Matt Doherty understandably goes to great lengths to avoid the most glaring competitive truth in college basketball.
"If you give me a 30-year window, I'd say Carolina is the standard in the country," says Doherty, the Tar Heels' second-year head coach and a proud member of UNC-Chapel Hill's Class of 1984. "You get a stock, you track it, it has maybe a little down tick. But over the long haul it's been a pretty good stock and will continue to be a pretty good stock. So you have to look at the big picture there."
You can almost hear Doherty giving this spiel to recruits and their families. It's a pretty good argument, as far as it goes. Few would dispute the central thesis: Over the long haul North Carolina, matched only by Kentucky, stands apart as a program with a tradition of sustaining excellence across decades and coaching regimes. Include the Frank McGuire era, and the Heels have been a consistent national power for 45 years.
Yet, take a contemporary view, and Doherty's investment analogy doesn't pay dividends. Right now, the Heels can't claim to be the standard of measure in men's college basketball. Not nationally, not in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and not even in the Triangle.
Unfamiliar as the current state of affairs may be, that distinction increasingly belongs to Duke, not only on the men's side but for the region's women as well. Mike Krzyzewski's program had a great run from 1986 through 1994, topped by consecutive national titles in 1991 and 1992. There was talk then of Duke as the dynastic successor to John Wooden's UCLA squads of the 1960s and early '70s.
Now, in a time of early departures for the pros and nagging uncertainties about the future of the college game, the Blue Devils may be mounting an even greater run. Over the last three years they've won: an NCAA championship (2001), made Final Four appearances and had national players of the year in 1999 (Elton Brand) and 2001 (Shane Battier); had three straight finishes atop the regular season national polls from 1999 through 2001; three straight ACC titles, both unsurpassed runs, and five consecutive first-place finishes in the ACC from 1997 through 2001--an unmatched achievement. And, in Krzyzewski, Duke has a coach recently inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and widely recognized as the best in the business.
Oh, and did we mention that both Duke squads are expected to repeat as league champs in 2001-02, with the men picked first nationally and the women in the top 10?
"Great coach, great players, great fans," fires off Pete Gillen, who's in his fourth year at Virginia and his fourth decade as a coach. "They're a dynasty as much as you can be today."
While Gail Goestenkors and her teams have yet to match the achievements or the stature of their male counterparts at Duke, they aren't far behind. The distaff Dukies have finished first in the ACC in three of the past four seasons; in their off-year they finished second. In all four seasons, Duke ranked in the top 10 in the final national poll. The Devils won the ACC Tournament in 2000 and again last year, and in 1999 advanced to the national championship game, where they lost to Purdue.
"Duke is awesome," confides one rival ACC women's coach.
The rise of Duke's women, while only sporadically spectacular, has been steady as Goestenkors' squads thrust ahead of UNC, N.C. State, and Virginia as the perennial team to beat in the ACC.
On the men's side, an even more pronounced power shift began in earnest in 1998, the first season since 1961 in which Dean Smith was not at North Carolina's helm. Until then, Duke and UNC stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the forefront of the men's game for more than a decade, their every meeting invested with drama and acclaim, infused with the sort of athletic magic reserved for the World Series or a Tiger Woods chase of a major golf championship. Since then, Duke has increasingly emerged as the ACC's dominant force, winning 70 of 76 league contests (92.1 percent) since 1998 and 133 of 148 games overall (89.9 percent).
Duke is so dominant, active players in only three of eight ACC programs (UNC, Maryland and Virginia) have ever experienced a victory over the Devils during their playing careers. Opponents in and beyond the ACC routinely reserve for the Dukies their most bitter vituperation, their fiercest complaints about officiating, and their greatest celebrations of victory.
"When we travel around the country, wherever we go, you always get a tremendous Duke following," says Mike Dunleavy, yet another coach's son who came to play for Krzyzewski. "At the same time you're going to get a huge section of people who are booing you, who are screaming and yelling at you, don't like you. I understand why people don't like us. That's because they get tired of success. ... It's understandable. It means that they're respecting us."
Good as they are, the Devils, men and women, shouldn't be conceded championships just yet. Then again, there's ample reason why both are the popular choices to repeat.
On the men's side, Duke unquestionably has plenty of talent, experience, versatility and savvy. For a change, there's depth too.
Jason Williams, a junior touted as the likely 2002 national player of the year, is a larger-than-life court presence. The first Dukie to lead the ACC in scoring since Danny Ferry in 1989 (21.6-point average in 2001), Williams can take over games at will but must demonstrate greater discipline defensively and with the ball. Backcourt mate Chris Duhon is an outstanding defender and shooter just coming into his own. The 6-foot-9-inch Dunleavy is an exceptionally polished perimeter performer, and freshman guard Daniel Ewing should lend support.
Joining the cast is Rutgers transfer Dahntay Jones, a 6-foot-6-inch wing who's perhaps the team's best athlete. Nick Horvath, Casey Sanders, Reggie Love and Matt Christensen bring complementary skills to a frontcourt led by 6-foot-9, 280-pound Carlos Boozer. Injuries and inconsistency have dogged Boozer, a skilled inside presence who, like Williams, has announced he'll go pro after this season.
"If we do what we have to do, we have a chance to make history," says Boozer of repeating as champs.
But to accomplish either goal, Duke's men must fill a leadership void left by the graduation of Shane Battier, a consummate leader, and Nate James. That pair also supplied uncommon toughness, a quality only Duhon has demonstrated thus far to any striking degree.
Leadership remains a question for the Duke women as well, as they replace vocal veterans Georgia Schweitzer, a scoring stalwart, and defensive stopper Rochelle Parent. Fortunately Goestenkors--nicknamed "Coach G" (her last name is actually longer than Coach K's)--returns three starters, among them Alana Beard, the league's premier female player.
"Alana Beard is the best defensive player in the country," her coach says, confidently. "She plays with such tremendous intensity and focus."
The 5-foot-11-inch sophomore, who'll move to point guard this year, led Duke in scoring in 2001 (17.0) and was voted the ACC rookie of the year and a member of the all-conference squad. That's quite a debut.
"I don't think Alana knows how to pace herself," Goestenkors says admiringly. "She only knows one pace, that's all-out."
The women have plenty of talent and versatility, though the roster is not particularly deep. "I think on any given night we're going to have different people step forward for us," Goestenkors says. "I think we have great potential this year."
The perimeter is especially strong, as Beard is joined by junior guard Sheana Mosch, freshman Monique Currie, and the defense-oriented Rometra Craig. Rebounding is a concern apt to be addressed by returning starter Iciss Tillis--a 6-foot-4-inch sophomore whose formidable three-point shooting will be subsumed by a strengthened sense of post purpose--and veterans Michele Matyasovsky and Crystal White. (Four of nine ACC women's teams have players named Crystal or some form thereof.) Physical freshman Wynter Whitley should muscle her way into the picture as well.
Departing from tradition, Duke's stiffest men's competition probably won't come from within the Triangle, though North Carolina can't be discounted entirely. In contrast, the women's toughest tests will come within the neighborhood.
The UNC men certainly didn't fade away after Smith retired, with Bill Guthridge taking two of his three squads to the Final Four (1998 and 2000). Last year Doherty's Heels were ranked atop the polls much of the season and extended the program's remarkable string of consecutive finishes among the ACC's top three teams (every year since 1965), 20-win records (every year since 1971), and trips to the NCAA Tournament (every year since 1975).
But those streaks are now in serious jeopardy, as demonstrated by an embarrassing 31-point home exhibition defeat by an opponent previously routed by several ACC teams. North Carolina must replace its two leading scorers from last year, Joseph Forte and Brendan Haywood, and in Haywood, its top rebounder and shot-blocker. Key reserves Julius Peppers and Ronald Curry, primarily football players, are uncertain returnees.
The Heels did add an exceptionally athletic freshman class, led by 6-foot-9 Jawad Williams. The good news is that Williams and classmates Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott may earn considerable playing time. The bad news is that a team reliant on freshmen is apt to be inconsistent and error-prone.
Unfortunately the veterans on hand are neither numerous nor stellar. Senior forwards Jason Capel and Kris Lang, both prep All-Americans, have enjoyed middling success with occasional breakout performances. Veteran big man Brian Bersticker has been injured and only sporadically committed to defense. Second-year guards Adam Boone and Brian Morrison have yet to establish they're front-rank ACC players. Neil Fingleton, a 7-foot-5-inch Englishman, has some skills and mobility, but not enough to allow the Heels to employ the uptempo tactics Doherty prefers.
Given the uncertainties, outsiders expect UNC to struggle. "That's great motivation," Lang says. "It disrespects me and the tradition of North Carolina."
UNC's women have built their own strong tradition under Sylvia Hatchell, who in 1994 became the only female ACC basketball coach to win a national championship. Last year the Heels fell on tough times, missing the NCAAs while struggling to a 15-14 mark, 7-9 in the ACC.
Hatchell claims six of last season's losses came down to a final possession, a lesson in valuing every play beloved by coaches and analogous to the slap received by careless Florida voters in 2000.
"It's not fun knowing that you missed NCAA play like we did last year, probably by one possession," says the 16-year Carolina coach.
Not to worry. The current Heels will be lifted anew by a remarkable perimeter ensemble anchored by Nikki Teasley, Coretta Brown and Leah Metcalf, perhaps the ACC's premier freshman. Any of them can initiate the offense. "It will be difficult to guard us because of that situation," Hatchell says.
Teasley, the ACC leader in assists from 1998 to 2000, abruptly dropped out of school last year for personal reasons, precipitating the team's slide. Now she'll be arrayed alongside Brown, last season's ACC assist leader. The frontline starters are probably Nikita Bell, Chrystal Baptist and center Candace Sutton, an '01 starter who's stronger than ever.
That lineup gives UNC "an extremely athletic starting five with a lot of quickness," Hatchell says.
A modest non-conference schedule may pad the record, while perhaps leaving the Heels a bit unprepared for the rigors of ACC play. Still, Hatchell isn't exaggerating when she insists, "There's no doubt we're a much better team than we were last year."
The N.C. State men can only hope to be so lucky, considering the lingering mediocrity permeating the school's tradition-rich program. The Wolfpack now has gone a full decade without an NCAA invitation, the longest drought among ACC members and a growing source of frustration among players and fans.
While free of the scandals and academic deficiencies of previous years, State's program has been beset by injuries, transfers, dissention and disappointment under Herb Sendek. Now the sixth-year coach--an intelligent, sincere, if colorless leader--finds his job in jeopardy even as he relies heavily on underclassmen to reverse last season's 13-16 record.
The Pack has virtually no interior experience, rather a disadvantage in a league where the top teams have veteran frontlines. The smidgen of playing time garnered last season by Marcus Melvin makes the gifted sophomore the squad's only proven factor up front. Freshmen Michael Bell, Levi Watkins, Jordan Collins and Josh Powell could all contribute inside.
The wing position should belong to Julius Hodge, a much-touted New Yorker who's part of a recruiting class being hyped by the school in ticket ads. He'll be joined on the perimeter by a wealth of seasoned if erratic guards--seniors Anthony Grundy and Archie Miller and sophomores Scooter Sherrill and Clifford Crawford. None is a first-rank ACC playmaker.
Considering the squad's limitations, Sendek insists he'll stress versatility and a faster tempo. "It's a fun way to coach and it's a fun way to play," he says of an approach that departs significantly from previous stodginess.
Veteran Wolfpack women's coach Kay Yow seems pretty happy herself, though injuries have clouded her backcourt in the early going. Still, the Pack may be Duke's toughest challenger for ACC women's supremacy, as Goestenkors is well aware.
"I think they're going to be very good," she says, of Duke's Triangle rivals. They have probably the best post tandem in the conference."
That would be 6-foot-1 Carisse Moody, who led the team in scoring and rebounding in 2001, and 6-foot-3 Kaayla Chones, who was second on the team in scoring and rebounding in 2000. Chones, daughter of a former NBA center, missed last season due to injury, but is healthy again. Talisha Scates, one of only two seniors on the squad, saw significant time last year and gives N.C. State a formidable, seasoned post rotation.
"I can tell you right now our team is a tremendous rebounding team," Moody says.
As with last season, injuries have visited the squad, costing the services of playmaker Terah James and, for an indefinite period, second guard Ivy Gardner. But sophomore Nanna Rivers has stepped forward at point. There's depth and options on the perimeter with Amy Simpson at wing, versatile Adeola ("Addy") Olanrewaju, and backups Kendra Bell, Milli Labador, and freshman Rachel Stockdale, a superior outside shooter.
"This year we've already got some knocks early," says Yow, who's in her 27th season with the team. "A lot of teams might not respond too well, but I have a lot of trust and confidence in this team that, no matter what, we can find a way that we can play great basketball and go back and compete well in the ACC."
The greatest threat to the Duke men's hegemony again comes from outside the Triangle, from top-five ranked Maryland.
The Terrapins have been to eight straight NCAA Tournaments, beat the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium each of the past two years, and in '01 reached the Final Four for the first time in school history. "It's about time we got a little respect around here," says Juan Dixon, the senior guard.
Coach Gary Williams returns an outstanding perimeter corps that starts with Dixon, a creative force at both ends of the court, and includes wing Byron Mouton and junior guards Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas. Lonnie Baxter is an all-conference force inside, abetted by more versatile, athletic big men Tahj Holden and Chris Wilcox.
The Terps must replace the rebounding of graduate Terence Morris and the hard-nosed, all-around play of Danny Miller, who transferred out. There are also key questions of confidence fueled by a tough, very early start and those three haunting losses to Duke in 2001, including squandering a 22-point lead over the Devils in the Final Four.
Virginia and Wake Forest--along with UNC--also figure to give the leaders a few scares. Gillen's Virginia squads improved in each of his three seasons to date, going from losers to NIT to NCAA. The Cavaliers have plenty of proven players, most notably seniors Chris Williams and Adam Hall, and junior power forward Travis Watson. They've added frontcourt muscle and size. But the team's top player, guard Roger Mason, may be forced by circumstance into an unfamiliar playmaker's role, reducing his and UVA's offensive efficiency. And the Cavs have yet to win consistently on the road.
Skip Prosser, Gillen's former assistant at Xavier, is Wake's new head coach, replacing underappreciated Dave Odom, who went to South Carolina after an eminently successful 12-year tenure. Prosser prefers an uptempo style; the '01 Demon Deacons used a similar approach to race to a 12-0 start before fading badly at a more familiar, controlled pace.
Led by wing Josh Howard and power forward Darius Songaila, the Deacs are a veteran unit. Then again, they haven't had much success. "Those experiences haven't been all that great," Prosser warns, recalling perhaps Wake's embarrassing collapse in the postseason.
Should a sixth ACC squad make the NCAA Tournament, it could save a coach's job. Besides Sendek, Florida State's Steve Robinson and Clemson's Larry Shyatt are on the spot this season.
Opposing coaches confide that FSU may be the league's surprise team. Robinson's fifth squad has plenty of decent parts; an oddity in 6-foot-10, 340-pound center Nigel Dixon (the junior has lost 100 pounds since entering college); and a dependable playmaker in Delvon Arrington, a so-called partial qualifier who proved his academic mettle by graduating in four years. Granted a fifth season of eligibility, Arrington figures to get the ball most often to a pair of gifted 6-7 wings, sophomore Michael Joiner and freshman Anthony Richardson. Tough guy Adam Waleskowski, a 6-foot-8 freshman, adds needed muscle inside.
Georgia Tech was the surprise of 2001, earning newcomer Paul Hewitt honors as ACC coach of the year even as one organization named Doherty national coach of the year. The Yellow Jackets now must endure extensive remodeling, as they replace five of last season's top eight players, most significantly Alvin Jones, a dominant interior presence. Like FSU, Tech has some interesting pieces and a competent senior playmaker in Tony Akins, who led the '01 team in scoring (14.5), assists, steals and three-point accuracy (41.9 percent).
Clemson's Shyatt insists this is the most enjoyable and athletic squad of his four-year tenure. Like his counterparts among the ACC's wannabes, Shyatt has some interesting options, from wild but productive guard Tony Stockman, to powerful but foul-prone forward Chris Hobbs of Chapel Hill, to promising freshmen Chey Christie and delightfully named Olu Babalola of London, England. But the Tigers may be better than last year's 12-19 bottom-dwellers without making demonstrable advances in the standings.
At this time of year, every coach lauds their team's chemistry and improvement. On the women's side, such claims seem particularly notable at Maryland, where 27-year coach Chris Weller has a shot at her first 20-win season since 1993.
The Terps were once a national power that twice reached the Final Four (1982 and 1989), but melted into mediocrity in recent years. They also endured a player revolt that almost cost Weller her job a few seasons back. Now Maryland is stable, talented and experienced. No other ACC squad returns all five starters. Added to the mix is guard Vicki Brick. The 2000 ACC leader in steals, out with an injury last year, has "the fastest hands" Weller has ever seen.
Florida State also figures to make an unprecedented push for upper-division status. Since joining the ACC 11 seasons ago, FSU has managed but two winning marks--in 1992 and 2001. Sue Semrau engineered last season's 19-12 record, earning ACC Coach of the Year honors and the school's first NCAA bid in a decade. She returns three starters, led by guard April Traylor, but must replace Brooke Wyckoff, a first team All-ACC pick.
Clemson's Jim Davis, back for a 15th season, is the only man coaching an ACC women's team. A folksy fellow, Davis tends to downplay his teams' strengths, only to pop up at season's end among the league leaders. Note that the Tigers have been to the NCAAs every year under Davis. To get there again, Clemson will rely on a potent perimeter contingent led by upperclassmen Chrissy Floyd, Krystal Scott and Marci Glenney, and sophomore Lakeia "Chicken Bone" Stokes.
Georgia Tech coach Agnus Berenato insists her team will improve on last year's 14-15 mark. Benching gifted but disruptive junior Niesha Butler at the start of the season may help. Three other starters are back, and the return of Regina Tate, out with an injury in 2001, "will add instant credibility to our team both offensively and defensively," Berenato says hopefully.
Difficult as it is to believe, Virginia appears doomed to languish near the bottom of the league after going to 18 consecutive NCAA tournaments. Coach Debbie Ryan's Cavaliers also finished first in the ACC 11 times, most recently in 2000, and won three conference titles and went to a trio of Final Fours. But this year, as the league aims toward its 25th ACC women's tournament, the youthful Cavs aren't likely to be a prominent part of the mix.
And, once again, neither is Wake Forest, despite improvement under coach Charlene Curtis. Last-place finishers in three of the past four years, Wake has a single postseason bid in program history (the NCAA in 1987). Led by senior LaChina Robinson and sophomore Eafton Hill, the Deacons would do well to engineer a break even record and with it a women's NIT berth.