When Dereck Whittenburg crashed to the Reynolds Coliseum floor here on Jan. 12 with a broken foot, it was generally assumed he would be out for the year and North Carolina State would be out of the ACC race.
But now, in the final week of the regular season, N.C. State is battling for third place in the Atlantic Coast Conference and for a bid in the NCAA tournament.
And back to help is Whittenburg, the senior guard from De Matha High School, who is ready to shoot three-point holes in Maryland Thursday night when the Terrapins play State at 8.
A victory for Maryland isn't a must, but it would help the Terrapins' case with the NCAA selection committee. For N.C. State, victory is a necessity. The Wolfpack is 16-9 and cannot afford a slip into double-digit loss territory. The winner will remain in third place.
Maryland beat State in College Park Jan. 29, but that was without Whittenburg, who was averaging about 16 points a game when he was hurt. That also was before freshman Ernie Myers had developed into one of the league's best scorers and before forward Lorenzo Charles began to provide inside muscle.
With Whittenburg back, Coach Jim Valvano says, "We're in as good a shape as we could possibly be in going into the last week." After Maryland, State plays at home against Wake Forest, the third team fighting for third place and a tournament bid. "I feel pretty good about our chances," said Valvano. "It's in our own hands."
The Terrapins have won 11 of 13 games, but must avoid playing the way they did in disappointing road losses to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. Sophomore Adrian Branch needs to break out of a seven-for-25 shooting slump over the last two games.
Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell has eight players he can count on, even in tight situations. It would be nine players if Ed Farmer, a multitalented 6-foot-7 freshman forward, could stay healthy long enough.
"I wanted to start Ed against Georgia Tech when Herman Veal had some ankle trouble," Driesell said. "But he got a virus and couldn't even suit up for the game. He's never been well long enough for him to get going. I've told you, he's been a basket case all season."
Driesell's sour turns to sweet, however, when center Ben Coleman's name is mentioned. Coleman is averaging 16 points and 8.4 assists on 59 percent shooting, second in the conference only to Ralph Sampson's 60 percent.
Driesell started freshman Len Bias at forward last week against Wake Forest, but junior Mark Fothergill may start against State and Virginia this week. Driesell said he is also considering red-shirting Bryan Palmer, a freshman center/forward, next season. Palmer has played only at the end of one-sided games this season.