Caulton Tudor

Badly wounded ACC down to a single bullet

Posted March 20

If the proof’s in the pudding, we know now that ACC basketball consisted of more pudding than proof this season.

There’s not much doubt the league had a lot of defensive soft spots, which is primarily why regular-season conference champ North Carolina was the lone survivor of the first NCAA Tournament weekend.

Nine ACC teams got bids. Six absorbed fairly one-sided losses in one of the first three rounds, starting with Wake Forest’s 95-88 loss to Kansas State in an 11th-seed play-in game on March 14 in Dayton and ending with Duke’s 88-81 loss to South Carolina Sunday in Greenville, S.C.

After going 19-7 with seven teams in last season’s NCAA, the ACC now is 7-8 with the South top-seed Tar Heels certain to face another tough test Friday in Memphis against No. 4 Butler.

It took everything they had for the Heels to survive No. 8 Arkansas, 72-65, Sunday in Greenville, S.C.

Meanwhile, three SEC teams (Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina) are in the Sweet 16, along with three from the Pac-12 (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA), three from the Big 10 (Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin), three from the Big 12 (Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia), two from the Big East (Butler, Xavier) and one from the West Coast Conference (Gonzaga).

In retrospect, the ACC featured a lot of suspect defenses all along. There was a lot of balance, which probably led to the popular belief that the ACC was the nation’s best league top to bottom.

But looking back, it was rare indeed that any ACC team delivered the sort of lockdown defensive work executed over the weekend by Florida, Butler, West Virginia, Michigan, Xavier and Wisconsin among others.

There was a general assumption that Virginia was a superior defensive team, but that probably was based more on low scoring outcomes that were just as much a product of the Cavaliers’ offensive style as defensive shutdowns.

A prime example of the defensive gap was Xavier, which went 9-9 during regular season in the Big East.

Seeded 11th in the West, Chris Mack’s team eliminated sixth seed Maryland, 76-65, in its opening game and then embarrassed Florida State, 91-66, to advance in Orlando.

And even though the Blue Devils, seeded 2nd in the East, scored 81 points against No. 7 South Carolina, Mike Krzyzewski described the Gamecock defense as “the toughest we’ve played against all year.”

As much as defense, the absence of top-tier guard play tripped the ACC.

Several of the league’s best guards were on the weaker six teams that failed to land NCAA bids and many of the guards in the event basically were average performers most of the season. It all added up to a sour stew for the proud basketball league.

And the ACC’s misery isn’t over unless Carolina can fix some things before the South semifinals Friday in Memphis. The South was the most difficult regional all along and it’s only tougher now that the four top seeds – UNC, Kentucky, UCLA and Butler – survived.

Carolina has opened as an early 7-point favorite in the 7 p.m. game, but the Heels will need to be a lot better on offense to win.

Against Arkansas, playmaker Joel Berry was battling injuries, but the offense lacked structure while scoring leader Justin Jackson took a lot of bad shots and committed four turnovers. The two missed 20 of their 27 combined field-goal attempts and Berry missed three of seven free throws.

Thanks to their rebounding and late defense, the Heels (29-7) were able to survive even though they committed 17 turnovers and shot only 38 percent.

Those stats don’t bode well for an assignment against Butler (25-8, 12-6 Big East), which is holding opponents to 68 points per game and 44 percent shooting.

Berry, who began Sunday with an injured ankle and then suffered a finger injury during the game, should have time to do some healing and Johnson will have plenty of time to watch film.

But the ACC is down to one bullet and in the same locale with three other big guns.

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