Thursday, March 11, 2010

5 things to watch in ACC Tournament first round

While the four top seeds – Duke, Maryland, Florida State and Virginia Tech – watch and relax, seeds 5-12 in the ACC will try to survive their dreaded first-round conference tournament games Wednesday in Greensboro.

Roy Williams will try one more time to rouse his underachieving North Carolina team against an opponent (Georgia Tech) that’s defeated the Tar Heels twice. A surging N.C. State team will attempt to recapture the magic from its run to the finals from its first season (2007) under coach Sidney Lowe.

Wake Forest has a chance to continue the momentum from a win over Clemson in the regular-season finale that was preceded by four straight losses. Here are five things to watch on the opening day of the ACC tournament:

1. N.C. State center Tracy Smith vs. Clemson’s front line.

Smith is to N.C. State’s offense what Emily Procter is to CSI: Miami. If you lose that one appealing character, it’s suddenly a crime show with some PG-rated gore and science that even the cast probably doesn’t understand.

If you shut down second-team All-ACC selection Smith (17.0 ppg), N.C. State doesn’t have many options on offense who are guaranteed to make an opponent pay for the extra attention given to Smith.

And in Trevor Booker and Jerai Grant, the Tigers have a pair of players who could give Smith trouble. Booker made the ACC’s all-defensive team and averages 1.5 blocked shots per game.
Grant averages 1.8 blocks – third best in the ACC – and had a huge block late in Clemson’s 73-70 win Jan. 16 at N.C. State. Smith scored 13 points in that game.

“You’ve just got to deny him the ball,” Booker said. “. . .The farther out he catches it, the lower his percentage is.”

If the Tigers can hold Smith to 13 or fewer again, the Wolfpack will have difficulty advancing.

2. Ish Smith in transition.

Without question, Wake Forest senior point guard Ish Smith is the fastest player in the ACC.
As such, he has faced all kinds of defensive strategies designed to keep him from getting the Deacons’ fast break going.

“We’ve seen it all,” Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio said Wednesday. “We’ve seen it all at some point in the season.”

Smith listed some of them Wednesday:

- After opponents’ made baskets, the forward guarding Wake Forest’s inbounds passer has faceguarded him.

- Opposing guards have picked him up full-court and tried to bump him early to keep him from getting a quick head of steam.

- Some opponents who don’t usually play zone defense have retreated quickly to their spots.
Late in the season, Smith faced a new strategy that proved successful to a certain extent as Wake Forest lost four straight games. Instead of bumping him early, opposing guards began sprinting back to the top of the key in an attempt to beat him down the court and force him to initiate a halfcourt offense.

If they continue to do that, the key for Smith will be to pitch it ahead to teammates who can get free runs to the basket because opponents are spending so much energy trying to locate and slow down Smith. Gaudio said it’s imperative for the rest of the Deacons to run up the floor and not just wait for Smith to make a play on his own.

3. Early evening turnover count.

Two young backcourts, with a lot of freshmen and sophomores playing their first meaningful ACC tournament minutes, could make for a sloppy game with North Carolina meets Georgia Tech at 7 p.m.

North Carolina has averaged 18 turnovers in its two losses to Georgia Tech.

On Feb. 16, Georgia Tech turned it over 20 times against the Tar Heels.

“Whoever doesn’t turn the ball over is going to have a great chance to win,” said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt. “Because I think we’re both very talented teams. We’ve got good frontcourts. Both of us have good wing players. It just comes down to guard play and making sure we’re taking care of the basketball.”

4. Ugly opener.

If you have difficulty getting out of bed this morning, there’s no reason to rush to the first game of the tournament, which starts at noon.

Virginia has lost nine in a row and suspended its best player, Sylven Landesberg, for the rest of the season. Boston College has dropped six of its last nine.

One big question about the ACC tournament after the conference expanded to 12 teams was what impact two straight days with four games each would have.

For years, fans in this part of the country said that Friday at the ACC tournament was one of the best days in sports because there can be four great games on the same court on the same day.

That still can be true. But there also can be four ugly games on the same court Thursday. If you can’t handle eight games in two days, missing the opener this year would be a good way to conserve your energy for the more interesting action later.

5. Booker on the low block.

Clemson first-team All-ACC forward Trevor Booker said he’s comfortable if teams make him catch the ball on the perimeter.

But the reality is, that’s where opponents – and that should include N.C. State today - want him to catch it.

Booker said teams have tried all manner of defense against him this season.

“They’ve doubled me,” he said. “They’ve tripled me. They’ve played a sagging defense, trying to make our other guys make plays to beat them. They’ve denied me. I’ve seen it all.”

How important is Booker’s offense to Clemson? He has shot 50 percent or better from the field in five of the Tigers’ last eight games. Clemson has won all five – and lost the other three.

Ken Tysiac