SACRAMENTO, CALIF — SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Joe Smith set the standard for strange-but-true, out-of-nowhere freshman seasons, but he might not even be the biggest rookie surprise in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Virginia point guard Harold Deane wasn't expected to play as much as Smith this season, and didn't even project as an ACC player coming out of Matoaca (Va.) High School two years ago.
Now he's part of one of the greatest freshman classes in ACC history, along with Smith, Wake Forest's Tim Duncan and North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse.
That's the all-ACC freshman team -- and it doesn't include Maryland's Keith Booth, Virginia's Jamal Robinson, North Carolina's Jeff McInnis, Duke's Jeff Capel and Florida State's James Collins.
Deane, 6 feet 1, is the most unlikely member of that group, but he would have been MVP of the ACC tournament if Virginia had beaten North Carolina in the title game. Instead, Stackhouse won it.
Now, after leading a second-half comeback from a 15-point deficit against New Mexico, Deane is one victory away from joining Smith in the Sweet 16.
Arizona is the No. 2 seed in the West, but let's see how its vaunted backcourt of Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves reacts to 40 minutes of relentless defense from Deane and Cornel Parker.
Maryland upset a No. 2 seed yesterday. Now it's Virginia's turn. The bruising, cold-shooting Cavaliers are painful to watch, but when you've got a hot freshman, the ceiling just keeps rising.
As much as Smith means to Maryland, Deane is nearly as important to Virginia. How else could the Cavs be on the verge of a second straight Sweet 16 appearance after losing point guard Cory Alexander to a season-ending injury in their opening game?
"Obviously, Joe is their most valuable player," Virginia coach Jeff Jones said yesterday. "The way things have turned out, I'm not so sure Harold isn't our most valuable player."
Deane scored 59 in three ACC tournament games, including a season-high 22 in the first-round victory over Maryland that sealed Virginia's berth in the NCAAs.
The Cavs were less inspired against New Mexico, but Deane scored 18, shut down WAC Player of the Year Greg Brown and iced the 57-54 victory by making two free throws with 23.3 seconds left.
Not bad for a player who drew interest only from Radford, UNC-Wilmington, Boston University and Virginia Military as a senior in high school.
"I knew I could play in the ACC," Deane said. Rather than accept a lesser Division I offer, he went to the Fork Union Military Academy to prove it.
"I saw him and said, 'I don't know what happened, but this kid has improved,' " Jones said. "That's the kind of competitiveness and persistence he has in his game."
The competitiveness that was apparent in preseason pickup games with his new Virginia teammates. The persistence that got Deane into trouble with Jones earlier this season.
Jones knew he had a find even before Virginia started practicing. His upperclassmen kept reporting back to him: Deane was a terror in the pickup games. Deane could play.
Virginia junior forward Junior Burrough still recalls the game when Deane stole the ball from Alexander at game point and converted a layup for the winning basket.
"He didn't come in as someone trying to fit in," Burrough said. "He was just playing his style of basketball, not really respecting anybody, but earning his own respect."
Alexander certainly noticed -- he told Jones that the freshman was as good a defensive player as he had faced. Still, Deane expected to average only 15 to 20 minutes per game.
Then Alexander broke his right ankle in the season opener. The injury to the second-team preseason All-American forced Jones dTC to turn to Deane.
Deane first showed promise by scoring a team-high 15 points against Coppin State, but he followed that game with erratic performances in losses to Old Dominion and Stanford.
"He and I butted heads," Jones said. "He's stubborn. I like things done a certain way. We had some learning about one another to do."
The turning point was the 84-72 loss at Stanford on Dec. 22. Brevin Knight, Stanford's freshman point guard, humiliated Deane, finishing with 23 points and 11 assists.
"I think I learned a lesson," Deane said. "We didn't play well. Stanford got the best of us. We didn't have any confidence. We didn't have any team unity.
"As the point guard, I'm supposed to be the leader. I had to take charge, be a floor leader, be more vocal, get my teammates into the game even if I wasn't doing anything offensively."
As it turned out, the entire team adjusted. Parker and Jason Williford began assuming more ball-handling responsibility, taking the pressure off Deane, allowing him to grow.
Deane still can be headstrong -- "if you tell Harold he can't do something," Jones said, "he's going to prove you wrong." But that stubborn streak is as much a blessing as a curse.
Without it, Virginia wouldn't be within one victory of an improbable Sweet 16 appearance. Without it, Harold Deane wouldn't be in the ACC.