In his review of Sunday's Academy Awards telecast, the Washington Post's Hank Steuver wrote about being in a crowd of reporters prior to the show "trying like crazy to get movie stars to say something interesting." Such was the case with ninety minute teleconference with the ACC coaches Monday morning. Each coach, with the exception of Duke's Joanne P. McCallie, had six minutes allotted to make a statement and respond to questions. The coaches were scheduled to appear in alphabetical order by institution, except that Wake Forest and Duke had their slots flipped. Because McCallie had the anchor spot, she answered questions for more than ten minutes.
The teleconference was essentially an ACC love fest, with nearly every coach talking about the strength of the conference, the wonderful folks running the tournament in Greensboro, and how the double bye format is just the best idea since sliced bread. With teams like Duke, NC State, and Boston College limping in to the tourney with some late season injuries, sometimes the coaches had to talk about the health of their teams coming into the weekend. Other times they were asked to talk about specific matchups - for example Clemson and Virginia Tech will face each other for the second time in less than a week. Virginia Tech cruised to a 74-48 win in Blacksburg this past Thursday, and will now open the tournament in the twelve versus thirteen match up at one o'clock Wednesday afternoon.
The other Wednesday games are number ten Virginia against number fifteen Boston College and eleventh seeded Wake Forest taking on fourteenth seeded Pitt. This is the game of most interest to Maryland fans, because the winner of this game moves on to play North Carolina in the last game of the second round. The winner of that game will be the Terrapins' quarter final opponent Friday night.
So, let's take a look at those three squads, beginning with the team Maryland is least likely to face, the Pitt Panthers. As one of the league's new additions from the former Big East, the Panthers are clearly a team that is not built to win in the ACC. Pitt won three games in their first season in the conference and they escaped being the fifteenth seed by virtue of a two point win at home over Boston College. Their first round opponent Wake Forest finished 5-11 in conference play and won 74-70 at Pitt in early February.
Pitt is an undersized team that rarely puts a player over six feet tall on the floor. They're also an undermanned squad with six players getting seventy-five percent of the available minutes. Should they manage to scratch out a win against the Demon Deacons on Wednesday, they are unlikely to beat a rested Tar Heels team that beat the Panthers by thirty-six in their one regular season game. However, should the two upsets happen, an even more tired Panthers unit would then come into Friday night's game against a deep and fresh Maryland team that beat them 94-46 at Comcast Center in the only meeting of the year between the squads.
Now, what about the Demon Deacons? As I noted above, Wake won five games in conference play this season. Like the Panthers, the Demon Deacons enter the tournament on a four game losing streak. Unlike the Panthers, Wake Forest has experience playing in the ACC Tournament and they feature two players who are among the league's best - junior forward Dearica Hamby and senior guard Chelsea Douglas. Hamby leads the conference in scoring averaging 21.7 points and in rebounding with 10.9 per game. Terrapin fans certainly remember Douglas, who averages 18.5 points per game, for scoring 31 against the Terps in last year's 91-82 overtime loss to the second seeded Terrapins. The Deacons are certainly capable of pulling off an upset in the tournament as they came into the contest with Maryland last year on the heels of beating a higher seeded squad from Georgia Tech. In the conference season, Wake Forest dropped an eighteen point decision to North Carolina in Winston-Salem while falling by 27 to the Terrapins in College Park.
Having followed Supertramp's advice to "Take the Long Way Home", we come to the most likely match up under the Friday night lights - the Terps and the Tar Heels. Let's start by saying that other than perhaps giving the Terps a slight psychological advantage, I think you can deeply discount any impact Maryland's 79-70 win at Chapel Hill will have on this game if the Tar Heels are, indeed, the Terps' first opponent.
Why? To begin with, the Tar Heels are a young team without a senior on the roster. Three freshmen, Diamond DeShields, Alisha Gray, and Stephanie Mavunga lead Carolina in minutes played though only Mavunga has appeared in all twenty-nine games. The game against Maryland was the league opener for both teams and, as many have said before me, by this point in the season, freshmen aren't really freshmen anymore.
But speaking of freshmen, in that early season meeting, Diamond DeShields was playing through an injury that clearly hampered her. Though she scored 12 points in 29 minutes, she shot 3 of 13 and missed all four of her three point attempts. DeShields has come on to develop, along with Kaela Davis of Georgia Tech, into the leading candidates for Freshman of the Year in the ACC. DeShields is eleventh in the conference in scoring but since the start of conference play she has clearly raised the level of her game. In conference games only, DeShields is the fourth leading scorer at a clip of almost twenty per game.
On the other hand, North Carolina's youth has been apparent through an inconsistent season. Following their loss to Maryland, the Tar Heels won five straight. Then they dropped three in a row - losing at home to Syracuse and Miami and on the road at Georgia Tech. That losing streak stopped with a win against Duke at Cameron. Three consecutive wins followed before their shocking loss at home to Virginia Tech. The after effects of that game seemed to carry over to their trip to South Bend where they were run out of the gym in a 25 point loss to Notre Dame. However, playing Duke seems to a cure for what ails these Tar Heels and they closed out the regular season edging the Blue Devils 64-60 in Chapel Hill.
So, if the Tar Heels are indeed Maryland's opponent, then as Terrapins fans face the long wait to the last game of the day on Friday, the foremost question in their minds should be which North Carolina team will show up. If it's the squad that has beaten Duke twice, it could be a long tense night. If it's the team that fell to Virginia Tech and was blown out by Notre Dame then the Terps should have an easy trip to semi-final Saturday.
As for the Terps, Coach Frese is pleased with they way her team has closed out the season winning eight of the last nine games. With the roster circumstances so different from last year, I asked her how she would manage the team as they face the possibility of playing three games in three days. Will she continue the substitution pattern of the regular season or might she shorten her bench to draw on the experience of her upper classmen? "Obviously it will be a feel. It's been like that all season long. Sometimes we've had to shorten the bench and other times we've been able to go into our depth," she said. Adding, "If you do have to play multiple games in a row, I do like the fact that we feel like if a player's struggling or doesn't have the legs that night we are going to have fresh legs that we feel can come off the bench and be successful. As a coaching staff we feel like we have a lot of options."
The second season starts now. Let the games begin.