Just when the Devils seemed on the brink of falling apart, Coach K found a way to settle them down and force them to become the national contender they were expected to be. After their dismal performance at the Great Alaskan Shootout where they lost to a more energetic Purdue team, Duke began pressuring the ball more. And once the offense got going, they manhandled teams like Michigan State and Texas. Chris Duhon is beginning to assert himself more as a leader and J.J. Redick seems to have his shot once again. Freshman Luol Deng continues to turn heads, but the most intriguing development is that of Shavlik Randolph, who has expanded his game on both ends of the floor. The only question remains whether or not the Devils can maintain this type of performance throughout the ACC schedule.
Wake Forest, A
Skip Prosser's club continues to impress every time they take the floor. The three-guard offense of Taron Downey, Justin Gray and Chris Paul has been terrific, and Eric Williams is developing into one of the best low post players in the nation. Paul, in particular, has been better than advertised and should challenge Deng for ACC freshman of the year honors. They don't quite control the glass like they did last year, but that should change once Vytas Danelius comes back from injury. It's difficult to imagine this team not making a run at the national title.
Florida State, A-
Does anyone doubt that Leonard Hamilton has turned this program around? The Seminoles lead the ACC in three-point percentage at a staggering 41.3 percent and hold opponents to under 58 points per game. With those stats, one gets the feeling that Florida State's win over Maryland to open the ACC season is just the beginning of what could be a run at that coveted NCAA berth. Tim Pickett continues to lead the offensive attack, and Anthony Richardson is finally beginning to realize his potential as a future NBA draft pick. Even freshmen Von Wafer, Alexander Johnson and Al Thornton are making significant contributions in Hamilton's 11-man rotation. The fans in Tallahassee have already forgotten about their football team.
Georgia Tech, A
No single team defied or surpassed expectations quite like the Yellow Jackets did. Everyone thought Tech would struggle this year after losing valuable frontcourt players like Chris Bosh (NBA), Ed Nelson (transfer) and Theodis Tarver (injury). But the lack of size has given Paul Hewitt an opportunity to create one of the fastest and most athletic teams in Georgia Tech history. The key has been the ability of guards Jarrett Jack, Will Bynum, Marvin Lewis and B.J. Elder to master transition game. The Yellow Jackets run the fast break better than any team in the nation (with the exception of perhaps Arizona). ACC teams will have to be well disciplined to slow these boys down.
Roy Williams' impact on the Heels is evident. The team chemistry is significantly improved and when their offense is in synch, the Heels are unstoppable. However, this team has not yet grasped Williams' defensive principles and Roy still has not been able to win the big games. Raymond Felton has done a phenomenal job running the offense and Sean May has been solid in the low blocks, but certain players (yes, you, Rashad McCants) need to quit pouting and start working. If the starters can put forth a consistent effort at both ends of the court (and avoid serious injury), this should be a scary team in March.
For a team with so little experience on the roster, the Terrapins are actually doing fairly well. John Gilchrist has become more of a leader on the court, Jamar Smith has developed into a rebounding machine, and the freshmen – particularly D.J. Strawberry, Mike Jones and Ekene Ibekwe – are starting to assert themselves. However the lack of experience has been a factor in losses to West Virginia and Florida State. Also, the Terps are shooting around 55 percent from the free throw line, which ranks them among the worst in the nation in that category. Gary Williams' youngsters will have to grow up quickly if they expect to make it through the tough conference schedule ahead.
NC State, C
While they have been dominant at home against lower-level competition, Herb Sendek's team continues to struggle on the road. They've had two chances to notch quality non-conference wins (against Michigan and South Carolina), but blew them both. It seems as though the cupcake schedule has allowed some of the players to become lazy and undisciplined at times. Julius Hodge is leading the conference in scoring, but he can only carry this team so far. The Wolfpack is going to need more contributions from seniors Marcus Melvin and Scooter Sherrill if they plan to make the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.
The Tigers are getting better and better as the season goes on, but it is evident they lack the talent to rise up out of the ACC basement. The team ranks dead last in the conference in scoring at just over 70 ppg, and they average a whopping 19.5 turnovers per game. Nevertheless, Oliver Purnell is making his presence known. Freshman Vern Hamilton is steadily gaining confidence at the point, and players like Olu Babalola, Chey Christie and Sherrod Ford are beginning to emerge as leaders on this team. Forward Chris Hobbs has been solid, but his health remains a factor for the remainder of the season. They may not go very far this season, but there is still some hope for the Clemson faithful – they just have to be a little more patient.
The Wahoos avoided an "F" by taking out Iowa State on New Year's Eve, but their performance in the loss to NC State three days before couldn't even justify a "D" in this conference. If Pete Gillen is to avoid the axe at the end of this season, he has to find a way to get his team to play defense. Of course, when you play a non-conference schedule comparable to NC State's lame slate, players tend to forget all sorts of things, including defensive principles. If Gillen can't turn this ship around, it won't matter that Elton Brown is having an MVP-type year, or that the freshmen are performing at a higher level than the team's more experienced players. The alumni are only going to stand for so much.