One of the many memorable moments in NCAA Tournament lore came in 1979, when fans of North Carolina and Duke converged on Greensboro to watch their teams play in the first round of what was then a 32-team bracket. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils were the top two seeds in the East. Both lost, in what became known on Tobacco Road as “Black Saturday”, and ushered in the NCAA Tournament’s first gutted bracket.
The start of the 2014 ACC basketball race won’t reach that magnitude, but it’s been a dark stretch for both Duke and North Carolina. The teams are a combined 1-5 in conference games, in spite of Duke being seen as a prime national contender and Carolina not far behind. We’ll review each team’s three ACC games to ask a two-part question—what’s wrong and is this something to be concerned about for the long haul?
Let’s start with Duke…
@Notre Dame (77-79): Notre Dame shot 53 percent and outrebounded Duke 39-30, to offset twelve three-pointers by the Blue Devils. Highly touted freshman Jabari Parker is held to seven points, while Rodney Hood goes for 27.
vs. Georgia Tech (79-57): In spite of the rout, Georgia Tech shot 49 percent from the floor. And if you believe in the conspiracy theories that surround Duke at home, how about this—the Blue Devils outscore the Yellow Jackets 22-0 at the free throw line.
@Clemson (59-72): Clemson shoots 47 percent, dominates the boards to the tune of 48-30, in spite of 20 points from Hood.
These early returns can’t be dismissed. Duke clearly has problems on the defensive end, and what’s more, that has been a problem for this program in recent years. You aren’t going to be an elite team routinely allowing opponents to get into the high 40s, percentage-wise, from the floor. The same goes for the lack of rebounding, all of which adds to the concern over Parker’s slow start in ACC play.
Now let’s go to North Carolina…
@Wake Forest (67-73): When you dominate the glass, 53-34, like Carolina did, you have to work pretty hard to still lose the game. The guards—Marcus Paige, Nate Britt and Leslie McDonald—combine to shoot 9-for-31.
vs. Miami (57-63): The guard trio shoots 6-for-31 this time out, in a home loss to a rebuilding team.
@Syracuse (45-57): In spite of the low score, Paige has his best game, shooting 7-for-16 against the Syracuse zone and scoring 17 points. But having to play on the perimeter meant limited opportunities to get to the foul line. On balance though, this is not a game they would have been expected to win to demonstrate championship bona fides.
North Carolina has clearly not recovered from losing guard to P.J. Harrison to NCAA suspension. The guard play is just very problematic, and while respect for head coach Roy Williams dictates we at least assume the Tar Heels will make the NCAA Tournament and improve enough to be a spoiler at home, they look nothing like a contender for an ACC basketball title.
ACC basketball begins in earnest this afternoon, and America’s proudest basketball conference enters a new era with 15 teams, including several imported powers from the old Big East. The league race is shaping up with the usual suspects leading the way, and some serious intrigue as to how many NCAA Tournament bids the league might achieve.
You could make a credible argument for anywhere from 5-10 bids. To set the tone for conference play, here’s a look at what each team has done for the opening month and a half of the season and who they’ve been doing it with.
Syracuse (#5): Jim Boeheim’s team, fresh off a Final Four run last year, is aiming at winning the ACC in their first year in the league. The Orange are undefeated, including wins over Baylor and Villanova, but they don’t look overwhelming. C.J. Fair is an outstanding forward, at 17 points/6 rebounds per game, and fellow forward Jerami Grant isn’t far behind. Trevor Cooney can loosen defenses from long range, and freshman Tyler Ennis runs the show. Syracuse is good, but I’m not yet persuaded they’re a top five team nationally.
Duke (#7): Jabari Parker has been “all that” as the presumed one-and-done player is lighting it up for 21/8, while Rodney Hood knocks down 17 ppg more and is lights-out from behind the arc. Andre Dawkins is another three-point specialist, while Quinn Cook runs the show and Amiles Jeffers hits the boards. Duke, like Syracuse, looks good, but not dominant and for the Blue Devils that bears out in the non-conference showing—they’ve beaten Michigan and UCLA, but fallen to Kansas and Arizona.
North Carolina (#19): The loss of point guard P.J. Hairston to a suspension hurts, but Marcus Paige has stepped up. The 6’1” Paige is leading in scoring, distributing the ball and knocking down the three-ball. The front line is rounding into form, with James Michael McAdoo leading the way, and Brice Johnson, J.P. Tokoto and Kennedy Meeks crashing the boards. Carolina’s been hot-and-cold thus far, losing to Belmont and UAB, but beating Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.
The ACC champ almost certainly comes from the above three teams. The following five programs are either receiving votes in the current AP poll, albeit not yet ranked, or at least made the NCAA Tournament in 2013…
Florida State (receiving votes): I’m not sure why the Seminoles are on the national radar. They have decent wins over Virginia Commonwealth and UMass, but losses to Michigan, Florida and Minnesota. There are some decent players in Tallahassee, from Ian Miller in the backcourt to Okaro White at forward, but no one that’s going to transform a game by themselves. Nor is there a three-point shooter.
Pitt (receiving votes): Tough to get a read on the Panthers, with Stanford being their only notable win, and that’s giving the benefit of the doubt. Pitt lost its toughest game to Cincinnati. They do have an excellent player in 6’5” Lamar Patterson, averaging 17 points, dishing 5 assists and a great three-point shooter. Talib Zoma is a good presence inside, but Pitt needs more people to step up in ACC play.
Notre Dame (9-4): It’s been a hard opening to the year for Mike Brey, including losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State. The Irish did knock off Indiana, though that’s of questionable merit this season. The pieces are there for a competitive year—Jerian Grant is an excellent all-around guard, and Eric Atkins a quality running mate. Pat Connaughton is a swingman who can score, rebound and knock down the three. Garrick Sherman is averaging a 15/8 in the low post. I look for ND to mesh well as the season progresses.
Miami (8-5): Last year’s ACC champ is replacing pretty much everyone on consequence and the results show it. A loss to St. Francis (NY) to start the year sounded the alarm and losses to Central Florida, George Washington and Nebraska followed. The Hurricanes also fell to Virginia Tech in one of the two league games the ACC slides into December. The forward play isn’t bad, with Ron Brown, Garrius Adams and Donovan Kirk but there is no backcourt help, either running the show or hitting the trey.
N.C. State (10-3): T.J. Warren lights it up, with a 24/8 nightly average and the 6’8” sophomore gets a lot of help. Anthony Barber does a nice job running the offense, while Ralston Turner can hit from behind the arc. Jordan Vandenberg and Leonard Freeman are nice rebounders. I’d like to see the 7’1” senior Vandenberg get more than five rebounds a game, but in either case, the Wolfpack should at least play their way onto the national radar again.
The following six teams can aspire to at least stay on the periphery of the NCAA Tournament discussion into February, and when that happens you never know who can catch fire at the right time…
Virginia (9-4): A spotty non-conference performance includes a loss to UW-Green Bay. What Virginia does well is rebound the basketball. Akil Mitchell, the 6’8” senior, is the best at going to the glass, but he’s more a first-among-equals on a team where a lot of players do this well. Joe Harris, the 6’6” senior guard is averaging 11 ppg and needs to step it up offensively to get the Cavs to the next level.
Maryland (9-5): The loss of center Alex Len, who went early into the NBA, has left the Terps as a doughnut team with a hole in the middle. They otherwise have some good talent, with Dez Wells leading the way, and 6’8” forward Evan Smotrycz doing some scoring and rebounding on the front line. Jake Layman is a 6’8” sophomore who can step out and hit a three. In today’s game, the lack of a post player isn’t a killer, especially when you’re just looking to get to a conference’s top six or seven, and I can see Maryland getting these pieces all put together.
Virginia Tech (8-5): This is another team that needs to translate its potential into performance. The Hokies rebound well and the shoot the three-ball well, both on a team-wide basis. They have a clear go-to player in Jarrell Eddie, the 6’7” senior who scores, rebounds and hits nearly half of his shots from behind the arc. The losses to teams like UC-Upstate (in South Carolina) and UNC-Greensboro are not acceptable.
Wake Forest (10-3): Wake’s only losses are to Kansas, Tennessee and Xavier and they have a win over an acceptable USC team. Codi Miller is a 17 ppg scorer, Coron Williams can hit the trey, and Devin Thomas is a really nice forward. The 6’9” sophomore is averaging 12 points/10 rebounds. Collectively, this is a team that does an excellent job going to the glass and I expect them to be relevant in the NCAA Tournament push.
Clemson (9-3): K.J. McDaniels will be an exciting player, as the 6’6” junior averages 17 points/7 rebounds, but that’s not enough by itself to make Clemson competitive in the ACC. There’s precious little support and the Tigers don’t shoot the three-ball well enough to make them a compelling underdog on a game-to-game basis. Last night’s Orange Bowl win will be the highlight of Clemson athletics in this academic year.
Georgia Tech (9-4): There’s good balance in the scoring, and good height on the frontline, with 6’11” senior Daniel Miller 6’8” senior Kammeon Holsey and 6’8” sophomore Robert Carter each good rebounders. The backcourt can provide scoring help with Trae Golden and Marcus Georges-Hunt but none of that help comes in the form of the three-ball. Defenses can clog the lane, and that’s a tough weakness to overcome in today’s game.
And finally we come to the also-ran, the program that’s well under .500 even in non-conference play, so it won’t get any better.
Boston College (4-10): This is disappointing for the Eagles, after breaking in a young backcourt last year of Joe Rahon and Olivier Hanlan, along with junior forward Ryan Anderson. Those three are all still playing pretty well, but there’s no depth and no three-point shooting. And for whatever the merits of their three good players, they aren’t going to remind anyone in Boston of Bird/McHale/Parish or Allen/Pierce/Garnett when it comes to a Big Three.
North Carolina basketball has been quietly lurking this season. Their frontline went off to the NBA after last season, as did their point guard in Kendall Marshall. The Tar Heels are unranked and in the current projections of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, the Tar Heels are a #10 seed, putting them right in bubble territory. But Carolina is also 15-6 and yesterday’s overtime win over Virginia Tech put them at 5-3 in the ACC. Is this going to be a case of Roy Williams getting a young team to peak in time to be a force down the stretch and in the ACC & NCAA Tournaments? Let’s take a closer look.
This team doesn’t have the same height that it has for the past several years, when players ranging from Tyler Hansbrough to John Henson towered on the baseline and gave North Carolina a huge edge over the perimeter-oriented teams that are found in college basketball today. But even so, UNC is still built around its forwards. Sophomore James Michael McAdoo is averaging 15 points/9 rebounds per game, while Reggie Bullock is at 14/6. They run 6’9” and 6’7”, so neither is going to overpower anyone in the post. And Bullock is the team’s best three-point shooter. But this is still a team that has to get the ball to its frontline.
Freshman Marcus Paige is in charge of the distribution and he’s averaging five assists a game, a nice overall total. Senior Dexter Strickland is more of a defensive stopper, while sophomore P.J. Hairston is the one who helps out with the scoring, at 12 ppg, and the only one besides Bullock who attempts three-pointers with any regularity.
The fact Hairston and Bullock are the only ones who really shoot the trey is a testament to how well-coached this team is. When I do these statistical reviews of other teams, it’s not uncommon to see someone jacking them up and hitting 30 percent. Bullock connects on 42 percent from behind the arc, Hairston is at 39 percent. Both are good enough percentages to make it a productive shot, and no one else really looks for the trey. Give Williams credit for making sure his players understand their roles.
What North Carolina is going to have to understand against good teams is the value of defense. In their three ACC losses—at Virginia, Miami and at N.C. State—the Heels have allowed opponents to shoot on the high side of 45 percent from the floor. Whereas in the conference wins—at Florida State, Maryland, Georgia Tech, at Boston College and Virginia Tech, Carolina’s been pretty consistent keeping teams under that threshold. It’s also noteworthy that McAdoo has scored below his average in all three conference losses and been below his rebounding average in two of them.
So is it as simple as saying just play better defense and get McAdoo to step up? Maybe, but let’s not rush to any conclusion. The three games Carolina has lost have, coincidentally, been the toughest games on their schedule. We might just have a situation where North Carolina’s ceiling is about fourth place in the ACC.
With Paige three underclassmen in the lineup (Paige, Hairston, McAdoo), I’m inclined to think that North Carolina can get better on the defensive end as February progresses. We’ll certainly find out starting next week. After a home game with Wake Forest, UNC goes into a brutal two-game road sequence of Miami and Duke that starts on Saturday. And as these games approach, be aware that Hairston is day-to-day with a concussion. He needs to play if Carolina is going to compete against the best in the league. Overall though, it seems to me that Roy Williams has his young team progressing nicely and while it may not be vintage Carolina, it’s still pretty good and not one to be taken lightly by the powers-that-be.
STRUGGLES AT STATE
N.C. State isn’t progressing quite as nicely. While they had the big win over North Carolina, the Wolfpack have been maddeningly inconsistent and losses this past week to Virginia and Miami have ended the Pack’s ACC title hopes and it’s not going to get easier with Thursday’s road trip at Duke. Lunardi’s bracket still had N.C. State as a #5 seed, but the last update was prior to both losses, so we’ll see how far he has them falling. I don’t want to get alarmist—wherever the bracketologist projects them, there’s going to be substantial cushion between State and the NCAA bubble. But there’s also going to be substantial games remaining and the Wolfpack need to right the ship.
It’s been about ten years since the University of Miami’s football program was a relevant national power, but Miami basketball is playing well right now and has a chance to make a significant statement on the national stage tonight when they host Duke (7 PM ET, ESPN). The Hurricanes are unbeaten in ACC play and, in spite of them being ranked #24 while the Dookies are #1, a victory here marks Miami as the team to beat in the ACC the rest of the way. Are the ‘Canes up to it, and can this be a legitimate Final Four contender? Let’s take a closer look at Miami basketball.
To begin with this, team is exceptionally well-balanced. There’s no facet of the game they don’t do well in. Frankly, I think the pertinent question is why they didn’t step up more last season when a push to reach the NCAA Tournament came up short. It starts up front, with three big post players. The best of the group is 6’11” senior Kenny Kadji, and not far behind is 6’10” Reggie Johnson. In a world in college basketball where most teams struggle to find one really good post presence, Miami has two, and they bring another credible player off the bench in 6’10” Julian Gamble. If you get these guys playing aggressively, looking for the ball, and hitting the glass, there aren’t many teams in the country that can really match up.
It doesn’t just end with good post presence, Miami is also a team that excels in the backcourt as well. To the contrary, there are no weaknesses here either. Sophomore guard Shane Larkin—the son of Hall of Fame shortstop and ESPN baseball analyst Barry Larkin—is a lights-out three-point shooter and quality passer. Two seniors, Durand Scott and Trey McKinney-Jones each score in double figures, and they both provide some extra rebounding help, crashing from the wings. Scott and McKinney-Jones both go 6’5”, so when you put it all together, this is a big team at each position of play.
All this talent was on hand for Miami last year and they settled for the NIT. Then they lost an early season game to Florida Gulf Coast. Subsequent losses to Arizona and Indiana State weren’t bad—the Sycamores are good this year and the game with Miami went to overtime—and it certainly seemed like nothing had changed. It appeared that Miami would be another big tease.
But ACC play has seen them turn the corner. The ‘Canes played great defense and hit the boards in a road win over Georgia Tech, and reserve guard Rion Brown scored 22 points, showing they could get points “off the grid”, so to speak, if their key players had rough shooting nights. Then Miami went to Chapel Hill and beat North Carolina. This time it was good three-point shooting and Kadji really stepped up with an 18 points/9 rebounds effort, including a couple treys. It was McKinney-Jones’ turn to be the leader in a tough 54-47 win over a pretty good Maryland team, as he posted a 12 points/8 rebounds/7 assists line. Then this past weekend, Miami showed they could win an ugly road game—an absolute necessity to prove if you intend to win a conference championship—by edging Boston College 60-59.
The wins over North Carolina and Maryland at least tell us that Miami is ready to elevate above other challengers in the ACC and solidify itself as a solid NCAA Tournament team. That makes for a good year, but I believe they have the talent to do more. The lingering question remains whether they’ll put it together against teams at the highest level, and a big test of that comes tonight when the Blue Devils come to Coral Gables.
If Miami is on the rise, someone has to be on the way down, and while the ACC race is fairly balanced, the team that’s perhaps most disappointing is Virginia. The Cavs are 12-5, and in the current NCAA Tournament projections by Joe Lunardi at ESPN.com, Virginia not only isn’t in the field, they’re not one of the first eight teams to miss. While Lunardi’s word might not be Gospel truth, he does use the same methodology of the committee, his projections are credible and we can at least use them as a basis for where a team stands relative to the rest of college basketball. Given Lunardi’s assessment though, Virginia can not feel good about where it stands.
One of the biggest reasons for Virgina’s struggles is that there’s not enough depth to the Cavalier attack right now. Akil Mitchell provides scoring and rebounding from the forward position and Joe Harris is a quality guard, but apart from this duo, there’s not enough extra help. I would single out point guard Jontel Evans as the one who needs to step up his game, both running the offense and kicking in some point production himself. Virginia has road losses to mediocre teams in Clemson and Wake Forest. There’s time to recover and put themselves in good NCAA position, but Tony Bennett’s team needs to start winning now.
The ACC basketball season has gotten underway as this article goes online early Saturday afternoon, and once again, it’s Duke at the head of the pack. The Blue Devils are undefeated and ranked #1 in the nation. There’s only one legitimate challenger, and as usual it’s a team that’s also from the state of North Carolina. Only this time it’s N.C. State, rather than the usual suspects from Chapel Hill. Let’s size up the whole of the ACC basketball landscape…
THE TITLE CONTENDERS
It’s a contest of opposites. Duke has the pedigree and all the championship banners, both conference and nationally in recent years, while N.C. State has been mostly off the grid until a strong push at the end of last season. The Blue Devils have met expectations in the non-conference part of the schedule and deserve the role of solid favorite, while the Wolfpack struggled a bit early on, though the ship now seems to be righted.
Duke: Mason Plumlee gives the Devils the anchor in the post they need, as the 6’11” senior is averaging 18 points/11 rebounds a game. The burden inside falls on him, because the other 6’11” senior, Ryan Kelly, is more comfortable stepping out to the three-point line where he hits 46 percent.
The Duke backcourt is, as usual, brilliant, with Quinn Cook handling the point guard duties and Tyler Thornton being a solid backup quarterback. Senior Seth Curry and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon are combining to average 28 ppg and give the offense scoring punch. There’s not a lot of depth outside the top six, so an injury, especially to Plumlee, will be hard to overcome, but there are no weaknesses as Mike Kryszeswksi looks to follow up coaching Team USA to Olympic gold by winning his fifth national championship.
N.C. State: An early loss by twenty points to Oklahoma State was concerning, an ensuing loss to Michigan was troubling. The questions still linger, as the Wolfpack rebounded to win seven straight, although Stanford and UConn were the best wins. The surest way to clear the question marks out is to win a string of ACC games in succession and the Pack has the horses to do it.
Lorenzo Brown is a point guard who can do most everything—score, rebound and distribute. He does everything except hit the three-ball, though his shot inside the arc is solid. N.C. State then comes at you with depth at the forward spot, where Scott Wood, C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell and T.J. Warren all go between 6’6” and 6’9”, and all score and rebound. Howell is the best rebounder, while Warren has the ability to go outside.
The lack of a classic post player is an issue, especially when matched up with Duke, but there are enough rebounders here that State can compete with anyone. The bigger need for this team is for freshman two-guard Rodney Purvis to become more consistent in helping Brown with perimeter scoring and ball distribution.
THE YOUNG BUCKS
North Carolina is certainly the most prominent of the programs re-tooling with young players, but you can also put Virginia, Maryland and Georgia Tech in this group. Because of Carolina’s reputation, we can give them a crack at breaking the top two, while the other three are aiming at an NCAA Tournament berth and stronger seasons ahead.
North Carolina: Early losses to Butler, Indiana and Texas marked North Carolina’s growing pains, but they beat UNLV last Saturday and you know a Roy Williams-coached team won’t be down forever. The team is built around sophomore forward James Michael McAddo, averaging a 15/8, but otherwise this team is mostly smallish. That’s quite a change from recent years, where Carolina was big across the frontline. Now they rely on senior quarterback Dexter Strickland to run the offense, as underclassmen including Marcus Paige and P.J. Hairston get worked into the lineup. If these players develop quickly, and Williams can give more minutes to 6’9” freshman Brice Johnson—five rebounds a game in only 13 minutes of playing time, UNC will be a tough out .
Virginia: Jontel Evans and Joe Harris are the core of the team, but ultimate success lies in integrating four underclassmen into the lineup effectively. Paul Jesperson and Teven Jones in the backcourt, along with Darion Atkins and Evan Notte up front, have not been productive as of yet. That needs to change, or non-conference losses to George Mason, Delaware and Old Dominion will be a harbinger of things to come.
Maryland: The Terps lost by three to Kentucky to start the year and then ripped off twelve straight wins against non-descript competition, so it’s tough to get a read on where they’re at. The sophomore class is outstanding, with athletic wingmen in Dez Wells and Nick Faust, along with 7’1” center Alex Len. Maryland then gets good point guard play from Pe’Shon Howard and developing freshman Seth Allen. The bench is deep, with James Padgett and Charles Mitchell hitting the glass. I think they’re for real.
Georgia Tech: Losses to Cal and Illinois are all that mar the Yellow Jackets’ resume to date, and both of those are respectable. There aren’t any notable wins. Two freshmen, guard Marcus Georges-Hunt and forward Robert Carter, are the two key players, with senior point guard Mfon Udofia being a steady hand at the wheel. Georgia Tech is hurt by a lack of three-point shooting, and while they give the bench decent minutes, nobody has really stood out. That needs to change if this team is going to make the NCAAs.
Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech are—along with Clemson—the football schools in this basketball-oriented league and all three teams have the ability to make some real noise in conference play and put it together for an NCAA run. All have also had issues in November and December that makes one pause.
Miami: They have all the pieces necessary to be really good, so long as senior center Reggie Johnson (13 points/10 rebounds) returns from a hand injury. Even without Johnson, the Hurricanes have a quality three-guard backcourt, with Shane Larking, Durand Scott and Trey McKinney Jones. Scott is the go-to player, while Larkin is a good scorer and who shares the ball. Jones has the touch from downtown. Then 6’11” senior Kenny Kadji has to develop some consistency. His 12/7 average so far is a good start. Miami’s beaten Michigan State and LaSalle, but a loss to Florida Gulf Coast makes you wonder. I’m also skeptical, because I believed in the ‘Canes a year ago, but the frontcourt never really came around. I want to see it on the floor before I give the benefit of the doubt.
Florida State: Over the last two seasons, the Seminoles have made a Sweet 16 run and challenged for the ACC title. They have a good guard-forward combo in Michael Snaer and Okaro White, who each score, rebound and hit the three. The rest of the team is young, and that’s shown in losses to South Alabama, Mercer and Auburn, along with more understandable defeats to Florida and Minnesota. The kids have to improve quickly or the season will get away.
Virginia Tech: No one puts points on the board like Erick Green, the guard averaging 24 ppg, and 6’7” forward Jarell Eddie also pops in 15 a night. There’s not a lot of rebounding going on though, and the Hokies lost by a combined 62 points in defeats to Colorado State and BYU.
BRINGING UP THE REAR
Clemson, Wake Forest and Boston College can find their best hopes in playing spoiler and making the NIT.
Clemson: The frontcourt isn’t bad, with Devin Booker, Milton Jennings and K.J. McDaniels, and along with a good shooting guard in Rod Hall, Clemson has the most promise of anyone in this group. They also have the least offensive discipline. Booker and Jennings can’t hit threes, but insist on launching them up. That’s a sure formula for letting games get away.
Boston College: Better days may be ahead, as the Eagles break in good freshman guards in Olivier Hanson and Joe Rahon, along with a tough sophomore forward in Ryan Anderson, averaging a 16/10. The losses to Charleston, Bryant and Harvard, among others, show there’s a long way to go, but a program that’s hit the skids at least has the foundation to build.
Wake Forest: You have to like senior guard C.J. Harris, a good scorer and lights-out shooter from the perimeter, and maybe one hot night from Harris will key a memorable upset somewhere along the line. Beyond that, only forward Travis McKie is a contributor, so depth—even depth within the starting five—is a big issue for the Demon Deacons.
The last time anyone other than Duke or North Carolina won the ACC basketball title outright was back in 2003, when Wake Forest pulled it off. Since then, we’ve seen Virginia (2007) and Maryland (2010) slip in for shares of first place, but the Blue Devils or Tar Heels have either been a part of a tie or won the league outright. N.C. State is a team looking to change that this year, as TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the top of the ACC.
N.C. State, Duke and North Carolina are in the preseason Top 16 and we touched on them briefly last week as a part of that nationwide preview. If we wanted to put it in soundbites we’d say that the Wolfpack have the horses, but not the pedigree, that the Blue Devils need a point guard and the Tar Heels need experience. All true enough, and in this post we’ll go a little deeper on the three ACC teams projected to make a national impact this season.
N.C State: Mark Gottfried took over as head coach last season and the Pack came on strong down the stretch. They closed the regular season well, then reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Now they have four starters back and some quality impact freshmen coming in.
Lorenzo Brown shifted from two-guard to the point last year and as he got comfortable, the team began to take off. Brown scores 13 ppg and is a good defender. He provides the backcourt balance on a team whose strength is its frontcourt. The Pack aren’t necessarily big—no one goes taller than 6’9”, but they are strong at all three spots.
C.J. Leslie is the go-to player at power forward, averaging 15 points/7 rebounds and mixing in some blocked shots to boot. He would have been a first-round pick in the NBA draft, but his decision to come back to Raleigh is the biggest reason for the optimism surrounding this team. Richard Howell is a similarly tough rebounder at center and can score well enough to keep defenses honest if they focus too much on Leslie. Scott Wood at small forward is a pure shooter, who hits 40 percent from behind the arc.
Gottfried has two freshmen ready to play. Rodney Purvis will get every chance to earn the backcourt spot alongside Brown. He’s an aggressive offensive player and is able to handle the ball, making State a tough team to trap or press, with two guards able to handle the ball. Purvis’ academic past is undergoing some investigation, so his eligibility is not yet assured. But at this point it’s safe to assume he’ll be on the floor.
He did have to miss the team’s summer trip to Spain because of the investigation and another freshman, T.J. Warren, got extra minutes. Warren is more of a natural small forward, able to rebound and defend the interior and if the coaching staff feels Wood is too one-dimensional, a change could be made here.
Duke: Austin Rivers packed up and left for the NBA after just one season, leaving the Blue Devils with a big hole at the point guard spot. The first shot at the job is going to sophomore Quinn Cook. Knee problems have bedeviled Cook his first two years (one of which he redshirted), but from his high school track record, what the coaches have seen in practice and his own very limited playing time, Duke observers feel like he’s a good distributor and if that’s the case, he’s exactly what this team needs.
Seth Curry is back for his senior season at two-guard and he’s a capable scorer. Where the Blue Devils do have problems is that they don’t have a second ball-handler here—Curry struggled mightily whenever he had to play the point. So Mike Krzyzewski is left with a choice of being vulnerable to pressure or going with a three-guard offense, thereby mitigating his strength in the post.
That strength in the post is anchored by Mason Plumlee, the senior and future first-round NBA draft pick. Plumlee averages an 11/9, and if he can push those rebounds into a double-digits this year, Duke will have the one element that usually defines whether they have a big NCAA Tournament run—a big man who can hit the glass. Ryan Kelly is at power forward. He’s more of a finesse forward and shoots the ball well, but his rebounding has improved each year at Duke and Kelly now enters his senior year.
The plans currently look to have freshman Alex Murphy playing the small forward spot. He’s 6’8” and if he’s anything like his brother Patric at Florida, he can shoot the ball. Other options would be a three-guard offense that might include Tyler Thornton, a lockdown defender who can take care of the basketball, or freshman Rasheed Sulamoin, also able to handle the ball and a pure outside shooter. We’ll see how Coach K meshes these various combinations starting tomorrow night against Kentucky.
North Carolina: Roy Williams has a lot of rebuilding to do, but he can at least begin with a team that plays some defense. Dexter Strickland and Reggie Bullock, the players who man the wings, have good reputations for lockdown defense and UNC’s new freshman center Joel James is also expected to contribute right away at the defensive end.
It’s finding some scoring and someone to run the floor that will be the issue. James Michael McAdoo is back at power forward for his sophomore year. Even though he only played 15 minutes per game on Carolina’s immensely talented frontcourt a year ago, McAdoo was still highly regarded enough to have the NBA as an option. He wisely chose to come back and actually get some playing experience, but the mere fact pro scouts like him this much tells you how good he is. And he needs to be Williams’ #1 scoring option this year.
Kendall Marshall left early for the NBA and left North Carolina with a hole at the point. The opportunity to fill it falls to Marcus Paige at the point, with new recruits P.J. Hairston and J.P. Tokoto in position to get a chance if Paige should falter. Another question mark is getting offensive help for McAdoo, and it’s the upperclassmen who have to step up. Strickland and Bullock both averaged in single digits last year. That was fine with that particular team, since defense was the main need. Both have to figure out how to become viable offensive threats without taking possessions off at the defensive end.
So how does it all shake out? Sitting here on November 12, N.C. State certainly looks like the best team, but we have to wonder how they’ll handle the pressure of high expectations. Duke and Carolina are used to it. The Wolfpack players and coaches aren’t. And if Duke fills its point guard void, they become a little bit better in either case. I would lean Duke as slightly better than State, with the Tar Heels being a major building job that we’ll have to wait until conference play to get a better handle on.
The eyes of the ACC and ESPN are on North Carolina-Duke tonight when they renew their rivalry in Chapel Hill (9 PM ET). In the ACC, this is the equivalent of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry—it sucks all the air out of the room and leaves other conference contenders fighting for attention. And just like in the AL East, ACC basketball has a contender down in the state of Florida that’s worthy of some media love. Florida State has beaten both Duke and North Carolina—the Blue Devils on the road, and the Heels by 33 points—and is tied for first with UNC, a game up on Duke as we enter Wednesday night’s action. TheSportsNotebook will pick up where the mainstream media leaves off and take a closer look at the Seminoles, comparing them to their better-known rivals.
Florida State is a deep team, with seven players giving Leonard Hamilton substantive minutes and they are well-balanced, inside and out. The point guard is Luke Loucks, a senior who does a respectable job running the offense and is a decent enough shooter to make a defense respect him. Deividas Dulkys has a nice jump shot at the two-guard spot and scored 32 in the win over Carolina. The best of the group is Michael Snaer, who shoots well both inside and outside the arc, averages 14 ppg, scored 17 against Carolina and matched his average against Duke, including the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. Hamilton also gets help from Ian Miller, a sophomore who scores 10 ppg, but needs to improve his shooting and needs to do more against the better teams in the ACC—he’s averaging four points a game against UNC, Duke and Virginia.
This backcourt won’t overwhelm you, but there are no obvious weaknesses, and there’s a clear go-to player in Snaer. While the trey isn’t a big part of Dulkys’ game, it’s at least good enough (39%) that defenses have to respect it. This is a backcourt group significantly better than what’s on hand in North Carolina. While the Tar Heel point guard Kendall Marshall is one of the best in the country at handing out assists, two-guard is a hole, and a season-ending knee injury to Dexter Strickland stripped away any depth. Duke, however, is better situated here. Austin Rivers, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins have played good defense throughout the year and all are respectable scorers. We can situate FSU’s backcourt in the middle among the three contenders.
Florida State rotates three players inside, with Okaro White, Bernard James and Xavier Gibson. James is the leader at 10 points/9 rebounds, while White’s at 9/5 and Gibson an 8/5. The physical stature of the trio is solid, with James going 6’10”and Gibson at 6’11”. Both are seniors, giving the team an experience edge even with White being in only his second year. In the ACC’s three key games—Virginia, along with Duke and Carolina, Hamilton has gotten good games from two of the three each time, and James is one of the conference’s best overall rebounders.
The frontcourt is good, but doesn’t match up with North Carolina’s package of Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson. Then again, no one in the country, save perhaps Baylor and Kentucky, can match up with the Tar Heels on the blocks in terms of both talent and depth. I do give FSU’s personnel a slight edge on Duke. While Blue Devil center Mason Plumlee can alter the equation on any given night, he can be inconsistent, and there’s not always a lot of help. Ryan Kelly is more of a finesse power forward, and Mason’s brother Miles is hit and miss off the bench. Florida State gets consistently good work from James, and the supporting efforts of White and Gibson can’t be discounted.
So just in terms of raw talent, we can say Florida State matches up with North Carolina and Duke, having better guards than the Heels and better frontcourt players than the Blue Devils. And that’s before we look at any on-the-court results. Which reminds, did I mention that Florida State beat North Carolina by 33 and beat Duke on the road? Can we drill this into the heads of everyone at ESPN tonight when they talk about the ACC race?
In addition to the Duke-UNC media hype machine, there are legitimate, substantive reasons, Florida State has struggled to get attention worthy of their performance. FSU did get off to a slow start in December. They played a good schedule, but lost every notable game, including UConn, Michigan State, Florida and Harvard, whose ranked in the Top 25 out of the Ivy League this year. The ‘Noles also fell to Princeton in triple overtime. When ACC play began and Florida State lost to Clemson by twenty points, it dropped them to 9-6 overall and 1-1 in the league. No one could have seen the six-game winning streak and subsequent big wins coming, so I suppose I should cut the media a little slack for needing a little catch-up time.
Now, let’s look forward—would you take Florida State to win the ACC? I’m not sure I’m ready to go there. We’ve looked at the talent and body of work, but we haven’t factored in what Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski might be able to do in February and early March. I mean no disrespect to Hamilton, but these are two of the sport’s legends he’s got to try and outmaneuver. With Duke having lost two home games, I like FSU’s chances of beating out the Blue Devils, but I still think Carolina’s a little too loaded. The schedule works in Florida State’s favor—they don’t have to make a return visit to Chapel Hill, but I’d still lean the Heels in a close race.
Whomever you pick to win though, make no mistake about it. This is at least a three-team race, and by saying three teams, it’s Duke—the team who’s lost twice at home—that we’re giving the benefit of the doubt too, and not Florida State. The ‘Noles are the Tampa Bay Rays of ACC hoops, a true threat at upending the establishment.
Duke’s upset loss at Temple yesterday was the biggest news outside of the Orange Bowl shellacking Clemson took, making it a tough night for the ACC in both sports. If nothing else though, football is over and the conference can turn its attention to hoops, where league games begin on Saturday.
The ACC still has a good national reputation in basketball, although observers have noted that the league’s depth has been lacking in recent years. While North Carolina and Duke remain national powers and have won two of the last three national championships, the middle class is rotting away. And what we’ve seen early on hasn’t gone a long way toward dispelling that growing perception. Virginia joins its two prominent rivals in the national rankings, but no one else is there, no one else is even in the “others receiving votes” category and no one else even inspires you with thoughts that they’re being disrespected. The Notebook breaks the league down into three distinct categories—The Contenders, where I’ll continue to give Virginia their respect and include them, then the Embattled Middle Class, where we look at five teams that are just hoping to get the NCAA Tournament. Then the Basement, with four teams who look unlikely to rise above NIT-level at most.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels were a consensus #1 when the season started and they still have the greatest potential for dominance. But they did lose to UNLV and while a one-point loss at Kentucky is no shame, a narrow home win over Wisconsin is not the mark of a powerhouse. UNC is very tough up front, with John Henson and Tyler Zeller both double-digit scorers and able to take over a game on the glass. Harrison Barnes at small forward is the team’s superstar and go-to guy, able to get a bucket or a board when you need it. Kendall Marshall is an extraordinary point guard, averaging ten assists a game. The two-guard is a hole, with Dexter Strickland and 6’7” Reggie Bullock looking to step and claim the job, but the Heels are, no pun intended, well-heeled. They’re the best team in the conference and while I wouldn’t rank them #1 based on performance, it’s still the team I expect to see cutting down the nets in April.
Duke: Coach K’s team has got problems and as is often the case here, it starts with rebounding. While Mason Plumlee is a tough post presence, Duke isn’t getting what it needs from 6’11” Ryan Kelly or Plumlee’s brother Miles. As is less often the case, depth at guard is a problem. Austin Rivers, the stud freshman and son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, is the cornerstone, but Seth Curry has not played well against good teams and third guard Andre Dawkins hasn’t played consistently. Because of the man on the sidelines, the Blue Devils will have a good year and get a high NCAA seed, but there’s a long way to go before they can beat out North Carolina for an ACC championship.
Virginia: Tony Bennett’s Cavs’ team has had a nice December, with a quality win over Michigan and decent victories over Oregon and LSU. Forward Mike Scott is the one who does the damage with 16 points and 9 rebounds per game, while being supported by a quality backcourt with Jontel Evans and Sammy Zeglinski. UVA does need extra rebounding help, just as Duke does, and unlike Duke they don’t have untapped potential from players 6’10” and up. There’s no way this team wins an ACC crown, but they’re off to a good start for getting into the NCAA Tournament.
THE EMBATTLED MIDDLE CLASS
Virginia Tech: Seth Greenberg’s team is well on their way to another near-miss on Selection Sunday, with its best wins being a pair over Oklahoma State, whose in a major rebuilding year. The Hokies have a good backcourt with Erick Green and Dorenzo Hudson and a tough rebounder in 6’8” freshman Dorian Finney-Smith. Jarell Eddie is a swingman who can play down low. Va Tech has what it takes to move past Virginia and maybe even put a little scare into Duke, but they still haven’t really put it all together on the floor. I want to see some quality wins from this group before thinking they can finally push over the hump and into the Dance.
Maryland: The Terps made big coaching changes in football and basketball this academic year. The football team was supposed to springboard to new heights. They went 2-10. The basketball team was supposed to be in serious trouble after Jordan Williams left early for the NBA. They had a respectable December and there’s enough pieces in place to think they could also make a move toward the NCAAs. Terrell Stoglin came on down the stretch last year and is pouring in 21 points a game this season, while getting good support from sidekick Sean Mosely in the backcourt. What really makes Mark Turgeon’s team interesting is the presence of 7’1” Alex Len, a freshman from the Ukraine, who’s getting eight rebounds a game. Add to that a good playmaker in Pe’Shon Howard and I can see this team finishing second or third. Like Virginia Tech though, I want to see the individual pieces really come together into wins over good teams, something that didn’t happen in December.
N.C. State: Lorenzo Brown is one of this league’s good all-around players, scoring, rebounding and distributing. He’s got respectable help underneath from C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell, but the Wolfpack could really use a pure playmaker to run the show and let Brown focus on scoring. N.C. State beat Texas, who’s on a rebuilding year, and none of their losses (Vanderbilt, Indiana, Stanford, Syracuse) are anything to be ashamed of, so the jury is out in Raleigh.
Miami: I expected more of the Hurricanes this season, with a very good backcourt of Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott, along with twin towers down low in 6’10” Reggie Johnson and 6’11” Kenny Kadju. And maybe I’ll still get more. But they did not play well in non-conference action, losing to Ole Miss and a rebuilding Purdue team, along with Memphis and West Virginia.
Florida State: After a trip to the NCAA Tournament and advancement to the Sweet 16, the Seminoles are back with a very deep roster that has seven players getting 20-plus minutes a game. FSU hasn’t put it all together, with losses against a good Harvard team, plus UConn, Michigan State, Florida and a not-so-good Princeton squad. But unlike other teams who haven’t really clicked I can make excuses here. Relying on depth it may take a little longer to really get everything settled in. The ‘Noles rely on Luke Loucks for their playmaking, Michael Snaer and Ian Miller to score and Bernard James to rebound, although that’s a very crude portrait that don’t reflect how much balance there is. Whether that’s balance that can deliver in a grueling conference schedule and just balance in mediocrity is what we’re about to find out.
The basement really splits into two levels, as I don’t want to put Wake Forest and Clemson as low as I would Georgia Tech. Maybe it’s even three levels, with Boston College owning one all its own. It’s very rough times in Chestnut Hill these days where Steve Donahue is working with a roster almost entirely composed of freshman and sophomores. Georgia Tech has one talented player in Glen Rice Jr, and maybe we can give them the benefit of the doubt on Mfon Udofia at the point, but they’re 7-7 and nowhere near talented enough to win more than three or four ACC games. Clemson and Wake have a shot at moving up in the world. The Tigers can build around a solid power forward Devin Booker, and decent backcourt of Andre Young and Tanner Smith. The Deacons are developing a pair of seven-footers down low in Carson Derosiers and Ty Walker who can at least give you the illusion of thinking they can win any given game if nothing else. They really do need guard C.J. Harris, a sound scorer and backcourt presence to get healthy from a nagging groin injury.