clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Al Featherston On A Great ACC Thursday!

TAMPA -- On a day when California upset UCLA and Miami knocked off red-hot Maryland, N.C. State’s overtime victory over No. 21 Duke is merely a small blip on the national radar.But in the historical context of the ACC Tournament, Duke’s first-round loss to the Wolfpack is a monumental event. It ends the longest reign of tournament domination any team has managed since the conference was founded 54 years ago. It’s the first time since 1997 that the Blue Devils won’t be around for the tournament title game.

And it’s first time in ACC history that Duke won’t appear in the ACC quarterfinals.

“It really hurts a lot,” junior tri-captain DeMarcus Nelson said after Duke’s 85-80 loss. “I’ve been here two years and in my two years we’ve won the tourney. Not being able to have that opportunity this year really hurts.”

Duke had won seven of eight previous ACC titles, losing only in overtime to Maryland in the 2004 title game during that span.

But there’s a huge difference between this Blue Devil team and those that have gone before. There’s little experience on the roster and nobody who could be described as a great player -- not at this point in his career.

“We know that we’re not a great basketball team and have never been a great basketball team,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “But we’ve been a really good basketball team most of the year. We are not playing that way right now.”

Krzyzyewski is most concerned by the breakdown of his team’s defense. All season, the Blue Devils survived -- and at times prospered -- due to one of the nation’s most effective defenses. But in the last three games, Duke has surrendered 85 points (to Maryland), 86 (to North Carolina) and now 85.

“We have not played well defensively for two weeks,” Coach K said. “We have to play defense. We’re just not going to win ballgames unless we play defense. We’re not playing together on the defensive end and they took advantage of that.” N.C. State scored 41 points in the second half, shooting 62.5 percent from the field. The Pack was 3-of-3 from the field in the overtime and outscored Duke 15-10 in the extra five minutes.

So what’s the problem?

“You have to talk on defense,” Krzyzewski said. “In the last two weeks, we’re not communicating on defense, so guys are playing individually and not collectively. The most important thing for team man-to-man defense is communication, coordinated with effort. If you don’t talk very well, you’re looking around. You’re not concentrating on what you’re doing. You’re reacting to the offense.”

Duke’s earliest tournament exit in history will give Krzyzewski three extra days to prepare for next week’s NCAA Tournament.

“We have to move on from this and somehow find a way to look back on this and make it a growing opportunity for our team,” Nelson said.

A reporter asked Krzyzewski if it would be possible to turn things around in the short time before NCAA play starts -- either Thursday or Friday of next week.

“When you turn from playing well to playing not so good in a short period of time, you can the other thing around,” Krzyzewski said. “We just have to use the time we have now and try and correct that.”

The odds of Duke turning its ACC Tournament failure into an NCAA success aren’t great. If I can subjectively view Krzyzewski’s ugly ACC Tournament losses and what happened to those teams in the NCAA Tournament:

-- 1985 Duke lost to Georgia Tech in the semifinals in a game that saw junior Mark Alarie go down early with a hip pointer. Alarie was still hurting a week later when Duke beat Pepperdine in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Another injury to David Henderson led to a second-round loss to Boston College.

-- 1987 No. 3 seed Duke was upset by No. 6 seeded N.C. State in the ACC quarterfinals -- in overtime. The Blue Devils reached the Sweet 16 with victories over Texas A&M and Xavier, but lost to eventual national champion Indiana in the regional semifinals.

-- 1990 No. 2 seed Duke was embarrassed by Georgia Tech in the semifinals. After the game, senior Phil Henderson blasted his teammates, calling them “a bunch of babies.” Duke responded by winning five straight NCAA games and reaching the NCAA title game in Denver (where they were blown out by UNLV).

-- 1993 No. 3 seeded Duke was upset by Georgia Tech in the first round. Duke was also upset by Jason Kidd and California in the NCAA second round.

-- 1996 No. 4 seed Duke, shorthanded after Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski, were banged up, were beaten badly by No 5 Maryland in the quarterfinals. Both were still hobbling when Duke was eliminated by Eastern Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament -- still Krzyzewski’s only first-round NCAA Tournament loss (Note: Duke had a bye in 1984, so the loss to Washington was in the second round).

-- 1997 No. 1 seed Duke was upset by No. 8 seed N.C. State in the first round. Duke, a second seed in the NCAA Tournament, scraped out a win over Murray State in the first round in Charlotte, but lost to Providence (coached by Pete Gillen!) in the second round.

Now, you might quibble with my list of bad or ugly ACC Tournament losses, but by my reckoning, Duke has followed such defeats with a good NCAA showing just twice -- the 1990 run to the NCAA title game and in 1987, when a rebuilding Duke team did well to reach the Sweet 16 before losing a very respectable game to Indiana. So that’s one very good and one pretty good NCAA showing in six chances after bad ACC Tournament defeats. It’s not impossible that this team will succeed next week, but the odds are against it.

Again it’s subjective, but I’d define NCAA success for this team as reaching the Sweet 16.

“I’m not saying we’re going to win the NCAA championship,” Krzyzewski said. “But we can play better. It’s next play … next thing. Let’s get on with it.”


Just a word about Thursday night’s victors. It’s hard not to feel a little empathy for Sidney Lowe, who has breathed some energy into a program that has been a very big part of ACC history.

Lowe himself is a link to one of N.C. State’s great moments -- the miraculous 1983 run to the NCAA championship. He was the ACC Tournament MVP in the three games that kick-started that title drive.

“At this point, we’ve got nothing to lose,” Lowe said. “We just want to finish our season strong. There’s a place we want to be, but we have to win the entire thing to get there.”

That’s not likely, but you have to wonder what N.C. State’s position would be if senior point guard Engin Atsur had not missed 12 games with a hamstring injury. Atsur didn’t play in Duke’s lopsided victory over the Pack, but he was a huge factor in the rematch. He poured in 21 second-half/overtime points and was a steadying influence in the face of some strong Duke runs.

However, it was Brandon Costner who did the most damage. He scored 30 points, the second highest total for a freshman in N.C. State history. Duke tried a number of defenders on him, but couldn’t stop the 6-10 freshman on the pick and roll.

It looked very much like the game Krzyzewski’s Team USA lost to Spain in last summer’s World Championships. If he couldn’t stop the pick and roll with Shane Battier, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James defending, how could you expect him to stop it with David McClure, DeMarcus Nelson and Josh McRoberts?

Obviously, Gerald Henderson would have helped. The athletic, 6-5 freshman was suspended for the N.C. State game due to his hard foul on UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough last Sunday. Henderson was out running between sessions Thursday, but during the Duke-State game he sat in the stands behind the Duke bench, wearing a white shirt and a yellow tie (a tribute to Bobby Cremins, maybe?).

In an overtime loss, any little thing could have turned the tide. But you can’t tell. If Henderson had played, maybe Marty Pocius wouldn’t have got 17 minutes -- enough to generate his career high 14 points. Or maybe he could have defended the pick and roll better than anyone else in the game.

Who knows?

The only certainty is that the 2007 ACC Tournament is over for Duke and if the Blue Devils have just one more chance to redeem what is for them a lackluster season.




Can a NCAA bid really turn on such a questionable call?

Both Clemson and Florida State were the ultimate NCAA bubble teams going into Thursday’s noon ACC Tournament opener. And even though both coaches insisted that their teams deserved a bid anyway, the ACC’s No. 8 and No. 9 seeds played like they knew their postseason fate was at stake.

Florida State came out on top, thanks to a controversial foul call by official Sean Hull that is certain to rank with Fred Hickel’s scoreboard call as one of the most disputed decisions in ACC Tournament history.

Here’s the setup. After 21 lead changes, the game’s tied for the eighth time at 66-all when FSU’s Isaiah Swann forces Cliff Hammonds into a backcourt violation with eight seconds left. The Seminoles call a 30 second timeout and set up a play to get the ball into the hands of senior Al Thornton, who already has 24 points. Thornton drives to his right in the foul-line area where he awkwardly slips as he tries to put up a shot. James Mays comes over to block the off-balance shot cleanly. There appears to be minimal contact between Thornton and K.C. Rivers (contact that appears to be initiated by Thornton), but Hull’s whistle blows and he calls Rivers for a two-shot foul.

Thornton goes to the line with 1.5 seconds left and makes the second of the two free throws to give FSU a one-point win.

Afterwards, even Thornton was surprised to get the two shots.

“You usually don’t get that call,” he said. “I think the refs were letting us play throughout the game, so I thought it was going to go overtime. So I was shocked to get the call.”

The narrow win could be enough to get Florida State (20-11) into the NCAA Tournament. Or maybe not -- some commentators think the ‘Noles need to upset North Carolina in Friday’s semifinals.

“After our experience last year, I’m only going to worry about the things I can control,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said when asked if this was the magic win. “I thought we deserved to be in last year.”

And Purnell thinks Clemson (21-10) has done enough to get in this year. Clemson put out a one-page “resume” before the game, detailing the team’s accomplishments. After the loss, Purnell was asked to make his team’s case for a bid.

“I’d say our body of work,” he said. “The strength of this league … 20 wins … wins over top 50 opponents … etc, etc., etc.”

Personally, I think it’s that second etcetera that will sway the committee members. Actually, this loss almost certainly sends Clemson back to the NIT, where the Tigers might be able to derail Dave Odom’s bid for a third straight NIT championship.

Purnell and his players will look back on the FSU loss as a huge missed opportunity -- even beyond the bad call at the end. When Rivers scored a driving shot with just over four minutes left, Clemson was up 66-61 -- the team’s biggest lead of the second half.

In the team’s next five possessions, Clemson had:

-- a missed layup by James Mays

-- a missed layup by Trevor Booker (actually blocked by Thornton)

-- a missed layup by Vernon Hamilton

-- a charging foul on Rivers (his shot was blocked by Thornton anyway)

-- the turnover by Hammonds, when he bounced the ball off his own leg

After Thornton’s go-ahead free throw with 1.5 seconds left, Clemson botched its final chance. Booker -- instead of throwing the ball down court and giving his team a chance -- bounced the ball into Hamilton about five feet away from him. His 65-foot desperation heave didn’t come close … and was too late anyway.

Of course, FSU wasn’t perfect either. It appeared from courtside that guards Swann and Toney Douglas were conspiring to keep the ball away from Thornton down the stretch. The FSU star had 18 points at the half, but only got eight shots in the second half.

Thornton, my choice for ACC player of the year (he was runnerup to Jared Dudley), finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and a key block late in the game. He actually got off to a slow start with four points (on 2 of 4 shooting) and four turnovers in his first 11 and a half minutes. But with 8:30 left in the first half, Thornton ripped off his headband, threw it towards the FSU bench, then ran down court and hit a long jumper. He poured in 14 points in the final eight minutes of the half and didn’t miss another shot.

So what, he was asked, was going on with the headband?

“I usually take the headband off when there’s a lot of physical play,” Thornton said. “Just before I pulled it off, I thought I got fouled … when I get aggravated, the headband comes off.”

One final note: Clemson fans will complain -- maybe with some justification -- about Hull’s controversial call. But keep in mind that there are a lot of questionable calls in any game. Just as an example, a few minutes before the game’s climax, Clemson was leading by one when the Seminoles ran the shot clock down. Douglas, just in front of the FSU bench, pump-faked Hammonds into the air. The Clemson defender landed on Douglas as he went up for a 3-point try. The fall went about 10 feet straight up in the air, but nothing was called.

That call was, if anything, a more clearcut officiating mistake than the Hull call at the end. But because it wasn’t in the final seconds, it will be ignored while the Rivers “foul” on Thornton will be replayed and analyzed a million times.

Note: Give FSU point guard Anthony Toney the “Ivory Latta Award” for the first day. He went down hard early in the second half. After being worked on for several minutes, two FSU trainers helped him stagger to the bench.

Douglas returned to the game exactly 15 seconds later.


For someone who always complains about playing the ACC Tournament in North Carolina, it’s amazing how much better Gary Williams’ teams have performed on Tobacco Road than on those occasions when the tournament has been held outside the state.

He’s 14-13 in North Carolina with a title in Greensboro (2004) and a second-place finish in Charlotte (2000). He’s 1-3 outside the state -- 1-1 in Atlanta; 0-1 in Washington and now 0-1 in Tampa. The same was true for Lefty Driesell (who won his only title in Greensboro) and Bud Milliken (who won his only title in Raleigh). Overall, Maryland has a winning record at just one of the nine buildings to host the tournament -- that’s the Greensboro Coliseum.

But Miami’s victory means that the two Florida schools have taken advantage of geography -- at least so far. And the ‘Canes have provided a compelling argument against those who suggest the ACC ought to eliminate its final four teams and go back to a three-day tournament.

“We never gave up,” Miami guard Jack McLinton said. “We had a bad season, but we knew the tourney was coming up and that gave us a reason to keep working.”

Miami wasn’t supposed to be very good this season. But Frank Haith couldn’t have imagined that he’d lose senior center Anthony King in the season’s eighth game (just too late to get a hardship ruling). He also lost sophomore Adrian Thomas, his best defender, early. And just after upsetting Maryland in College Park in early January, Haith lost big man Jimmy Graham for the next six weeks. If that wasn’t enough, sophomore Denis Clemente, who was starting to play great, was suspended for the season two weeks ago.

“This team has been through a lot,” Haith said. “But our kids have found a way. I believe good things are going to happen to this ball team -- either this year or next year.”

Maryland’s Williams appeared to be dumfounded by the outcome of the game. He came to Tampa with the ACC’s hottest team, but was sent home by the ACC’s last-place team.

The veteran coach didn’t bring up his 2002 national championship in the postgame press conference, but he did introduce some new math -- twice claiming that Maryland finished this season tied for second in the ACC. Actually, the Terps tied (with Boston College and Virginia Tech) for the second-best record in the ACC. But North Carolina and Virginia tied for the best record, meaning Maryland actually tied for third place.

Still, give Gary credit -- when a sympathetic reporter suggested that winning the ACC Tournament is not important (SHE pointed out that Maryland won the national title in 2002 after losing in the ACC tourney), he refused to blow off the ACC event.

“What I’d rather do is do what Duke did when they won their [national] title and win the ACC title too,” he said. Only then did he add the obligatory, “Next week this won’t matter. We’ll go back and work on this and next week we’ll be a better team.”

It’s going to be a long trip back to College Park for the Terps, especially for the team’s cheerleaders and pep band,. Their plane flight fell through and they had to bus 19 hours down to Tampa … and now face a 19 hour drive back to campus.


The last game of the first four-game day is usually a dog.

The conference insists on listing the final game of the first day (whether its Thursday or, in the old days before expansion, Friday) at 9 p.m., even though it rarely starts before 9:30. Both teams are usually frazzled by the time tipoff arrives after sitting around all day, allowing the pressure to build. In addition, the fans are anxious to leave, so if either team opens up any kind of lead, the stands empty long before the final gun.

I do remember one memorable late Friday night game. Actually, the game itself wasn’t very memorable as Wake Forest routed Mike Krzyzewski’s second Duke team in the final game of the 1982 quarterfinals. The Deacons were up almost 40 when in the final seconds, Coach K pulled senior Vince Taylor from the game.

There were only a few thousand fans left in the Greensboro Coliseum at that moment, but all of them stood to honor Taylor, a respected player who had started his career playing for Bill Foster’s powerhouse teams, but ended it carrying Coach K’s worst team in 1982. It was a remarkable moment for the handful of people who stuck around for the day’s final moments.

Nothing like that happened late Thursday night in Tampa. Instead, Wake Forest went out and did what every other underdog did in the first round -- gave the favorite fits.

It was has to rank as the greatest first-round game ever played in the ACC Tournament (although that only goes back to 1992, when FSU made it a nine-team league). There were a lot of turnovers and too many fouls, but there were some heroic shots (how about Anthony Morrow’s game-tying 3-pointer at the end of the first overtime? Harvey Hale‘s two 3s in the second overtime?) and 226 points -- making it the highest scoring game in tournament history (beating a 109-108 three overtime game win by Maryland over N.C. State in 1978).

The Deacons gallant effort capped of the best first days in ACC history. In fact, the only comparable first day was in 1975, when there were just three quarterfinal games. All three 1975 games were hotly contested, but this year’s tournament generated four superb games on the opening day.

Forgive me if I don’t go into much detail. To be honest, I missed most of the game as I worked on the aftermath of Duke’s loss. In addition, I’m dead beat after 13 hours of basketball (it’s almost 1 a.m.) and can’t think of anything intelligent to say about Wake Forest’s victory -- except that it’s a pretty remarkable day when a win by the No. 11 seed over the No. 6 seed is only the second -biggest surprise of the day!

What will Friday bring?

A lot of people connected with the four teams with byes were gloating Thursday night about the outcome of the first round. They better be careful. So far in this tournament, it’s not a good idea for any favorites to get too comfortable.


-- Florida State is in danger of becoming the Hoyt Wilhelm of ACC basketball. Wilhelm is a Hall of Fame pitcher who hit a home run in his first major league at bat -- then completed a 20-year major league career without hitting another homer.

FSU entered the ACC in 1992 and promptly beat N.C. State in its first ACC Tournament game to reach the league quarterfinals. In the 15 years since, the Seminoles haven’t returned to the semifinals -- losing nine straight times in the quarterfinals.

The Seminoles have won a few first round games -- as they did Thursday in Tampa -- but they have not played on Saturday since that first tournament appearance in 1992.

-- While moving the ACC Tournament to Tampa has upset a lot of conference partisans, the Florida city has taken a major interest in the event. It might not be Greensboro or Charlotte, but Tampa has embraced the ACC far more than Atlanta or Landover ever did.

In an effort to shore up attendance for Thursday’s first-round games, the ACC asked ticket holders that didn’t play to attend Thursday’s games to turn their first-round tickets back in. When some 300 tickets were turned in, the Tampa Sports Authority offered them for sale to the public. Over 1,000 fans applied for the 300 tickets.

Despite the effort, the stands were half full when Clemson and FSU tipped off in the first half. Attendance improved throughout the game -- there might have been 14,000 in the 22,000-seat arena by the end of the first game.

FSU’s Al Thornton expects a better crowd Friday when the Seminoles play UNC. “I predict that it will be a sellout,” he said.

That’s a safe prediction -- the arena may or may not be filled to capacity for the quarterfinals, but all the seats will be sold.

-- Barry Jacobs released the coaches’ 12th annual All-ACC defensive team -- which predates the media all-defensive team by six years.

There were three differences between the media vote and the coaches vote, one that involved two Duke players. The media voted Josh McRoberts to their team. The coaches gave that spot to DeMarcus Nelson.

In fact, Nelson was the No. 2 vote-getter behind Virginia Tech’s Jamon Gordon with nine of 12 votes. McRoberts finished in as four-way tie for sixth in the coaches’ vote, along with Ekene Ibekwe, Reyshawn Terry and Deron Washington.

The coaches voted for Gordon, Nelson, Clemson’s James Mays, Clemson’s Vernon Hamilton and Maryland’s D.J. Strawberry. Only Gordon and Strawberry made the media’s team -- along with McRoberts, Ibekwe and Virginia Tech’s Zabian Dowdell.

-- Give Barry credit for editing the two end-zone scoreboards at the Forum. During the afternoon session, the long, ribbon message board read: “Tampa Bay Welcomes the ACC Tournament and it’s fans to the St. Pete Times Forum.”

Jacobs noticed that the word “it’s” was used incorrectly. It didn’t need the apostrophe. After bringing the mistake to the attention of ACC officials, the scoreboard was changed for the evening session to read: “Tampa Bay Welcomes the ACC and its fans to the St. Pete Times Forum.”

-- Tampa is almost 300 miles from the closest ACC school. Florida State claims that honor, although Tampa is almost exactly halfway between Tallahassee and Miami -- FSU is five miles closer.

But it should be noted that seven ACC schools are closer to Greensboro than any ACC school is to Tampa.

-- Interesting ACC spread in the St. Petersburg Times this morning. One quibble -- the newspaper picked the ACC’s “Most Overlooked Player”. Its choice? Boston College senior Jared Dudley.

Dudley was ACC player of the year. How does that equate to being overlooked?

Maybe the Times thinks he should have been elected Pope … or American Idol.

-- Tyler Hansbrough can be an annoying basketball player. But you’ve got to admire his sense of humor. Wednesday as UNC was leaving the Smith Center to make the trip to Tampa, he showed up wearing a Groucho Marx-like mask -- glasses, bushy eyebrows and moustache and a big nose.

“This is the mask I’ll be wearing,” Hansbrough told the handful of fans who showed up to see the Tar Heels off.

Hansbrough is expected to wear a plastic, see-through face mask in the tournament to protect the nose that was broken by Gerald Henderson Sunday.