The Courtmaster: Opening Week in the ACC

Hear ye, hear ye! Court is back in session, and it's time to rule on the opening week of basketball in the ACC. Here is my team-by-team look at what we've already learned. There's not much bad news here because, through Sunday's games, no conference team had yet lost.

North Carolina began the Roy Williams era with a 90-64 win over Old Dominion. Carolina had a 22-6 run in the first half to gain control of the game and an 18-0 run in the second half to turn it into a blowout. The Tar Heels were very efficient on offense, shooting 61% and totaling 23 assists.

Rashad McCants led all scorers with 18 points but, more significantly, dished out a career-high 8 assists. Sean May scored 17 points and grabbed 7 rebounds. Carolina worked the ball around very well for high quality shots. In a radical departure from last year's team that launched three-pointers with regularity, the Heels attempted only 7 against the Monarchs.

The other new coach in the ACC, Oliver Purnell, saw his Clemson team post an easy 86-55 victory over Gardner-Webb. Any success Purnell's team enjoys in his first season as coach of the Tigers will be determined by how well they can play defense. They got off to a good start by dominating the Bulldogs. Clemson put the game away early with a 21-2 run and never let Gardner-Webb into the game.

Olu Babalola and Chris Hobbs played well up front, and Shawan Robinson and Akin Akingbala gave the Tigers a spark off the bench. Robinson, with 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists gave notice to Vernon Hamilton not to get too comfortable as the starting point guard. It remains to be seen how Babalola and Hobbs will fare against an ACC-sized front line, but it was a good sign to see them get off to a strong start.

Georgia Tech is off to a fast start, posting easy wins over Louisiana-Lafayette, Hofstra, and Cornell. Not exactly Murders' Row, but the wins do count. Those of us who thought Coach Paul Hewitt's Yellow Jackets could dominate on the perimeter have not been disappointed. Marvin Lewis, B. J. Elder, and Jarrett Jack are all averaging between 14.7 and 16.3 points per game. More importantly, Jack is dishing out 10 assists per game. Elder is not shooting particularly well, but he still finds ways to score and play defense. That's the good news.

The bad news is that Elder and Jack are also Tech's leading rebounders. Luke Schenscher showed some signs of life against Cornell, but is still averaging a puny 4 rebounds per game. He also has a total of 2 blocked shots in 3 games. This just won't get it done against opponents with any size, like, say, #1 ranked Connecticut, the Yellow Jackets' next opponent in the NIT Semifinals Wednesday night. It is hard to imagine anything but total domination by the Huskie's Emeka Okafor, the best big man in the nation.

Nothing was easy about Duke's opener, a 67-56 win over Detroit. The scrappy Titans scored the first 12 points of the game and clung to the lead until midway through the second half. On a night when Duke shot 7-24 in the first half (3-13 from three-point range), the Blue Devils' defense made the difference, forcing 13 turnovers from Detroit's starting backcourt.

One aspect of this game followed the typical Duke blueprint for victory—getting to the foul line. The Devils attempted 36 free throws (making 29) while the Titans were sent to the line only 10 times. On nights when the shots aren't falling (Duke made only 29% of their field goals in the first half), conventional wisdom usually leads a team to work the ball inside, but the Blue Devils did not go this route. Although big man Shelden Williams shot 10 free throws, he only was credited with one field goal attempt in 25 minutes.

The Duke bench was also a non-factor, totaling more fouls (7) than points (6). By the way, it is NOW appropriate to crank up the hype machine for Luol Deng. He led all scorers in the game with 21 points and grabbed 8 rebounds.

Duke's opening win was atypical of what we should expect this season, but Florida State's played out according to the script. Coach Leonard Hamilton's teams are known for their tough defense, and it was very much in evidence during their 69-49 win over Maine. The Seminoles held the Black Bears to 32% shooting and forced 21 turnovers.

Florida State's offensive output, however, was still lacking. Tim Pickett was the leading scorer with 18 points, but made on 6 of 17 shots. Anthony Richardson was the only other Seminole in double figures with 16 points. Freshman sensation Von Wafer missed this game with an ankle injury, but it is not believed to be serious. Coach Hamilton will need more punch out of the offense to not make me look stupid in picking them 5th in the ACC.

NC State also relied on their defense in a 71-46 romp over UNC-Asheville. The Wolfpack shot 40% for the game and made only 5 of 22 three-pointers. State held the Bulldogs to 23% shooting in the first half on their way to a 38-11 lead at the break, so they had some margin for error.

Julius Hodge got off to a great start, scoring 24 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. An encouraging sign for the Pack was the play of big man Levi Watkins, who scored 12 points and grabbed 7 rebounds in only 21 minutes of play coming off the bench. Ilian Evtimov was only 0-4 shooting, but played a good floor game as he works his way back from missing last season.

Maryland came out with an amazing defensive performance in the first half of their opener with American University on their way to a 79-48 win. The Terps held the Eagles without a point for 14:37, breaking open a 2-2 game with 27 unanswered points. Maryland led 35-8 at halftime, and expanded that to 47-8 with a quick 12-point run to open the second half.

The Terps looked very raw on the offensive end, struggling when thry had to run their sets in a half-court offense. Jamar Smith led all scorers with 14 points and pulled down a career-high 12 rebounds, and Maryland freshmen Mike Jones, Ekene Ibekwe, and D. J. Strawberry all had strong games off the bench.

Virginia opened their season with a distressingly hard-fought 80-71 win over Mount St. Mary's. The Cavaliers were short-handed missing Devin Smith, who was nursing a back injury, and Jason Clark, who is suspended indefinitely. Regardless, Virginia should never have allowed the Mounties to trail only 47-44 with 16:44 remaining in the game.

The encouraging part here for Coach Pete Gillen was how the game was eventually put away. The Cavaliers went on a 19-8 run early in the second half to give them a working margin for the rest of the game, and all 19 points were scored by freshmen. Gary Forbes and Donte Minter each had nine points during this rally. Forbes led all scorers with 21 points. Virginia did shoot 52%, but were outrebounded 41-36. Nothing happened here to make me think this season will be anything but a struggle for the Cavaliers.

Question for the Jury:

Is there a player you think will have a positive impact for their team this season that is being overlooked? Let me know who you think the sleepers are by e-mail at thecourtmaster@aol.com

In response to my last question, fans fingered Willie Dersch of Virginia as the most overrated McDonald's All-American to play in the ACC. There was strong support for the Cavaliers Bryant Stith as the most underrated player.

CourtMaster Briefs

Oliver Purnell posted the largest margin of victory of any coach in his first game at Clemson since Country Morris beat the College of Charleston 65-17 during the 1916-1917 season.

Wake Forest moved to 2-0 on the season with a 97-55 blowout of Elon College. The Deacons removed any doubt about the outcome quickly, jumping to a 16-2 lead while Elon missed 10 of their first 11 shots and committed 10 turnovers. Wake easily controlled the tempo of the game, providing a rude homecoming for Elon head coach Ernie Nestor, a long-time Deacon assistant, and Elon assistant coaches Tim Fuller and Jim Fitzpatrick, former Deacon players.

Eric Williams established himself inside and scored 16 points, although I'm sure Coach Skip Prosser could have lived without his 6 turnovers. There was an announced crowd of only 8,644 at Lawrence-Joel Coliseum for Wake's home opener. Come on Deacon fans, this is a very good team and deserves better support!

Virginia Tech continues to be decimated by injuries. Freshman forward Coleman Collins broke a bone in his left foot during the last exhibition game and could be out as long as eight weeks. He joins senior guard Carlos Dixon (left foot), sophomore forward Fabian Davis (left foot), and sophomore guard Shawn Harris (right foot, just to be different). There's a podiatrist in Blacksburg that's having a big year. Despite the casualties, the Hokies won their opener over New Hampshire 79-49.

Miami won their opening game, posting a 78-60 victory over Louisiana-Monroe (no relation to Marilyn).

Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack was named ACC player of the week, and Virginia's Gary Forbes was ACC rookie of the week.

That's what I think. Let me know what you think on the message board or by e-mail at thecourtmaster@aol.com.

I'll break for the holiday and be back next Monday with a preview of the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. Until then, court is adjourned.


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