State of the ACC union
Posted January 21
Remember when year one of the new and improved Atlantic Coast Conference was supposed to produce the greatest basketball league since the merger between the ABA and the NBA? Well, about that….
North Carolina has never had the roster Roy Williams anticipated. Reggie Bullock departed for the NBA after three seasons, Leslie McDonald was docked nine games for impermissible benefits and the school didn't even bother stepping up to the plate for P.J. Hairston, deciding that standing in with a wiffle ball bat against the NCAA's Randy Johnson-esque` fastball was a losing proposition.
Notre Dame was already in struggle mode before star junior Jerian Grant ran aground academically and was booted from school, leaving a gaping hole in the Irish rotation.
Virginia struggled in the pre-conference schedule, losing at home to Virginia Commonwealth and Wisconsin as well as road games at Wisconsin-Green Bay and Tennessee, the latter by a mind-blowing 35 points.
And then there's Duke, a top 5 preseason pick and, as always, a Final Four hopeful, based on a roster full of slashers, shooters and scorers. Only problem is that the Blue Devils lack size and strength around the rim and the perimeter pressure defense, that was supposed to allow this team to play as though they were passing batons to each other, never materialized.
But, it goes deeper than those four schools.
In October, there was talk about as many as ten potential NCAA tournament teams coming from the ACC with as many as four vying for spots in the national top 15. Tuesday, just three teams are ranked and the depth that we expected has not come to fruition. For example, Maryland lost five times before league play began and Boston College wasn't supposed to be 5-13 in a season that most thought would be a turning point in Steve Donohue's fourth year in Chestnut Hill.
Now the debate is more about finding five teams worthy of the NCAA tournament. Leagues that place one third of their members in the field are hardly on the short list of greatest conferences in the country. So, here's how I see the league as we head down the final seven weeks of the conference season….
1) Syracuse (18-0, 5-0 ACC): The Orange won in Maui, defeating Baylor in the championship game, overcame a double-digit deficit in a home-court win over former league rival Villanova and rallied to beat Pittsburgh in a battle of conference newcomers. The resume isn't stacked with incredible accomplishments, but it never is at this point for Jim Boeheim's teams. Syracuse has one of the best freshmen in the country in point guard Tyler Ennis, a go-to scorer in CJ Fair and complimentary pieces in Trevor Cooney and Jerami Grant – yes, Jerian's brother – who's father Harvey was a very good player in the NBA.
NCAA Tournament chances: Mortal lock. Projected seed: 1, with a likely path to Dallas going through Buffalo and New York City.
2) Duke (14-4, 3-2): Maybe the schedule was too aggressive, maybe Duke was a bit over rated at the outset of the season. Or, maybe both are true. The Blue Devils have lost games to Kansas and Arizona, two of the favorites to reach Jerry World in April, and beaten Michigan and UCLA, who will likely be among the fortunate 68 teams at the party. But, it was the losses to Notre Dame and Clemson that were probably the most surprising because the Blue Devils didn't exactly show the same gumption we've come to expect. Maybe that also had a lot to do with outside forces, as Mike Krzyzewski eluded to after the win over Virginia. Either way, Duke is staring at back to back trips to Syracuse and Pittsburgh during Super Bowl week and that will give us an indication of what to expect in March.
NCAA chances: Lock. Projected seed: 4
3) Pittsburgh (16-2, 4-1): The Panthers don't really have any statement victories in the first 10 weeks of the season. In fact, you could argue that their best performance was the 5-point loss at Syracuse. But, Jamie Dixon has a good team with some very good players, led by all-ACC favorite Lamar Patterson and poet forward Talib Zanna, each a senior. I don't know how many teams in the country have seniors leading them in scoring, rebounding and assists, but I'd wager it would be a short list and would translate into a very promising future. And, with Clemson, Duke, Virginia and Syracuse all coming to the Petersen Events Center, those veterans will need to come up big if Pitt is going to stay in the top 25.
NCAA chances: Lock. Projected seed: 6
4) Virginia (14-5, 5-1): I have great respect for Tony Bennett's ability as a head coach and I admire his candor when it comes to assessing his team. So, if he has a hard time explaining what ailed the Cavaliers during the first two months, far be it from anyone else to come up with the reasons for some of those performances. However, since the start of league play, UVA has figured it out to the tune of a +14.8 scoring margin in ACC games, more than four points better than undefeated Syracuse. Oh, and they're not really slowing things down at John Paul Jones any more. They have players and Bennett is letting them play. Plus, when you glance at their schedule, they're done with Duke and Florida State and they don't have to travel to Syracuse.
NCAA chances: Very good. Projected seed: 7
5) North Carolina (11-7, 1-4): For the record, the only reason I list UNC higher than Clemson, Florida State and Notre Dame is because of those three wins on their resume. When we get down to Selection Sunday, and the committee members compare and contrast prospective profiles, wins over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky are going to be covered in neon lights. Not that some of their losses won't as well, and the Heels still need to turn it around in conference games, otherwise those three performances will be the outliers and will only impact their seeding in the NIT. The biggest problem I see in Carolina is that Leslie McDonald hasn't added to the Carolina mix since his return. It seems that he's trying to make up for the lost nine games this year as well as a litany of injuries that has robbed him of playing time during his career. If he turns it around, on both ends of the floor, Carolina can still be pretty good.
NCAA chances: Better than most of the others in the league. Projected seed: 11
6) Florida State (12-5, 3-2): As per usual, Florida State's profile is just good enough to miss out on the NCAA tournament. Also per usual, the Seminoles have a half dozen players 6'9" or taller, and five of them -- including a pair of 7-footers -- are in the regular rotation. And, as is normally the case, the Noles are a bit offensively challenged and rely on being stingy defensively. What is a bit different, is that FSU leads the ACC in 3-point shooting in the early stages of conference play with four very capable shooters from beyond the arc. Whether or not that continues will have a lot to do with where Leonard Hamilton's team plays post season games.
NCAA chances: They have them. Projected seed: 0
7) Clemson (13-4, 4-1): Brad Brownell's team is much better than Brad Brownlee's team of a few years back. The Tigers have a go to player in K.J. McDaniels, a veteran point guard in Rod Hall (averaging less than 1.5 turnovers per game) and an up-and-coming freshman forward in the aptly-named Jaron Blossomgame, who was the league's rookie of the week after he helped the Tigers run away from Duke two weeks ago. But, they're going to have to do better than 58 points per game in conference play, not to mention negotiate the next three weeks on the schedule. Clemson has five of their next six on the road, including a visit to Chapel Hill where they have never won. I'll say it right now, if the Tigers win on Sunday they will make the NCAA tournament.
NCAA chances: See Sunday. Projected seed: 0
8) NC State (12-7, 2-4): Maybe that win over Maryland will prove to be a bit of a catalyst, vaulting them to a strong closing argument in the next seven weeks. Granted, the second half surge didn't exactly come against the 2002 Terrapins, even given the presence of Terps' assistant coach Juan Dixon, but without leading scorer T.J. Warren and staring at an 11-point second half deficit, it was at least encouraging to see the Pack fight themselves out of a hole and battle for a win they absolutely had to have. State's schedule the rest of the way is less than daunting, so confidence is paramount if they're to make a second half charge. Getting Cat Barber to understand the difference between a good shot and whatever it is that he's been doing (until the second half against the Terrapins) will be critical for Mark Gottfried. Oh, and I like Kyle Washington a lot.
NCAA chances: So you say there's a chance? Projected seed: 0
9) Notre Dame (11-7, 2-3): Why did they ever beat Duke? Since knocking off the Blue Devils on national television, the Irish lost at home to NC State and fell on the road to Georgia Tech and Maryland, teams that have combined for exactly three other conference victories. Yes, I'm aware Notre Dame beat Virginia Tech, but I'm not sure that win counts towards their division 1 record. However, there's a reason this team was picked in the pre-season top 25, and it isn't solely because of the now-departed Jerian Grant. Mike Brey has good players, some good shooters and Garrick Sherman's Mennonite-ish facial hair is intimidating.
NCAA chances: Better than BC's. Projected seed: 0
10) Maryland (11-8, 3-3): Enough with the excuses. Seth Allen missed the first part of the season leaving Dez Wells to masquerade as the point guard. That was a disaster. Roddy Peters isn't ready to run the team and Jake Layman is 75% hair and 25% player. In fairness to Layman, however, that hair is Olympic caliber, so he's got that going for him. Maryland did virtually nothing against their pre-conference schedule, therefore their tournament hopes rely almost entirely on what they do in their final tour of ACC gyms. And, with trips to the Smith Center, Littlejohn Coliseum, John Paul Jones Arena and Cameron Indoor Stadium in their future, it's going to be awfully hard for the Terrapins to reach the dance without a visit to Miracle Max.
NCAA chances: Mostly dead (have fun storming the Cassell -- on February 1). Projected seed: 0
11) Wake Forest (12-6, 2-3): If only the Demon Deacons could play all of their games at home. Sorry, only Syracuse and Duke get to do that (I kid, I kid, it was only a joke, anyway.) The truth is that this is a team with some potential, and who better -- other than just about everyone, really -- to get the most out of them than Jeff Bzdelik. This is year 11 for the Buzz as a college coach and he's working on just his 3rd winning season. A huge part of this mountain has been winning on the road. Bzdelik is 8-62 in road games in major conference play. He won just four in three seasons at Colorado, and he's 4-32 midway through his fourth year at Wake.
NCAA chances: Stranger things have come close to happening. Projected seed: 0
12-15) Miami (10-7, 2-3), Georgia Tech (10-8, 1-4), Virginia Tech (8-9, 1-4) and Boston College (5-13, 1-4): First, let's face it, the chances of you getting this far in this diatribe are minimal. So, I could realistically say anything, give any reason, and no one will complain. I could say Richard Sherman acted like a buffoon in the immediate aftermath of their NFC championship game win or Jimmy Fallon is 2,849 times more funny than Jay Leno but taking over the Tonight Show is a huge risk because most of that audience watches the show from a Craftmatic Adjustible Bed and that's why their seasons are in the toilet. However, these four schools have a mission, should they choose to accept…to lose every game against NCAA tournament hopeful teams in the conference so as to make them look better in the eyes of the committee.