Fast Break

Triangle teams set the pace for ACC hoops--again.

| November 15, 2000
Duke's Shane Battier
Duke's Shane Battier
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Fast BreakWhen Bill Foster left Duke in 1980 following three straight NCAA appearances and a trip to the national title game, among the topics at issue was paving the coaches' parking lot in front of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Anxious to escape hassling such picayune details, Foster fled to South Carolina to build a national presence through the medium of cable television, then a new and barely appreciated phenomenon.

He failed.

Meanwhile, under Foster's successor, Duke emerged as a perennial national power and TV commodity, with eight Final Four appearances, and NCAA championships in 1991 and 1992. Acclaim and money followed. Now the paved parking area on Cameron's campus side is neatly incorporated into a quadrangle lined with upgraded athletic facilities, including a new basketball-related office tower. There, overlooking the quad that bears his name, the Triangle's reigning sports presence burnishes a legacy that includes one of the great runs in Atlantic Coast Conference history.

That roll is ongoing. This season, just the sixth since Mike Krzyzewski returned from back problems and related maladies, the Blue Devils seek their fifth consecutive finish atop the ACC's regular-season standings.

"To me, that's one of the things that I'm proudest of," Krzyzewski, 53, says of the comeback. "I love that. I feel good about it because I feel like I've still got it."

Sure, the overall quality of ACC men's basketball has dipped lately, handicapped by spotty recruiting, an influx of inexperienced head coaches, and early player departures to the pros. That's why the men got only three NCAA invitations in both 1999 and 2000, each time going to the same triumvirate of Duke, Maryland and North Carolina.

But while the ACC struggled, Duke most assuredly did not, incurring only three ACC losses in the past three seasons combined. The program's current run of four straight first-place finishes has been matched just twice--by Duke in the mid-1960s under Vic Bubas and North Carolina in the early '80s under Dean Smith.

The Dukies also finished atop the final regular-season Associated Press poll in each of the past two seasons, a feat unrivaled since DePaul in 1980 and 1981. Unlike the Blue Demons of Foster's era, the Blue Devils prospered in postseason, reaching the NCAA title game in 1999 and the Sweet 16 last year.

Duke should make another run at a national title in 2001, armed with plenty of talent and more squad-wide experience than the '99 team that fell to seasoned Connecticut.

For the second time in three years, the program also features the favorite for national player of the year. In '99 that honor went to sophomore Elton Brand; the first Dukie to depart early for the pros, he became the NBA's 2000 co-rookie of the year with the Chicago Bulls. Duke's leader now is Shane Battier, a superbly rounded senior who leaves even opposing coaches gushing in admiration.

"I don't remember any player his equal when you take into account every part of being a team player," says Wake Forest's Dave Odom, who coached Tim Duncan, one of the game's great modern big men, from 1994-97. "I enjoy watching him. I enjoy coaching against him and watching him lead and play, even in the course of a game. ... It's like coaching against the best coaches."

The media also love Battier. To some he seems full of himself, but then the senior has reason to be. Intelligent, articulate and obligingly open, Battier eagerly and thoughtfully entertains questions on issues ranging from athletes' rights to Eastern religion, moderating pretension with a sense of humor and perspective.

Not surprisingly, at a recent preseason gathering of the ACC media with men's coaches and select players, the number of times Battier was asked about his political aspirations reached double figures. Bemused, he stuck to a predetermined tack, saying he'd consider appointive office, say as secretary of state. Of course, secretary of defense would be the more appropriate--if hackneyed--choice for a two-time national defensive player of the year.

Given Duke's prowess, it's no wonder Matt Doherty, the new men's coach at North Carolina, who played when Krzyzewski was getting established, launched study of his team by watching videotapes of last year's losses to the Devils. The '00 Tar Heels were not without strength, however, rallying to reach the Final Four for the second time during Bill Guthridge's three seasons as head coach.

In fact, good as Krzyzewski's program is, it's hardly the only basketball power on campus, let alone in the Triangle.

Five ACC squads reached the Final Four in the past three seasons, and all five came from this area. The UNC men did it in 1998 and 2000. Kay Yow's N.C. State women did it in 1998. And Gail Goestenkors' Duke women did it in 1999 and are among the favorites to compete for the national championship this year.

Making matters livelier still, the remainder of the ACC is at its competitive best, both internally and nationally.

The men are definitely revived, with three teams worthy of the top 10 and a half-dozen in contention for NCAA bids. "This year I think the ACC one through nine is going to be remarkable," says N.C. State coach Herb Sendek.

The women likewise crowd the NCAA picture, boasting a second national power in Virginia and perhaps the game's most underrated women's program at Clemson. "I think that it's going to be the most balanced league that we've had in my 14 years at Clemson," says folksy coach Jim Davis.

Krzyzewski's squad essentially possesses every ingredient for success, starting with superior talent. Battier, like Grant Hill his senior season (1994), will be asked to assert himself more offensively. He's joined in the front court by tough senior Nate James, powerful big man Carlos Boozer, promising sophomores Casey Sanders and Nick Horvath, and stolid Matt Christensen.

The perimeter belongs to a remarkable pair of sophomores, playmaking penetrator Jason Williams and spidery and supremely confident Mike Dunleavy. They're assisted by Chris Duhon, supposedly Battier's equal as a defender and rated perhaps the top guard entering college.

About all the Duke men lack are Chris Carrawell--last year's ACC player of the year and an under-appreciated leader--and the humility engendered by adversity.

The 2000 Duke women were quite familiar with handling adversity. Goestenkors' group won 28 games, captured the program's ACC tournament title, and reached the Sweet 16 despite injuries that included the midyear loss of Peppi Browne, the second-leading scorer and rebounder.

Four starters return; most prominent is versatile guard Georgia Schweitzer, last year's ACC player of the year and the favorite to repeat. "I see glimpses of greatness," says Goestenkors, whose husband is head coach at Elon College. "We're more athletic than we've ever been in the history of our program."

Coach G, like Coach K, intends to turn up the defensive heat in her ninth Duke season, abetted by an acclaimed freshmen class featuring wing Alana Beard. The female Dukies lack only a proven post player, something they did without last year, anyway.

"I don't want to just go to the Final Four, I want to win," Schweitzer declares. "I think it's a very reasonable goal."

Such aspirations seem a bit beyond the reach of the Duke women's Triangle competitors, faced with replacing departed stars and filling unexpected gaps at playmaker.

In North Carolina's case, the departed star was the playmaker. Haunted by unspecified personal problems, Nikki Teasley chose to sit out this season. The star-quality guard also withdrew at mid-season in 2000, sending the Heels reeling to seven losses in eight games before recovering to win 20.

Teasley's absence means the Carolina women must rely heavily on senior forward LaQuanda Barksdale, last year's leading scorer (17.6-point average) and rebounder (8.6) and one of the ACC's premier players. "We need to look forward to the people that are here this year," says Coach Sylvia Hatchell. "I feel like we have all the pieces of the puzzle."

Those pieces include five freshmen, led by North Carolina's high-school player of the year, the musically monikered Chrystal Baptist. Hatchell insists sophomore Coretta Brown, another key but unproven talent, "benefited tremendously" from serving at point on the team's spring trip to Australia. Last season, Brown shot poorly but made plenty of steals as a part-time player.

N.C. State's women figure to regain their playmaker more quickly than Carolina's. Terah James, who led the '00 Pack in assists as a freshman, is recovering from a torn knee ligament but may be ready by January.

Coach Kay Yow, in her 26th year at Raleigh, insists "our whole sophomore class has tremendous potential." Best of the six-member group, at least inside, is 6-foot-3-inch Kaayla Chones, whose father, Jim Chones, played in the NBA. She'll plug a gap at the low post, where Summer Erb propagated for four years until felled by injury.

N.C. State won its first 14 games last season, only to end with five straight losses--hardly a confidence-builder for the sophomores. "A good start would definitely be a boost," Yow says. To get it, the Pack needs improved play from senior Tynesha Lewis, who lost her shooting touch (36.1 percent from the floor in 2000), and junior point DeDe Hutchinson.

"We need DeDe to really step up," says Yow. "I feel this is her moment, her time."

The Wolfpack men are hoping this is their time, too, at least to reach the NCAAs. State made eight tournament appearances during the 1980s, but hasn't been invited since 1991, the longest drought among the ACC men.

"You can win 20 games, you can have a good season, and unless you make it to the [NCAA] tournament--and in some cases you advance in the tournament--all you've done is no good," protests Sendek, echoing a lament common among coaches in high-profile, high-income programs.

Sendek has stiffened the N.C. State defense, improved the talent level, and helped sell out the Entertainment and Sports Arena, an enduring example of dumb growth on Raleigh's outskirts. But his first four teams produced only appearances in the also-ran NIT, a fate the Pack should escape in 2001 behind a pair of creative wings, Damien Wilkins and Anthony Grundy.

Wilkins, not the impact freshman many anticipated, is nonetheless solid, team-oriented and poised to blossom. His primary frontcourt mates are impressive postman Ron Kelley and steady forward Kenny Inge, whose glare is worse than his bite.

(Damon Thornton, another key senior, ran afoul of the law this fall for the third time in four years. Infractions related to driving under the influence of alcohol caused the 6-foot-8-inch power forward to be suspended from the team, but look for his return next semester after completing substance-abuse counseling.)

Grundy, a slender guard, paced the Pack in scoring last year (12.5) but wore out as the team plummeted from a 15-5 start to a 17-12 regular-season finish. He's bulked up and will get considerable help on the perimeter from high-speed sophomore playmaker Clifford Crawford, sharpshooter Archie Miller and acclaimed freshman Scooter Sherrill.

"Our style of playing encourages running as much as anybody in the ACC," Sendek insists, contradicting his regime's record to date. With uptempo tactics increasingly popular in the league, now's a perfect time for the Pack to prove Sendek's assertion.

North Carolina's Doherty immediately asserted certain principles in Chapel Hill. Stressing a heightened level of conditioning, effort and camaraderie, he ran players in preseason until they puked. Otherwise the 38-year-old's approach is soothingly familiar, since he played at UNC for Smith and Guthridge from 1981 through 1984 and worked at Kansas for Roy Williams, the former Tar Heel assistant.

"They've been well-coached for a long time," Doherty says of a roster bulging with size and talent, "and they are very adaptable."

Members of the towering, veteran front court--7-foot Brendan Haywood and forwards Jason Capel, Kris Lang and Brian Bersticker--are simultaneously healthy for the first time during their careers. Following football season, burly and surprisingly polished Julius Peppers should join the team, along with guard Ronald Curry.

Unfortunately for Curry, Doherty knows his team doesn't lend itself to the open-court game that best suits the football quarterback. "It's a priority to win, I don't think it's a priority to play pressure defense," the head coach says.

Whatever style North Carolina embraces, guard Joseph Forte will be a focal point. The 6-foot-inch-4 sophomore, among the best at his position nationwide, is a creative and determined scorer (16.7 points per game to lead the team in 2000) and an improving ball handler and defender.

The Heels hope someone else emerges to run the team. But putting the ball in Forte's hands may be the best option, as it was for Duke in 1994 when Hill took the Devils to the NCAA title game.

North Carolina figures to muscle into the men's top three, though it won't be easy. While the league broke neatly into three tiers in recent years, this season the divisions are more muted. "I think you'll find the league will be more competitive," Odom says. "Road games will be tougher to win."

Maryland is arguably the best ACC men's squad. The Terrapins have more proven depth than anyone, a returnee at every position from a team that won 25 games, a gritty point guard in Steve Blake, and a league-record three players who've made first team All-ACC during their careers--center Lonnie Baxter and stars Terence Morris, a forward, and guard Juan Dixon.

But the Terps have yet to prove they can regularly handle Duke or mount a validating NCAA run. And there's always a chance veterans will balk under coach Gary Williams' intense prodding.

Wake Forest, until recently an NCAA habitue under Odom, did win the NIT, defeating Doherty's Notre Dame squad in the final and N.C. State in the semis. Essentially everyone is back for the Demon Deacons, who, like the Wolfpack, harbor legitimate NCAA aspirations. "I think we have the ability to be a top-20 team," Odom says.

The Deacs' best player is Darius Songaila, a star on the Lithuanian Olympic squad that almost upset the United States. The junior forward prospered last season, as did the team, once Odom took the ball from guard Robert O'Kelley's hands and made solid, slower Ervin Murray the playmaker.

Virginia is also poised to make a run at the first division a year after becoming the first squad in history to go 9-7 in the ACC, yet fail to get an NCAA bid.

The Cavaliers, hurt this summer when a knee injury sidelined backup point guard Majestic Mapp, expect sophomore classmate Roger Mason to fill the void. "He's one of the well-kept secrets in the conference," insists coach Pete Gillen.

Starting playmaker Donald Hand returns. The senior is suited to the Cavs' signature up-tempo approach, but blows hot and cold as scorer and floor leader. The team's strength is its frontline, featuring 1999 ACC rookie of the year Chris Williams, ace defender Adam Hall, and one of the game's superior rebounders, 6-foot-8-inch, 254-pound Travis Watson. "I think we'll be a better team," Gillen says.

An improved record is more certain at Clemson, wracked by injuries and inadequate athleticism en route to 20 losses last year. Coach Larry Shyatt is moving the Tigers away from the bump-and-grind methods employed by his mentor, predecessor Rick Barnes, in favor of a more fluid style.

This is a perimeter-powered squad led by guard Will Solomon, the ACC's only 20-point scorer last season (20.9). Inside, the Tigers count on 7-1 Adam Allenspach and 6-foot-7-inch freshman Chris Hobbs from Chapel Hill.

The break-even record to which Clemson can aspire is probably beyond Georgia Tech and Florida State, again relegated to bring up the rear in the men's standings.

Tech has a new coach, Paul Hewitt, after 19 years under Bobby Cremins. Hewitt is yet another proponent of up-tempo ball--to the point that he's accused of being too offense-oriented. His best player is senior center Alvin Jones, an excellent shot blocker.

Florida State's Steve Robinson, once Doherty's colleague on the Kansas bench, teaches an intelligent, disciplined brand of basketball. But he commands only marginal ACC talent.

Florida State's most intriguing player is 6-foot-10-inch, 350-pound Nigel Dixon, who nicknamed himself "Big Jelly." Skilled and well-conditioned, the sophomore center was greeted last year by Duke fans with chants of "Please don't eat me!"

The Florida State women are the ones apt to be devoured, though they have increased their diet of wins, with a dozen in 2000, the most in seven years. Wake is similarly weak. "None of the other teams seem to want to slow down and wait for us," says Charlene Curtis, winner of 19 games in three seasons as head coach.

Patience has been rewarded at Maryland and Georgia Tech.

The Terrapin women rallied from player mutiny and six wins in 1999 to 16 victories last year. Now coach Chris Weller, an alum in her 26th season at College Park, has a shot at returning her program to a prowess it enjoyed regularly until the mid-'90s.

Tech's women won 17 games in 2000 and beat several top teams without Niesha Butler, the 1999 ACC rookie of the year. Butler turned down a role in a Spike Lee film lest she be penalized by the overbearing NCAA, only to suffer a season-ending knee injury. Now she's healthy, and with a theme of "Let's dance," the Yellow Jackets seem poised for their second NCAA appearance and first 20-win season ever.

By contrast, during Jim Davis' first 13 years at Clemson, the Tiger women reached the 19-victory plateau every time and the NCAAs all but once. They even won the ACC title in 1999, something the men's program has never managed.

Now Davis returns three starters and sophomore guard Crissy Floyd, the team's only double-figure scorer last season (12.1). Ominously for opponents, the only man coaching an ACC women's team says, "I feel better about this basketball team than any we've had at Clemson going into the season."

As consistently good as Clemson has been, Virginia has been better, and for a longer time. Debbie Ryan's program has won at least 20 games in 16 of the past 17 seasons, including 25 last year. Each of those Virginia teams reached the NCAAs.

Led by star forwards Schuye (pronounced "sky") LaRue and Svetlana Volnaya, the Cavs are well-positioned to make another run at the ACC and NCAA titles, assuming they neutralize a weakness on the boards.

The team also must contend with the hovering specter of Ryan's battle with pancreatic cancer. Chosen the league's coach of the year in 2000 for the seventh time in her career, Ryan says the life-threatening illness first diagnosed and treated in August spurred little examination of how she chooses to spend her days. "I didn't even think twice about it, to be honest with you," she says. EndBlock

Duke's Georgia Schweitzer
Duke's Georgia Schweitzer
Brendan Haywood
Brendan Haywood
- Scott Sharpe
LaQuanda Barksdale
LaQuanda Barksdale
- Brad Smith
N.C. State's Kaayla Chones
N.C. State's Kaayla Chones
- Roger Winstead

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