Three Triangle teams have a shot at ACC title
Posted March 13, 2013
Updated March 14, 2013
The 60th ACC Tournament starts Thursday at noon at the Greensboro Coliseum amid much consternation regarding available tickets, a lack of atmosphere and a dearth of high-caliber teams vying for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
For the record, improving the last item would almost certainly take care of the previous two, an element that has somehow managed to slip past those who have spent the last 25 years covering this league. Sometimes, I guess, it's just too easy to wax nostalgic about the good 'ol days when everything mattered more, rather than focus on the actual reasons why things aren't what they used to be.
With that said, Triangle fans can root for three of the top five seeded teams in the very best dadgum conference basketball tournament in the world, so let's examine why each of the three "can" and "won't" cut down the nets Sunday afternoon.
NC State must link talent, performance
North Carolina State had either a very good, disappointing regular season, or a very disappointing, good first phase of the year. It really depends on your perspective. It's not like the Wolfpack went 7-11, you know. And the die-hards will remind you that three of those losses came without Lorenzo Brown on the floor, so if you adjusted the record to reflect that, State was 11-4 with their full compliment on the court.
N.C. State can win it because, in all honesty, this is still the most talented roster in the league. For that reason, they're still a team that can be the last one standing come Sunday afternoon.
When the mood strikes, Calvin Leslie can be the most dynamic player in the ACC. Lorenzo Brown is one of the best point guards in the country. And, with the likes of Richard Howell inside and Scott Wood outside, it's hard to imagine this team being as beatable as they've been for the last four months. At some point, it becomes about the players, and if State ever reaches that point it will be an absolute joy to behold.
I said it during their game against Connecticut in New York – if this team committed to playing hard defensively and unselfishly on offensive, they have the makings of a national championship contender.
Unfortunately, the spring equinox and the positioning of Saturn in the western sky aren't aligned enough to expect this group to do something they haven't done all year – win four consecutive ACC games. And, considering they have to win four in a row to win this tournament, I'm going to say emphatically that it's not going to happen for this group.
Could it happen? I guess. But so far, this has proven to be a team that simply can't handle success. Every significant victory in conference play was followed up with a loss and a period of less-than-inspiring play.
It's too easy to lay the blame at the feet of Leslie, who seems to be the barometer for how this team is feeling on a day-to-day basis. But let me ask this question: What are the expectations for this team, for this program? All great programs have a certain standard of performance that is demanded.
Whether it's Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, Louisville, Kansas, Kentucky, Florida or VCU, it doesn't matter. A certain level of performance – which, in my view, differs from success – is not only expected, but demanded. When that standard isn't met there are consequences.
I could be wrong, but either the standard isn't high enough, or it's been ignored. Regardless, that's a failure of leadership, and until that improves it's hard to fathom the team or this program reaching the levels that Wolfpack fans desire and deserve.
UNC must find proper mix
North Carolina can win their third tournament title in the last seven years because they have become a difficult team to play against. The Duke game notwithstanding, Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo are all excellent offensive players who present serious match up problems for just about every opponent that gets in their way.
It's obvious that the structure of this team doesn't sit well with Roy Williams, and there are some in the media – as well as his own fan base – who have openly questioned why it took him so long to finally put them together. However, for this team to have a chance at relevance they had to put their best players on the floor for as often as possible.
The result turned out to be a team that was not only difficult to guard but one that suddenly became more active and, in turn, much better defensively. Unfortunately, all of the good elements brought on by changing the shape of the rotation also exposed the Tar Heels to the reality that size does matter. Unfortunately, on Saturday, the worst of both worlds awaits UNC.
Duke, at full strength, is everything the Tar Heels don't want to see: big and skilled with elite perimeter shooters. And as long as the Blue Devils don't get lost on the way to the Greensboro Coliseum on Friday night, Duke is going to be there on Saturday, and I just don't think that this North Carolina team is going to beat THAT Duke team.
Is it possible? Sure. Carolina isn't as bad as they showed last Saturday night at the Smith Center, and there should be some extra motivation from having been embarrassed that way on Senior Night. But, in order for the Heels to still be in Greensboro on Sunday, they're going to need a significant contribution from the Devils.
Injuries could bedevil Duke
With all of that said, Duke is not without their own issues. Defensive reputation and statistics aside, the Blue Devils have had trouble with quick guards – see Durand Scott and Shane Larkin from the University of Miami – and even more trouble with defensive rebounding. Ryan Kelly's return has lessened both of those deficiencies, but it hasn't erased them. They're still vulnerable to teams that can spread the floor and attack off the dribble and expose Duke's rebounding problems.
Duke is also a bit of a ticking bomb. Seth Curry is "improving," but he's still not "healed," according to Mike Krzyzewski. He's practicing more, but his leg is still a concern, and the three games in three days has to have some effect on his performance at some point.
More of a concern has to be the right foot of Kelly. The injury that sidelined him for a month and a half was actually the second of the season and the third when you consider that is the reason he missed the postseason a year ago. Can he survive three games in three days without jeopardizing the rest of March? In my opinion, this is the Devils' greatest area of concern.
Miami is one of the best rebounding teams in the league while Duke, well, isn't. The Hurricanes have the size and quickness to match Duke all over the court. The real difference two weeks ago in Durham was that Ryan Kelly returned from his 13-game injury break as a modern-day Larry Bird. And, while that isn't likely to happen again – though Kelly is shooting a cool 64 percent from 3-point range since December 1 – there is the matter of the rest of the deadly, long-range shooters the Blue Devils have to surround all-ACC center Mason Plumlee.
Miami finished alone in first place for a reason, they're really good. They have more than enough to beat Duke this weekend. I just don't think they will.