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The Courtmaster Flips

Hear ye, hear ye! Court is back in session, and The CourtMaster has flipped. Actually, it’s not me (no, really) but two teams in the ACC that seem to have switched positions in the standings.

If you check out the ACC team’s conference records, you will see two that look out of place. It would seem that everything is just about where it should be if we took Virginia and Wake Forest and flipped their positions. No one, and I mean NO ONE, thought Virginia would have a winning record in the conference at this point in the season, and I dare say the same amount of people thought that Wake would be tied for last.

First, let’s look at the surprisingly good news out of Charlottesville.

During my preview series prior to this season, I joined the masses in completely writing off the Cavaliers. Thinking this would be a lost season, I said the main goal for new coach Dave Leitao would be to get his players to buy in to a new culture in the Virginia
basketball program.

Instead of the country club environment prevalent in the Pete Gillen days, this season needed to be time for Leitao’s players to get serious, work hard, keep their noses clean, and play disciplined basketball. Any victories that came out of this would be a bonus. It’s fair to say that the Cavaliers are already deep into a bonus situation.

I am astonished at how quickly Leitao has changed the culture of this basketball program. They won recent home games vs. North Carolina and Miami because they were tougher
than both opponents. When is that last time the word toughness has been used to describe Virginia basketball? Probably well back into Terry Holland’s career on the sidelines.

Even in their 82-63 loss at Duke, the Cavaliers hung tough, bouncing back from a 20-2 deficit to start the game. Virginia may have even made a game of it without J. J. Redick’s 40 points and his ridiculous 8-10 performance beyond the arc.

The Virginia front line was overmatched trying to do anything against Shelden Williams, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Jason Cain and Laurynas Mikalauskas (this guy needs a nickname) have both provided surprising strength defending the low post and working the boards. They don’t score a lot, but they do contribute enough that opposing defenses at least have to pay attention to them.

That gives the Cavalier backcourt of Sean Singletary and J. R. Reynolds some room to work. Singletary struggled with Sean Dockery in his jersey Saturday night, but Reynolds helped pick up the slack. They are both excellent shooters, and Singletary brings the added dimensions of
ball handing and penetration.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Virginia doesn’t gradually slide down toward the bottom of the conference standings. After all, I wrote earlier in the season that they were clearly the worst team in the conference. I was clearly wrong about that, but they are still one of the least talented squads this season. It just proves again what a difference hard work and a good attitude can make.

I’ve already penciled in Dave Leitao’s name for ACC Coach of the Year. Let’s see somebody do a better job in February and March.

One coach definitely not in the running for any awards this season is Wake Forest’s Skip Prosser (although I do recognize categories like “Most Disappointing” in my CourtMaster awards, and he’s clearly got a shot there).

Since Prosser came to Winston-Salem from Xavier, the Deacons have been one of my favorite teams. They haven’t played a lot of defense, and they’ve struggled in March, but they sure have been a lot of fun to watch. Not only that, they’ve been good.

Wake Forest has not finished lower than third in the ACC during Prosser’s first four seasons, claiming first place in 2002-03 and second place last year. They finished in the Top 10 in the final AP polls both of those seasons.

It’s amazing how quickly the wheels can come off the cart, isn’t it? Wake currently has a 12-8 overall record, but their 1-6 mark in the ACC ties them for last with Virginia Tech. Even worse, I noticed while watching their last two home games, losses to Florida State and Tech, that much of the enthusiasm Skip Prosser worked so hard to bring into Lawrence Joel Coliseum (better known as “The Joel”) has already dissipated.

The Demon Deacons have already lost four home games, their most since 1999-2000, and could post their worst home and overall records since Dave Odom’s first year as coach in 1989-90. After the disastrous home losses to the Seminoles and Hokies last week, count on it. Wake Forest is done for this season and perhaps longer.

I’ve given the Deacons a lot of love over the years, but it looks like Skip Prosser’s run could be over. His three best players, Justin Gray, Eric Williams, and Trent Strickland, are all seniors, and so is key reserve Chris Ellis. None of the bench players like Kyle Visser, Michael Drum, and Harvey Hale have shown me that they are anywhere near ready to step into the departing seniors’ shoes next year.

There just doesn’t seem to be any on-court chemistry with Wake this season. It certainly would be a different story if Chris Paul was manning the point guard position, but he’s not and there does not appear to be a player on the roster that can come close to filling that void. Gray and Williams have had some outstanding games, but neither player has done so consistently enough to carry the team and make a positive difference once their current slide (six losses in their last seven games) began.

The Deacons have never played particularly good defense under Prosser, but they had the firepower to overcome that deficiency. That is not the case this season, and even more galling to Wake fans had to be comments made by television analyst Dan Bonner during yesterday’s game.

Bonner, correctly in my opinion, pointed out that Virginia Tech’s surprising win was largely due to the fact that, even without two key players, the Hokies were tougher then the Deacons. True, Wake was without Justin Gray, who was sick, but no one was tough enough to step up and make the difference.

I think Skip Prosser is a fascinating man and a good guy, but he may have done all he can with the Deacons’ basketball program. If Cincinnati comes calling, as so many people think they will, I would have to think Prosser will listen.

The CourtMaster’s Briefs

Kudos to Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg (God knows he won’t be getting many of those this season) for the way he handled the Deron Washington incident. Washington stepped on Lee Melchionni’s face while Lee was down on the court toward the end of Duke’s win over Virginia Tech Thursday night. Greenberg escorted Washington to the Duke locker room after the game, where both apologized to Melchionni and Coach K.
Virginia Tech A.D. Jim Weaver then quickly suspended Washington for the Hokies’ next
game, with the concurrence of Greenberg.

The Hokies were also without center and leading scorer Coleman Collins, who went home to be with his terminally ill father, for their trip to Wake Forest. Please join me in offering prayers for Collins and his family.

Virginia Tech got an amazing performance from seldom used A. D. Vassallo in their win Saturday at Wake. Coming in to the game, the freshman had only scored in double figure three times, vs. Mount St. Mary’s and two MEAC schools. He blew up against the Deacons, scoring 29 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Hokies to their first conference win of the season. It was a good moment for a team with a dark cloud hanging over it.

Maryland Coach Gary Williams tied the record for most coaching victories in school history (348) when his Terps beat Georgia Tech Wednesday night. He shares the record with “The ‘Ol Lefthander,” Lefty Driesell. Although his program has slipped a bit over the last couple of seasons (for more on that, check out my blog at www.thecourtmaster.net), this is still a remarkable accomplishment. Additionally, the Georgia Tech win pushed Williams past Frank McGuire for third in all-time ACC victories with 143 behind only Coach K and Dean Smith.

I don’t believe Williams has yet earned induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame. I strongly feel that any college coach needs to take at least two groups of players to the Final Four to earn that distinction. Williams has taken the Terps there twice, but with essentially the same group of players. That does not diminish what he has accomplished in 17 seasons of coaching at his Alma Matter.

There would be no $100 million arena sitting on the College Park campus without his efforts. He made people respect Terrapin basketball, something he had to work very hard to earn. The fallout from the Len Bias death and the dark days of coach Bob Wade and the probation Wade dragged Maryland into made that a nearly insurmountable task.

Williams’ loyalty to the school can not be overstated, along with his philanthropy toward the university and the community. Gary Williams’ tenure at Maryland, while far from perfect, is still admirable. His legacy at the school is quite secure.

North Carolina’s Wes Miller had an interesting streak broken in the Tar Heels’ win over Arizona. Miller’s last 28 baskets had been three-pointers before he scored a two-pointer against the Wildcats.

As I put the finishing touches on another Pulitzer caliber column, I have to comment on what a terrific Sunday of ACC hoops I had the pleasure to enjoy. There was a double-overtime game (NC State winning at Clemson), a single-overtime game (Miami pulling out a win at Florida State) and Boston College having to scratch and claw past a game Georgia Tech team. From the vantage point of my chambers, you just can’t beat ACC basketball.

That’s what I think. Let me know what you think on the message board or by e-mail at
thecourtmaster@aol.com.

Until next week, court is adjourned!