ACC Hoops: Guards a key to winning

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 30, 2007

By Joedy McCreary

Associated Press

RALEIGH — Sidney Lowe knows the importance of having dependable guards. Nearly 25 years ago, he played point guard on North Carolina State’s last national championship team.

“Not to dismiss the importance of the big man, but I’ve always said when you have good guards, you always have an opportunity to win games,” the first-year Wolfpack coach said Monday. “A lot of times you’re going to have a pretty good ball club when you have good guards.”

Want an easy explanation for how well or poorly the state’s Big Four schools have played? Check their backcourts.

Consistently productive guard play — at both ends of the floor — is one reason North Carolina and Duke have found success so far. Meanwhile, youthful Wake Forest and short-handed N.C. State, their guards hindered by inconsistency and injuries, have sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“The nature of youth, unless they’re truly, truly special, is to be inconsistent,” Demon Deacons coach Skip Prosser said.

No. 4 North Carolina (17-2, 4-1) has moved to the head of the ACC behind freshman guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, who have shown a knack for getting the ball to low-post playmakers Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright. The team leads the ACC with nearly 20 assists per game and has the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league.

Meanwhile, Duke is doing it with defense. The No. 10 Blue Devils (16-3, 3-2) have the ACC’s best 3-point defense, allowing teams to shoot a paltry 27.5 percent from beyond the arc. No league team has allowed fewer made field goals, making the loss of J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams easier to handle.

“There’s even more of a need for defense — we scored easier with J.J. and Shelden and there were times you thought you could win offensively, at least the kids did,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “The other thing for us is, we have a bigger perimeter. … We’re deeper defensively, not offensively, and we have the personnel that can play better defense.”

Duke frustrated N.C. State throughout a 79-56 rout Saturday — holding them to 34 percent shooting while Wolfpack senior point guard Engin Atsur remained sidelined with an injury.

“We need to continue to get better at guard play. We need to continue to keep people in front of us and challenge those shots,” Lowe said.

N.C. State (11-7, 1-4) has the ACC’s worst assist-to-turnover ratio, and has played without Atsur for 12 of the past 13 games because of nagging injuries to his leg and hamstring. That has forced Lowe to shift Gavin Grant from his natural position of small forward.

“The hard part is the frustration with Engin’s situation, it’s more frustrating for our players than anyone because they’re the ones that have to go fight a battle every single day without him, and guys playing different positions,” Lowe said. “Gavin certainly takes that on a lot because he’s got to now handle the basketball in the backcourt quite a bit.”

Wake Forest (9-9, 1-5) starts two freshman guards and has only two seniors on the roster. The Demon Deacons have lost four straight and are the ACC’s worst team at defending the 3-point shot.

“We’re just bereft of guys in our upperclass,” Prosser said.

Point guard Ishmael Smith has been particularly streaky. He has two games with eight turnovers, including last week at Duke. But his flashes of brilliance — twice he has had 11 assists in a game — made a believer of North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose team visits Wednesday.

“His speed and quickness and ability to push the basketball and put pressure on the defense is the first thing that catches my eye,” Williams said.