginia coach.
“We really try to close out with two high hands and dissuade the initial 3-point shot,” Gaudio said, “and just try to get into guys and guard without fouling. I think the kids have to be very cognizant, pay attention to scouting reports, who you’re going to close out hard on and who you need to close out a little shorter on, understand personnel.”
Another area that stands out, in a different way, is free throw shooting. Wake is hitting just 64.2 percent from the line. Gaudio said the one encouraging thing is his team seems to be able to hit free throws late in games. But he’s open to suggestions.
“All you can do is practice them, all you can do is try to simulate pressure in practice,” he said. “Might it cost us a game? It probably will. All we can do is work on them and do our best and see how it plays out.”
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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