Wake Forest forward Josh Howard was a consensus preseason pick for Player of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the 6-foot-6 senior has justified that thinking by carrying the Demon Deacons into serious contention for the school's first men's conference tournament championship since 1996.
It's nearly impossible to watch highlights of a Wake Forest victory without witnessing Howard doing something to push the Demon Deacons over the top. Howard scores in a variety of ways, rebounds at both ends of the court, gets to the foul line consistently, routinely guards an opponent's chief scoring threat and consistently makes plays in the clutch.
"We all knew he was an outstanding player. Now he's such a complete player. His team gains confidence just by playing with him," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Howard.
"He really wants the ball and wants to make a play in critical situations. Everyone talks about his offense, but he will guard whoever is hot on the other team. I believe he's the best player in our league and one of the best in the country."
As a two-time All-ACC selection and a four-year starter, Howard did not exactly sneak up on anyone this season. But after dealing with injuries over the final six weeks of his junior year, Howard entered his final season with renewed focus as the undisputed leader of a young Demon Deacons squad.
"He was a guy who was somewhat beneath the radar screen late last year, and justifiably so, because of injuries," said Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser. "I don't know where we'd be without him. He seems to get better in a different phase of the game every night. It's the things he gives us in terms of intangibles that defines us in every way. He gives our team courage."
Howard, a homegrown talent from Winston-Salem, N.C., who spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia before joining Wake in 1999, is about to join a select group.
Going into last night's showdown against visiting Duke, Howard needed six steals to become only the fourth player in ACC history to produce 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 200 steals, 200 assists and 100 blocks. The others are Duke's Shane Battier, Grant Hill and Christian Laettner.
Howard also was leading the conference in scoring with 19.3 points a game, including a 23.0-point average in ACC play, and was ranked third in rebounding (8.5) and steals (2.3). And the only players with more offensive rebounds than Howard (66) was Georgia Tech freshman center Chris Bosh.
Elder a quiet star
With players such as Howard, North Carolina State forward Julius Hodge, Virginia center Travis Watson, Maryland guards Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas, and Duke forward Dahntay Jones in midseason position to earn first-team all-conference honors, how many votes will Georgia Tech sophomore B.J. Elder collect?
The Yellow Jackets, the youngest ACC team this side of the North Carolina Tar Heels, feature two heavy favorites to make the all-rookie squad in Bosh and point guard Jarrett Jack, both of whom have started every game this season.
Meanwhile, Elder, a 6-4 guard/forward, has quietly assumed a position among the league's elite players. Witness his game-high 23-point effort in Sunday's 90-84 upset of Maryland, which became the 11th straight opponent to fall at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, where Tech remains unbeaten.
Performances like that are becoming commonplace for Elder, who is second just behind Bosh in team scoring (15.7) and has ranked among the ACC's top three-point shooters for much of the year. And Elder, who has scored at least 18 points on nine occasions, is much more than a spot-up shooter. He takes defenders off the dribble and posts them up as deftly as anyone in the league.
"We didn't win enough last year for enough people to notice [Elder]. We're lucky B.J. isn't a guy who worries about that stuff," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt. "He's college basketball's biggest secret. But as long as he keeps dropping 23, 25 points against quality teams, he can remain a secret."
Said Elder: "I don't really think about it that way. I just try to come out and play hard and help my team the best way I can. If I just keep working hard day in and day out, eventually I'll get the recognition."
ACC teams are 9-35 on the road in conference play. Maryland has won three of those away games. ... Clemson coach Larry Shyatt has been on thin ice for the past month as the Tigers have slid out of league title contention. Wednesday's 17-point road loss to in-state rival South Carolina did not help his cause. ... Virginia's Watson recorded his 50th career double double in Wednesday's 81-67 loss at North Carolina. ... Wake Forest has out-rebounded every opponent this season, including 15 games by 10 or more rebounds.