Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tar Heels to grace the cover of ... a Wheaties box?

You know you’ve arrived when you’re on the cover of the cereal box.
North Carolina’s men’s basketball team will be displayed on the front cover of Wheaties boxes, representatives of cereal maker General Mills announced Wednesday.
Expect Duke fans to switch to Raisin Bran in mass quantities. ...

EA Sports announced that Duke will play in Hawaii in the 2007 Maui Invitational along with Arizona State, Illinois, Louisiana State, Marquette, Oklahoma State, Chaminade and Princeton.
Teams will play three games on Monday through Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, Nov. 19-21 at the Lahaina Civic Center.

– Ken Tysiac

Davidson on track for postseason bid ...

Davidson coach Bob McKillop bristled when an out-of-town reporter on Tuesday mentioned the Wildcats getting ready for the postseason.
"Postseason?" McKillop said, raising his voice an octave, much like former Colts coach Jim Mora. "We still have seven (regular-season) games left. It’s way too early to even think about that."

However, the Wildcats are in good shape to make their third straight postseason trip. Davidson made the NIT in 2005 and the NCAA Tournament in 2006, and is making a strong case for some kind of bid this season. The Wildcats (19-4) will clinch at least an NIT bid by winning the Southern Conference regular season (Davidson leads with a 10-1 record), and should get in regardless based on its record.

Davidson should be favored in at least six of its last seven games. While a 25-5 regular season record probably wouldn’t get the Wildcats an at-large NCAA bid (Davidson’s RPI is 66, and the Wildcats are 1-4 against the RPI top 100), it would be hard for the NIT to pass them up.

-- Kevin Cary

Jackets, Terps: A cautionary tale for fans everywhere

The decline of Georgia Tech and Maryland in the ACC -- those teams are a combined 4-11 in the ACC -- ought to help fans of Duke and North Carolina cherish their teams’ basketball success even more.

Maryland followed a Final Four appearance in 2001 with an NCAA title in 2002, and has a coach in Gary Williams who seemed to have the longevity and intensity to keep the program in the top 10. But the Terrapins have struggled to maintain continuity through staff turnover and are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the third straight season.

Georgia Tech reached the NCAA title game in 2004 and seemed destined to remain a top national contender with personable, young coach Paul Hewitt recruiting in Atlanta. But the talent Hewitt has recruited isn’t meshing, and Tech is one of the worst teams in the ACC for the second straight season.

Meanwhile, the standard for ACC basketball continues to be set in that 11-mile stretch between Chapel Hill and Durham. North Carolina stumbled briefly under Matt Doherty but is a national title contender for the second time in three seasons.

Duke is ranked No. 8 by The Associated Press with what is supposed to be one of its worst teams in years – a team without a scholarship senior and just one junior in the rotation.

That longevity, which is a credit to the coaches at both schools, is the reason the Feb. 7 Duke-North Carolina game probably will be one of the highest-rated regular-season college basketball games of 2006-07.

– Ken Tysiac

Deacons not ready for funeral just yet

Let's not bury Wake Forest yet -- at least not to the very bottom of the ACC.

As difficult a time as the Deacons have had so far this season, they've begun a stretch -- starting with a victory over road-challenged Georgia Tech on Tuesday -- that might give them a breath of life in the second half of the ACC schedule.

Aside from a trip to No. 3 North Carolina on Feb. 10, Wake Forest (10-11, 2-7 ACC) plays three home games, against Maryland (Saturday), Clemson (Feb. 14) and Miami (Feb. 17), that are winnable (in addition to a nonconference contest Nov. 6 against Winston-Salem State).

This, of course, is all predicated on the assumption that the Deacons -- who have 14 freshmen and sophomores on their roster -- continue to improve. They made free throws against Georgia Tech (31 of 41 after being under 50 percent in three of their previous four games) and kept their composure when the Yellow Jackets made a second-half run. Center Kyle Visser was there when he was needed, scoring a career-high 26.

But it will take more than the three spectacular dunks freshman L.D. Williams threw down (two of which made SportsCenter's top 10 plays of the day) for Wake Forest to remain out of the ACC cellar. The Deacons will have to build gradually and fundamentally on the success coming from the Georgia Tech game.

That's how a young team -- or at least a young team that's not loaded down with McDonald's All-Americans -- gets better.

-- David Scott

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cameron visit won't sway Patterson

Patrick Patterson noticed the effort of Duke fans to impress him this week, but said they won’t sway him.
Patterson is a 6-foot-8 forward who might be the top uncommitted senior in the nation. He scored 20 points in a 73-66 win Tuesday night for Huntington (W.Va.) High against Artesia High of California as part of the HoopHall Classic tripleheader at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
He arrived in town early to watch Duke’s home game against Boston College on Sunday. He saw fans carrying signs beckoning him and heard them chant, “Patrick Patterson, come to Duke.”
“I enjoyed having the fans come out ... and chant for me and root for me and make signs for me, but it’s no edge (for Duke) whatsoever,” Patterson said.
Patterson is considering Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia, Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia, and hopes to narrow his list to three schools soon. He also has played in a showcase event in Lexington, Ky., but it wasn’t at Rupp Arena on Kentucky’s campus.
“I’ve never actually been to a Duke game, so coming here, listening to the noise and watching Coach K coach and seeing how the team plays, I have a better perspective than I had before,” he said.
What that perspective is, he didn’t say. Patterson would make a good poker player. But he’s adamant that his visit this week didn’t give Duke any advantage.

Notes: Duke signee Nolan Smith is student body president at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. Asked what his platform was, Smith said he likes to help his fellow students. “They come to me for advice,” said Smith, a 6-foot-3 guard who helped Oak Hill defeat fellow Duke signee Taylor King and Mater Dei (Calif.) High on Tuesday. King scored 32 points . ... Forward James Harden of Artesia scored 17 points with 10 rebounds near his future coach’s former home. Harden is a big guy with a good touch from the perimeter that will come in handy in former N.C. State coach Herb Sendek’s offense at Arizona State.

- Ken Tysiac

5 reasons UNC won't win national title

The talent North Carolina coach Roy Williams has put together is nothing short of amazing.

That was the assessment of an assistant coach with a top-25 team last week, offered as an observation during a discussion on a different topic.

This assistant fell in love with the character and skills of North Carolina guard Marcus Ginyard during recruiting. He couldn’t believe the Tar Heels are so good that Ginyard is playing just 16 minutes per game.

He is part of a chorus whose membership grew after North Carolina’s 92-64 thumping of Arizona in Tucson. A lot of experts consider the Tar Heels the favorite to win the NCAA title because Williams has recruited excellent players and expertly uses his depth to wear down opponents.

It says here that those predictions are off base.

Here are five reasons North Carolina won’t win the NCAA title:

1. Lack of experience. Gerry McNamara and Carmelo Anthony of Syracuse demonstrated in 2003 that it’s not impossible for a team to win an NCAA title with freshmen in leadership roles.

But experience is extremely valuable in the NCAA tournament. Nobody knows that better than Williams, who was asked Monday to compare this team to the 2005 NCAA champions.

“This team is very gifted,” he said, “but boy, that team was really gifted and had great experience, also, and I’ve always thought the way to be great is to have experienced talent.”

Williams needed the experience of senior Jawad Williams and juniors Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants to edge senior-dominated Illinois in the NCAA title game in St. Louis. Reyshawn Terry, Wes Miller and Quentin Thomas aren’t in the same category as the 2004-05 team’s upperclassmen.

2. Three-point woes. North Carolina is best when it bangs the ball into the post to Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright, and Roy Williams does a great job making sure the ball goes inside.

But the Tar Heels eventually will run into an opponent that can at least slow down Hansbrough and Wright and force North Carolina to shoot jump shots. After last weekend’s games, North Carolina ranked sixth in the ACC in 3-point percentage (.370).

That’s not bad, but the Tar Heels get more wide-open 3-point shots than almost anybody else because overmatched opponents are doubling down on Hansbrough and Wright. North Carolina eventually will run into somebody with big men who can hold their own defensively to allow pressure on the Tar Heels’ perimeter.

3. Point problems. The return of sophomore Bobby Frasor from an injury to his right foot is critical to this team.

Freshman Tywon Lawson is a tremendous talent with remarkable speed and has been a better perimeter shooter than expected. But he still has been turnover prone in some big games, notably the loss at Virginia Tech, and there are times when North Carolina needs a steadying influence in the backcourt.

Some fans and media members think Thomas is that steadying influence. They ought to watch more carefully. He makes some highlight-caliber passes, but turns the game into a helter-skelter affair while he does it.

Frasor is the steadiest point guard on the team and a valuable perimeter shooter. The Tar Heels need him.

4. Enigmatic leader. Reyshawn Terry, North Carolina’s only senior starter, disappeared in last year’s NCAA tournament after earning third-team All-ACC honors by averaging 15.1 points.
Terry is the best athlete on the team. He makes acrobatic dunks on the fast break and is a good 3-point shooter at 6-foot-8 and 232 pounds, causing matchup problems for small forwards who aren’t as tall or strong.

He is the type of guy who should want the ball in important situations during close games, but he rarely demands it.

5. Florida. The Gators aren’t as deep as North Carolina, but they’re deep enough.
They will lose some regular season games because they are bored. They even lost to Florida State.

Don’t be fooled.

Joakim Noah, Al Horford and the rest of Florida’s players are better than last season, and their experience should make them the favorite in the NCAA tournament. It was popular for experts to pick against Florida during the preseason because no team has repeated as NCAA champion since Duke in 1992.

Using that reasoning to pick another team demonstrated a ridiculous lack of understanding about statistics. The probability that Florida will repeat is slim because there will be 64 other teams in the NCAA field with a chance to win.

So don’t listen when the experts tell you how smart they are if Florida doesn’t win. Instead, ask them which one team they would choose if their life savings were at stake.

Under those circumstances, it would be difficult to choose anybody but Florida.

The same logic that applied to Florida at the beginning of the season applies to North Carolina now. Pick the Heels? Or pick the field?

Even Tiger Woods has only won about a quarter of his golf tournaments.

Take the field. Every time.

-- Ken Tysiac

Nation's toughest league? It's the SEC this season

There's no better league in the nation this season than the SEC. The league has the defending national champion in Florida (which returned all five starters), as well as Top 25-caliber teams in Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, LSU and Vanderbilt.

Here's how tough it is in the SEC:

1. The two teams tied for first place in the Western Division -- Auburn and Arkansas -- are under .500 in the league (3-4).

2. When Arkansas won at Alabama over the weekend, it was the first road victory for a Western team in the league this season.

3. That said, the Gators are still the class of the league and have a two-game lead in the East.

They'll sail through the league tournament, after which at least five other SEC teams will grab NCAA tournament bids. -- David Scott

Monday, January 29, 2007

Spartans' Neitzel nearly flawless, having fun

If this is a down season for the Big 10 -- and it is -- don't blame Michigan State's Drew Neitzel. Neitzel, who at 6-0 was the smallest player on the floor, was sensational Saturday night in the Spartans' 66-64 loss at No. 5 Ohio State. Neitzel scored 24 of his 29 points in the second half, as Michigan State nearly came back from a 20-point halftime deficit.

Neitzel and his buzz-cut dropped 3-pointers on the flustered Buckeyes, spun, whirled,drove to the basket and -- most importantly -- seemed to be having a great time. He was shown several times on TV flashing a mishievous smile as he ran back down the floor after scoring yet another basket.

The Spartans (17-5) will probably spend the rest of the season on the NCAA tournament bubble, but Neitzel is the kind of player who might take them to places they might not otherwise dream about. -- David Scott

Friday, January 26, 2007

Tigers subdued after loss at Duke

DURHAM - As he paced the sideline and rubbed his chin Thursday night, Clemson coach Oliver Purnell looked frustrated.

The Tigers were relentless as they rallied from an 11-point deficit to tie the game with five seconds left at Duke before losing 68-66 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski admitted that Clemson was stronger in the final 10 minutes. But the Tigers weren't strong enough, especially on the boards, where Duke held a 40-24 rebounding advantage.

"The rebounding throughout the game really cost us -- our inability to keep them off the offensive glass," Purnell said.

Clemson's players echoed Purnell's thoughts after losing to Duke for the 20th straight time. Point guard Vernon Hamilton, who scored 21 points on 9-for-15 from the field despite a stomach virus, said Clemson didn't play well.

"The bottom line is, they're hurting," Purnell said, "and I told them, `You should hurt.' This kind of loss, when you're a good team coming in expecting to win, should hurt."

That Clemson came to Duke expecting to win is a measure of progress for the program. That the Tigers couldn't get it done demonstrates that they have more progress to make.

'Dependable' McClure wins it.

The game-winning field goal at the buzzer was one of just two in the entire game by forward Dave McClure, who was 2-for-5 from the field and scored eight points.McClure is better known for playing defense, rebounding and screening, which is what he was supposed to do for Jon Scheyer before Clemson's defense fouled up the play.

"He doesn't get up or down, he's dependable," Krzyzewski said. "He makes simple, terrific plays. It's not just his defense, but his rebounding."

For Clemson, the last shot was a matter of turnabout. The Tigers won on court-long, closing-seconds plays for lay-ups by Cliff Hammonds at Florida State and James Mays against Georgia Tech.

• Center Josh McRoberts didn't shirk responsibility for the errant inbound pass that allowed Hamilton to tie the game with a 3-pointer with 4.4 seconds left. "Going back to when I started playing basketball, I can't think of a worse play I've ever made," McRoberts said.

• Clemson, which entered the game on pace for the worst free throw shooting season in ACC history at 57.8 percent, shot 10-for-11 from the foul line. The only miss was by Mays on the second of two free throws that would have tied the game with 2:55 remaining.

-- Ken Tysiac: 919-834-8471