ACC's October optimism was so last year
Posted January 3
Updated January 5
Raleigh, N.C. — ACC basketball practices began with predictions that up to eight or nine league teams would land NCAA Tournament bids. So much for October optimism.
As the conference regular-season schedule pops into full bloom this weekend, only five of the new-look 15 teams are comfortably positioned to reach the NCAA.
If bids went out today – rather than March 16 – Syracuse (13-0) would be a No. 1 regional seed, Duke (11-2) a No. 2 or 3, UNC (10-3) and No. 3 or 4 and Pittsburgh (12-1) a No. 6 or 7. Everyone else either is a long shot or on the bubble. That list that includes perceived preseason locks Notre Dame (9-4), Virginia (9-4) and Maryland (9-5).
The back stories:
Notre Dame’s status changed in large part when preseason all-ACC pick Jerian Grant (6-5, Sr.) became academically ineligible after averaging 19 points through the first 12 games.
But in reality, the Irish were failing to meet expectations even before Grant was scratched from the roster. An 83-70 loss to visiting Indiana State on Nov. 11 was the first clue, but a 73-69 loss to North Dakota State was even more telling.
The Irish will play their first conference game Saturday against Duke, but they may not have the usual home-court emotional edge in the Edmund Joyce Center. Second semester classes don’t start until Jan. 8, and very few of the school’s 8,300 or so undergraduates reside in the South Bend area. Even those from Chicago, roughly 100 miles west of campus, may find the driving conditions challenging as a result of a heavy winter storm.
Virginia’s preseason all-conference pick – senior guard Joe Harris – is averaging a relatively modest 11.1 points, shooting a disappointing 62.5 percent on free throws and barely has more assists (28) than turnovers (23). Harris suffered a left-foot stress fracture in late June, and it’s still not clear that he’s completely comfortable. But entering Saturday’s game at Florida State (9-3), something obviously is out of sync. In 35 games last season, Harris averaged 16.3 points and converted 74 percent of his free throws.
Pack could benefit from schedule quirk
N.C. State (10-3) has an opportunity to upgrade its resume immediately. The Wolfpack will host Pitt on Saturday (noon), visit Notre Dame on Wednesday (9 p.m.) and return to face Virginia on Saturday, Jan. 11, (5 p.m.) in PNC Arena. If State wins two of the three, the seasonal outlook suddenly would be much brighter.
Home wins in January will be must for Mark Gottfried’s third team. For starters, State’s league schedule is arguably the most difficult in the conference, and starting with a Feb. 1 trip to Carolina, the Pack will have only one home game (vs. Wake Forest Feb. 11) before getting the return game against the Tar Heels on Feb. 26.
With the rapid, widespread expansion, ACC schedules will be quirky forever. But State this season really drew a strange hand. Beginning with Maryland on Jan. 20, the Pack is scheduled for three home games, then two away, one home and then three straight on the road. It, no doubt, will be a wild winter ride.
Carolina’s opener at Wake (10-3) on Sunday (8 p.m.) should give both sides a quick reading on their composure. Wake is 9-0 at home, although there has not been a high-profile win. The Deacons were reasonably effective much of the way in an 87-78 loss against Kansas in November and have displayed isolated moments of improvement over Jeff Bzdelik’s first three teams.
After going 8-24, 13-18 and 13-18, Bzdelik needs a good league start in a bad way.
The Tar Heels have had the nation’s most eventful early season – 13 games marked by stunning performance extremes, the permanent loss of P.J. Hairston, the return of Leslie McDonald and a personnel chemistry that may continue to be completely unpredictable all season.
For Roy Williams and his generally young team, every road game probably will be an venture into mystery. He won’t have to wait very long to find out for certain.