Friday, November 19, 2004

The ACC is primed to make the ultimate point in St. Louis.

Though the basketball leviathan on the Atlantic seaboard long has been acclaimed as the nation’s premier hoops league, even ardent fans must have been surprised when three ACC members appeared among the top four in the recently released AP preseason poll — Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and North Carolina lining up behind top-ranked Kansas.

Such unilateral dominance has occurred only once in the 55-year history of the AP poll. Two years ago, the Big 12 saw three of its members (Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas) earn similar preseason pre-eminence. But this season’s ACC dwarfs that edition of the Big 12 both in depth and individual talent when the poll presence of No.11 Duke, No.15 Maryland and No.19 N.C. State and an NBA lottery’s worth of All-American candidates are factored in.

“Insane,” said Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser when asked to give a one-word description of this season’s version of the ACC. “I can’t give you any historical perspective on this Frankenstein because college basketball has never seen anything like it.”

Said Georgia Tech’s Paul Hewitt: “I’ll tell you how tough this league is. I asked [Tech guard] Will Bynum what was the biggest difference in the run we made to the NCAA tournament finals from the regular season, and he said, ‘Coach, once we got out of the ACC, the games dropped in intensity level.’ That was last year, when we didn’t think the league could get any better. It has.”

In fact, the ACC is so top-loaded with extraordinary teams this season that it’s only a slight stretch to envision the league matching the Big East’s feat of 1985, when that conference sent three teams to the Final Four (Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s).

“That’s way out there, man,” said North Carolina center Sean May. “But if it’s ever going to happen again, this could be the season. It certainly looks like the year of the ACC.”

And inside the land’s top league, it’s undoubtedly the year of the point guard.

How good is the ACC’s crop of playmakers? Every preseason publication tabs four league point guards on its first- and second-team all-conference lists. And Lindy’s completely scrapped the traditional system of picking units by position, placing three point guards on its all-ACC team.

Not coincidentally, the three points in question (Wake’s Chris Paul, Tech’s Jarrett Jack and North Carolina’s Raymond Felton) direct the league’s top-ranked teams, providing a common thread between the ACC behemoths.

“You could make the argument that the top four point guards in the nation all play in the ACC,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, adding Maryland’s John Gilchrist to the mix. “And it’s tough to argue against Chris Paul as the preseason player of the year.”

Nobody in the league has collected more preseason plaudits than Paul, who took ACC Rookie of the Year honors over NBA lottery pick Luol Deng last year after averaging 14.8 points, 5.9 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 2.7 steals for the Demon Deacons. To borrow his coach’s hyperbolic adjective, Paul’s line in a losing effort against Maryland in the ACC quarterfinals (30 points, nine assists, zero turnovers) was insane. And after the Deacons were ousted by top-seeded Saint Joseph’s in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, Hawks coach Phil Martelli authored the defining quote of Paul’s freshman campaign:

“Anybody that doesn’t think Wake is going to contend for the national championship as long as Chris Paul is in school has lost his mind.”

The 6-foot sophomore might lack Jack’s braun and Felton’s flash, but he has an abundance of the two commodities coaches covet perhaps as much as raw talent in their playmakers — poise and roundball acumen. Much like former Saint Joseph’s standout Jameer Nelson, Paul achieves the point guard’s ultimate goal like no other player in the nation: He makes the players around him better … exponentially better.

Unlike Jack and Felton, Paul never seems to force his game. His court awareness, basketball instincts and understanding of offensive flow are uncanny. He’s equally comfortable in transition or in halfcourt sets. And he’s startlingly selfless, almost to a fault.

“Sometimes I wish he was a little more selfish,” Prosser said. “But how can you discourage a guy who’s so intent on making sure everyone is involved? Honestly, he’s a dream.”

Just because Paul’s intangible qualities are what separate him from the pack, don’t think the player teammates nicknamed “the Mayor” and “the President” for his omnipresent smile and ingratiating magnetism isn’t also gifted with outrageous skills. Though he’s a distribution-first dynamo, Paul shot 46.5 percent from behind the 3-point arc last season and used his smooth quicks to get to the rim at will when needed.

“I don’t remember a player in recent years who could dominate a game in as many different ways as Paul,” Rivals basketball analyst Jerry Meyer said. “He can beat you with his head, his heart, his shot, his hops, fullcourt, halfcourt — you name it. Paul has it all.”

Except size. That’s why some experts believe Jack (6-3, 205 pounds) might be the best NBA prospect among the ACC’s elite trio of guards. The Georgia Tech junior with the rippling pro build blossomed for the Yellow Jackets last season, averaging 12.5 points, 5.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds and driving Tech’s run to the national title game. Jack, a Fort Washington native who was primarily an off-guard in high school, is still learning the nuances of playing the point.

“He made huge strides in that regard last year,” said Hewitt. “He always brought us supreme confidence and energy, which everyone around him feeds on. But by the end of last season, he was seeing the game as a point guard.”

Jack’s grasp of the position improved so dramatically last season that he was named MVP of the St. Louis regional after pushing Tech to its first Final Four appearance since 1990. His strength and athleticism make him virtually impossible to stop off the dribble, and pro scouts uniformly agree he has the best vision in the conference. But if Jack wants to once again be the star of St. Louis (the site of this season’s Final Four) and beyond, he’ll need to improve his perimeter shooting (31.6 percent from 3-point range).

That’s the same primary criticism usually leveled at Felton (31.2 percent), who leads the league’s point trio in raw talent. Felton led the league in assists last season (7.1). And nobody in the college game can match the 6-2 junior’s baseline-to-baseline burst with the ball.

“Felton is a blur,” said one coach who preferred to remain anonymous. “Nobody comes close when it comes to the jaw-dropping play. People question his jumper, but I think control is where he could make the most improvement. He forces his game and leans on his athleticism a little too often.”

In the control department, perhaps Felton’s top priority this season involves controlling egocentric Tar Heel shooting guard Rashad McCants, the league’s super selfish scoring machine,

McCants has been an uber-talented distraction since the day he arrived in Chapel Hill. This preseason he made headlines and riled coach Roy Williams by asserting that playing college basketball was so personally limiting it was like being in jail.

Williams hardly attempts to hide his feelings about McCants. Asked earlier this week about the injured shoulder that has limited McCants’ preseason practice time, Williams remarked, “Miraculously, he doesn’t have any pain when he shoots.”

With Williams and McCants at odds, and freshman forward phenom Marvin Williams joining the team’s already suspect chemistry, perhaps Felton should earn All-American honors if he keeps the baby blues from complete combustion.

“He’s our glue, the guy that keeps all the pieces together,” said May of Felton. “If we cut down any nets, he gets the first snip.”

It’s tough to pick a favorite, but nobody should be surprised if an ACC point guard is holding the scissors in St. Louis.w

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