Saturday, January 15, 2011

Losing season now possible for N.C. State

N.C. State's basketball season could quickly spiral downward if Saturday's 84-71 loss at Florida State was any indication. The Wolfpack was picked for fourth in the ACC this year in preseason, but that looks like a vast misjudgment by the media based on early results. It is now conceivable that State could have a losing season, and you can't imagine that athletics director Debbie Yow would judge Sidney Lowe favorably in that situation.

The Pack was never in the game at Tallahassee as a season-long indifference toward defense continued. "That was probably the worst defense I've seen us play in a long time," Lowe told The News & Observer. "It really hurt us."

Florida State shot 69 percent from the floor in the second half. For the game, the Seminoles never trailed, outscored State 20-8 on points off turnovers and held the Wolfpack to 19 first-half points.

Even more amazing was that State did not score a single point on a fast break, while FSU scored 11.

The stretch ahead could be gruesome for the Wolfpack. Duke visits the 19th, followed by Miami, at Clemson, at UNC, Virginia Tech and at Duke. State has some young talent, but this season could get even uglier fast.

Friday, January 14, 2011

North Carolina improves from an ugly win to a not so pretty win

North Carolina improved from an ugly performance against Virginia to merely a "not pretty" game against Virginia Tech as the Heels won 64-61.

After getting down by 16 in the first half, the Tar Heels went on a 9-0 run at the end of the first half to cut the margin to seven.

That stretch may have saved the game for the Heels. The run was highlighted by a pair of bank shots by freshman Kendall Marshall and an alley-oop pass from Marshall to John Henson for a dunk.

Virginia Tech had hit six threes, including five without a miss, but the Hokies did not score over the last six minutes of the half. Despite the Hokies having had a big lead and leading by seven, the game felt even. You just knew it was going to get closer.

Still, it took the Heels more than 10 minutes into the second half before they got the lead. It went back and forth before an 8-0 Carolina run put the Heels up 55-52 with 3:14 to go.

Harrison Barnes had his best stretch of the game with five of those eight points. The other three came on an unlikely triple from Marshall who swished it from out front.

Marshall wasn't the leading scorer but he was the leader and he seems well on his way to displacing starting point guard Larry Drew II. Marshall had nine points and nine assists without a turnover. Plus, he played 24 minutes as compared to 16 for Drew.

For more on the Virginia Tech game, please click here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

So much for going undefeated as Duke shoots just 31 percent

For all the pundits who saw Duke waltzing through the ACC regular season and tournament, think again. After a close victory at home against Maryland, Duke went down to Florida and fell to Florida State 66-61 tonight.

The Blue Devils managed to hit only 31 percent of their field goals, and relied too heavily on the three-point shot, hoisting up 35 of them.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski doesn't so much believe that as he believes Florida State's defense was just that good. "They just played great defense," Coach K said. "Their defense just dominated our offense for about 25 minutes."

He said his team played well the last 15 minutes or so but that Florida State played the full 40 minutes.

"Florida State played with an unbelievable amount of emotion and their defense was just great," he added. "I've said all along we're not a great team since Kyrie's (Irving) injury but we have a chance to be a good team."

Duke was ranked No. 1 and had won 25 straight games dating back to last season. Many were not only handing the ACC regular season title to the Devils but expecting them to go undefeated through the ACC tournament.

"Each team has to learn through tough experiences," Coach K said. "We're going to get everyone's best shot."

We said after the close win over Maryland that took late threes to win it, that it would be tough for Duke to go undefeated. Having the loss so early in the ACC season may actually help the Blue Devils. Running the table will still give Duke the ACC regular season title and there no longer will be that pressure and conversation about Duke being undefeated.

For their part, Florida State, 12-5, played well coming off a 12-point loss to Virginia Tech. Derwin Kitchen, who hit a big off-balanced baseline jumper late in the game, led all scorers with 22 points. Chris Singleton, who drained an open three with less than three minutes to play after Duke had cut the lead to one, added 18. Florida State hit five straight free throws over the last 34 seconds.

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said his players stuck to the game plan, kept their poise and made some big defensive stops. "I hope they (his players) understand now the way we have to play in order to be successful," Hamilton said.

Duke, 15-1, were led by Kyle Singler's 20 points and Nolan Smith's 19.

Pack coaches ultimately responsible for State's defensive lapses

It's only the first ACC game, but N.C. State's efforts Tuesday night in a 75-66 loss at Boston College continued what has been a recurring theme with the program in recent seasons.

"We just didn't defend," Lowe told the Associated Press after the game. "We had a three-point lead and I just think we relaxed a little bit. Going in, we talked about limiting their threes, but I think we just suffered from a lack of concentration on the defensive end."

When you break this quote down, you start to see some problems. First, Lowe said, "We talked about limiting their threes," which translates into, "The coaches told them what to do."

However, he concluded, "We just suffered from a lack of concentration on the defensive end." In other words, the players did not do what they were told. So the blame is subtly shifted from coaches to players.

Another way of looking at this would be to shift the blame from the players to the coaches. For example, why didn't the coaching staff have them better prepared? Why didn't the coaches have players on the floor who could play the necessary defense?

Ultimately, N.C. State has to play better defense to win in the ACC. And the responsibilty for that rests with Lowe and his staff.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rivera, another defensive-minded coach, a bit of an unknown quantity

Ron Rivera, the new coach of Charlotte's Panthers, is confusing to me. I've heard that he doesn't interview well for jobs and that's why he hasn't gotten a head coaching job until now. By all accounts, he did well at his press conference and by all accounts, former players like him and see him as a great motivator.

He supposedly didn't get along with Bears coach Lovie Smith. In fact, there were reports that the two had to be separated from a physical altercation. Rivera, despite many Bears fans preferring him over Smith, got the ax in Chicago a few years ago.

Rivera is certainly a solid defensive coach but, as Redskins fans know, Jim Zorn was a solid offensive coach too. It doesn't always translate to being a good head coach.

Rivera may turn out to be a solid pick but many Panther fans (after four straight defensive-minded coaches hired as the head man) understandably would have liked a higher-profile, offensive-minded guy like Harbaugh (who wasn't considered).

Perhaps Rivera can put together a good staff to get the offense moving again. (Names floating around for offensive coordinator are Rob Chudzinski, Marc Trestman and Ron Turner.)

While I would like to see Russ Grimm get a head coaching job somewhere, insiders speak highly of Rivera and he'll have a young team to mold. It doesn't take as long to turn NFL teams around anymore so anything is possible. And, remember, the Panthers have the first pick.

Rivera impressive in Panthers' debut

Ron Rivera won the press conference Tuesday. He spoke of how his Panthers players have to conduct themselves appropriately off the field, how his Latino heritage was a source of pride, and how his life in a military family - his father served for 32 years - helped shape him with a sense of determination and disciplline.

Perhaps most significantly, though, he spoke of bringing a tough level of play to the Panthers. Carolina has sought that from the beginning, from Dom Capers to George Seifert to John Fox and now Rivera. It's no accident every Panthers coach has come up on the defensive side.

"I’d like to be an aggressive, physical football team,” Rivera said, his voice rising. He expressed disdain for players who want to hit with their helmets and be otherwise fundamentally unsound. “I want to get back to tackling. I want to have a physical, no nonsense, get the job done identity.

"I think that’s important. I saw tape of the [Panthers] guys trying to give their best. I was pleasantly surprised."

Still, Carolina was far from being a dominant team last season. The defense just doesn't have many great players, and an offense that once could grind it out with the running game just floundered.

Rivera spoke highly of his new players. He described the offensive line as "solid," praised Steve Smith's abilities, said he was impressed by the young receivers and of course liked the talent and depth at running back. He also said Jimmy Clausen would get the early nod as the starter, although the new offensive coordinator and new quarterbacks coach would have input.

For a man who had been passed over for multiple jobs in the past, Rivera showed a sense of command and assurance. The toughness angle was significant - the Panthers aren't going to turn into the NFL's version of the Oregon Ducks.

But don't make a mistake about this - Ron Rivera has a tough job with a franchise long on hope and short on talent.

Pack finishes 25th, sets up for a strong 2011

N.C. State finished 25th in the final AP poll, which came on Tuesday morning. That finish completes what was a turnaround year for the Wolfpack, which finished 9-4 and won its bowl game.

Finishing in the rankings will help for next year. Voters tend to remember who got votes and who did not, and if Russell Wilson returns, the Pack could be formidable. State plays South Alabama, Central Michigan and Liberty at home, with a road game at Cincinnati. The Pack should win three, and possibly four, of those.

The ACC, after a poor year overall, still finished the 2010 season with four teams in the rankings. The highest was just No. 15 Virginia Tech (which finished 11-3),  followed by No. 17 Florida State (10-4) and No. 23 Maryland (9-4).

By the way, isn't it ridiculous to see Oregon lose on the last play of the game in the national title game and fall to third in the rankings? Does anyone really think No. 2 TCU, which played a weak schedule and squeezed by Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, would beat Oregon?

Of course not. Oregon clearly is the second-best team in the country.

Monday, January 10, 2011

UNC hires former Panthers defensive line coach

The University of North Carolina has hired Brian Baker as its defensive line coach, head coach Butch Davis announced Monday. Baker comes to Chapel Hill after serving the last two seasons as the defensive line coach with the NFL's Carolina Panthers.

A native of Baltimore, Md., Baker played linebacker at Maryland in the early 1980s and coached 11 seasons in the Atlantic Coast Conference at Maryland and Georgia Tech. Baker returns to the college game after spending the last 15 seasons in the NFL with stints at San Diego, Detroit, Minnesota, St. Louis and Carolina.

"I'm excited for the opportunity," said Baker. "I've always considered North Carolina one of the top athletic programs in the country, and I'm thrilled to be a part of a football program led by Coach Davis, who I believe is the best in the business."

Panthers close in on Chargers def. coordinator Rivera

San Diego Chargers coach Ron Rivera is expected to be named the head coach of the Carolina Panthers, according to Pro Football Talk. A press conference could be held as soon as Tuesday, according to some reports.

Rivera would replace John Fox, whose contract was not renewed after last season.

Tar Heels try to stay tenacious and resilient as Virginia Tech comes to town

In just the second ACC contest of the year, North Carolina is facing one of only two teams predicted to finish ahead of the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill Thursday night.

Virginia Tech, picked by ACC writers to finish second in the league to Duke, has won six games in row including a 71-59 ACC win over Florida State Saturday. All-ACC selection Malcolm Delaney is leading the way offensively and Jeff Allen is the leading defender and rebounder.

Carolina stands at 11-4 including an ugly win in Virginia Saturday.

"Our losses were against good teams but we just didn't play as well as we needed to play," UNC coach Roy Williams said during a teleconference Monday. "I think now the guys are understanding that we gotta step up and play. We're going to get everybody's best shot Nobody is going to roll over just because we're North Carolina."

Williams said he was proud of the tenacity it took of coming from 11 down against the Cavaliers when things weren't going well for them.

"Just because we haven't played well the last six minutes doesnt mean we can't play well the next six minutes," Williams said, adding that coaches try to get the players to focus on the next play. "I told them at halftime (of the Virginia game) 'that's about as bad as we can play.' I told them at the 10 minute mark 'we've been awful but we're still here and have a chance.' That's been important to our team and will continue to be important."

Lowe says he's happy with both point guards

Now that the ACC season has begun, don't expect NC State coach Sidney Lowe to change the way he's playing his point guards. He says both are getting better and settling in.

Many observers had expected freshman Ryan Harrow to have replaced senior starter Javier Gonzalez by now but it hasn't happened even though Harrow is averaging about two more minutes a game than Gonzalez.

"It's going to take both of those guys to play well for us," Lowe said. "They have to be ready to go and provide some direction on the floor and keep the push going. I'm very pleased with both of them right now."

Harrow has 52 assists compared to Gonzalez' 32 assists and is averaging 11 points a game compared to 5 points a game for Gonzalez. Still, Gonzalez has started every game.

Perhaps some senior leadership and the sense of paying dues plays into that decision. Lowe says that Gonzalez is pushing the ball up the floor better of late so, unless Lowe is playing possum, don't expect Harrow to start anytime soon.

The State team left early today to avoid weather on its trip to Chestnut Hill to play Boston College Tuesday at 9 p.m.

Close win over Maryland shows Duke it's no cake walk

National commentators have been talking about Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski breaking the coaching wins record this year during the NCAA tournament.

For that to happen, they'll have to run the table in the ACC regular season and tournament. After narrowly defeating Maryland in Durham, maybe it's time for Duke and everybody else to simply focus on the season as it goes along.

The Terrapins, who were picked to finish sixth in the ACC, led the Blue Devils by six in the second half and only trailed by two with just over five minutes left.

Either the game was a fluke, although it didn't feel that way, or Maryland is better than expected or Duke isn't the overwhelming favorite they've been played up to be.

Maryland's defense is certainly strong and the mystique of the Cameron Crazies doesn't seem to bother them (or most ACC teams these days for that matter).

Duke is still Duke but I'm not sure the Blue Devils will go undefeated if they need late-game threes by Andre Dawkins and Kyle Singler to hold off Maryland at home.

Virginia basketball star Scott now out for the season

The Virginia basketball program, which just gave North Carolina a tough game in Charlottesville Saturday, suffered a blow Monday when coach Tony Bennett announced senior Mike Scott has had a second surgery on his left ankle and is out for the season.

Scott, a 6-foot-8 senior, led the Cavaliers in 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds. "Guys will have to find a way. We don't have a dominant post player," Bennett said Monday.

Bennett said Scott had "a loose piece" in his ankle and the program had hoped the first surgery Dec. 16 would be successful. The Cavaliers next game is Saturday at Duke at 2 p.m.

Virginia hopes Scott will be awarded a medical redshirt.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

John Wall already a star for Wizards

Two years ago, John Wall was running the point for Word of God in Raleigh. Saturday night, he was the No. 1 pick for Washington Wizards and playing at Time Warner Arena in Charlotte.

The Bobcats won 104-89, but watching from midcourt, it was clear Wall is already one of the best players in the NBA. He had 16 points and 11 assists and played a fluid, confident game. Wall is explosive on the break but plays for a poor Wizards team with few players to build around. In watching the game, Wall almost seemed like Magic Johnson with Kareem and Worthy and all the parts that made him so great.

Wall is not Magic, of course, but he is electric, and his game is only going to improve. Charlotte's D.J. Augustin had 20 points and nine assists but, if you watched the game, Augustin did little impressive. He looked like a run-of-the-mill NBA guard while Wall was a star.

Two other points about the game jumped out. Gerald Wallace was out for Charlotte and Gerald Henderson of Duke started in his place. Henderson did not do much as a rookie, but he played hard, and well, against Washington. As expected, he hustled on defense, but he also shot with confidence and looked like a guy who will be in the NBA a while. Henderson finished with 19 points and nine rebounds.

By the way, the Bobcats also have former Duke signee Shaun Livingstone coming off the bench at point guard. Livingstone was one of the top players in the country but skipped college for the NBA, and you can see in his game how much he is missing. Livingstone is a miserable defensive player - rarely hustling on defense, always seemeing a step behind - and had seven points in backup duty for Charlotte.

Watching him, you couldn't help but wonder how much better he would be if he'd spent two years honing his game in the ACC.