Puzzles, Parity, and Poverty in the ACC’s Opening Weekend

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The 12 schools of the Atlantic Coast Conference came into league play in various states of ripening or disrepair. Virginia was riding one of the best starts in team history and had surprised everyone by cracking the Top 25. North Carolina had survived a shaky start and was finally starting to look like the national title hopeful we’d imagined in November. Duke had gone the opposite direction, as the luster of early wins faded in the face of recent humiliations. Florida State spent its first 14 games learning that great defense might not quite be enough this year, while others, such as Maryland and Wake Forest and NC State, made strides that will either prove to be omens of rebirth or ignes fatui, false lights in the dark.

When the first six games had passed, most of the questions still lingered. Here are some quick (and not so quick) thoughts on each.

No. 4 North Carolina 83, Boston College 60

If there was any clarity, it came at the top; Carolina was already the heavy favorite to win the league, but it cemented itself in that position with an easy win over Boston College. Still, even the 23-point win comes with a significant qualification: Boston College is the worst team in the conference.

When a team in a power conference (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-12, SEC) enters conference play with a record below .500, it’s a safe bet that that team is very, very weak. In fact, of the 74 teams across the six conferences, only four came into league play having lost more than they won. Three of them — Arizona State, Utah, USC — were in the woeful Pac-12. The other was Boston College.

Because the majority of early games come against smaller, weaker schools, a 5-9 record like BC’s usually means there were some bad losses on the schedule. That held true for this year’s Eagles, who dropped games to Holy Cross, UMass, St. Louis University, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Boston University, among others. As of now, the computers at KenPom predict that Steve Donahue’s bunch will lose all 16 conference games.

Needless to say, the Eagles are rebuilding. You could say the same about most of the ACC, a conference replete with young coaches trying to resurrect once-mighty programs, but it’s especially true for Donahue. Knowing that, UNC’s decisive victory should be taken with a lump of salt so big that it could turn the Red Sea into the Dead Sea, or at least keep Chapel Hill’s sidewalks safe for old people for a month.

But hey, at least the Tar Heels had a decisive victory. That’s more than anyone else in the conference could say, and broadly speaking, North Carolina seems to have righted the ship after disappointing losses to UNLV and Kentucky. Part of that owes to the emergence of Reggie Bullock, whose surprising efficiency as a sixth man and 40 percent 3-point shooting rate has given coach Roy Williams a shooting option he lacked last season.

Defensively, Carolina has been somewhat disappointing, especially on the perimeter. Sophomores Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, two of the best offensive players in the country, have shown a decline in defense, and they weren’t really great in the first place. In Marshall’s case, it’s probably a result of become a full-time starter and having opposing offenses exploit his lack of quickness. For Barnes, it’s more of a mystery, and some have speculated that conditioning and effort play a part.

But with Tyler Zeller and John Henson manning the paint, the interior is strong. The extent of their intimidating presence can be measured by the fact that UNC allows opponents to get to the line at the lowest rate in the country, a stat that has everything to do with a deep unwillingness by other teams to penetrate or feed the post.

The defensive strengths and weaknesses were on display Saturday. Boston College couldn’t buy a board or get to the line, but its guards managed to do a little damage from 3-point range. There will be harder tests for Carolina — 15 of them, in fact — but the last 10 games have cast them as the early ACC favorite.

No. 3 Duke 81, Georgia Tech 74

Of the six ACC winners this weekend, Duke was the only team to triumph on the road. And that’s really the only positive take-away from the Blue Devils’ performance Saturday.

Remember what we said about faring worse than .500 in non-conference play? Well, Georgia Tech came perilously close, finishing 7-7 in the opening two months with losses to teams such as Mercer, Fordham, and Tulane. Most recently, the Yellow Jackets lost at home to unranked Alabama by 25 points. It’s true that the future is bright with former Dayton coach Brian Gregory in his first year at the helm, but we’re looking at the present, and the Blue Devils were expected to roll.

Their failure to do so is best represented by the excellent play of Georgia Tech’s Glen Rice Jr. After being suspended for the first three games of the season, the junior guard had an up-and-down beginning; that is, up against bad teams, down against good ones. He had yet to crack 15 points against any semi-decent opponent, and against Alabama, he scored just five in 22 minutes. So how did he do against Duke? He tied a career high with 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting, including 4-of-7 from 3. There are two explanations for this:

    1. Glen Rice Jr. discovered his top form just in time to face Duke.

    2. Duke’s guards play abysmal defense.

I’ll give you a hint: no. 1 is nonsense. Let’s hit the tape and take a look at how Rice scored each of his points.

3 points — Rice is guarded by Austin Rivers on the perimeter. Rivers is playing back, reaching his right hand out to Rice. When Rice rises to shoot, Rivers lamely extends his hand without jumping. Call it an open contested 3.

6 points — Rice drives from the left wing. Rivers takes a slap at the ball, and stops when he doesn’t get it. After a jump stop, Rice passes out and continues to the right wing. Rivers does not follow, instead drifting lazily to an already-covered man. Rivers shouts for help, from the other side of the court, as Rice hits a wide open 3.

8 points — Rice receives a pass about five feet from halfcourt. Andre Dawkins, playing aggressively without good reason, sort of bumps him with his pelvis for an obvious foul. Rice hits both ends of the 1-and-1.

10 points — Rice receives and inbound pass at the elbow. Rivers, playing him very low and very distant, again holds that hand out. This time, when Rice rises to shoot, Rivers pulls both hands back by his head in the classic “I didn’t foul him” gesture. Nobody accuses him of fouling. Instead, Rice hits an easy short jumper.

12 points — Rice takes a pass in the post on Dawkins, who has terrible position. He wheels around for an easy jumper. Dawkins holds one hand in the air, initiates no contact, and doesn’t jump.

14 points — Rice drives left on Rivers, who still doesn’t jump but actually manages to contest the shot somewhat. Rice makes it anyway.

16 points — Despite having position on an offensive rebound, Rivers fails to put his body into Rice, who rises and easily tips it in.

18 points — Realizing he has terrible position, Dawkins grabs onto one of Rice’s arms as an over-the-top post pass arrives. Rice makes both foul shots.

21 points — Dawkins can’t fight his way around a pick, and Rice buries a 3.

23 points — After crossing Rivers over, Rice hangs in the lane until Rivers can only wave a hand, and hits the runner.

25 points — Almost exactly the same play.

28 points — After a laughably simple cut sends Rivers sprawling in the wrong direction, Rice receives a sideline inbound pass and nails a 3 with 30 seconds remaining.

I realize these examples mainly shine a light on Rivers and Dawkins, but Seth Curry’s lack of physicality and Tyler Thornton’s stupid fouls have also plagued the team on defense. The complete absence of strength and creativity allowed a dubious Temple team to upset Duke by five last week.

Its effects can also be seen on the offensive end, where none of the Blue Devil guards appearing willing or able to step up and create their own shots at the end of games. The exception is Rivers, but his bravado and obvious skill set are wasted because of his propensity to barrel headlong into the lane without considering any alternative. In Durham this year, the definition of insanity is Rivers doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Only eight straight free throws from Ryan Kelly helped Duke escape an upset against one of the ACC’s weakest teams on Saturday, and the performance was a sign that the Blue Devils will be very beatable in any road contest.

No. 23 Virginia 52, Miami 51

It’s looking more and more like the Cavaliers are this year’s Florida State Seminoles — a team with fantastic defense that struggles to score, and could win or lose almost any game on the conference schedule, but will probably win more because of the frustration factor.

On the topic of UVa’s defense, I’ll refer you to this article I wrote last week. Tony Bennett’s stalwart approach carried over after a 13-1 start to the season, and in the first half against Miami, his team lead 26-17. But the Hurricanes doubled their point total in the second half, and Durand Scott had a chance to win the game on a drive as time ran out. A great defensive play by Sammy Zeglinski, who grabbed the ball to force a tie up, gave Virginia a narrow win.

On one hand, it can’t be a great omen that the Cavaliers barely won their first ACC game against an unranked opponent at home. On the other, it almost doesn’t matter. Their style is so unique, and so grueling, that it’s difficult to judge from a single game whether they’re capable of beating a team like North Carolina. In a contest that featured just 55 possessions, it goes without saying that a few hiccups can sway the entire outcome, and Virginia had one fewer hiccup than Miami. Similarly, you can’t really say much about the Hurricanes. This might be the one game all season where they play slow (they average 67 possessions per game, 12 more than they had on Saturday), and all future outings will look markedly different from what we saw in Charlottesville.

The most that can be said after Virginia’s 1-point win is that if the Cavaliers want to stick around in the Top 25, they’ll need to score. If they want to finish third or fourth in the ACC, though, this kind of performance will probably suffice.

Wake Forest 58, Virginia Tech 55

Every year, it seems like Seth Greenberg’s Hokies are the on the NCAA bubble until the very end, at which point they blow some late games and are relegated to the NIT. That fate is largely due to the type of bad loss we saw Saturday, against a rebuilding Wake Forest team that went 1-15 in conference last season.

Remember how we said Arizona State was one of the four teams to enter conference play with a sub-.500 record? It beat Wake Forest by 28 points earlier this season. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech came in with a lot of wins and close losses to the likes of Syracuse and Kansas State. So what the hell happened in Winston-Salem?

Essentially, Virginia Tech tried to force a slow tempo, and Wake Forest said “great!” This game was proof that simply playing slow isn’t an effective way to be successful in college basketball. Sure, maybe you can hold great teams like Syracuse below 70 points, but it also exposes you to upsets against teams like Wake. Slow pace must be matched with offensive efficiency, or you’re essentially reducing games — especially road contests — to chance.

The efficiency wasn’t there for Tech, which shot 27.3 percent from 3 while allowing 44.4 percent from Wake. The Hokies also gave up numerous second chances, and Wake’s Travis McKie grabbed six offensive boards and scored 12 points to give his team the edge.

Inconsistency has always been the name of Greenberg’s game. It was never on brighter display than last year, when Tech upset Duke at home to seemingly secure a tournament berth, then suffered two bad losses to Clemson and Boston College. So far in 2012, nothing’s changed.

NC State 79, Maryland 74

Noticing a pattern here? Two teams meet, neither is clearly superior, home team wins a close game. It happened again in Raleigh as the resurgent Wolfpack used C.J. Leslie’s 20-point, 11-board night to start the conference campaign with a win. But the dynamic player of the night was Maryland sophomore Terrell Stoglin, who scored 25 points and hit six 3s to keep things interesting.

The game was evenly played all the way, a fast-paced antidote to the grinds detailed above. In 72 possessions, NC State ultimately triumphed because it reached the line more and turned it over less. But the difference was slight, and both teams still have a fighting chance to finish in the ACC’s top five and contend for a tournament spot.

But early wins matter more than Maryland fans would like to believe, and the worry for the Terrapins is that their shoddy defense will doom them to lose even the close games. It’ll be fascinating to see how they even attempt to play a team like Virginia. Meanwhile, under first-year coach Mark Gottfried, there’s optimism at NC State for the first time in years.

Clemson 79, Florida State 59

The vaunted Seminole defense, which was basically the last arrow in Leonard Hamilton’s quiver, failed. And that’s really bad news.

The team that made the Sweet 16 last season, and came within a late basket of upsetting Final Four-bound VCU, is known across the conference and the country for its stingy style, but Clemson’s 20-0 run in the first half Saturday might have been the etching on the gravestone of that era. Sure, Florida State is still top 15 in the country in overall defensive efficiency, but without a scorer like Chris Singleton, it doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. In six losses thus far, the Noles have been unable to score when it mattered, and sometimes even when it didn’t. Their shooting was abysmal against Clemson, and unfortunately it wasn’t an anomaly — this is a team that scored 41 points against Harvard and 49 against Michigan State.

Clemson, under second-year coach Brad Brownell, hadn’t looked particularly impressive heading into conference play, having lost six games to mediocre opponents. But with a lineup laden with upperclassmen (and a bench full of freshmen, his first recruiting class), it proved capable of making some noise in the ACC. Four players finished in double figures for the Tigers, and Milton Jennings dominated inside with 15 points and eight rebounds.

The Early Verdict

In a nutshell, we’re looking at one elite team, one superpower in deep trouble, a defensive oddity, and a few mediocre teams trying to fight their way to the surface. Overall, 2012 figures to be another weak year for the conference. It’s easy to imagine the ACC sending just four teams to the Big Dance in March. The most interesting stories will center on Carolina’s outside shot at 16-0, whether Coach K can find an identity for a flagging Duke team, and which of the rebuilding programs will take the biggest step forward on the path to respectability. It won’t be spectacular, but it certainly won’t be boring.

Previously by Shane Ryan:
A Short History of College Basketball’s Big Heads
The Toughest Guys on the Court: Georgetown’s True Grit
Michigan State-Wisconsin: The Tale of Two Clocks


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Filed Under: Clemson, College Basketball, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia Tech

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere