After Lackluster Season, ACC Must Improve Depth to Have the “Best Ever” Conversation Again

Posted by Lathan Wells on April 4th, 2014

Prior to the beginning of the college basketball season, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski infamously proclaimed that the ACC had the potential to be the greatest college basketball conference of all-time. That was a bold proclamation at the time, as we covered here, and with the 2013-14 season now drawing to a close, it’s become painfully apparent that the conference this year did nothing to stake such a claim. So the question then becomes, what does the ACC need to do in coming years to proudly proclaim itself the best basketball conference ever assembled? Here’s a road map for the league’s coaches and administrators.

Virginia's ascendance will only help the ACC's argument that it's the premier basketball conference (USA Today Sports)

Virginia’s ascendance will only help the ACC’s argument that it’s the premier basketball conference. (USA Today Sports)

The conference’s elite have to dominate the non-conference slate and enjoy copious postseason success. While there were a handful of marquee wins spread around prior to ACC play (North Carolina’s defeats of Michigan State, Kentucky, and Louisville; Duke’s defeat of Michigan; Syracuse handling Villanova), the league’s postseason results were anything but stellar. The conference managed to get six teams into the NCAA Tournament, but the upper tier didn’t produce much success when they got there. Duke lost in the opening round; North Carolina and Syracuse fell in the round of 32. Virginia, the regular-season and ACC Tournament champion, may have drawn a rough match-up in the Sweet Sixteen with Michigan State, but it could not advance (and UConn was able to handle the Spartans in the nexts round). The embarrassing result was that there was no ACC teams in the Elite Eight. These teams have to produce in postseason play in addition to their non-conference victories to help the perception of the conference return to an elite level.

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UConn and the ACC: The One That Got Away

Posted by Chris Kehoe on April 4th, 2014

When the most recent jumble of conference realignment was underway, the ACC squarely targeted the Big East for its newest conquests. Commissioner John Swofford wanted to add programs that were strong in the revenue sports of football and basketball, holding distinctive geographic locations that would open up the conference to new fans and marketing possibilities. The ACC won out in a big way, snagging prominent athletic programs at Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh from the old Big East. While these programs are have had varying degrees of success in the sport that drives realignment, Notre Dame is the only football name brand (and the Irish retained their football independence). So while the current athletic landscape is shaped by the financial juggernaut that is college football, the ACC locked up some of the country’s most elite basketball programs.

UConn has a rising star in Head Coach Kevin Ollie (credit: CT Post)

UConn has a rising star in Head Coach Kevin Ollie (credit: CT Post)

So while the ACC may have sought greater football legitimacy as its primary goal, the league also landed two massively successful basketball programs in Syracuse and Louisville. As a result, the ACC may very well have positioned itself as the basketball conference of the future, made up of most if not all of the best programs up and down the East Coast. That is, with one notable exception. As the league plundered the Big East, it may have made a drastic mistake from a basketball perspective. The ACC left behind a basketball powerhouse in its own right, Connecticut, a school that all but pleaded for entry into the ACC and a Final Four participant in a season when no conference team made it past the Sweet Sixteen. Recall the silly preseason talk about how the ACC was supposed to be ‘the best ever’, and it leaves you wondering if the exclusion of a program like UConn was the right move. The basketball program based in Storrs has had continued and sustained excellence in the sport over a long period of time, winning the national title three times since 1999 (as well as 2004 and 2011), and putting 13 players into the NBA as lottery picks since 1994. Few programs can match that record.

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Sizing Up the Future: A Glance at Next Year’s ACC Recruiting Classes

Posted by Chris Kehoe on April 3rd, 2014

While the ACC took a beating in its reputation over the course of the season, the league ended up with four very good teams (regardless of their early exits in the NCAA Tournament) that all spent some time in the Top 25. The league was top-heavy with a clear upper quadrant this year, but that didn’t stop the bottom from occasionally feeding on the weaknesses of some of the top teams, as Wake Forest beat Duke, Boston College and Georgia Tech beat Syracuse, and UNC lost to Wake and Miami. The ACC has traditionally run through Tobacco Road, but with the inclusion of powerhouses Syracuse and Louisville, the league will have a much more diverse, East Coast feel to it. The new rivalries that will develop among those schools are practically bred for prime time, with some of the sport’s most magnetic and well-known coaching personalities clashing on the sidelines, Hall of Famers with thousands of combined wins at this level. Their players aren’t halfway bad, either.

Louisville's Rick Pitino has to be pleased (contrary to his facial expressions above) with his well-rounded 6 man recruiting class(Getty Images).

Louisville’s Rick Pitino has to be pleased (contrary to his facial expressions above) with his well-rounded  six-man recruiting class(Getty Images).

Most other basketball conferences will be hard pressed to match the star power and coaching prowess that programs like Syracuse, Duke, UNC, and Louisville will bring to an already tradition-rich ACC. Much of the the league’s success can be laid on the shoulders of the incoming recruits that will provide these future made-for-TV moments. The 2014 recruiting class among the league’s programs seems to be fertile and deep, full of stars and instant impact performers who will enhance the collegiate landscape during their time on campus. The McDonald’s All-American game, played on Wednesday night in Chciago, featured seven future ACC players, all headed to Tobacco Road. While Duke’s top-ranked class has received much of the early accolades, North Carolina also is bringing in a potent blend of athleticism and shooting ability.

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ACC in the NIT: Florida State and Clemson Advancing With Solid Backcourt Play

Posted by Brad Jenkins on April 1st, 2014

The 2013-14 NCAA Tournament will not be something that ACC fans will remember fondly, with only Virginia among the 16 teams playing during the second weekend, and no ACC team advancing to the Elite Eight or beyond. But at least the league has two teams in the NIT Final Four, right? OK, that’s not something that the historically great ACC would normally celebrate, but sometimes you just need to take what you can get. Tonight at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Clemson (23-13) will take on SMU (27-9) at 7:00 PM ET, followed by Florida State (23-13) vs. Minnesota (23-14). The winners will meet for the NIT Championship on Thursday night, giving the ACC a pretty good chance to bring home at least one postseason trophy this season.

Clemson is getting solid backcourt play from Damarcus Harrison. (Photo: Rex Brown/IPTAY Media)

Clemson is getting improved backcourt play from Damarcus Harrison.
(Photo: Rex Brown/IPTAY Media)

Outside of first team all-ACC player K.J. McDaniels, Clemson has struggled offensively for much of this season. It’s no secret that Brad Brownell has been looking for some consistent scoring from just about anybody, but particularly from the perimeter. The good news is that the Tigers are finally getting some help for McDaniels in the form of their two wings. Junior Damarcus Harrison and sophomore Jordan Roper have stepped up their scoring during Clemson’s three-game NIT run. The two have combined to average 24 points per game on their way to New York, after collectively averaging only 14 points per game in the team’s previous 32 games this season. That 10-points per game improvement may not sound dramatic, but to a team that struggles scoring, it’s a huge boost. Harrison was the key to Clemson’s NIT quarterfinal win over Belmont last week, scoring 14 of his 16 points in the second half as the Tigers rallied from a late five-point deficit to win the game. Including Clemson’s one-point loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament, Roper has now scored in double figures in four straight games, and has been perfect on all 11 of his free throw attempts during that span.

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Virginia Tech Earns Instant Credibility With Hire of Buzz Williams

Posted by Lathan Wells on March 25th, 2014

When Virginia Tech announced on Friday that it had poached head coach Buzz Williams from Marquette to replace the recently-fired James Johnson, the immediate reaction was that of general astonishment. Why on Earth would Williams leave a team he’d taken to the postseason in five out of six years on the bench to a program that had only reached the Big Dance once since 1996 and has finished last in the ACC three years running? While the reasons, thoroughly outlined here, became more apparent in the ensuing days, the real story is the amazing acquisition made by new Virginia Tech athletic director, Whit Babcock. The hiring of Williams and the way it managed to circle all of the major media outlets during the opening weekend of NCAA Tournament play, gave the Hokies basketball program something it hasn’t experienced in years: instant credibility.

Buzz Williams Virginia Tech PR campaign included a TNT appearance during the NCAA's (cbssports.com)

Buzz Williams’ Virginia Tech PR campaign included a TNT appearance during the NCAA Tournament (cbssports.com)

Williams oversaw a very successful Marquette program in the Big East, going an impressive 139-69 in his six years at the helm and taking the school to two Sweet Sixteen appearances and an Elite Eight run. No doubt his ability to navigate a difficult conference schedule (prior to realignment) and enjoy postseason success was extremely attractive to a Hokies program just trying to get noticed. Williams obviously looked around the ravaged Big East — a conference that the ACC raided to bring in Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh — and saw a chance to jump to the premier basketball conference in the land to match wits with four Hall of Fame coaches in Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, and Mike Krzyzewski. Some may have originally seen the move as a bizarre one (especially Williams’ pay cut from $3 million to $2.3 million annually) , but coupling the chance to compete in the new-look ACC with the uncertainty in the Marquette administration as well as the state of the weakened Big East, the decision began to make more sense.

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ACC M5: 03.25.14 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on March 25th, 2014

morning5_ACC

  1. Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician: Great piece on Jim Boeheim‘s legacy. It’s insane to mention his six double-digit seed losses without mentioning his 30 appearances (where having the chance to lose to a double-digit seed is a compliment). I love asides, so the Keith Smart reminder was my favorite part. Those single-shot “what if” games can be brutal, though (if Gordon Hayward hits that halfcourt heave, how does Coach K’s recent legacy look?).
  2. Charlotte Observer: Man this is a tough second-hand account of Marcus Paige (who announced on Twitter that he’s returning next season) after North Carolina’s loss to Iowa State. To state the obvious, Paige took the loss hard, reliving his late turnover instead of his game-saving plays this season. This feels like something that will we’re going to hear a lot more about next season when Paige makes a run at ACC Player of the Year.
  3. CBSSports.com: Chris Mack is a “legitimate target” at Wake Forest, per Gary Parrish. What’s unclear is which side is leaking the information (my gut says Ron Wellman). Take the report with a grain of salt, as reports that don’t say a hire is imminent seem to miss as often as they hit. Regardless, Mack would be a great hire. He’s a big-time recruiter who was an assistant there under Skip Prosser, he’s incredibly likable, and he’s got a track record of winning. I don’t see how Wellman does much better unless he’s been inspired by Virginia Tech to spend some serious coin.
  4. Duke Basketball Report: Here’s a look from ACC historian Barry Jacobs on the conference’s Sweet Sixteen streak (focusing on 1990 until today), which Virginia kept intact on Sunday. Probably the most startling part is that NC State and Clemson are tied for the fewest appearances of any ACC school (not raided from the Big East) with two trips each. OK, well it’s not shocking that Clemson isn’t lighting up many Sweet Sixteen scoreboards, but NC State’s time is head-scratching to say the least.
  5. Boston Globe: I for one don’t see Tommy Amaker taking the Boston College job. I could definitely be wrong and don’t have any inside information, but he’s incredibly stable at Harvard right now. He’s making good money, his wife has a terrific job on the faculty, and he’s got the rest of the Ivy League trying to play catch-up with what he’s built in Cambridge. At Boston College, he’d have a similar rebuilding job in front of him, and probably more money. But there’s a lot to be said for stability too.
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Triangle Basketball Apocalypse: A Retrospective

Posted by Matt Patton on March 24th, 2014

NC State, Duke and North Carolina all lost over the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament in excruciating fashion: NC State led essentially the whole game before slowly relinquishing a 99 percent safe (according to kenpom.com) lead in the final four minutes to Saint Louis; Duke’s stars failed to produce en route to also blowing a 90 percent safe lead in the final five minutes to a double-digit underdog; North Carolina made the round of 32, but never got a last shot (presumably to win the game) because of a hesitant clock operator. Let’s take a deeper look at all three.

Roy Williams was understandably deflated after bizarre finish. (credit: Christine Nguyen / Durham Herald Sun)

Roy Williams was understandably deflated after a bizarre finish in San Antonio. (credit: Christine Nguyen / Durham Herald Sun)

There’s no sugarcoating the NC State loss. It was brutal to follow. Drawn out and essentially feeding on itself (each missed free throw made the following ones even more difficult), it was just the toughest collapse to watch. Truthfully it was the worst collapse in a very long time. No one finished watching that game thinking that the better team (at least at this moment) had won. The Wolfpack dominated the first 37 minutes before Saint Louis got desperate and reached into the well-worn halls of NC State history for Jimmy V’s relentless fouling strategy. It worked. The Wolfpack made eight of 18 free throws in the final 2:44 of the game, while the dormant Billikens offense jumped to life, scoring 16 points over the same span (19 points if you count Jordair Jett‘s and-one with three minutes left that started the comeback). That was just shy of a third of Saint Louis’ offensive production over the first 37 minutes. Unsurprisingly, Jim Crews’ team went on to win in overtime after Tyler Lewis rattled out the would-be game winner at the buzzer from (gulp) the free throw line. Good luck finding a more drawn-out collapse.

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ACC M5: 03.24.14 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on March 24th, 2014

morning5_ACC

  1. Hampton Roads Daily Press: Where to begin? Since the last morning five, Buzz Williams (and Yahoo! Sports) shocked the world by taking the Virginia Tech job. And while it was clear he was unhappy at Marquette, most people expected him to hold out for a better opportunity. Even more shocking is that the Hokies will pay him less than Marquette when all is said and done. Some more details in this David Teel piece, but if nothing else the hire shows an unprecedented investment in basketball at Virginia Tech. This is a game-changer in the conference going forward.
  2. ESPN: Speaking of the coaching carousel, hall of famer Jim Calhoun (!) is reportedly interested in the Boston College (!!!) job. Now, I’d be shocked if this actually happened. For one, Calhoun will be 72 this summer and has a history of health problems; two, his public relationship with Boston College hasn’t exactly been rosy of late; and three, he had serious APR issues at Connecticut. But I’m on board with Kyle Egan that Gene Difilippo shouldn’t overlook Calhoun’s interest. At a minimum Calhoun would generate both media and fan buzz. Assuming he stayed two or three years (which seems like the maximum), he’d also probably bring a serious upgrade in talent to Chestnut Hill. Boston College needs both of those things and as quickly as possible.
  3. Winston Salem Journal: Dan Collins nails his coverage of the end of the Jeff Bzdelik tenure here (and has a great intro here). But now it’s time to look forward. And Virginia Tech juist raised the bar significantly both in terms of hype and money, which often go hand in hand. Ron Wellman needs to “win the press conference,” so to speak. A candidate who’s gaining (entirely rumored) steam–at least from my perspective — is North Carolina Central’s Levelle Moton. Moton is high energy, young and has success in the area. At a minimum you’re taking a shot on a guy who’s incredibly likable and should be able to recruit well (and might stay for a very long time). I think Wake Forest looks for a safer (more experienced) hire, but with the stakes high Wellman may need to take a risk.
  4. Backing the PackTar Heel Blog, and Duke Basketball Report: Whew boy it was the basketball apocalypse this week in the Triangle. First NC State blows a 99% lead (according to KenPom.com) to Saint Louis because it can’t buy a free throw. Then Duke‘s stars have poor games and Mercer upsets the Blue Devils in Raleigh. Then North Carolina coughs up an eight-point lead in the final four minutes to Iowa State. I’ll take these one at a time in another post, but suffice to say, it was brutal. To rub salt in the wound, North Carolina Central the best team out of the MEAC in years got demolished in the round of 64.
  5. Charlottesville Daily Progress: As expected, Virginia is the last ACC team standing (in the NCAA Tournament, at least). Tony Bennett’s team kept the ACC from missing its first second weekend since the NCAA Tournament expanded. The Cavaliers poleaxed a good Memphis team Sunday night to carry the ACC’s torch to the Sweet Sixteen in what looks to be a fascinating matchup with a very trendy Michigan State team. Truthfully, when Virginia is shooting like they were Sunday, they won’t lose. I like Virginia to go to the Final Four out of the East, but facing Izzo in March (for anyone not named Roy Williams) is nothing to sneeze at.
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How Duke Advances in the Bracket of Death

Posted by Chris Kehoe on March 21st, 2014

Upon first glance, Duke had to be happy about not landing out West in Arizona’s bracket, where Duke has traditionally struggled to win. But after that initial glance, Duke found themselves in what pundits have dubbed the ‘Bracket of Death’ along with underseeded Louisville, undefeated Wichita State, and Big Ten champions Michigan. Duke will have their work cut out for them in this bracket, with three teams who were in last year’s Final Four in the same region. But Duke shouldn’t look past their first round opponent, the Mercer Bears, champions of the Atlantic Sun, who knocked off last year’s darling Florida Gulf Coast in their conference championship. Mercer is an extremely capable offensive force this year, not on the level that Duke is, but still extremely capable in their own right. While only ranked 111th in tempo-free offense, Mercer has great rankings in traditional statistics compared to the rest of the nation. The Bears are 25th in team PPG, 38th in RPG, 10th in APG, and 29th in FG% in the entire nation.

Jabari Parker is ready for his NCAA Tournament debut vs. Mercer (credit: Stephan Savoia / AP)

Jabari Parker is ready for his NCAA Tournament debut vs. Mercer (credit: Stephan Savoia / AP)

This promises to be an exciting offensive shootout in Raleigh, where Duke has an obvious home court advantage of playing in their state and in an area they know quite well. Both Duke and Mercer struggle defensively, so points will likely be at a premium in their matchup. Both are extremely capable three point shooting teams, and they take advantage of that strength by letting it fly early and often. While the star power on Duke is known to almost everyone, Mercer has a stud of their own in senior guard Langston Hall.  He is one half of a terrific backcourt with Anthony White, but what separates Mercer from traditional small schools is their size. Most successful small schools have elite guard play as  there is a large pool of smaller and talented players with guard skills to recruit from nationwide. What often separates the big-time schools from these mid-major schools is the presence of star big men, or at least serviceable size upwards of 6’9” on their rosters. And Mercer has some big bodies on its roster, which may prove difficult for Duke to counter, as size and defense tends to be their Achilles heel.

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Previewing #8 Colorado vs. #9 Pittsburgh

Posted by Matt Patton & Andrew Murawa on March 20th, 2014

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Pittsburgh will take on Colorado in Orlando at 1:40 PM ET Thursday afternoon on TBS. RTC correspondents Matt Patton and Andrew Murawa sat down and conducted a quick Q&A about the game featuring ACC vs. Pac-12 squads.

Without Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado seems vulnerable especially on offense. (credit: David Zalubowski, AP Photo)

Without Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado seems vulnerable, especially on offense. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo)

Matt: Obviously Colorado took a step backwards when it lost Spencer Dinwiddie in January. How have the Buffaloes replaced his offensive production, and is their seed inflated because of what they did with Dinwiddie earlier in the season?

Andrew: The biggest adjustment that Colorado has made to adjust following the Dinwiddie injury was to slide junior Askia Booker – previously known as an inveterate gunner – over to the point guard slot. Since that time, the number of shots per game out of Booker hasn’t changed much (only twice in the 17 games since the Dinwiddie injury has Booker hoisted fewer than 10 field goal attempts), but the quality of those shots has improved and it has been balanced by an obvious interest in getting his teammates involved. Other guys like Xavier Talton and Jaron Hopkins have seen their minutes and production increase as well, but both have been fairly inconsistent. All of this leads to the fact that while it has been admirable how the Buffaloes have held it together after the loss of their floor general, this team isn’t much of a threat to surprise in the NCAA Tournament, and the #8 seed is a generous appraisal of the team that will take the floor on Thursday. Read the rest of this entry »

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What North Carolina Needs to Do to Beat Providence

Posted by Chris Kehoe on March 19th, 2014

North Carolina has its hands full tonight with its first round match-up against #11 Providence. The Friars are red-hot at the moment, coming off a Big East Tournament title that included an upset win over Creighton. Head coach Ed Cooley placed a premium on winning the title in Madison Square Garden because the Friars hadn’t won it since 1994 and only once in the past 34 years. Providence may have lucked out in avoiding top seed Villanova after the Wildcats were upset by Seton Hall at the buzzer, but they still managed to get past the Bluejays and college basketball’s likely NPOY. The Friars’ best player, senior guard Bryce Cotton, was a unanimous first team all-Big East selection and he is a handful for any defense. A capable scorer who has increased his distribution skills this year, Cotton is much like North Carolina’s Marcus Paige in that they are both rail-thin, ball-dominating guards that are relied upon heavily from the perimeter. Their battle at that position will be one of the key match-ups in this game, and if Paige can play Cotton even or better, the Tar Heels will be well positioned to advance.

Marcus Paige must be looking forward to his matchup with Bryce Cotton (Photo: Robert Willett/ Raleigh News & Observer)

The competitor in Marcus Paige must be looking forward to his matchup with Bryce Cotton ( Robert Willett/ Raleigh News & Observer)

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ACC M5: 03.18.14 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on March 18th, 2014

morning5_ACC

  1. Boston Globe: Great story from Bob Hohler on Boston College‘s worst sports scandal, which is being made into a 30 for 30 (which, assuming they got everyone to talk, could be awesome). Basically, mobsters — some of the ones who would later inspire the movie Goodfellas — decided that they could make money on the Eagles fading games. So they recruited three players (really coerced two after recruiting one) to help shave points in a few of their games. They weren’t really successful, but the story came to light when one of the mobsters was trying to make a deal with the feds a few years later. Fascinating stuff.
  2. ESPN: As had been rumored, James Johnson is gone at Virginia Tech. He certainly struggled during his two years in Blacksburg, but athletic director Jim Weaver put him in an almost impossible situation (especially for a coach with no previous head coaching experience). Gobbler Country does a good job running down why many of the team’s struggles weren’t his fault, but when it came down to it, new athletic director Whit Babcock decided Johnson wasn’t the man for the job. It’s not going to be easy to find a home run replacement, though (read: one better than Seth Greenberg).
  3. Bluefield Daily Telegraph: Speaking of replacements, you can check out some “when hell freezes over” possibilities elsewhere, but Brian Woodson nails at least one candidate who I think is closer to where the Hokies will end up (unless Babcock is ready to shell out some serious money). Woodson points to Mike Young, the current head coach at Wofford. That said, I think it’s really dangerous to mention Gregg Marshall’s name around any long-tenured coach at a small conference school (he’s definitely the exception, not the rule). Tim Thomas also does a good job throwing out a little higher-profile (but still mostly reasonable) possibilities for Jones’ replacement too.
  4. College Chalk Talk: Here’s some insight from Leonard Hamilton’s right hand man Stan Jones on five things Florida State looks to develop in players over their career. This reads a little like a speech from a coaching camp, but it’s still interesting to get a feel for the big picture goals that top programs have for their players. Also, I’m a big fan of starting off paragraphs with quotes. Jones shows a remarkable amount of breadth in his quoting, pulling everyone from Limp Bizkit singer Fred Durst to George Bernard Shaw. Bravo.
  5. Engadget: Cool news as the ACC released an Apple TV channel dedicated solely to the league. I am on board with the idea that we’re moving to an a la carte television model where more people will use Apple TV or other streaming services to engage with content. Props to the conference for trying to be on the forefront of that shift with this move. Essentially, it sounds like the channel will offer similar things to the ACC Digital Network, but having it all in one place is great.
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