NC Well Represented In USA Trials

The whole jersey grabbing business was really getting old to Wake Forest point guard Chris Paul. "Get off of me man," he said with extreme frustration. "Why you gotta hold me, just play."

The hand checking culprit was none other than North Carolina's leading scorer from a year ago, Rashard McCants, who coolly responds with a cunning grin, "There ain't no penalties here. There ain't penalties here."

On the inbounds, Chris Paul pushes off and gets the ball at the top of the key, and turns to face McCants awaiting him, crouched down in a textbook defensive stance, clapping his hands, smiling and yelling, "Yeah."

Paul, obviously not phased by the defensive pressure, goes right, stops on a dime and crosses back to the left, only to have the ball tipped away by McCants who somehow knew the move was coming.

The ref calls a foul, a call McCants doesn't particularly agree with.

"No," he says while running to the other end of the court. "I picked him clean. No, come on now." The intense battle between the two ACC foes took place while vying for a spot on the USA Basketball Men's National Team. Thirteen of the top college players in the country, who are 20-years-old or younger, still remain after the first cut and are vying for a chance to compete at the FIBA Americas World Championships. The players dook it out at the New Jersey Nets Practice Facility in East Rutherford, N.J.

Said Paul of the heated exchange, "When you're inside the lines and you've got on different color jerseys, you're not friends, but afterwards you put all of that aside. It's fun because when you play against each other sometimes you're like 'well I wonder what it would be like to play with him.' Here you get a chance to see what it's like, and I like it."

However, while Paul was invited back to attend grueling two-a-days at the USA Trials, McCants was let go by Sampson and his staff.

Of the 13 players who survived the second cut, five players represent three North Carolina schools. Sean May represents the Tarheels, joining Paul from Wake Forest is Justin Gray and Eric Williams and Curtis Withers carries the torch for Charlotte.

The practices are long and rigorous, but the players have fun, and according to Gray, a First Team All-ACC selection from a year ago, the on-the-court fun is a close second to the fun they have in their downtime.

"It's just chilling out and really it's the conversation," he said. "You have all of the schools that we played against last season. So I let everybody hear it a little bit because we gave it to most of them. Except P.J. (Tucker), because he's the only one that beat us and we didn't get them back, but they're coming to our house this season so we'll handle that then."

One-by-one the polls have started trickling out, and some experts have in fact picked the Demon Deacons as the country's best team. A pick that Gray is not arguing with. "I tend to agree," he said with a smile of satisfaction. "I mean we have everybody coming back."

But while Gray is eyeing a chance at the top spot this season, old memories linger for Paul about last seasons end, particularly his highly publicized meeting with 2004 Player of the Year Jameer Nelson of Saint Josephs.

"Last year I learned so many things, especially when I lost to Jameer Nelson," he said with a slight pause of reflection. "It definitely sticks with me, but I learned a lot from him. I understood how important strength was, but after playing him I really understood."

With so many kids coming from so may different coaching styles and systems, USA Head Coach Kelvin Sampson has found it difficult at times to get the kids to mesh, describing the job as "ongoing process." Nevertheless, Sampson is pleased with the closeness of the team.

"Adversity creates a little bit of camaraderie and we go through a lot together," he said. "We're going to be playing five games in five days against teams that desperately want to beat us, but we're really close. The more camaraderie and bonding we have, than we have a better chance to win."

Of the players competing, an overwhelming majority of the them have been most impressed with Withers, a player that Sampson refers to as "Ben Wallace Jr."

"He can just be a dominating player and I don't think anybody knows really too much about him around the country," said McCants. "He can really play in the post, he can really shoot the ball, he's really strong, he can really rebound and that's very rare in college basketball, to have a guy that big who can do all of those things. He's just a marquee player."

On Withers, Sampson added, "I call him "Ben Wallace Jr.," because I coached Ben two summers ago at the World Championship team, and they're similar. The thing that I like about Curtis is that he's tough. Sometimes kids have a fake toughness, but this kid is sincere."

Sampson didn't offer much about the final make-up of the team, but in parting ways did offer one name who he felt had a pretty good shot. "I feel pretty good about Chris Paul's chances," he said with a grin. "I love that kid."

-Eric Williams has played sparingly nursing a stomach ache and was dehydrated yesterday.

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