They call him "Rod the Bod" these days, for the power-forward play that makes 6-foot-5 1/2, 225-pound Wake Forest junior Rod Griffin the most valuable basketball player in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season.
Griffin coleads the ACC in scoring, ranks fourth in the nation and far ahead of any other ACC player in field-goal percentage, and holds fifth in the conference in rebounding. No player among the ACC's top 10 rebounders is as short as Griffin.
He has been an ACC standout since his freshman year. What makes it so remarkable is that he was not widely recruited. Wake Forest coach Carl Tacy, who observed Griffin at his summer camp here, was the only ACC coach personally to contact Griffin at rural Fairmont, N.C.
Lefty Driesell was more aware of young Griffin than Dean Smith or Norm Sloan. He was one of eight other college coaches to at least send a brochure or letter. In this conference of high-intensity play and even higher-octane recruiting, Griffin was a "mistake." Smith left the state playoffs without even watching him; Driesell signed Mike Cherry of Elm City.
Cherry transferred out of College Park to Guilford during his freshman season.
Griffin went on to lead Wake Forest into first place in the ACC this season. The Deacons, 8-2, try to protect their one-game lead over North Carolina when they play Maryland Tuesday day night at Greensboro Coliseum, site of next week's ACC tournament.
The regular-season champion earns a first-round bye for the tournament.
What makes Griffin so valuable to this 20-4 team is the catalyst role he plays as the team's only power player. Take away Griffin and Wake is a team with three guards and a slender, 6-foot-11 centeR, whose game is finesse.
In a double-post offense, Griffin plays low, with 6-11 Larry Harrison high. Tacy altered his offfensive philosophy this season; the Deacons changed from a perimeter-shooting team to a club that runs under control and looks inside first.
Griffin always thought he could play in the ACC. He dreamed of attending Carolina because Charlie Scott was his hero. And, since recruiters weren't knocking down the door, he kept his fingers crossed and practiced in the backyard. His mother, a former North Carolina A&T player, fed him Alley-Oop passes.
"She either felt sorry for me, or she had the urge to play basketball again," said Griffin. "We were all N.C. State fanatics then, because they had David Thompson and had gone undefeated."
Playing with his mother, Griffin developed some of the great body control that enables him to consistently play well against ACC power forwards as much as 4 1/2 inches taller than he.
"When you play against guys who are 6-10 or 6-8 and you're only 6-5 1/2, you have to compensate. When I go up, I try to draw the foul and then score the basket. A lot of my shots may look weird, but I'm accustomed to using them in practice."
Griffin is averaging 21 points a game this season; he averages only 12 shots a game. He has made 154 of 242 shots for 63.6 per cent accuracy and 111 of 139 free throws, a 79.9 per cent rate, fourth in the ACC.
Griffin espouses team-oriented goals, talking about how each of his teammates fit in to make the Deacons a highly ranked team.
Freshman guard Frank Johnson said simply: "Rod is our game plan."
The goal for Maryland Tuesday night is to gain some consistency and play a solid road game against a top ACC team. Maryland, 18-6 overall and 6-4 in the ACC, has a 2-2 road record this season, having been blown out by 22 points at Clemson and 27 at North Carolina.
For freshman guard Jo Jo Hunter, whose play will be a key to Maryland's success, there is a big difference between playing to a cheering home crowd and an antagonistic Tobacco Road gallery.
"When we play at home and the crowd is behind us, the adrenalin starts flowing more," he said. "On the road, when you make a mistake, the crowd isn't there to bring you back up."
Meanwhile, Maryland trainers are trying to get forward Steve Sheppard fitted with a special orthopedic sneaker to give his injured left achilles tendon more support. He will resume practice next week but at least one team source doubts he will be ready for the tournament.
"If he can go on it, he'll play," said trainer Jim Weir.