Sunday, December 30, 2007

Injuries testing UNC's depth

North Carolina’s once-seemingly endless depth was so depleted Sunday that small forward Marcus Ginyard also played backup point guard during a 90-58 defeat of Valparaiso.
The new backup shooting guard, William Graves, had played 32 minutes all season before Sunday. The Tar Heels’ depth crisis occurred because backup point guard and shooting guard Bobby Frasor tore a knee ligament Thursday and is out for the season.
Quentin Thomas, who was expected to back up point guard Ty Lawson with Frasor out, injured his left ankle Friday and couldn’t play Sunday night.
So the Tar Heels were counting on Ginyard playing out of position and Graves in a more prominent role.
“Right now I’m just trying to get Coach to put me in at (center), because that’s the only position I haven’t played,” Ginyard joked.
Just last season, North Carolina seemed so talented and deep that the biggest question reporters had for coach Roy Williams was how he would distribute playing time to keep everybody happy.
But Brandan Wright turned pro after his freshman season, and Reyshawn Terry and Wes Miller completed their eligibility. Williams lost top recruiting target Kevin Love to UCLA and didn’t bring in any freshmen.
After Frasor’s season-ending knee injury, North Carolina’s depth suddenly seems ordinary. Post players Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson have been shaky, and their free-throw shooting has been so poor that Williams is hesitant to keep them on the court late in tight games.
Despite all that, the Tar Heels have a roster just about every other coach in the nation would love to work with. The lack of depth is a bit of a concern, but the long TV timeouts during the NCAA tournament give players plenty of time to catch their breath.
That’s when this team will be judged, and lack of depth won’t be as much of a problem then. KEN TYSIAC

Friday, December 21, 2007

Davidson observations after 66-65 loss

After his own one-point loss Friday night, it was obvious that Davidson coach Bob McKillop had spent some time dissecting Duke’s one-point loss to Pittsburgh the previous night.

“You look at their stats and say, ‘How the heck did they only lose by one in overtime to Pittsburgh?,’ ” McKillop said. “They shot 20 percent from the three. They shot 50 percent from the foul line. They got outrebounded. And they lose by one.”

Some of Davidson’s statistics from their 66-65 loss to N.C. State were similarly alarming. The Wildcats were outrebounded 40-25 and outscored 18-6 from the foul line. Yet they lost by only a point.

“I guess it shows that Duke has heart and fights,” McKillop said. “And I guess it shows that we have heart and fight.”

What Davidson didn’t have was a defensive rebound when it needed one in the closing seconds. And with a two-week layoff before the next game against Georgia Southern, the Wildcats will have a lot of time to think about it. – Ken Tysiac

UNC defense a work in progress

Coach Roy Williams says North Carolina needs to get better in all phases of its defense, but point guard Ty Lawson succinctly described the most glaring weakness Friday.

“When we let them dribble penetrate, we’ve got to help, and that leaves wide-open threes,” Lawson said.

North Carolina’s failure to stop dribblers is one of the main reasons opponents are shooting 34.7 percent from 3-point range against the Tar Heels. That ranks North Carolina in the bottom half of the ACC in that statistic.

Stopping penetration isn’t as easy as it sounds. According to Williams, North Carolina played a sagging man-to-man defense to prevent penetration in Dean Smith’s final years and throughout Bill Guthridge’s tenure.

But Williams said Smith and Guthridge weren’t happy with the results, and Williams wants to pressure the passing lanes to create turnovers. That leaves opponents with driving lanes. The key is learning to cut off those lanes more quickly.

“The way we play means that people are going to drive us,” Williams said, “so that’s the thing we’ve got to get better at.”

Despite his angry outburst after Nicholls State made 14 three-pointers in an 88-78 Tar Heel win on Wednesday, Williams is trying to stay patient. Though Thursday’s practice was among the most difficult Lawson has experienced in two seasons at North Carolina, nobody puked during the workout. (Williams had said his goal was to see how many players he could get to “throw up” during Thursday’s practice).

His real goal remains improving North Carolina’s defense enough for the Tar Heels to contend for a national title.

“I’ve never seen a bad defensive team in the Final Four,” he said. “They’ve got to understand that. I never have. Never.”

– Ken Tysiac

Davidson still lacks name recognition

Davidson played a tough nonconference schedule this season to try to get better name recognition.

Yet, the names of the Davidson starting lineup haven't caught on with opposing teams and some media members.

N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe drove home that point Thursday, when he repeatedly referred to point guard Jason Richards as Jason "Richardson." But Richards isn't the only Wildcat to have his name garbled this season. Forward Boris Meno's last name (pronounced "MEN-o") is often said as "ME-no." Forward Thomas Sander has been called Thomas "Sanders" in telecasts, and guard Stephen (STEFF-in) Curry might have most flubbed name on the team.

Curry was called "Steven Curry" by the Appalachian State public address announcer, and other broadcasters have also called him "Stef-FON" during ESPN highlights. Yet, the only Wildcat starter to not have his name bungled has the longest moniker: Max Paulhus Gosselin.

The Davidson SID office provides a pronounciation guide before each game. Maybe one day, media and coaches will remember to read it.

- Kevin Cary

Duke missed its shot against Pitt

The popular theory on why Duke lost Thursday night to Pittsburgh is that the Blue Devils weren’t tough enough.

Duke didn’t have anybody who could dislodge powerful Pitt freshman center DeJuan Blair from the lane as he controlled the boards in a 65-64 overtime victory as the Panthers posted a 53-39 rebounding edge.

But toughness wasn’t the problem Thursday. It’s time to accept that Duke is not going to be the toughest team on the floor many nights because its players have speed, skill and grace but are short on muscle.

Duke lost Thursday because its skill and speed (two fast-break points in 45 minutes) must have left Madison Square Garden to go Christmas shopping in Times Square. The Blue Devils’ shooting is supposed to make up for its lack of punishing big men, but they shot 4-for-19 from 3-point range and 14-for-26 from the foul line.

Guard Jon Scheyer showed plenty of grit by grabbing a team-high 12 rebounds, but his usual excellent shooting touch disappeared, as he was 1-for-10 from the field. Three-point shooting is subject to ebbs and flows, so losing the long-range touch for a night is no reason to panic.

Poor free throw shooting is, particularly when the two of the team’s biggest driving threats are among the worst foul shooters. When the 3-point shots aren’t falling, DeMarcus Nelson and Gerald Henderson possess the ability to penetrate to the basket and draw fouls.

But they were 6-for-12 combined from the foul line Thursday, and neither is shooting above 65 percent for the season. There will be times during ACC play when the Tyler Hansbroughs and J.J. Hicksons outmuscle Duke in the paint.

The Blue Devils can live with that, but only if their shooting is superior.

– Ken Tysiac

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tar Heels may not be ACC favorites

North Carolina may be the victim of impossibly high expectations in basketball.

Though the Tar Heels are 10-0 and remain the nation’s top-ranked team, there are rumblings that they’re not as good as they should be. Some of the dissatisfaction comes straight from the top with coach Roy Williams, who vowed that ragged defense in Wednesday’s 88-78 win over Nicholls State would cause him to run the Tar Heels ragged during practice Thursday.

In fairness to the Tar Heels, they are doing some things well:

  • Tyler Hansbrough, who’s averaging 21.8 points and 9.9 rebounds, is living up to his billing as the best center in the nation.
  • After his shooting was streaky at best last season, sophomore guard Wayne Ellington has made 43.8 percent of his 3-point attempts.
  • Junior Danny Green, who’s averaging 13.3 points is emerging as the best sixth man in the ACC.
But that’s not enough for a team that expects to challenge for the NCAA title. The Tar Heels haven’t corrected one of their most glaring problems from last season – defending on the perimeter. Opponents are shooting 34.7 percent from 3-point range against North Carolina, which ranks near the bottom of the ACC in that statistic.

Sophomore point guard Ty Lawson appears to have regressed and is averaging 1.8 assists for every turnover, far lower than last season’s average of 2.6 assists per turnover. And the combination of Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson at the post position opposite Hansbrough has made little impact on offense or defense.

There is plenty of time for North Carolina to get these problems straightened out, and Williams will take advantage of extra practice time the next few days to get his point across. But without improvement, it would be a stretch to cast the Tar Heels as a prohibitive favorite to get to the Final Four or even finish first in the ACC in the regular season.

– Ken Tysiac

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Vitale taking a TO, baby, for surgery

Dickie V. needs a T.O., baby.

ESPN announced Tuesday that college basketball analyst Dick Vitale had successful surgery to treat ulcers on his left vocal chord and doesn’t plan to return to the air until early February.
Vitale, in his 29th season, had never missed a game. His voice will be missed for the rest of December and in January. Some fans (particularly North Carolina folks who’ve dubbed him “Dookie V” because he frequently praises Duke) won’t mind a break from Vitale’s high-volume banter.

But college basketball insiders love Vitale for his enthusiasm for the game. He does a lot to promote cancer research in the name of former broadcast pal Jim Valvano, the late N.C. State coach. He greets fans everywhere with charm and wit.

Watching big games on ESPN won’t be the same until Vitale returns. Let’s hope those pipes are ready to bellow in time for Vitale to return Feb. 6 for Duke at North Carolina.

– Ken Tysiac

Duke needs Nelson's shot vs. Pitt

Guard DeMarcus Nelson picked a good time to get hot from the perimeter.

Sixth-ranked Duke (10-0) faces one of its biggest challenges of the season Thursday when it plays 11th-ranked Pittsburgh, which is undefeated in 10 games. Nelson, Duke’s senior captain, has been the team’s most consistent player according to coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Nelson’s strength makes him nearly impossible to stop as he jackknifes from left to right across the lane and uses the rim to protect the ball on bank shots. He is most dangerous as a driver when opponents have to respect his 3-point shooting ability – and they didn’t early in the season.

He missed 12 of his first 16 three-point attempts over the first seven games. But in the last three games, Nelson is 8-for-11 from 3-point range. He was 4-for-5 against Albany on Monday, when his 23-point performance included a four-point play.

Nelson said he was taking shots with confidence. Duke will need him to do that again Thursday against Pitt at Madison Square Garden.

– Ken Tysiac

Friday, December 14, 2007

Lowe may be too relaxed about record

Sidney Lowe doesn’t get it. He mentioned Friday that N.C. State (4-3) is only one game behind its pace from last season, when the Wolfpack started with five wins in his first seven games as coach.

“So it’s interesting that there’s a panic button being pushed by people this early in the season,” Lowe said.

That’s not an urgent enough tone from Lowe. Fact is, despite winning three games to get to the ACC tournament final, last season’s team fell far short of N.C. State standards. The Wolfpack won 20 games but lost 16, and was just 5-11 in conference play.

This season’s team was supposed to be better – but has a worse record after seven games. It lost at home to New Orleans, appeared lackadaisical in a blowout loss at Michigan State and suffered the first loss ever by an ACC team against East Carolina.

Lowe excused the lack of effort at Michigan State by saying the players were tired because they were playing their fourth game in seven days. He said N.C. State (which returned four starters from last season) is a “young team” whose inexperience was thwarted by the experience of East Carolina, which started three senios.

He said Friday that because it’s early in the season, there’s still plenty of time for N.C. State to do something good. Problem is, Lowe’s players are adopting his relaxed tone and getting outhustled.

A minus-2.5 rebounds per game margin for a team with a deep, talented front line attests to that. Lowe is an easygoing, likeable guy. But it’s time for him to stop making excuses for his players and demand more from this team, even if it’s not in his nature.

He may be more personable than predecessor Herb Sendek, but N.C. State fans won’t accept losing more than two-thirds of their ACC games for long, even from a coach they revere as a player. -- Ken Tysiac

Monday, December 10, 2007

Final exams, midseason thoughts

As ACC basketball players take a break for final exams:

  • Boston College’s Al Skinner doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves as one of the ACC’s best coaches. The Eagles returned brilliant point guard Tyrese Rice and not much else this season, but still are 7-1 with a win at Maryland in the opener in conference play. Skinner did a nice job identifying freshmen Rakim Sanders and Corey Raji, who weren’t top-50 recruits but are both averaging more than 10 points per game. If you were ranking the ACC’s top coaches now, only the three guys who have coached teams to NCAA titles (Mike Krzyzewski, Gary Williams and Roy Williams) would certainly be ahead of Skinner.
  • Duke looks more like the Phoenix Suns every time out, except for the fact that the Blue Devils don’t have anybody who compares to Suns point guard Steve Nash. Coaching with the Suns’ Mike D’Antoni on Team USA helped Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski figure out how to get the most out of a team without a true center. Problem is, D’Antoni’s system of running the fast break and spreading the floor has been fabulous in the regular season but hasn’t gotten the Suns to the NBA finals. And Duke fans judge a team by how it performs during the postseason. Stay tuned.
  • North Carolina sophomore forward Deon Thompson’s recent games against Pennsylvania (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Ohio State (14 points, seven rebounds) suggest he is gaining confidence after a tentative start. When Thompson scores from the high post, center Tyler Hansbrough operates far more effectively on the block.
  • If N.C. State (4-3) keeps losing at this rate, the fans who drove Herb Sendek out of Raleigh will be begging him to come back. The Wolfpack has an embarrassment of riches in terms of frontcourt talent, but is getting consistent top-notch effort only from freshman center J.J. Hickson and senior wing Gavin Grant. Losses to New Orleans and East Carolina and an embarrassing lack of effort at Michigan State demonstrate that Sidney Lowe isn’t getting the most out of his players.
– Ken Tysiac

Thursday, December 6, 2007

What it'll take for Davidson to rebound

Davidson faces a solemn cross-country flight today to California, one day after its second consecutive loss. The Wildcats were left searching for answers after a 75-68 loss to Charlotte on Wednesday. They face No.7 UCLA Saturday.

Davidson, ranked at one time this season, is 3-4 and doesn’t have a win against a Division I opponent with a winning record. Any hope of a NCAA tournament at-large bid is distant at best – the Wildcats first have to start winning games.

To do that, Davidson has to get more help for sophomore guard Stephen Curry. Curry has been spectacular at times this season, but point guard Jason Richards is the only other Davidson player to score at least 15 points against a Division I opponent (reserve Bryant Barr had 17 against Division III Emory in the season opener).

Last season, all five Davidson starters scored 20 points in at least one game, and Davidson had four players average double figures. Curry accounted for about 25 percent of the offense, but this season he’s scoring a third of Davidson’s points against Division I opponents.

The Wildcats also have been too reliant on the 3-point shot. Davidson has attempted 3-pointers on 46 percent of its shots. Those shots aren’t going in as often, because players other than Curry are making only 27 percent of their 3-pointers. The Wildcats have been effective when they have gone inside, making 58 percent of their two-point attempts.

Coach Bob McKillop said this season that his team has been hunting for 3-pointers too much, and Wednesday night he also pointed to Davidson’s decline at the free-throw line. The Wildcats are shooting 64 percent this season; they made 76 percent last season. Those misses played a role in at least two losses.

McKillop hasn’t mentioned any possible lineup changes, but that might be something to consider. Curry and Richards are both playing heavy minutes against top opponents, and their fatigue at the end of games has hurt Davidson’s perimeter defense. Freshmen Brendan McKillop and Aaron Bond could be useful for short spurts in the first half of games, and the Wildcats might also want to consider going with a big lineup with starters Thomas Sander and Boris Meno and reserve Andrew Lovedale on the front line. Those three aren’t outside threats, but they screen well, are strong defenders and would force Davidson to look for more inside shots.
-- Kevin Cary

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Davidson invited to play in 2008 Preseason NIT tournament

Davidson coach Bob McKillop said Tuesday that his team has been invited to the 2008 Preseason NIT tournament, which will be played in November.

Davidson (3-3) finished 29-5 last season, and guard Stephen Curry is averaging 25 points.

McKillop said his team's games at the Charlotte Bobcats Arena against Duke and North Carolina - which both drew at least 17,000 fans - could help Davidson get a home game in the tournament, or at least one at Bobcats Arena.

"I'm encouraged by that," he said. "We can go to the NIT committee and have ammunition for why we should have a home game."

-Kevin Cary