Turns out some time off was good for Olu Babalola.
Clemson coach Oliver Purnell had suspended the 6-6 senior for conduct detrimental to the team following an outburst at practice two weeks ago. After sitting out two games, Babalola made his return against Ohio State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and came back with a renewed vigor.
He was arguably the difference in the game, scoring 17 points and grabbing eight rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench in an 80-73 Tigers' win. He knocked down four of six free throws in the final 26 seconds to preserve Clemson's most important win so far.
A talented small forward, Babalola is a key piece on a deeper and more athletic Tiger team in Purnell's second season at the helm. If Clemson can get quality play out of the young backcourt mainly sophomore point guard Vernon Hamilton and junior shooting guard Shawan Robinson the Tigers could surprise some folks this year.
Up front, 6-9 senior Sharrod Ford looks more muscular and more comfortable working the baseline as 6-9 junior Akin Akingbala takes on a larger role in the pivot. Freshman forward Cliff Hammonds stepped in for Babalola and performed admirably with 13.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in Clemson's 3-1 start. Another freshman, Cheyenne Moore got the start at small forward against Ohio State before giving way to Hammonds, who had 14 points and six rebounds off the bench.
With Ford and Babalola the program's only seniors, and a solid freshman class in place, Clemson's basketball future has rarely looked so bright. No surprise then that earlier this week Purnell was rewarded with a two-year contract extension, taking him through the 2010-11 campaign.
Oliver Purnell has built a solid defensive foundation, a shrewd move last year when the Tigers were undermanned and under-talented. The philosophy is paying big dividends this year as the aggressive Tigers are averaging an ACC-best 16.5 steals per game. Six different Clemson players have more steals than fouls this year.
The freshman class forwards Cliff Hammond, James Mays, Cheyenne Moore and Sam Perry have scored 36 percent of the Tigers' points this year and all four rank among the team's top eight scorers and rebounders.
The Tigers are 4-0 all-time in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in games played in Littlejohn Coliseum,
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard Vernon Hamilton, shooting guard Shawan Robinson, center Akin Akingbala, forward Cliff Hammonds, forward Sharrod Ford.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think we all recognize we're in the toughest league in America. Oliver has done a very good job, and our recruits need to know we're building a program in the right fashion. This is all about having Coach Purnell at Clemson." Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips on the contract extension.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: at South Carolina, Saturday, Dec. 4; vs. Charleston Southern, Saturday, Dec. 11.
KEYS: The Tigers complete a rare trifecta when they step on the court against state-rival South Carolina. Clemson will have played, in consecutive games, foes from the Big East (Boston College), the Big Ten (Ohio State) and now, the SEC (South Carolina). Of course, the Tigers don't duck anyone. Their schedule last season was rated the toughest in the country by at least one publication and 23 of their last 25 opponents, including the last 18 advanced to postseason play.
ROSTER REPORT: Freshman guard Troy Mathis, expected to play an important role this year, was suspended from school for a year pending review of an altercation on campus in the preseason. He can reapply for admission in January and return to practice, though he won't be allowed to play until next season.
Senior forward Sharrod Ford scored 20 points and had 10 rebounds in the win over the Buckeyes, appearing in his 90th consecutive game, the Tigers' longest current streak.
Olu Babalola went over 500 points in his career with his 17-point effort against Ohio State.
Shawan Robinson ranks among the ACC leaders with 3.75 3-pointers made per game and a .714 shooting percentage behind the arc.
The Blue Devils don't seem to be willing to settle for their downgraded status in the ACC this season. Picked by many as a middle-of-the-conference team, Duke is off to a 4-0 start.
The ACC/Big Ten Challenge victory over 11th-ranked Michigan State may dispel notions that the Blue Devils will do anything less than again contend for the league crown. Despite foul troubles inside and the accompanying lack of inside firepower, Duke ground out an 81-74 victory, holding the Spartans 29 points below their scoring average this year
Hmmm. Looks like despite the loss of Chris Duhon and Luol Deng and potential Dookie Shaun Livingston, the Blue Devils still play a little defense. Throw in a white-hot shooting night from perimeter bombers J.J. Redick, who hit 5-of-9 3-pointers on his way to 29 points, and senior Daniel Ewing, who hit 10-of-14 shots, also scoring 29, and the Blue Devils look pretty good.
And that's with big Shelden Williams scoring just 10 points and Shavlik Randolph disappearing in a four-point, four-rebound night.
If Ewing can channel the ghosts of Duhon, Bobby Hurley and Tommy Amaker like he did at the point against the Spartans (six assists and just one turnover), Duke will again be dangerous.
Even Sean Dockery, the perceived weak link, had just one basket ... but it was huge, an off-balance drive in traffic that gave Duke a three-point edge after MSU had cut the lead to one late in the game. Dockery also had just one turnover in 36 minutes, while coming up with three steals.
Yeah, Duke is still playing some hard-nosed defense despite critics focusing more on who is not in a Blue Devil uniform more than who is. Duke entered the week second in the ACC in turnover margin (plus 9.67) and defensive field goal percentage (.339)
The Blue Devils had nine blocked shots against Michigan State's big, bad front-line.
Duke is 6-0 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge since its inception in 1999, including wins over five ranked opponents. In fact, Duke has defeated 14 of its past 16 Big Ten foes, dating to 1997.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard Sean Dockery, shooting guard Daniel Ewing, shooting guard J.J. Redick, center Shelden Williams, forward Shavlik Randolph.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have two of the most talented big guys in the country, and we're starting to develop really good role players. So on a night where Daniel (Ewing) and I don't combine for 60 points, I still think we can get the job done." J.J. Redick following the win over Michigan State.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: vs. Valparaiso, Saturday, Dec. 4 (at Chicago); vs. Toledo, Sunday, Dec. 12.
KEYS: Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph will be looking to reassert themselves after a disappointing night against Michigan State. That doesn't bode well for Valpo in this made-for-TV game. The Crusaders also will have trouble matching up with J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing on the wings.
ROSTER REPORT: J.J. Redick played the entire 40 minutes against Michigan State, and his fatigue was reflected in him scoring just eight of his 29 points in the second half.
Shelden Williams hauled down 10 rebounds against the Spartans, right on his 10.7 per game average (second in the ACC).
The thinner Duke bench can get a lift this year if Lee Melchionni does what he did against Michigan State every game. He came off the bench and hit his only shot a long 3-pointer to discourage a Spartan zone defense.
Frontline reserve and erstwhile footballer Reggie Love fouled out in just four minutes against the Spartans.
Freshman guard DeMarcus Nelson has successfully returned from preseason surgery on his thumb and is averaging 11.8 minutes per game.
Leonard Hamilton must have had a feeling of "Oh, no, here we go again," after his Seminoles dropped two neutral site games at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times Challenge.
But playing in their longest stint away from their home Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center this season, the Seminoles broke through with a road win at Minnesota in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Florida State overcame a 14-point deficit to knock off the Golden Gophers, 70-69. Shooting guard Von Wafer, expected to take up the slack for departed scoring leader Tim Pickett, did just that with 19 points.
More importantly, FSU got a real road win, a rarity last season when the Seminoles could muster just three victories in 13 games in other folks' gyms. This victory took an impressive 16-0 run late in the game, and a clutch 3-point dagger by Wafer with just 20 seconds left that broke a tie.
So far, Hamilton's team looks deeper and overall more talented than his first two editions, particularly in the paint where Alexander Johnson and Diego Romero are an imposing duo. If Wafer can provide late-game heroics like he did in Minnesota, the Seminoles may yet be able to start the climb up the steep ACC ladder. Early season losses to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Kent State are cause for consternation, though.
The Seminoles have shot the ball better this season, hitting nearly 50 percent from the field through six games.
They shot .509 in the stirring win at Minnesota, and hit a season-high .593 against Shawnee State. FSU shot just .438 last year as a team and hit better than 50 percent just seven times.
Since Leonard Hamilton brought his intense man-to-man defense to Tallahassee, the Seminoles have averaged 9.1 steals per game. They've never had less than 8.8 steals per game in any of his two-plus seasons.
FSU has won three straight games in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and is 4-2 overall in the series.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard Todd Galloway, shooting guard Von Wafer, shooting guard Andrew Wilson, center Alexander Johnson, forward Diego Romero.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When we were down 14 points, I told our team that we had to grow up, we had to stay focused and make plays. So we had to grow and hopefully we can go on from here." Coach Leonard Hamilton on the win at Minnesota.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: at Mississippi, Saturday, Dec. 4; vs. Florida International, Sunday, Dec. 12.
KEYS: Mississippi is the fourth of four consecutive games on the road for the 'Noles, the longest road trip of Leonard Hamilton's three years at the school. The FIU game will be FSU's first home date since the Nov. 24 win over Shawnee State. Improvement on the road is a cornerstone of Hamilton's hopes to move the 'Noles up in the ACC standings.
ROSTER REPORT: Coach Hamilton is getting solid on-the-ball pressure to ramrod his defense. Starting point guard Todd Galloway and talented reserve Isaiah Swann are each averaging over a steal per game.
Eleven Seminoles are averaging more than 15 minutes played per game, led by leading scorer Von Wafer, who averages 10.4 points in 25 minutes a night.
The Florida State depth is further showcased by the fact that former starters Adam Waleskowski and Anthony Richardson are coming off the bench this season.
Maybe it was the Final Four banner. Maybe it was looking across the center circle at a quality opponent.
Whatever the reason, the Yellow Jackets, already buzzing around near the top of the national polls, took their game to a higher level in their 99-68 win over Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Senior guard B.J. Elder, one of the most dynamic one-on-one scorers in the country, shredded the Wolverines with 27 points on 10-of-12 shooting. Tech hit 60 percent from the field in the first half in running up a 59-32 lead at the break.
The Jackets erased memories of somewhat lackluster performances in the first three games on a night when a banner commemorating their trip to the national title game last year was unfurled from the rafters of Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
Surprisingly, Tech's offense had sputtered until the showing against Michigan. The Jackets considered themselves fortunate to survive a 60-59 game at Illinois-Chicago. But Coach Paul Hewitt has changed his starting five, inserting guard Will Bynum and bringing highlight-reel forward Isma'il Muhammad off the bench again.
The three guard attack of Jarrett Jack, Elder and Bynum speeds the tempo early and allows the Jackets to settle into the transition style they prefer.
Part of Tech's slow offensive start looks like an inability to successfully pound the ball inside consistently. The Jackets' top three scorers are their three starting guards.
More disturbingly, Tech has been out-scored by obviously lesser opponents at the free throw line. Tech foes have hit 44 of 62 free throw attempts while the Jackets have canned just 41 of 69, a woeful .594 percentage, and not nearly enough of advantage in attempts for a team with designs on a return to the Final Four.
Tech's No. 3 ranking is the highest for the Yellow Jackets since the 1985-86 squad. The Jackets have been ranked for 21 consecutive weeks, dating to last year's Preseason NIT title.
The victory over Michigan was Tech's 30th in the last 35 at home, including 18 consecutive non-conference victories.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard Jarrett Jack, shooting guard Will Bynum, shooting guard B.J. Elder, center Luke Schenscher, forward Anthony McHenry.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I hear people talk about different players, and here's a guy who led his team to the Final Four and was Most Outstanding Player of the regional. When they talk about the best players in the country ... I know I'm biased, but how can this guy not be mentioned. He's one of the best players in the country, flat out. He's a team player, he defends, he passes the ball, he works on his game, he's a good three-point shooter now. There's not a whole lot Jarrett Jack can't do." Coach Paul Hewitt.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: vs. Georgia, Sunday, Dec. 5; vs. Air Force, Saturday, Dec. 11 (Philips Arena, Atlanta).
KEYS: Last year's double overtime loss to rival Georgia was a blemish on Tech's remarkable season, and one the Jackets hope to gain a measure of revenge for this year. It's the Jackets' final game before a break for semester exams. Tech has just one game, Dec. 19 against Gonzaga in Las Vegas, outside of Atlanta through the end of the year.
ROSTER REPORT: Jarrett Jack leads the Jackets with 9.0 assists and is second on the team with 14 points a game, but he goes way beyond normal point guard production with his 5.8 rebounds, his .545 shooting from the field and .938 shooting at the free throw line.
Junior Theodis Tarver has played well off the bench, averaging over four rebounds and two blocks in 15 minutes per game. He missed 25 games last year with a dislocated knee.
One of the team's prized freshmen, 6-6 Jeremis Smith is out indefinitely with a dislocated right kneecap.
To beat the Terrapins this season, it looks like you have to slow them down.
That's what Wisconsin did in a hard-fought 69-64 victory in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Maryland had run out to a 3-0 start this season, flashing a quick, athletic team that ran opponents out of the gym.
In their first road test, though, the Terrapins got slowed to a halt by a powerful, patient Wisconsin team that limited its turnovers and controlled the tempo. The result was a frustrating night that saw Maryland shoot a season-low 61 shots and nab just 10 steals in a low-possession game that exposed the Terrapins' soft underbelly.
Maryland doesn't have a natural low-post big-man to replace graduated Jamar Smith, and while the perimeter play is often as good and as deep as any in the country, that missing inside component could be the Terps' fatal flaw in a league that boasts the likes of Shelden Williams, Sean May and Luke Schenscher.
Skinny sophomore Ekene Ibekwe scored a career-high 21 points against the Badgers but he's best in the open floor, not on the box. Ditto junior Travis Garrison, who has beefed up his body and his rebounding numbers, but again, isn't a back-to-the-basket force.
Opponents are shooting just .269 from 3-point range, a marked defensive improvement for the Terrapins over the past two seasons, and a key in their quick start. The Terps held Memphis to just 15 percent shooting behind the arc, and 29 percent shooting overall, in the impressive 84-61 victory in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass.
Gary Williams has moved up to 15th on the career victories list for active coaches with 525. With six career wins over top-ranked opponents, Williams leads all active coaches in that category.
The Terrapins dropped to 3-3 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge with the loss, all three losses coming at Big Ten sites and all three wins coming on Maryland home courts.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard John Gilchrist, shooting guard Chris McCray, center Ekene Ibekwe, forward Travis Garrison, forward Nik Caner-Medley.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We can grind it really well defensively but right now our half-court offense isn't where it needs to be. We're not a very good passing team right now. The month of December is key. You have exams in there but you have time to work on what you need to work on and unlike the preseason, now you really know what you need to work on." Coach Gary Williams.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: vs. George Mason, Saturday, Dec. 4 at the BB&T Classic in Washington, D.C.; vs. George Washington or Michigan State, Sunday, Dec. 5 at the BB&T Classic; vs. UNC Asheville, Sunday, Dec. 12.
KEYS: George Mason always seems to play the Terps tough and whoever Maryland sees in the second round of the BB&T Classic at MCI Center will be a tough draw either quick, athletic GW or big, raw-boned Michigan State, which nearly won at Duke. Last year, Maryland's young team failed to win at least one game in the local tournament for the first time ever.
ROSTER REPORT: Junior guard John Gilchrist, last year's ACC Tournament hero, had one of his worst collegiate games against Wisconsin, hitting just 2-of-14 shots and only 1-of-4 free throws. He missed two front-ends late as Maryland tried to rally.
Nik Caner-Medley, averaging a team-leading 16 points per game prior to the Wisconsin tilt, also had a tough shooting night, hitting just 2-of-9 shots and finishing with a season-low seven points. He was stripped on a potential game-tying 3-pointer in the waning seconds.
Junior college transfer Sterling Ledbetter, recruited to provide depth at point behind Gilchrist, hasn't played this year because of an injured calf. He could have trouble working into the rotation, particularly with the emergence of D.J. Strawberry as a solid option at point. Maryland's best lineup probably includes the cat-quick Strawberry, a defensive catalyst.
If the Hurricanes come up short in their first year of ACC competition, a lot of the reason will be because they ARE short.
Miami has just four players on the roster 6-8 or taller. First-year coach Frank Haith has limited options on his front line, mostly relying on 6-9 sophomore Anthony King, who rarely played last season, 6-8 senior William Frisby and 6-9 junior Gary Hamilton. Frisby has the most experience but also seems most prone to making costly mistakes, giving way to Hamilton as a starter.
King has been a terror on the glass and blocking shots, but Miami hasn't been consistent inside at either end of the court. He did become a Hurricane trivia answer, posting the first triple-double in school history in a win over Florida Atlantic.
Junior Robert Hite and sophomore Guillermo Diaz headline a legitimate perimeter game but they'll be hard-pressed to match the thoroughbreds they'll face throughout the ACC. Mostly relying on seven players, Haith simply doesn't have the horses to run with the league's best teams.
Look for tough sailing for the Hurricanes, likely a couple of good recruiting classes Haith's specialty from respectability in the tougher-than-ever ACC.
The Hurricanes have compounded their scoring problems this season by heaving bricks from the free throw line. Miami is just 35-for-59 at the line, .593 shooting.
Miami, which has back-to-back games against in-state opponents, is 297-145 all-time against fellow Sunshine State schools, including the 84-68 win over Florida Atlantic last week. Miami has won 32 of its last 36 games against in-state foes.
The win over Florida Atlantic snapped a two-game losing streak and included Miami season highs in points (84), rebounds (46), blocks (16), assists (20) and field goal percentage (.493).
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard Anthony Harris, shooting guard Guillermo Diaz, shooting guard Robert Hite, center Anthony King, forward Gary Hamilton.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I was happy to see our perimeter guys play well and be creative, but you can't win without an inside presence, and our (big) guys missed too many lay-ups. Our guys are rushing their shots." Coach Frank Haith on Miami's play inside.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: at Florida, Saturday, Dec. 4; at Florida International, Tuesday, Dec. 7; at Massachusetts, Sunday, Dec. 12.
KEYS: The Hurricanes could face trouble heading to state-rival Florida, which has a handful of quality players 6-8 or taller. It's the first test against quality opposition, the type of team Miami must regularly face once ACC play begins. Florida International, an 89-72 loser to Miami last year, presents a more winnable contest in the following game.
ROSTER REPORT: Sophomore center Anthony King recorded the first triple-double in Miami history, registering 11 points, 10 rebounds and 13 blocks against Florida Atlantic. King leads the ACC with a staggering 5.5 blocks per game.
Junior guard Robert Hite scored a career-high 38 points against the Owls and leads the Hurricanes with a 21.8 ppg average, the top figure in the ACC.
Sophomore Guillermo Diaz, one of the 'Canes' most versatile players, is shooting .523 from the field.
Senior center William Frisby and junior guard Eric Wilkins are the only 'Canes seeing quality minutes off the bench.
North Carolina's 70-63 win at Indiana wasn't the artistic success the Tar Heels had come to enjoy after scoring 90-plus points in three consecutive victories.
The hard-fought victory in Bloomington may be very important though as the Tar Heels redefine themselves.
As talented as any team in the country, and significantly deeper than recent North Carolina squads, the qualities that coach Roy Williams would most like to see in Carolina blue showed up in spades at Indiana. The Tar Heels were tough, standing their ground in a hostile environment, and of all things actually winning this game thanks to great defense down the stretch.
In wing Rashad McCants, center Sean May and guard Raymond Felton, the Tar Heels boast the ACC's top scorer, rebounder and passer. It's a disservice to their talents to call Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel supporting cast, and for the first time since returning to the Carolina bench, Roy Williams seems to have some options when he looks down his own sideline.
But as Indiana sliced into Carolina's lead in the second half of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge tilt, the Tar Heels were up to the challenge, unlike many times last season when opponents seem to out-tough them.
This time, Manuel put the clamps on IU scoring leader Bracey Wright. May came up with his biggest baskets at just the right time and the 'Heels got help off the bench from the likes of defense-minded junior David Noel. They canned their last nine free throws to stave off the Hoosiers
It all adds up to Carolina's most complete team in years, one that can reverse recent Tar Heel disappointments. The season-opening upset at Santa Clara could be a blessing in disguise, considering how the 'Heels have played since.
Carolina is already 4-1 on the road this year, including three neutral court victories at the Maui Tournament. UNC was just 7-9 on the road last year, including a 3-2 neutral site record.
During the dominating four-game stretch (three wins at Maui and a 97-65 home win over Southern Cal), Carolina trailed for just 20 seconds of play early in the first half of what turned into a 94-81 win over Tennessee. The 'Heels averaged 95.3 points in winning their second Maui Invitational.
The Indiana game was the sixth contest in 13 days for the Tar Heels, five of them on the road. Following Saturday's game with Kentucky, the 'Heels have just one game the next two weeks.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard Raymond Felton, shooting guard Rashad McCants, center Sean May, forward Jawad Williams, forward Jackie Manuel.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a turning point for us. Last year, we weren't able to pull close games out on the road. It's a hard place to play, Duke, State, it's no different than those places. It's just in a different conference. Fans here are great. For us to come in and pull a game out like this is a great win for us." Sean May on UNC's win at Indiana.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: vs. Kentucky, Saturday, Dec. 4; vs. Loyola (Chicago), Sunday, Dec. 12.
KEYS: In the annual renewal of the rivalry between two of the country's premier programs, the Tar Heels seem to have the edge this year with their young, veteran line-up and the game scheduled for the "Dean Dome." The 'Heels are happy to return home for seven of their next eight games following a tough western road trip and the game on a hostile Indiana floor in Sean May's return to Bloomington. The key against Kentucky will be limiting turnovers and the Carolina backcourt establishing their tempo.
ROSTER REPORT: Junior point guard Raymond Felton continues to play with a wrap around his sprained left wrist, an injury coach Roy Williams has described as slow-healing. Felton had 18 points and hit 5-of-9 shots at Indiana but also had seven turnovers. He was MVP of the Maui Invitational, averaging 9.3 points and 8.3 assists after sitting out the opener at Santa Clara for participation in a non-certified summer league game in Raleigh.
Freshman forward Marvin Williams left the IU game with a cut above his left eye that required four stitches.
Senior forward Jawad Williams scored a season-best 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting against Southern California.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE
Perhaps no ACC team is off to as good a start as the Wolfpack.
Beating the teams they're supposed to beat the way they're supposed to beat them, and then gutting out a tough win over Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Pack has moved to 16th in the AP Poll.
Basically, N.C. State has served notice it will be a factor when ACC play tips off.
Before the 60-53 gut-check against Purdue, State pounded four other non-conference foes by an average of 37.2 points per game. The Pack offense is again fueled by the multi-talented Julius Hodge, who has a new backcourt running mate in Georgetown transfer Tony Bethel. Bethel had 22 points in a big win over East Carolina. He and Hodge rank one and two in assist/turnover ratio among all ACC players.
Maybe more significantly, the Pack seems be moving along just fine so far without graduated center Marcus Melvin.
If anything, the combination of seniors Jordan Collins and Levi Watkins are giving the team a more physical presence in the paint. Two 6-10 freshmen, Andrew Brackman and Cedric Simmons, are giving the team solid contributions off the bench and the sudden glut of big bodies is allowing the potent Pack perimeter players to extend their tenacious defense.
The Wolfpack, while a steady defensive unit, was last in the ACC in blocked shots a year ago with 69 actually 42 fewer than Duke's Shelden Williams had all by himself.
But led by 6-10 Jordan Collins' 2.2 rejections per game so far this year, State is averaging more than six blocks a game. Collins had a career high six blocks against Purdue, playing a key role in the victory.
Freshman Andrew Brackman, averaging 16.8 minutes per game, chips in another 1.6 rejections. The perimeter defenders like Julius Hodge, Tony Bethel and Engin Atsur are freer to apply even more ball-pressure, knowing they've got more help behind them this season.
The Pack defense produced 27 points off turnovers in the win over Purdue. None of State's first five opponents scored more than 58 points.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard Tony Bethel, shooting guard Engin Atsur, center Jordan Collins, forward Levi Watkins, forward Julius Hodge.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Tonight our shots didn't fall. But we kept playing defense, On other nights, in previous years, we might have stopped playing good defense as we did tonight. It may not have been the most beautiful win, but it was a win." Forward Ilian Evtimov after State's win over Purdue despite the Pack shooting just 33.3 percent.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: vs. Manhattan, Sunday, Dec. 5; vs. Liberty, Saturday, Dec. 11.
KEYS: The Pack faces two 2004 NCAA Tournament teams this week, hosting rebuilding Manhattan and perimeter-potent Liberty. Neither team can match State inside or out, though, and the Pack has an excellent chance to continue that upward trend in the polls against their favorable non-conference slate. A bigger test awaits the following week when another 2004 NCAA team, Louisiana-Lafayette, rolls into town on Dec. 15, and future road games against Washington and Brigham Young loom large for this team.
ROSTER REPORT: Junior swingman Cameron Bennerman has been sensational off the bench, averaging 10.0 ppg. He had 20 points against Campbell and had 11 points against Purdue, hitting three of his five 3-point attempts.
Georgetown transfer Tony Bethel has fit right in, averaging 9.6 points per game, including a 22-point effort against East Carolina.
Redshirt sophomore Adam Simons, a 6-10 center from Burlington, N.C., announced he will transfer at the end of the fall semester. The little-used center couldn't get on the floor with veterans Jordan Collins and Ilian Evtimov and freshmen Cedric Simmons and Andrew Brackman ahead of him.
What a difference a year makes.
Virginia finished 18-13 last year, bounced in the second round of the NIT amid supporters calling for coach Pete Gillen's job. The Cavaliers didn't live up to their potential, didn't play enough defense and didn't play a strong enough schedule to satisfy the veteran coach's detractors.
Fast forward a year and the Cavaliers are out of the gates to a 5-0 start, are yielding just 55 points a game and already have a victory over a Top 10 team.
Gillen was up to his old tricks in the recent win at Northwestern in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Instead of battling for control of the tempo against the Wildcats' deliberate Princeton-style offense, Gillen often resorted to a 3-2 zone and saw his young team gut out a tough 48-44 victory.
Last year's Cavs could have never won a game like that.
First, they couldn't have didn't hold anyone under 50 points. Second, they didn't have enough experience or savvy in the backcourt to play that patiently. This season, freshman phenom Sean Singletary has stepped in at the point and gets quality support from shooting guard J.R. Reynolds, who just keeps improving.
Up front, senior Devin Smith is healthy and returning to his explosive scoring form and big 6-9 center Elton Brown looks like he's in the best shape of his career, and seemingly regularly posting double-doubles. He had 15 points and 10 rebounds at Northwestern. Senior Jason Clark is steady at power forward and Gillen has two former starters, forward Gary Forbes and guard T.J. Bannister coming off the bench.
The biggest difference for the improved Cavaliers is on the defensive end of the floor. Virginia held its first five opponents at 60 points or below, including the 44 allowed at Northwestern. Last year, the Cavs held only three opponents to 60 points or less.
In fact, the last time Virginia played defense like this limiting five consecutive opponents to 60 points or fewer was 1948-49.
Virginia's 78-60 destruction of 10th-ranked Arizona was the Cavs' first win over a Top 10 team since 2002-03, when Virginia upset ninth-ranked Maryland.
Virginia earned its first national ranking in nearly two years, moving to 24th in this week's Associated Press Poll.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard Sean Singletary, shooting guard J.R. Reynolds, center Elton Brown, forward Devin Smith, forward Jason Clark.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We'll know a lot more about out team in the next eight, 10 days, " Coach Pete Gillen on the schedule stretch that includes Northwestern, Auburn and Iowa State, all away from University Hall.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: vs. Auburn (at Richmond), Friday, Dec. 3; at Iowa State, Monday, Dec. 6; vs. Furman, Wednesday, Dec. 8.
KEYS: The Cavs' improved schedule continues as Virginia meets Auburn on a "neutral court" in Richmond, Va., and then travels to Iowa State. Athletic director Craig Littlepage wanted to assure that Virginia wouldn't miss the NCAA Tournament through any strength of schedule issues. Following the Furman game, the Cavs have 15 days off.
ROSTER REPORT: Senior swingman Devin Smith, healthy this season after battling a bad back last year, pumped in a season-high 26 points in the 85-58 win over Richmond on Nov. 28. He had surgery in May to repair two herniated disks.
Sean Singletary was named ACC Rookie of the Week out of the gates this season after dishing out 15 assists, registering nine steals and scoring 21 points in his first two games.
Center Elton Brown went over 1,000 career points in the Arizona game and has already posted four double-doubles in points and rebounds this season.
Seniors Smith, Brown and Jason Clark have been named team captains, the second year in a row Smith has been so honored.
Statistically, the Hokies rank among the top teams in the ACC in virtually every major category, but don't count on that translating into big things in Virginia Tech's first year in the powerful league.
The young Hokies are racking up big numbers against lesser opponents, whomping foes by an average of 30.7 points. So far, Tech hasn't scored less than 80 points in any game. In another month, the Hokies will regularly be the lesser opponent for the majority of games in an ACC top-heavy with seven nationally ranked teams.
The good news is nine of Tech's top 10 players, including four starters, are underclassmen and will return next year. The starting backcourt of sophomores Jamon Gordon and Zabian Dowdell has been surprisingly strong and freshman forward Deron Washington has made the Hokies more athletic.
Senior Carlos Dixon provides consistent scoring. Sophomore center Coleman Collins hasn't been as dominant as Tech fans would hope and he may face some long nights against some of the ACC's best big men.
One trouble spot is already showing up. Tech is being out-rebounded by four boards per game, a gap likely to grow as the schedule toughens.
The Hokies' best bet to be competitive in the ACC this season is grounded in solid defense. Under coach Seth Greenberg, Tech is 11-1 when opponents score less than 60 points and 0-5 when opponents top the 80-point mark.
Tech's 102-50 win over Maryland-Eastern Shore marked the Hokies' highest scoring output since a 110-75 win over VMI in 1994. It was the first time Tech cracked the century mark since a 101-73 win over Hawaii-Hilo in 1996-97.
Tech scored 80 points in each of the first three games this season, just the ninth time in school history that has occurred and the first time since the 1988-89 season, when Bimbo Coles was leading the attack.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard Jamon Gordon, shooting guard Zabian Dowdell, center Coleman Collins, forward Carlos Dixon, forward Deron Washington.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've got to be more consistent. But we got a lot of guys a lot of minutes before Thanksgiving and that's very important." Coach Seth Greenberg.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: at VMI, Saturday, Dec. 4; at St. John's, Wednesday, Dec. 8; vs. James Madison, Saturday, Dec. 11.
KEYS: The Hokies continue their non-conference run of over-matched opponents, taking to the road to meet Virginia Military Institute. The undersized Hokies have more size and a lot more athleticism than the Keydets, who like to run with anyone. The countdown has already begun in Cassell Coliseum for the Dec. 19 date with North Carolina, Tech's first ACC basketball game.
ROSTER REPORT: Senior swingman Carlos Dixon entered the Chattanooga game just 21 points shy of 1,000 for his career.
Junior guard Markus Sailes, who averaged 4.9 ppg as a starter last season, went down with a stress fracture in his right tibia in late November and will miss the rest of the season. He had played just 11 minutes in the season-opener and will apply for a medical redshirt.
High-flying freshman forward Deron Washington had 14 dunks in Virginia Tech's first three games.
Point guard Jamon Gordon ranks among the ACC leaders with 20 steals this year. He set a Tech freshman record last season with 66 thefts.
That loud thud was Wake Forest dropping from the No. 1 ranked spot in the nation.
The Demon Deacons didn't look ready for prime time in a humiliating 91-73 loss at third-ranked Illinois in a game not as close as the score indicates. Coach Skip Prosser and his team will be seeing orange in their nightmares for some time.
After a 5-0 start and their first time reaching No. 1 in the polls, the Deacons simply fell on their face in Champaign. They shot 39.7 percent from the field and were even worse at the other end of the floor, forcing just six turnovers and watching the Illini shoot 56 percent from the field.
The ballyhooed backcourt of Chris Paul and Justin Gray combined to hit just 7-of-27 shots and the inside game wasn't much better, though center Eric Williams had 18 points. Vytas Danelius, ravaged by injuries last year, has again been gimpy in the past few games on bad wheels, but Jamaal Levy remains one of the top defenders in the nation and a steady contributor at both ends.
Even Prosser's deep bench, including guard Taron Downey, couldn't stem the tide, and now Deacon fans have to hope the huge loss wasn't a fatal blow to the team's psyche. Prosser will have to do some of his best work to keep the team on task and ready for conference play.
The Demon Deacon defense was horrid at Illinois, bringing back memories of Wake's uneven effort at that end of the floor last season. The Deacons dropped to the bottom of the ACC in defense this season, allowing 72.2 points per game, hardly the pedigree of a No. 1 ranked team.
Opponents' .423 field goal percentage is also one of the worst marks in the league.
Wake Forest was last in the ACC last year in scoring defense (76.1 ppg) and defensive field goal percentage (.449).
Wake has also been surprisingly inefficient at the free throw line. After shooting 71.2 percent last year, the Deacons have slipped to 66.3 shooting this season.
The Demon Deacons won the Preseason NIT with a 79-67 win over Providence in the semifinals and a 63-60 victory over 18th-ranked Arizona in the title game. The Deacs are 7-1 all-time in that tournament.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard Chris Paul, shooting guard Justin Gray, center Eric Williams, forward Vytas Danelius, forward Jamaal Levy.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You get a good shot at correcting (weaknesses) when you play good teams, as long as it doesn't destroy your confidence." Coach Skip Prosser in an ominous quote before the Illinois game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: vs. Richmond, Saturday, Dec. 4.
KEYS: Undersized Richmond was destined to have trouble with the Demon Deacons even before this became a "must win" for Wake after the lackluster showing at Illinois. Wake must regain its swagger quickly. The Deacons can't afford any hangover from the debacle in Champaign. Following Richmond, the Deacons travel to tough Temple and then host Elon before facing powerful Texas at home on Dec. 18.
ROSTER REPORT: Sophomore guard Jeremy Ingram will transfer at the end of the semester and freshman forward Cameron Stanley is likely to redshirt this season, leaving Wake with just 10 scholarship players. Stanley is recovering from a torn ACL suffered last December.
Junior center Eric Williams is the only Deac to score in double figures in every game this season. Shooting over 60 percent from the field, the 6-9 Williams has also had five or more rebounds in each contest.
Junior guard Justin Gray was named MVP of the NIT, scoring 21 points in each of the two games in New York.
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