Some things have not changed since ACC expansion. The halfway point in the ACC men's basketball race still arrives as crocuses open and winter turns toward spring. The season's fulcrum event remains the first meeting between Duke and North Carolina. As usual, each is nationally ranked and near the top of the conference standings. And, chances are, at least one will be playing when the dogwoods and redbuds bloom and the national championship field has dwindled to a handful.
Since 1986, UNC and/or Duke has appeared in 16 of 19 Final Fours. Both are all but certain to again win at least 20 games, UNC for the 32nd time in 35 seasons and for Duke the 20th time in 22 years.
North Carolina looks like a superior bet to make the national semifinals in 2005. The Tar Heels boast a robust mix of talent and experience, and reflect many of the finest aspects of the Dean Smith playing system, from pressure defense to an impressive penchant for passing the ball to get the best shot possible. Four starters merit consideration for the all-conference squad, and forward Marvin Williams is clearly the best freshman in the league.
The extended Williams clan in all its manifestations is riding high this season, as a matter of fact.
Coach Roy Williams has North Carolina playing the way he wants in his second season back at his alma mater. UNC senior Jawad Williams has evolved into a solid all-around player, and young teammate Marvin Williams will be the subject of intense speculation about his professional aspirations once the season ends. "He's just an awesome talent, he really is," N.C. State coach Herb Sendek said of M. Williams after UNC dismantled the Wolfpack last week. "I don't think there's anything he can't do."
The ACC's reigning awesome talent resides in Winston-Salem, however, playing for another Final Four aspirant.
Wake Forest's Chris Paul is impressive not only because of what he does, but for the manner in which he does it. By that we don't mean the verbal sparring he enjoys and often initiates with opponents. Rather, the six-foot sophomore is a remarkably well-rounded playmaker who excels in areas from scoring (12th in the ACC) to shooting free throws (fifth) to converting three-pointers (first) to making steals (fourth) to handing out assists, both overall (second) and compared to turnovers (first). Paul also is the unquestioned floor leader of a team that's resided in the top 10 all season and defeated North Carolina in the only meeting the teams will have this season.
(The ACC's leaders ought to demonstrate sufficient gumption to mandate annual home-and-home meetings between Duke, UNC, N.C. State and Wake. Like it or not, those schools remain the basketball heart of the conference, their rivalries essential to its appeal.)
Yet what truly distinguishes Paul defies quantifying. He is simply a presence. Certain gifted performers in every realm carry themselves in a manner that commands attention, their previous achievements and joyful creativity a promise in themselves. Paul is one of those rare individuals.
Paul is still growing into his skin as a player, as he demonstrated in a narrow home win over Duke in which he failed to exert the leadership necessary to calm his team and milk the clock. But even when Paul's play is unpolished, it's hard to take your eyes off him. The better he hones his skills, the more captivating the view becomes.
Luckily for Paul, he's not a one-man show. Wake is strong on the perimeter, arguably as good as anyone in the ACC with Justin Gray starting at shooting guard and Taron Downey and Trent Strickland coming off the bench. Inside, the Demon Deacons boast a top defender in forward Jamaal Levy (rhymes with Chevy) and a premier post presence in 291-pound Eric Williams. "Big E" has finally struck a comfortable balance between aggressiveness and control, and no longer gets in foul trouble before the first TV timeout. He leads the ACC in field goal accuracy, is in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding, and makes it difficult for defenses to key on Wake's perimeter.
When it comes to smooth operators, though, no ACC big man other than UNC's Sean May compares with Duke's member of the Williams contingent.
Steady Shelden Williams combines power and finesse, and while only a junior often seems the proverbial man playing against boys. Apparently TV talker Dick Vitale--who some believe is a bit over-enamored with the Blue Devils--recently touted Duke's Williams as the premier player in the league. Not so. Disregard Chris Paul, and one might well argue the honor belongs to J.J. Redick, Williams' teammate and the ACC's most consistent offensive threat. Redick is the best career foul shooter in college history, his every miss a notable occasion. The Virginian is so dangerous a jump-shooter he has observers sorting their mental archives for comparable marksmen.
Vitale probably heard coach Michael William Krzyzewski insist Williams is Duke's most valuable player. S. Williams is an exceptional force, leading the ACC in rebounds, offensive rebounds, blocked shots and games hitting double figures in points and rebounds (13 of 19). Williams has more blocks than the entire Virginia squad.
Then again, the Cavaliers are not a good measuring stick these days, despite a surprise win at Raleigh over reeling N.C. State.
Coach Pete Gillen signed for 10 years in the first flush of success at Virginia. But in his first six U.Va. seasons he had a single NCAA bid, and none is likely in 2005. This for a program that in the 17 years from 1981 through 1997 made 13 NCAA appearances.
Gillen is a warm, good-hearted person who has amassed talent comparable to N.C. State's. That means the Cavaliers are good enough to be competitive but incapable of vying for ACC supremacy. U.Va. has a new home court in the works, the 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena, due to open for the 2006-07 season. Successful fund-raising, and successfully filling seats, require that excitement and enthusiasm surround a basketball program. Nor does it help that Virginia Tech, shoehorned into the league after repeated rejections across decades, has been the surprise success of the first go-round of ACC play.
All these factors unfortunately point to a coaching change at Charlottesville. Here's hoping Gillen is offered an administrative position in athletics until he completes his contract, allowing him to resign with dignity if that is his choice.
True, dignity and college athletics are sometimes uneasy partners. There are more coaches on major-college sidelines sporting Nike lapel pins than school emblems. Schools also continue to countenance coaches such at Cincinnati's Bob Huggins and Texas Tech's Bob Knight, who apparently consider it their inalienable right as teachers, leaders and role models to berate and publicly humiliate the young people under their tutelage. The unsavory example seeps into the fabric of the game; at least one high school principal here in the Triangle reportedly tolerates similar behavior from her men's basketball coach.
Dignity also goes by the wayside when coaches take out their frustrations on game officials. Many professionals may wish they could dress in tie and jacket and then yell, stomp, curse and otherwise act like spoiled children, but basketball coaches are the select few who get away with it.
Ranting is especially prevalent among visitors to Cameron Indoor Stadium. Opposing coaches tend to arrive already convinced the officiating favors Duke, particularly on its home court. Deceased N.C. State coach Jim Valvano said that, because all five Duke players foul on every play and officials can't call everything, the Blue Devils got their way. To some extent the exaggeration makes the point; after a quarter-century of watching Krzyzewski's teams employ physical, hands-on defense, officials understandably tend to accept the style.
Right or wrong, that state of affairs requires adjustments. No one has adapted more successfully than Maryland's Gary Williams, who is unsurpassed in his desire to beat Duke.
The final member of the ACC's current Williams clan routinely berates everyone within earshot, including his assistants, if only to vent an ever-simmering volcano of emotion. Gary Williams certainly has lost his cool at Cameron, getting tossed from a game there in 1998. But, including last month's visit, Maryland also has won at Durham three times in the past decade, better than any other program during that span. Beating the injury-riddled Blue Devils hasn't been easy in 2004-05. Once healthy, this may yet be a Duke squad that, like several lesser predecessors in the late '80s, manages to insinuate itself into the Final Four.
Much has appeared in the pages of the Independent regarding the sale of The Herald-Sun in Durham, and the disrespectfully heavy-handed manner in which minions of the Paxton Media Group summarily fired and ejected a number of longtime employees. Among the exiled was Al Featherston, one of the best sportswriters in our region. Featherston, a Durham native, worked for The Herald-Sun for 31 years.
Featherston worked harder than most, writing analytical pieces on sports, films and other topics. His knowledge of ACC men's sports is encyclopedic. Thus his dismissal was especially brilliant, since the new owners essentially lost the work of two people for the price of one.
Barry Jacobs is a freelance writer, Orange County commissioner and the author of the forthcoming book Across the Line, stories of the first African-American basketball players in the ACC and SEC.