ACC Wrap & Tourney PreviewPosted by Brian Goodman on March 10th, 2011
Matt Patton is the RTC correspondent for the ACC. With conference tournament action set to tip from Greensboro on Thursday, get set for March Madness with RTC’s regular season wrap-up and postseason outlook.
North Carolina is hot. It took almost all of the regular season, but the Tar Heels are finally living up to preseason hype. UNC should definitely be favored to win the ACC Tournament, but I wouldn’t bet on them. I think the Heels are due for one more hiccup before the Big Dance. They’ve flirted with disaster a couple of times and are coming off a huge win against Duke. It’s tough to keep a young team focused, and this team starts two freshmen and two sophomores. I also expect Duke to be playing with real purpose after the beatdown in Chapel Hill as it fights for a top seed.
As far as the bubble is concerned, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Boston College all need wins. I don’t think any of them are safe at this point (which is the unfortunate part of Clemson clinching the bye). Unfortunately, Clemson and Boston College will probably meet in the second round in a de facto “win and in” game.
Besides interesting bubble match-ups, look out for Duke and Maryland in the second round. Maryland has been down this year, but the Terps never back down from a fight (especially one with Duke). Also keep an eye on the semifinals when Boston College or Clemson will probably meet North Carolina. The Tigers and Eagles both played North Carolina incredibly close in Chapel Hill, and both would really benefit from the resume boost.
The most exciting conference tourney prospect is a rubber match between Duke and North Carolina in the tournament finals. These two teams are far and away the best teams in the conference, and both are in the conversation for a number one seed. Oh yeah, and who wouldn’t want a third game of one of the best rivalries in sports.
Awards and Accolades
- Player of the Year: Nolan Smith (Duke) wins hands down. Smith took over running Duke’s offense when Kyrie Irving was sidelined indefinitely and has done a masterful job. Even though Smith isn’t a pure point guard, he has led Duke’s offense very efficiently, averaging 21.6 points per game (good for first in the ACC) and 5.2 assists per game (second in the ACC). If not for Kendall Marshall’s late-season surge, Smith would have led the conference in scoring and assists for the first time in history. Smith also is a solid defender, an aspect of his game that separates him from other National Player of the Year candidates like Jimmer Fredette. Yes, he has terrific teammates surrounding him, but if you want the reason Duke is still considered a championship contender, look know further than Nolan Smith.
- Coach of the Year: Brad Brownell (Clemson) and Leonard Hamilton (Florida State) share the award for this season. Brownell walked into Clemson without Trevor Booker and totally changed Clemson’s style. Last year, the Tigers were well above average tempo in college basketball (69.1 possessions per game, according to Ken Pomeroy), while this season they only average 65 possessions a game. Four may not seem like a lot, but it’s the difference between 82nd and 255th in Division I. Brownell has done a phenomenal job just making this team a bubble team, regardless of whether or not it makes the Big Dance. Leonard Hamilton also lost a critical piece in Solomon Alabi, who single-handedly kept most opponents out of the lane last year. However, Hamilton still coached Florida State to have one of the top defenses in the country. Despite offensive struggles, Florida State is clearly the third best team in the ACC. Hamilton also has done a great job adapting the Seminoles to life without Chris Singleton. Assuming Singleton comes back before the NCAA Tournament, I think they’ll be a much better team for their time without him.
All ACC First Team:
- G – Nolan Smith (Duke)
- G – Reggie Jackson (Boston College) has been terrific this season for the Eagles. Jackson is averaging a crisp 18.3 points per game with 4.5 assists to boot. He’s a lot like Nolan Smith lite, but he’s a better athlete. Watching Boston College this year, I always felt like they would be a lot better if he was more consistently aggressive.
- G – Malcolm Delaney (Virginia Tech) pretty much fits right in with Reggie Jackson and Nolan Smith. Delaney’s game was helped tremendously when Greenberg allowed him to play off the ball, but sometimes that causes him to disappear for extended periods. This season, Delaney is averaging 18.8 points per game (second in the conference) and 4.1 assists per game (fourth in the conference). He and Jeff Allen have done a great job overcoming the injuries that plagued Virginia Tech’s roster this year.
- F - John Henson (North Carolina) is a true defensive force this season. He’s also sort of found a free throw stroke (I’m not sure what took so long). Despite an incredibly slender frame, Henson has shown the ability to block almost anything that comes into the lane. He’s averaging an absurd 3.1 blocks in just over 25 minutes a game. His offensive game is still one-dimensional, as his shot looks like a knuckleball most of the time, but if he can add any sort of mid-range game (or 30 pounds), look out.
- F – Jordan Williams (Maryland) is the most polished big man in the conference. Williams is averaging nearly 17 points a game and a conference-leading 11.6 rebounds per game. Williams is a huge part of why Maryland is such a good team on paper (if not in the wins and losses columns). He’s an incredibly efficient scorer, tied with Tyler Zeller at 54% for best in the league and a great rebounder. Williams took Maryland from the very bottom of D-I last season (308th of 345) in defensive rebounding to 108th this season: he’s ranked 17th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage at 26.5% (numbers are according to Ken Pomeroy).
- G – Kendall Marshall (North Carolina)
- G/F – Kyle Singler (Duke)
- F – Chris Singleton (Florida State)
- F – Jeff Allen (Virginia Tech)
- F – Tracy Smith (NC State)
Defensive Player of the Year: John Henson (North Carolina) wins the award because of Chris Singleton’s injury, but he might have won it anyways. Henson doesn’t get much recognition, but the Tar Heels have one of the top defenses in the country. His excellent shot-blocking and equally-excellent defensive rebounding are a big reason why. It’s especially impressive that Henson is such a good blocker and rebounder, because normally, going for blocks puts you out of position for the miss. However, his athleticism gives him the ability to immediately jump back up and grab the board (his small frame may actually help in this sense). Next time you watch Carolina, pay attention to how many shots Henson blocks or alters.
Most Improved: John Henson (North Carolina) wins this award even though I’m not sure it’s his fault. Last season, Roy Williams opted to play Henson at the three a lot of the time, despite Henson’s total inability to make shots on the perimeter. This year, out of necessity (also known as the Wear twins transferring), Henson has played at his natural four position. The change has led to dramatic increases in his productivity: he’s doubled his points scored; more than doubled his rebounds; and doubled his blocks. Henson has seen an increase in minutes, but still only plays about 25 minutes per game.
Newcomer of the Year: Seth Curry (Duke) is clearly the best transfer in the conference. While Andre Dawkins originally saw an increase in minutes after Kyrie Irving’s injury, it’s Curry who has really stepped up in big situations. With Kyle Singler struggling recently from the field, Curry has emerged as a viable second or third option. When he gets an open look, he’s almost automatic even from NBA range. Curry has also improved in recognizing the defense, drawing defenders out and stepping up to hit the midrange jumper. He’s averaging just over nine points a game, but that doesn’t show just how important he’s been in many of Duke’s games (see both games against UNC).
Rookie of the Year: Terrell Stoglin (Maryland) edges out Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes. Really, this was a one-horse race until Kyrie Irving’s injury (amazing we can say that having only seen him play seven games), but without him it becomes much more interesting. Had Marshall started the whole season, I might think differently but take a look at these charts of offensive rating and possession percentage (sorry, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall are both light blue). Stoglin was more efficient despite higher usage than both Barnes and Marshall. Stoglin played significantly fewer minutes than Barnes, but his minutes increase at a similar rate to Marshall’s (showing his increased importance as the season progressed). A legitimate argument for Barnes is he’s a better defender. But both Maryland and North Carolina are elite defensive teams, so Stoglin can’t be a slouch.
Regardless, any of these three players would have been a great choice for the award. All three were significant contributors, and Marshall and Stoglin especially will be very special players over the next couple of years.
All Rookie Team:
- G – Terrell Stoglin (Maryland)
- G – Kendall Marshall (North Carolina)
- G – Ryan Harrow (NC State)
- F – Harrison Barnes (North Carolina)
- F – CJ Leslie (NC State)
A Look Back
Kyrie Irving’s injury dominated storylines this season. He was the best player on the best team in the country, which now has another player in contention for National Player of the Year. Just think about how good Nolan Smith was this season (for more concrete evidence, see below) and remember Kyrie Irving was better during his first eight games. That’s incredible. So it’s no surprise that when Irving went down against Butler, his toe became the center of attention for Duke fans, as well as the national media. First, the injury looked like he would be back in a month but soon it was clear Irving was truly out “a long time.” Somehow, the injury still gets constant press, despite no real news. It should be noted, it was reported that Irving has entered the second phase of his rehab (and here’s a nice video of the first phase of his rehab). Exactly what the new phase means as far as a potential return, no one knows. Unlike others I think as soon as he’s cleared to play, Irving can have an instant impact. He might not be able to sustain huge minutes due to conditioning, but he was fine stepping right in early in the season and I don’t know why anything would have changed. Duke fans shouldn’t expect Irving to suit up for the Blue Devils again, but with no real updates coming out of Durham, it’s impossible to know definitively one way or another.
Irving wasn’t the only star player sidelined with injury in the ACC this season: Chris Singleton was sidelined with a broken foot February 12 for Florida State. Singleton was Florida State’s best defender, best rebounder and best scorer. It was a huge loss. However, Leonard Hamilton sounds very optimistic about Singleton returning for at least part of the ACC Tournament: “He’s getting awful, awful close” and “has been doing some noncontact stuff that looks very promising,” the coach told the Orlando Sentinel. Florida State has looked solid without Singleton, but he is a game-changer defensively (he would have been my defensive player of the year if he had played a couple more games). If he can come back, the Seminoles are definitely in the conversation to win the ACC Tournament.
Not far behind the injury was the Larry Drew II saga. Fans and experts alike called for Roy Williams to bench Drew throughout the early part of the season. It was rumored Drew was going to transfer at the end of last season, but he ended up coming back (personal totally speculative theory: he was going to transfer, but Roy Williams offered him the starting job to keep him). Williams finally benched Drew after a drubbing at the hands of Georgia Tech on January 16. Drew immediately announced his decision to leave. Or more accurately, Drew had his father call Williams and announce Drew’s decision to leave. Drew was ripped for being selfish and cowardly following the decision (which inadvertently led Rashad McCants’ father to lash out on Facebook). However, people soon forgot Drew’s departure as Marshall lit up the box scores with assists and crisp passes from half court, and the Tar Heels rejoined the upper tier of college basketball.
Disappointments were also a motif this season. I, like many others, came in with very high expectations for two teams in particular that ended up struggling mightily: NC State and Virginia Tech. Yes, Virginia Tech’s roster has been littered with untimely injuries, but the Hokies came into the season a top 25 team. No one really entertained the idea that they’d find their way back to the bubble. It was only after a brutal loss to in-state rival Virginia that red flags really started going up. Things looked marginally better after the Hokies took care of Duke in Blacksburg, but the Hokies jumped right back to the wrong side of the bubble with two straight losses to fellow bubblers Boston College and Clemson.
A little to the south, NC State was set up for its first NCAA run of Sidney Lowe’s career. The Wolfpack have a mixture of youth and experience but plenty of talent to contend for an at-large bid (and I even pegged them a sleeper top 25 squad to start the season). Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. The Wolfpack got off to a disappointing start and Tracy Smith suffered an untimely injury that sent them reeling. Sidney Lowe also played Javier Gonzalez over Ryan Harrow longer than most fans and experts would have liked. The end result was a .500 season and a smooth 5-11 conference record (for the record, that’s the same smooth I see in Keith Stone of Keystone commercials). The rough season also pretty much guarantees the end of Sidney Lowe’s career as NC State’s head coach. I always feel really bad when coaches that clearly love their programs and were important in their programs’ histories do poorly (see Matt Daugherty at UNC and whoever Duke plucks from Coach K’s coaching tree when he retires). It’s always hard to part ways with a coach who has meant so much to a program in other ways, and I’m sure it’s hard for the coach to come to terms with being ousted by his alma mater. However, there comes a time when it’s time to move in a new direction. That time is now for NC State, and I’ll be more than shocked if Lowe returns (as head coach) next season.
Lowe isn’t the only ACC coach on the hot seat. Paul Hewitt should also feel his seat about to catch fire. Hewitt’s buyout was the only thing that kept him with the Yellow Jackets after last year, and I’d be shocked if the athletic department doesn’t pony up the money after this year. Georgia Tech fans are convinced Hewitt is gone, and if the university doesn’t take action fans won’t be happy. I’m not worried about Hewitt though, as there are plenty of mid-major (or even lower high-major) schools who will be more than happy to take on a very good recruiter with a national championship on his resume. Not to mention that buyout sounds incredibly lucrative. Other coaches that should start feeling some warmth but without need for panic are: Frank Haith, who I think gets at least one more year to bring out the best in Durand Scott, Malcolm Grant and Reggie Johnson; Jeff Bzdelik, who somehow managed to warm his seat as soon as he got to Winston Salem (though I think he’ll get at least two more years to try and build his own program); and Seth Greenberg, who desperately needs an NCAA bid to buy himself more time (though again, I think he gets another year or two before Hokie fans start getting antsy).
T1. North Carolina (24-6, 14-2) clinched the regular season ACC title. Be careful not to call them “champions” though, as the only ACC champion is decided by the Tournament (I’m telling the truth: see this article from Duke Basketball Report. No really, read the article. It’s incredibly interesting and talks a lot about the history of the ACC.). The Heels were just too much for Duke to handle (that is, Duke players not named Nolan Smith and Seth Curry). It’s pretty remarkable just how good this team has looked since starting Kendall Marshall in mid-January. They’ve definitely had some near misses, but only the loss at Duke to show for them. I still think Duke is a little bit better, but I would not be shocked to see North Carolina make it to the last weekend this April. With Henson and Tyler Zeller playing well, this team has one of the most talented frontcourts in basketball. If (and only if those wins include a second win against Duke) North Carolina wins out, it has an outside shot at a one-seed. They’ll still need some help from Notre Dame and Purdue, but I would be surprised if either of those teams won its respective conference tournament.
T1. Duke (27-4, 13-3) also still has a shot at a one-seed. The Blue Devils are slumping a little bit going into the tournament, and it’s crucial that this team get some confidence behind it. Duke has traditionally performed very well in the ACC tournament, which is why I picked the Blue Devils to win it. I think Duke probably also needs a little help from Notre Dame and Purdue, but not nearly as much as North Carolina (meaning if one of those teams won its conference tournament but didn’t beat Pitt or Ohio State, I think Duke would still have a strong shot). I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Duke get the highest two seed. Either way, this team needs to find its mojo. More specifically, Kyle Singler needs to rediscover confidence in his shooting stroke (on a similar note, this is a really interesting graphic from Seth Curry Saves Duke that addresses Singler’s recent shooting woes), and Ryan Kelly needs to knock down open shots. When Kelly isn’t hitting open shots (read: the last three weeks), he’s a real hole on the floor: he’s a below average defender (with even worse lateral foot speed), who can’t spread the floor. That was a huge problem against North Carolina where Plumlee fouls mandated that Kelly see more minutes. He’ll need to be better going forward.
3. Florida State (21-9, 11-5) came this close to knocking off North Carolina sans Chris Singleton before Harrison Barnes decided to isolate and hit a dagger three to win the game for the Heels. The moral victory was still really important both for Florida State and the NCAA Selection Committee, both of which needed proof that the Seminoles were a tournament team with or without Chris Singleton. Looking at most mock brackets Florida State projects pretty well as a nine-seed for the Big Dance, but I’d be a little surprised if the Seminoles don’t sneak up to an eight depending on their play in the conference tournament. And Florida State is definitely an eight seed I don’t want to see in the first weekend if I’m a top seed. This team is too inconsistent to be a great team, but it’s very athletic and plays very good defense. If Derwin Kitchen or Deividas Dulkys get going offensively, the Seminoles can be really difficult to beat.
4. Virginia Tech (19-10, 9-7) is in trouble. I kept the Hokies above Clemson and Boston College because I think these power rankings should take into account the whole season, but the Hokies have really struggled. Based on recent history, I’d be a little surprised if the committee leaves them out again. But Virginia Tech needs at least wins to feel safe (over Georgia Tech and Florida State). One is probably enough, as the bubble is extremely soft this year. But there’s no reason to flirt with fate.
5. Clemson (20-10, 9-7) got a huge lift this week by winning the three-way tie for fourth and therefore winning the bye. Unfortunately, Clemson doesn’t have many good wins apart from bubble teams (almost beating North Carolina doesn’t count). That probably leaves the Tigers needing to beat Boston College again in the tournament. As you can see, there’s going to be a lot of bubble-on-bubble crime in the second round of the tournament. Clemson, Virginia Tech and Boston College all need the wins. Still, Brad Brownell should be really excited this team finished fourth in the ACC in his first year. Clemson made a truly slam-dunk hire.
6. Boston College (19-11, 9-7) needs wins desperately. I’m under the impression that not all three of the ACC bubble teams will make it to the Big Dance. Boston College might have the weakest profile of the three (best wins are Virginia Tech sweep and Texas A&M; bad losses home to Yale and home to Miami). Reggie Jackson will probably need a couple of truly great performances to lead the Eagles past Clemson in the second round. Anything more would be gravy. At best I see Boston College as a 12 seed.
7. Maryland (18-13, 7-9) is off the bubble. Conference tournament champions or bust for the Terps at this point. Maryland probably could have been included in the “disappointment” category above, but truthfully I didn’t have high expectations for this team after losing Greivis Vasquez. Maryland has a great chance to win the NIT though–especially if they can show some offensive consistency outside of Terrell Stoglin and Jordan Williams. Expect Maryland to be a real threat next season to contend with Duke and North Carolina for the ACC title assuming Jordan Williams comes back. Gary Williams always gets the most out of his players, and he’ll have a couple of very good ones next year.
8. Virginia (16-14, 7-9) fans should probably be annoyed I left Mike Scott’s season-ending injury out of the injury section above. But there’s never been any real speculation about Scott coming back or Virginia making the tournament. Harsh but true. The Cavaliers did impress me this year though: I expected them to be near the bottom of the conference, and they finished a game off of .500. Tony Bennett has done an admirable job, and if Cavalier fans are patient I think he’ll build this program into perennial dancers.
9. Miami (18-13, 6-10) is a young team, but not a team to dismiss. Reggie Johnson, Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant are a very good offensive trio. Miami is definitely a team to latch onto for the conference tournament if you like sleeper teams. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the Hurricanes knock of Virginia in the first round. I’d be much more surprised if they could upset North Carolina in the the quarterfinals, but if Henson and Zeller get in foul trouble and North Carolina has an off-night from beyond the arc (not all that rare), it’s definitely possible.
10. Georgia Tech (13-17, 5-11) will not have a surprise ACC tournament championship run like last year. About the best the Yellow Jackets can do is ruin Virginia Tech’s bubble hopes once and for all in the first round of the tournament. Iman Shumpert has had a very good season (he’d definitely make my third team All-ACC), but the rest of the team just hasn’t been consistent enough. Georgia Tech still has some very surprising wins (Richmond, North Carolina and Virginia Tech) that speak to the talent on this team. But the Yellow Jackets have far more losses. My guess is the coaching carousel will start to turn very quickly following the tournament, but we can only speculate who will take Paul Hewitt’s place.
11. NC State (15-15, 5-11) shows flashes of brilliance, but only flashes. Tracy Smith is one of the best bigs in the conference, but he often seems unwilling to body up inside (his defense is incredibly suspect). CJ Leslie has tons of raw talent and athleticism but lacks a reliable jump shot or solid frame. Lorenzo Brown and Ryan Harrow are an excellent up-and-coming guard duo that should do great things in their careers at NC State. It’s just right now, the pieces don’t fit together. This team has never been able to click at the same time except against Wake. I don’t expect things to change in the postseason.
12. Wake Forest (8-23, 1-15) has just been awful. There’s no way to sugarcoat things. This is the worst ACC team I can remember (no exaggeration). Somehow Wake has two wins over major conference schools (Iowa and Virginia), but I think this team would struggle to win some low-major conferences (the Demon Deacons went two and two against the Big South this year). Jeff Bzdelik needs to hit the recruiting trail hard this summer, and bring some talent that fits his system. The good news is, things can only go up from here.