Story by Chris Graham
Dick Vitale thinks the ACC got a “raw deal” only getting four teams into the Big Dance last March Madness.
The ESPN analyst and 2007 Basketball Hall of Fame nominee thinks the conference is going to get seven or maybe eight teams into the NCAA Tournament this year.
“I think eight is a little bit of a stretch. However, when you think about the eighth team, you think maybe if a team like, for example, Florida State now with Toney Douglas, who to me they would have been in had he not gotten injured, and I hope the committee really studies that and analyzes that, and Clemson is a long, long shot, and I think they certainly have to win the tournament – but both are capable of getting hot and winning the tournament. That’s how much balance there is in this tournament. There are so many clubs there that can win it,” Vitale said in an interview on this week’s “ACC Nation.”
The hottest team in the league just might be from the top of the middle of the pack – where Maryland enters the weekend on a six-game conference winning streak that has included wins over traditional conference powers North Carolina and Duke just in the last six days.
“If there really is a criteria to being hot – they’re a hot basketball team,” Vitale said. “I think one of the reasons is they’re getting great point-guard play out of Greivis Vasquez – he was brilliant against Duke, never was intimidated by the Duke crowd, just played, and almos had a triple-double. Michael Jones was making shots – he had 25 (points). D.J. Strawberry is as good as there is in the conference at leaking out and getting in transition. And Ekene Ibekwe is as good as anybody in the conference at blocking shots.
“Maryland is going to be a very dangerous basketball team,” Vitale said.
About those Dukies – Vitale warns anybody who wants to count Mike Krzyzewski’s team out that it is still Duke on the front of their uniforms.
“When people say Duke is down, you’ve got to think about this – they are not a vintage Duke team in terms of personnel with a great, great scorer. But they’re going to defend very well, and they’re going to control tempo – something they did not do against Maryland. Maryland got the tempo going their way, and it was really difficult for Duke to be able to get back and to score. They don’t score a whole lot – they score in the high 60s or maybe low 70s on a given night. But they’re still going to defend – and they’re still going to play very hard and be very competitive,” Vitale said.
“Remember in that four-game losing streak, three of those games were winnable games,” Vitale said of the midseason skid that put the Blue Devils temporarily under .500 in conference play.
“They still, when you look at some of the wins they’ve had, great wins over Georgetown, Indiana, Gonzaga, Air Force – this is a very, very dangerous team. I would not count them out. Hey, anytime you win the ACC Tournament seven out of eight years, I’m telling you now, don’t count them out,” Vitale said.
Up the road in Chapel Hill, preseason conference favorite North Carolina is struggling mightily – losing two in a row and four of its last eight to fall out of contention for the top seed in next week’s ACC Tournament.
Some are wondering if the slide is a sign that this UNC team just doesn’t have heart. Vitale said he doesn’t buy that.
“I’ll tell you what I do buy, though. I guess it’s a matter of semantics – I don’t think they’ve learned how to focus and how to really play every possession to realize how tough they are. And I think that really shows their youthfulness and how young they are,” Vitale said.
“I mean, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Brandan Wright, we forget that these kids were in high school last year – and here they are playing on the collegiate level, and not only playing, but being asked to be the best of the best,” Vitale said. “They’re very talented – but I don’t think they’ve learned how to focus. I don’t think it’s heart – I think it’s just the fact that they have not focused, especially defensively.
“That’s been the problem with North Carolina – breaking down defensively. They broke down against Virginia Tech, they broke down against Maryland, and you can’t win – you’ve got to play on that defensive side. And I think the young kids think that they can just beat people offensively. And that’s not the way it works,” Vitale said.
Vitale has said that he would vote for Boston College’s Jared Dudley from the pack of six top contenders for the ACC player-of-the-year award – and he is sticking to that.
“I think the fact that they’ve won 10 games in conference play, they lost their star shot-blocker in Sean Williams – probably the best shot-blocker in America – and yet he’s leading the conference in rebounding and scoring. That hasn’t been done since Antawn Jamison did it in 1998. So I would give the slight edge to Dudley,” Vitale said.
“Al Thornton has been brilliant for Florida State – but unfortunately they went through that losing streak without Toney Douglas, and that sets them back. Sean Singletary gets a lot of help from J.R. Reynolds, but has been great as well. Tyler Hansbrough has had some great, great moments – he’s the heart and soul of their inside game. They’re all really, really good, strong candidates,” Vitale said.
The coach-of-the-year race is wide open as far as Vitale is concerned.
“When you think about coach of the year, you’ve certainly got to give the edge to Seth Greenberg – and I would agree with you about Dave Leitao,” Vitale said of the coaches at Virginia Tech and Virginia, respectively.
“I’d also factor in the job that’s being done by Gary Williams at Maryland to get that club to regroup,” Vitale said.
“But there are so many great coaches in that league – and they’re all quality guys who really understand basketball, have a passion and love for what the game’s about. That’s what makes the ACC so unique and special,” Vitale said.