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Newcomer comes on strong

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Boston College's debut in the Atlantic Coast Conference was a bust when it made just five of 15 free throws in a two-point loss at Maryland on Dec. 11.

Things got worse before they got better for the Eagles, who fell at Georgia Tech and then played like zombies in their inaugural ACC home game, an 18-point loss to North Carolina State.

BC, however, is finally living up to the preseason hype that made Craig Smith a preseason All-American and the Eagles a solid choice to finish second in the ACC. Behind its rock-solid senior forward, BC has won four straight in the league and five overall heading into tonight's visit from No. 2 Duke (9 o'clock, ESPN).

On paper, it's the biggest obstacle the Blue Devils will encounter in a bid to match the 16-0 league mark they recorded in 1998-99.

"People were doubting us because we lost our first three," Smith said. "Now we've gotten into a groove and a sense of identity."

That begins with Smith, who has collected 2,076 points and 947 rebounds in his career.

No. 15 BC hasn't blown out anyone lately - its average margin of victory is 5.2 points during its five-game winning streak - but Smith has shown why he's the hottest player in the league not named J.J. Redick. He's averaged 21.2 points, 12.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists during the streak. Smith is doing it all, drawing charges at one end and double-teams at the other, then kicking it to open teammates when he can't score.

"Coming down the stretch, he's going to get a lot of touches," coach Al Skinner said. "We go through him. When you focus on him too much, that's going to make it easier on the others."

Smith's steady hand is a primary reason BC leads the ACC in assist to turnover ratio. Shelden Williams, the reigning national Defensive Player of the Year, has surrendered big numbers to some opponents, and it will be interesting to see how Mike Krzyzewski deploys his premier big man tonight.

"He's a beast," freshman guard Tyrese Rice said of Smith. "There's no way you can stop him."

Rice, a 6-foot left-hander from Richmond who moves and puts it up like a young Nick Van Exel, was a good recruiting catch for coach Al Skinner. The core of this BC team, however, has roots in Southern California.

The Eagles' top three scorers - Smith and juniors Jared Dudley and Sean Marshall - are from the West Coast. There's nothing laid back about them. They turned their season around with wins at Miami and North Carolina, and have never been intimidated by going on the road. In their final season in the Big East, they won at Connecticut and West Virginia.

N.C. State plays in an NHL arena, but the RBC Center is off campus. BC is unlike any other ACC school in that it shares its arena with a collegiate ice hockey team. Tonight's Duke game will draw a sellout crowd of 8,606 to the Silvio O. Conte Forum. When the parquet floor is removed, the facility becomes Kelley Rink. It was hopping Friday, when BC lost its No. 1 ranking and a 4-3 decision to Boston University.

Little four

One week ago, Boston College won at North Carolina in the ACC's late game. Coming after setbacks by Duke (Georgetown), Wake Forest (Florida State) and N.C. State (Seton Hall), it meant that all four of the conference's North Carolina schools, what have been referred to as the "Big Four," were, for the moment, coming off losses. That is a rare regular-season occurrence.

The new year began with all four in the Top 25. Now the ACC has only three ranked schools. No. 2 Duke and No. 18 N.C. State are joined by Boston College. The Big Ten leads the way with six ranked teams, but the Big East has five in the first 17.

Unexpected points

A.D. Vassallo, a 6-6 freshman from Puerto Rico, scored 109 points in Virginia Tech's first 20 games. He went for 29 in Saturday's win at Wake Forest, where the Demon Deacons were without Justin Gray (stomach virus), but the Hokies were even more depleted by an assortment of absences.

Vassallo's 29 were the most by a Virginia Tech freshman since Dec. 16, 1978, when Annapolis native Dale Solomon, one of the best ever out of Anne Arundel County, dropped 33 on Old Dominion.

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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