The Courtmaster: Random Ramblings

Jim Johnson returns for his first article of the new year - taking a look at conference happenings.

Hear ye, hear ye! After an extended recess, court is back in session. I have some thoughts I want to share with my first column of the New Year.

Georgia Tech's surprising start is a wonderful story. Nobody thought they would jump out to a 12-0 start (the best in school history), and they played exciting basketball while doing so. They are NOT a Top Ten team, however. Any team with a strong inside presence (like North Carolina) has an excellent chance to beat the Yellow Jackets. I'm sure Tech's starting center Luke Schenscher is a fine young man, but he is in way over his head trying to play at the major college level. Schenscher is not strong enough to be a factor in the low post on offense, and he is like a turnstile on defense.

The Jackets' depth and the exceptional skill of their perimeter players will be enough to win a lot of games and will quite likely earn them a berth in the NCAA Tournament. They are not yet ready to crack the upper echelon of the conference, however, which consists of Wake Forest, Duke, and North Carolina this season. They will fight it out with Maryland, Florida State, and NC State for position in the second tier of the ACC.

Most if not the entire second tier should also earn NCAA bids this season. At this point it is easy to see six of the nine ACC schools making the big dance. A seventh spot is not beyond the realm of possibility, but it is unlikely since the Selection Committee frowns on inviting teams with losing conference records these days. The seventh place team in a nine-team league almost certainly will fall into that category. In the latest edition of ESPN.com's Bracketology, Joe Lunardi has Duke and Wake Forest as #1 seeds, Georgia Tech and North Carolina at #3, Maryland as a #7, and NC State as #9.

It was nice to see Seth Davis, a college basketball writer for Sports Illustrated and SI.com, stand up for the ACC during CBS's halftime show Sunday. Davis and analyst Bill Raftery were asked to name the best conference in the nation. Raftery chose the Big 12 while Davis, a Duke alum, picked the ACC. Davis got it right. So did Andy Katz, ESPN.com's senior college basketball writer, when he referred to the ACC as, "clearly the best conference this season and arguably one of the best of all time."

‘Ol Roy Williams sure has everyone fired up in Chapel Hill this season. I don't remember hearing the Smith Center crowds as consistently loud in recent years as they have been so far. I wonder, though, if the emotional edge Williams has been on will wear his team down by March? I remember people used to say that about the other Williams, the one who coaches at Maryland. Oh, I forgot, Gary's not the OTHER Williams; he's won a National Championship.

Speaking of the Terps, their fans must feel like asking for a blindfold and a cigarette when their team, especially Jamar Smith, goes to the foul line. Maryland is shooting 55.7% as a team, one of the worst marks in the nation. Smith, the Terps' primary low post threat, is converting only 41% of his attempts at the line. As competitive as the conference games promise to be this season, that deficiency could cost the Terps a couple of close games and, in a worst-case scenario, hurt their chances for an 11th consecutive NCAA bid.

With so many quality teams in the ACC this season, wins on the road will be like gold. A simple way to track your team's position is my plus-minus system. Merely add a +1 for a road win and subtract a –1 for a home loss. For example, North Carolina and Florida State are a –1, each with a home loss but no road wins, while NC State is a +1 with a road win and no home losses.

Going into the first full week of conference play, I think Wake Forest is the best team in the ACC. The Deacons' depth, the development of center Eric Williams, and the emergence of point guard Chris Paul put them ahead of Duke and Carolina. Coach Skip Prosser has been using a smaller lineup, but that could change if Vytas Danelius ever gets healthy. They have balance, depth, plenty of talent, and excellent coaching; in other words, the entire package.

One of the best quotes I have seen this season came from Prosser after the Deacons beat Clemson on Saturday. Asked about how he allocated playing time, Prosser replied, "It's not like Halloween – everyone who wears a suit gets candy. You have to earn it." That just struck me as a fascinating way to make that point, and Prosser strikes me as a fascinating person.

Duke has struggled at times on offense this season, but their defense is the best in the conference. They are not just winning; they are smothering their opponents. The 71 points they allowed by Virginia was the second most they have given up so far. The Blue Devils have already held nine teams below 60 points. They are doing it with quickness and intensity on the perimeter and surprising toughness inside provided by Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph. This is a far different team than the ones Coach K has fielded the past few years, but apparently every bit as good if not better.

Duke's Chris Duhon has gone from one of the most overrated players in the ACC to one of the more under appreciated ones. In a conference loaded with outstanding point guards like Raymond Felton, Jarrett Jack, John Gilchrist, and Chris Paul, Duhon is easily overlooked this season. He has reined in his game, playing more of a pure point guard role instead of looking to launch a three-pointer as soon as he crosses mid-court. He has also been one of the catalysts of the Blue Devils' stalwart defense and has earned a spot among the top point guards in the nation.

Say what you will about Julius Hodge, but I don't think there is a player in the ACC as important to their team as Hodge is to NC State. He has developed into a very intelligent player who can control a game without scoring a lot of points. He makes so many big plays for the Wolfpack, whether it's a pass setting up one of his teammates, grabbing a key rebound, knocking down an important free throw, or scoring a critical hoop. The team seems to feed off his emotion, and Coach Sendek is wise not to rein Hodge in too much. He still has moments where he is out of control, but those are now the exception and not the rule. We'll see if he is good enough to lead a very flawed team (no inside game, limited athleticism, short bench) to their third straight NCAA Tournament.

There won't be many better days for watching ACC basketball during the regular season than next Saturday. Wake Forest visits Duke at 1:00 on ABC, Connecticut travels to Chapel Hill to take on the Tar Heels on CBS at 3:30, and the day ends with Maryland playing at Georgia Tech at 8:00 PM for a Raycom/Jefferson Pilot syndicated game. What a great day to hunker down for a day of hoops!

Congratulations to Duke's J. J. Redick, who set a new conference record by extending his 50th consecutive free throw. Jeff Lamp held the old record, making 48 straight foul shots for Virginia during the 1979-80 season. The icing on the cake for Redick, a Roanoke, Virginia native, was the opportunity to set the record in front of a large hometown contingent at Lamp's old stomping grounds in Charlottesville.

Question for the Jury:

Although he has struggled at times this season, I don't recall seeing a better pure shooter than J. J. Redick. What do you think? Does anyone think they've seen a better shooter in the ACC? Let me know by e-mail at thecourtmaster@aol.com

I received a tremendous response to my last question before the holidays regarding Street & Smith's Top 100 college basketball players. Maryland's Juan Dixon was far and away my readers' choice for the worst ACC omission from the list. Also receiving considerable support was the NC State backcourt duo of Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchianni. Duke's Jason Williams was also a runaway winner for the most overrated player on the list.

Please leave your feedback on the message board or sent e-mail to thecourtmaster@aol.com. Until next time, court is adjourned.


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