2013-14 ACC Season Review – Part III

Posted by Brad Jenkins on April 11th, 2014

Now that the 2013-14 season is all over, let’s take a look back at how each ACC team performed. We will do so in three parts, dividing the league into groups of five teams based on ACC Tournament seeding. For each school, we’ll compare its actual season results with preseason expectations, and point out the surprises in each case — both the pleasant and unpleasant. Finally, we will take a quick peak at the short- and long-term prospects for each program. In Part III today, we’ll look at the top five finishers in the conference. The top four teams were expected to be the class of the league, and they were, even though the final order was somewhat surprising. The big disappointment came in the postseason, when only ACC champion Virginia made it to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend.

1) Virginia (30-7, 16-2 ACC) - NCAA (L: Regional Semi-Finals)

Virginia claimed the ACC crown. (credit: Robert Willett / Raleigh News & Observer)

Tony Bennett led Virginia to its second ever ACC Championship. (credit: Robert Willett / Raleigh News & Observer)

Led by ACC Coach of the Year Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers had one of the best seasons in school history. They won the ACC regular season race for the first time since 1981, captured their second ACC Tournament title (the other was in 1976), and tied the 1982 team for the highest finish (#3) in the season’s final AP poll. The team was not overly impressive early, as they entered conference play with a 9-4 record and coming off a 35 point pounding at the hands of Tennessee. But at that point, Virginia regrouped and only lost three more times – on the last possession at Duke; in overtime at Maryland; and finally in the Sweet Sixteen to Michigan State in one of the most hard-fought games of the entire Tournament.

  • They were who we thought they were. We knew that defense would be the calling card for this Virginia team and it was in a big way. The Cavaliers only allowed 91 points per 100 possessions in ACC play, which was a remarkable eight points better than anyone else.
  • We didn’t see this coming. The main questions for this team at the beginning of the year concerned the backcourt. Could they find an effective point guard among the young candidates on the roster? And how would Malcolm Brogdon play after missing the previous season due to injury? Freshman point guard London Perrantes played well above expectations, running the team with the savvy of a veteran and making the ACC’s all-Freshman Team. Brogdon was incredibly consistent and his all-around play resulted in a spot on the all-ACC first team, as voted on by the league’s coaches.
  • What the future holds. Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell will be missed for their leadership and production. ACC Sixth Man of the Year Justin Anderson and effective reserve Anthony Gill should move right into the starting lineup, though, so the keys for next season are to build depth and hope to duplicate the great chemistry and unselfish play of this year’s squad. The program looks to be in great shape for the near future, as Bennett has proven that his style can work at the highest level.

2) Syracuse (28-6, 14-4 ACC) - NCAA (L: 3rd Round)

This year was a tale of two seasons for the Orange. Syracuse started the season 25-0 and were ranked #1 in the country for three weeks, winning so many games on the last possession that even Jim Boeheim admitted they were lucky. Their luck ran out in game #26 when lowly Boston College came to the Carrier Dome and knocked off the Orange in one of the shockers of the year. Including that loss, Syracuse would close the year by only winning three of its last nine games. Injuries exposed the team’s lack of depth, and the Orange went into a prolonged shooting slump, probably due to wearing down.

  • They were who we thought they were. It was expected that Syracuse would have a defensive advantage in its first year in the ACC, playing teams not as familiar with how to attack the Orange’s famous zone. ACC teams struggled to score against Syracuse as the Orange only allowed 58.1 points per game and held opponents to 40.8 percent shooting.
  • We didn’t see this coming. When the season began, there was much discussion about the nation’s top five freshman and their pending impact on the college game. Tyler Ennis was not part of that initial discussion but it didn’t take long before it was obvious that he belonged in that group of top newcomers. He smoothly ran the offense and proved to be an active defender as well. He was so impressive that NBA scouts and GMs took notice to the point where Ennis will be departing after only one season.
  • What the future holds. Next year, Syracuse should be strong in the frontcourt, especially if Jerami Grant returns for his junior season. Once again, Boeheim will have to count on a freshman to run the team, however, with ESPN #50 recruit Kaleb Joseph taking over for Ennis. Boeheim has not indicated that he will retire anytime soon, and with Mike Hopkins ready to take over the seat next to him whenever that day comes, the Orange should be fine going forward in their new league.

3-Tied) Duke (26-9, 13-5 ACC) - NCAA (L: 2nd Round)

Don't Forget About Me, America. (credit: RNO)

Duke’s Jabari Parker lived up to the hype with an outstanding freshman year. (credit: RNO)

Picked as the preseason ACC favorite, Duke had a good season but not quite as good as we expected. Although extremely talented, this Blue Devils squad lacked consistency and had trouble with lesser teams much more than they should have. After the season, Mike Krzyzewski pointed to youth and a lack of on-court leadership as the reasons for not being able to close out games well. Duke’s opening game of the NCAA Tournament was a perfect example, with the Blue Devils unable to hold on to a late five-point lead against underdog Mercer.

  • They were who we thought they were. In this era of massive media and fan communication, it’s tough for a freshman phenom to live up to the hype, but Jabari Parker did just that. He led the team in scoring and the ACC in rebounding en route to becoming a consensus First-Team All-American. Whenever he chooses to go pro, he projects as a top-three NBA pick.
  • We didn’t see this coming. This season Duke was supposed to use its quickness and length on the perimeter to push tempo and apply pressure defensively, compensating for a weak interior and improving its overall defensive play. They failed to make any of those things happen. The Blue Devils actually played slower than the year before, dropping from 68 to 66 possessions per game, and the defense was the worst in recent Duke history. The first uh-oh game was in November when Duke barely defeated Vermont in Cameron Indoor Stadium, allowing 90 points to a team from the America East. They did improve somewhat during the ACC season, but never enough to win tough games when the Duke offense sputtered.
  • What the future holds. Assuming that Parker and Rodney Hood depart as expected, Duke could field a totally different looking team next year. This squad lacked an inside post presence, so the offense revolved around their two talented forwards; but next season the Blue Devils welcome the nation’s top incoming center, Jahlil Okafor. Duke also adds three more talented perimeter players, so it will be interesting to see how it blends with the returning guards and if any of the leadership problems get fixed. Krzyzewski announced that he plans on coaching at least five more years, so the program has at least that long to design a succession plan.

3-Tied) North Carolina (24-10, 13-5 ACC) - NCAA (L: 3rd Round)

2013-14 will go down as one of the strangest in North Carolina basketball history. The season opened in a cloud of uncertainty, with both P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald suspended due to offseason improper benefits investigations. At the time it was thought that both would be back in action after just a few games, but McDonald missed the first nine games and Hairston was dismissed permanently from the team. That partially explains the crazy extremes in performance that the Tar Heels had during the first half of the season, when they beat three top 10 teams and also lost to UAB and Belmont. Roy Williams did a nice job getting this North Carolina team settled, especially during a 12-game winning streak where the Tar Heels rose from NCAA bubble team to ACC contender. In the end, the Heels couldn’t sustain that momentum, bowing out early in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.

  • They were who we thought they were. Without Hairston, we knew that the Tar Heels would be imbalanced offensively and that making shots outside the paint would be tough. The Tar Heels only averaged 4.3 three-point baskets per game and the team’s lack of shooting acumen showed up at the free throw line as well. For the season they ranked near the bottom of the NCAA at 62.6 percent from the charity stripe.
  • We didn’t see this coming. The Tar Heels had so many surprising things occur during the season that it’s hard to pick just one. We’ll go with the unexpected and dramatically improved play from Marcus Paige. As a freshman, Paige was solid but unspectacular. As a sophomore, he was the best guard in the league, being named first-team All-ACC as well as being voted the league’s Most Improved Player. Perhaps the most impressive performance in the league all year was Paige’s effort in the Tar Heels’ overtime win at N.C. State. He scored 35 points, including 31 after halftime, and hit a last second driving basket to win the game.
  • What the future holds. Forward James Michael McAdoo announced he is leaving for the NBA but plenty of size and talent will be returning up front. And the best news is that not only is Paige coming back, but he will be joined on the perimeter by three incoming McDonald’s High School All-Americans. This should give the Tar Heels some of the balance that was missing the last two seasons. As a result, North Carolina looks primed to return to its normal place among national contenders for the next few years.

5) Pittsburgh (26-10, 11-16 ACC) - NCAA (L: 3rd Round)

For a while it looked as if Pittsburgh would join Syracuse in making the move from the Big East look easy. After cruising through a weak non-conference schedule, the Panthers won six of their first seven league games, with the only loss a close defeat at Syracuse. Then injuries hit senior leaders Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna as Pittsburgh lost six of its next 10 games. As its stars got healthier, so did the team, winning three of four to close the regular season. The Panthers played well in the postseason, winning twice in the ACC Tournament before losing to top seed Virginia in a tight semifinal, and then falling to #1 Florida in the NCAA Tournament after blowing out Colorado in the second round.

  • They were who we thought they were. Many schools are able to post excellent offensive and/or defensive rebounding numbers over the span of a few years, but Pittsburgh has been able to consistently excel on the boards, on both ends of the floor, for more than a dozen years. Jaime Dixon cites rebounding as the cornerstone of his program. This year was no different, as the Panthers were the only team to finish in the ACC’s top four in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.
  • We didn’t see this coming. Pittsburgh’s ACC Tournament quarterfinal win (80-75) over North Carolina was a mild upset but not a huge surprise if considering only the final score. It is how the game unfolded that was the stunner. First of all, it was shocking to see the Panthers dominate the taller Tar Heels on the way to a 20-point lead with just over seven minutes left in the contest. Then North Carolina launched a frantic comeback, aided by several Pittsburgh turnovers and missed free throws. The partisan Tar Heel fans had the Greensboro Coliseum rocking as North Carolina actually cut the lead to three in the waning seconds before falling just short of completing what would have been the greatest comeback in ACC Tournament history.
  • What the future holds. Nest year will be a real test for Dixon and the Panthers. The midseason injuries showed just how much the team relied on Patterson and Zanna. With those two players now gone, others will have to step up. In the past, Pittsburgh has relied on its system of redshirting young players, and having good overall player development to overcome personnel losses, so its not an unusual situation for Dixon. Look for the Panthers to remain competitive in their new league for the foreseeable future.
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