College hoops crank up with conference play

Jan 2, 2001 11:30 AM

With the end of the holiday season and the tournaments that go with them, college basketball is swinging into full gear. Most conferences are set to begin league play.

This season has been one of the best in recent memory when it comes to enticing inter-regional match-ups. It seems that almost every team residing in the Top 25 has played at least one Top 25 opponent. Squads like Duke, Arizona and Illinois have played almost nothing but tough competition, but the truest test for a college basketball team is its conference season.

After two consecutive seasons of getting just three tournament teams, the ACC is making a run at returning as the premiere league in the nation. Duke, as always, is among the top handful of teams in the country. They have the best point guard in the country in Jason Williams, great perimeter weapons, and senior leadership in Shane Battier. They aren’t as deep as they’ve been in the past, but the starting five, along with heralded freshman Chris Duhon, ensure the Blue Devils will have plenty of success throughout this season.

Virginia and Wake Forest both felt they deserved NCAA bids last season, but were left out in the cold. This season, both should be playing important games come March. Virginia had a big win a couple of weeks ago over Tennessee. They’re off to their best start since the 1992/93 season. The Cavaliers have tremendous balance, with six players averaging 10 points or more.

Wake Forest is also off to a great start, highlighted by a huge victory over Kansas, 84-53. The backcourt has been the catalyst for the Demon Deacons, as Craig Dawson and Robert O’Kelley have shot well from downtown, and played solid defense. Forward Darius Songalia also made a major contribution as the team’s best interior scorer. Center Josh Shoemaker has led the team in rebounding and has been a defensive force.

The two teams most thought would be competing with Duke going into the season are Maryland and North Carolina. Both have been a bit disappointing this season, but both are deep and talented. They’ll be heard from as the season moves on. Maryland, with Lonny Baxter, Terrence Morris, Juan Dixon and Byron Mouton, have as much ability as any team in the country, but they play small at times, and don’t seem to have the mental toughness to win the big game.

The Tarheels, on the other hand, are very tough, as evidenced by last year’s Final Four run, but their lack of perimeter quickness could come back to haunt them. North Carolina has plenty of size, with Kris Lang, Brendan Haywood and Julius Peppers, just back from football. Joseph Forte is a great scorer. Jason Capel can do a little bit of everything, but point guard may be Carolina’s Achilles heel. Two freshman, Adam Boone and Brian Morrison split most of the minutes early on, but Ronald Curry, also back from football, seems to have been given the nod recently. Curry is extremely talented, but has yet to make an impact on North Carolina basketball, thanks to injuries.

It seems the next toughest conference is the Big 10, with the top team in the nation in Michigan State, along with Illinois, Wisconsin and resurgent Iowa. Michigan State lost Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson after winning last year’s national championship, but they returned a host of talent, led by Charlie Bell, Andre Hutson and sophomore Jason Richardson. They also had one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, headed by center Zach Randolph. The Spartans play great defense, and have one of the best coaches in the country. They may find themselves winning their second straight title when this season is over.

Illinois has probably played the most ambitious schedule of any team in the country so far this season, and they’ve responded. Head coach Bill Self inherited a deep and veteran team, and a schedule to match. At 9-3 — with losses to Arizona, Duke, and most recently Texas — the Illini are poised to make a run at a top seed in the Big Dance. Frank Williams leads the team in the backcourt. Marcus Griffin and Brian Cook are the team’s top frontcourt players. Guard Cory Bradford, a fine player, has broken the record for most consecutive games with a three-point field goal, with 76. Robert Archibald and Lucas Johnson provide quality depth.

Wisconsin has had quite a season. Dick Bennett retired as head coach, but the Badgers haven’t missed a beat. They continue to impress with fine defensive team play.