Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski is looking to accomplish what Nick Saban pulled off and Bill Belichick narrowly missed on—to win his sixth championship ring. With a loaded freshman class, the Blue Devils were ranked #1 in the country to start the season. But with the year’s biggest games immediately ahead of them, Duke is struggling, at least by the standards of a championship contender and they hit what one would presume to be rock-bottom in an 81-77 loss at woeful St. John’s on Saturday.
Coach K, like Saban and Belichick, built his reputation and resume as a defensive mastermind. But this year’s Duke team is not getting it done on the defensive end. They rank 72nd in the country in defensive efficiency (a stat that adjusts for pace of play, so teams like Duke that play at a faster-than-normal tempo aren’t hurt by it). In three of their four losses, the Blue Devils have given up 80-plus points and those were to Boston College, N.C. State and St. John’s.
The one loss in which Duke didn’t give up at least eighty was no less alarming. They lost a marquee game eleven days ago at home to Virginia, 65-63. UVA is an excellent team, but no one mistakes them for an offensive juggernaut. Virginia is the opposite of Duke—they aren’t loaded with big-name recruits or NBA lottery picks, but they get it done on the defensive end and to allow 65 points to the Cavs is to virtually guarantee defeat.
What’s more, to watch Duke play against Virginia was just as alarming. I was struck by how often UVA simply set up isolations in the half-court offense and went one-on-one to the rim. It’s one thing if an experienced team beats a youthful group of freshman with exceptional ball movement and screening. It’s quite another if they just beat them off the dribble. That’s what happened all to often to the Blue Devils against the Cavs and it’s why Duke now trails UVA by three games in the race for the ACC regular season title.
There’s still reason to expect Duke to turn it around. Four of their starters are freshman, as Krzyzewski continues to morph his program into an imitation of Kentucky’s .Defense is often a function of effort and priority and good coaches have a way of turning stuff like this around in time for the season’s most important games.
Duke still has the best player in the country in Marvin Bagley. The 6’11” freshman averages 21 points/11 rebounds per game, and with his long wingspan can be the kind of rim protector that serves as the foundation for an improved defense. And with due apologies to Oklahoma’s dynamic point guard Trae Young, any NBA team that doesn’t take Bagley with the first pick in the draft next June, is insane.
The Blue Devil resume has its strengths. They’re still 19-4, they’re still projected for a 2-seed by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi and they’ve got high-quality wins over Florida and Michigan State. This post is less a prediction of certain doom and more an alert to keep a close eye on the Dookies in the stretch of games that starts tomorrow.
Duke visits North Carolina, one of two remaining games against the Tar Heels. The Blue Devils still have two games with likely NCAA Tournament team Virginia Tech. Duke still plays ACC contenders Clemson, Louisville and Syracuse. The conference tournament still looms beyond that. If any of us are going to pick Coach K with confidence in our tournament brackets, now is the time to see if these freshman can learn to slap the floor in classic Duke fashion and D it up.
Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski took another step into college basketball history yesterday when he won his 1,000th career game against St. John’s. Coach K is already the all-time wins leader and just keeps expanding his lead with this unprecedented milestone.
The question we’re going to ask here today is in the “rain on the parade” category a little bit, and it’s this—can this edition of Duke basketball be the one that will reverse what’s been a modest decline in recent seasons. With this week’s schedule showing road trips to Notre Dame on Wednesday (7:30 PM ET, ESPN2) and Virginia on Saturday (7 PM ET, ESPN) there’s no time for victory parties or historical reflection in Durham.
Coach K has set some almost impossible-to-hit standards, so even just churning out really good teams, as he continues to do, can still short of this program’s expectations, which are defined by championships. Here’s the rundown on Duke’s current droughts…
*They have not won the ACC regular season title outright since 2006, when J.J. Redick was leading the way. Coach K has won ten outright ACC crowns and shared two others in his tenure, and it’s shocking to realize it’s been nearly a decade since they won their league.
*Duke has not won the ACC Tournament since 2011. A less alarming trend, but people in ACC country live to win this event and for the conference’s pre-eminent program—who has won it 13 times under Coach K– to go three straight years without a title—at a time when North Carolina has also been down a bit—raises some eyebrows
*And the stage that college basketball fans care the most about, March Madness, has not been kind to the Dookies since Coach K won his fourth national title back in 2010. There were a couple modestly respectable runs to the regional weekend in 2011 and 2013, but both ended in decisive losses, to San Diego State and Louisville respectively. More important, there were two stunning first-round exits, to Lehigh in 2012 and Mercer in 2014.
Duke is essentially the New England Patriots of college basketball. There’s no denying their greatness in the big picture and not even any denying their excellence in recent seasons. But the numbers above for Duke are a little bit like considering the Pats haven’t won the Super Bowl in a decade. So what do prospects look like for this year’s Duke team?
The Blue Devils are currently 17-2, with both losses in ACC play. They trail Virginia by two games in the conference, and are one back of Notre Dame. Duke is tied in the loss column with Louisville, Syracuse and Miami. But Duke has quality non-conference wins over Michigan State and at Wisconsin, and consequently are projected as a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi in an updated bracket released today.
Jahlil Okafor, the outstanding 6’11” freshman center has gotten most of the attention and he deserves it. Okafor gives Duke an imposing presence in the middle, something they have often lacked. He’s averaging 19 points/9 rebounds per game, along with 1.5 blocks. He gets help on the glass from Amile Jefferson, a 6’9” junior who gets eight boards a night.
Okafor is just one of three freshmen playing a huge role for this year’s Duke team. Tyus Jones is an important element in the backcourt, leading the team in assists and Justice Winslow is a key wing player and double-digit scorer. The lineup is rounded out with senior Quinn Cook, good for 14 ppg a night and the main three-point shooter.
Normally good inside play has been the key to determining how far Duke will go. They won their 2010 title when Brian Zoubek consistently grabbed 9-10 rebounds a night. That was a case of role player stepping up. The best Duke teams—those that won back-to-back national titles in 1991and 1992 had a great college player in Christian Laettner. With Okafor and Jefferson on this year’s team, the Blue Devils would seem to have both a star and a grinder in place.
The problem is, the defense has not always been there, and team rebounding has been up and down, even if Okafor individually has not been. Duke was significantly outrebounded by Michigan State, but won because they shot 54 percent. The Blue Devils shot the lights out in Wisconsin, hitting 65 percent of their shots.
In the recent two-game losing streak in ACC play, Duke first failed to hit their shots against N.C. State, and lost by 12 in spite of Okafor going for 23/12 and Jefferson getting eight rebounds. Duke lost at home to Miami because they allowed 52 percent shooting. In the two games combined, Duke gave up 177 points.
It’s that lack of defensive focus that’s difficult to understand, given the presence of good interior personnel. Duke is 50th in the country in defensive efficiency, a stat that adjusts points allowed for tempo so faster teams aren’t penalized. That’s not terrible, but it’s not the stuff of a great team either. By contrast, the offense ranks 5th.
What this suggests is that Duke will look really good when the shots are falling, but be unable to grind out ugly wins. And you need ugly wins to win conference championships and make Final Four runs in March.
Of course the other side to this is that it’s still January, and this freshman-laden team is still learning to play together defensively. Some of the previous Duke teams that came up short simply didn’t have good talent in the post and that became exposed. This year’s team does, so perhaps it’s just a question of letting Coach K continue to mold this group and see if their defense improves.
There’s no better time to start than this week. You need your defense to win on the road and if Duke is serious about that first outright ACC championship since 2006—or first shared title since 2010—then trips to Notre Dame and Virginia are the place to get it going.
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.
Indiana has fallen from its #1 perch atop the national rankings after Saturday’s overtime loss to Butler. In an early look at the top contenders in the Big Ten, I opined that the Hoosiers were overrated, as were the other highly regarded teams in the league, including Michigan. While I obviously stand by that view with IU, and also with Michigan, it has occurred to me that I’m running what amounts to a negative campaign, simply critiquing the teams at the top while offering no constructive alternative of my own. Today we’ll address that imbalance with a few college basketball title contenders I’m sold on.
On balance, I don’t consider this is a great year in college basketball, even by the increasingly watered-down standards we see with the early entries to the NBA. But even in comparison to last year I don’t see anyone as good as Kentucky, nor as good as Final Four teams Ohio State and Kansas, nor a healthy North Carolina, who might have won it all had Kendall Marshall not broken his wrist. But somebody has to be #1, and to be favorites to reach the Georgia Dome in April for the Final Four. There are three teams I like quite a bit right now and that’s Duke, Arizona & Notre Dame. Here’s why…
Duke: The Blue Devils are a rarely good bet in Las Vegas, as even when they’re good, the national popularity the team has means it’s tough to get decent odds on a futures wager, or a manageable point spread on a game-to-game basis. But if you want to throw gambling implications out the window, and just ask who has the basketball team, Duke was the correct choice to succeed Indiana as the #1 team in the nation.
From a short-term perspective, the Dookies have beaten Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State and then thrashed a pretty decent Temple team, so I’m not sure who else deserves to be at the top of the polls. But the long-term perspective is more important and Duke is getting a big year from center Mason Plumlee, with 19 points/11 rebounds.
This has always been the hinge on which Duke’s ultimate success swings. We’ve always counted on Mike Kryzyzewski to produce good backcourts and efficient teams. Whether the Blue Devils have been able to live up to the hype has depended on whether they have a quality big man, particularly when it comes to rebounding. When Duke won the 2010 NCAA title, they had Brian Zoubek, who didn’t score, but consistently grabbed double-digit rebounds. With Plumlee, the scoring is icing on the cake. The 11 rebounds a game are what make Duke a dangerous team, and they’ve got their traditional strength around the perimeter.
If you ever wanted to bet Duke to win a title, do it now, while the odds are a reasonable 7-1. That number’s going to drop as the tournament gets closer.
Arizona: Sean Miller’s team got a big 65-64 win over Florida on Saturday night, but that’s not what excites me. In fact, you can argue that needing a miracle rally in the closing minute to win on your home floor argues against your standing as a national contender. If the NCAA Tournament started today, I’d probably agree with you, but I love what the Wildcats have on the perimeter, with Nick Johnson and Mark Lyons, and Solomon Hill is a tremendous player on the wing. That’s a combination of experience, athleticism and outside shooting that make Arizona a threat to beat anyone.
The Wildcats then have the upside in 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski. If the freshman develops as the season wears on, Arizona will be a team with no weaknesses, and their current 12-1 odds to win it all will look like a steal. To top it off, Sean Miller is a coach you can count on in big situations.
Notre Dame: I simply can’t understand why this team is slipping under the radar. At 9-1, they’re only ranked 22nd in the country and the difficulty of the Big East schedule is going to prevent them from rising high in the polls. This is going to be a team that probably moves into the NCAA Tournament as a #4 seed, maybe even a 5, but will be extremely tough to knockout.
The Irish have a well-balanced team, starting with a great backcourt of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant. They both score and they both distribute, making Notre Dame a tough team to apply pressure too. ND is tough inside with Jack Cooley and Scott Martin both hitting the boards with a vengeance, and Cooley scoring 15 ppg.
It’s not a perfect team to be sure—Cooley’s the tallest player at 6’9”, so that could be a problem, in making the Irish too dependent on the perimeter game. But they have experience and quality at every position. And they are 60-1 to win the national championship. If I were at the Bellagio, be assured I’m not leaving without that ticket in my hand. Imagine the odds in August if you would have parlayed Notre Dame’s national championship numbers in both football and basketball. I do believe it can be a clean sweep in South Bend, something only Florida in 2006 has accomplished.
We’re a couple weeks out from the beginning of conference play, which to me is when college basketball gets serious. The first week in January—actually starting Monday, December 31, is when full league schedules start in the Big Ten, Pac-12 & Big East. Then on the weekend, ACC & Big 12 games pick up. As we move into the following week, the conference slates of the SEC, Mountain West and Atlantic 10 will kick off. So far, TheSportsNotebook has just looked at the contenders in each conference, but we’ll have an in-depth preview of all eight conferences before their league action begins.
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.
ACC basketball gets the ESPN stage tonight with Wake Forest-Duke (7 PM ET) followed by North Carolina-Virginia Tech (9 PM ET). Neither the Tar Heels nor the Blue Devils have looked dominant this year and that means the conference race has dark-horse potential. Today the Notebook takes a look at five possible contenders, including the traditional Big Two…
Duke (15-2, 3-0): They don’t look unstoppable, but they haven’t been beaten yet in conference play and against the struggling Deacons that’s not going to change tonight at home. Duke relies on its guards, freshman Austin Rivers and Seth Curry, both the sons of notable basketball figures (current Celtic coach Doc Rivers and former Virginia Tech star Dell Curry). Rivers, after a strong December, has tapered off in conference games, while Curry suffers through disproportionate struggles against quality competition. What both are doing very well right now is playing defense and in Mike Krzyzewski’s world that will forgive a lot of sins.
Mason Plumlee anchors the post, and he’s a respectable 12 points/10 rebounds per game player, while his brother Miles and power forward Ryan Kelly are also relied on. Mason isn’t a star, so he needs consistent help here and consistency is the one thing that’s been lacking from Miles and Kelly.
North Carolina (15-3, 2-1): On paper this is the best team in the ACC and probably the best team in the nation, save perhaps Kentucky. But how does a team with this kind of talent ever lose a game 90-57 the way Carolina did at Florida State last weekend? I know Roy Williams played his scrubs most of the way down the stretch, but even allowing that, how does a starting five this good ever play so poorly that the coach decides it’s even an option? Does this suggest a lack of championship DNA in the current roster? I’m not ready to go that far, but whatever it suggests is not positive.
I harp on this so much, because when you evaluate the lineup there’s really nothing else to do but gape in awe. Carolina’s got two excellent big men in Tyler Zeller and John Henson. Both score and rebound, while Henson is a shotblocker that alters offensive gameplans. Harrison Barnes at small forward can go inside and out and is capable of being the best player in the nation. No one distributes the rock better than point guard Kendall Marshall. The two-guard area is a concern, where neither Dexter Strickland nor Reggie Bullock have stood up, but Bullock does do a good job of crashing the boards. Depth is also an issue, but even so, this starting five alone should be enough to walk home with an ACC title and #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe it will still happen—in fact, I think it will. But as we sit here in January, Coach Roy still has some work to do on his team’s focus.
Virginia (14-2, 2-1): Cavalier forward Mike Scott has been called the program’s best player since Ralph Sampson, the 7’4” center who loomed large over college basketball from 1981-83 and went on to a good career with the Houston Rockets before injuries cut him short. Scott’s only 6’8”, but he’s a tough scorer and rebounder that’s an ideal go-to player. Joe Harris is pretty good on the wings, while Jontel Evans is respectable running the floor. What UVA needs is for Sammy Zeglinski to step and be consistent at the off-guard spot and most importantly, they need 7-foot center Assane Sene to become a real force, at least in terms of rebounding. If they get that, they can be that darkhorse champion. If they don’t, it’ll be a decent NCAA Tournament team—which is nothing to be ashamed of in Charlottesville—but no more.
N.C. State (15-3, 2-1): I like what the Wolfpack have going, and it’s impossible not to be impressed with 6’4” Lorenzo Brown, who’s scoring, rebounding and sharing the basketball. Harrison Barnes might get the hype in Chapel Hill, but it’s Brown who’s playing the best of any player in this league right now. He’s part of a good group of wingmen in roughly the same height range—including Scott Wood and C.J. Williams who can shoot from the floor and go to the boards. Down low, State relies on Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie, who combine for 25 points and 15 rebounds a night. What the Pack lack is a true playmaker and without that this potential championship team will come up a little short.
Florida State (12-6, 3-1): After a slow start in December, the Seminoles are coming in ACC play, as evidenced by the thrashing of North Carolina discussed further up. FSU has got all the pieces in place, and it starts down low where 6’10” senior Bernard James posts a 10/9 each night and blocks a few shots for good measure. The backcourt is led by a solid senior playmaker in Luke Loucks, while Ian Miller and Michael Snaer are each double-digit scorers. What the ‘Noles need is a little more production underneath—even if it’s just on the glass-from Okaro White and their three-point shooting leaves a lot to be desired.
I can’t overlook raw talent at this point in the schedule and have to assume that North Carolina’s weekend loss was just an extreme case of the hiccups. And I can’t overlook history and have to assume Duke finds a way to finish second. But N.C. State, Florida State and Virginia all need to be observed carefully, because all three have their own case for making a run at upending the ACC applecart.