ACC Weekend Review: 01.04.16 Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 4th, 2016

The ACC tipped off the New Year’s first weekend of conference play without many high profile match-ups. The league currently has eight teams rated in KenPom’s top-40, but only one game this weekend matched two of them together. In that game, Virginia cruised past Notre Dame in Charlottesville, leading by double digits the entire second half. Three of Saturday’s contests featured second half comebacks – North Carolina trailed by three at the half before passing Georgia Tech late; Miami needed a huge second half to overcome Syracuse; and in the most exciting game of the day, Virginia Tech rallied from a big second half deficit to defeat North Carolina State in overtime. Also on Saturday, Clemson knocked off Florida State, and Duke beat hapless Boston College. In the only Sunday ACC action, Louisville held off Wake Forest at the KFC Yum! Center. Note that so far this season, home court matters in the ACC – visitors have only won once (Duke at Boston College) in the first nine league games. Here are some of the other highlights from over the weekend in the ACC:

Jordan Roper was red-hot - making 7 threes in Clemson's win over Florida State. (Dawson Powers/USA TODAY Sports)

Jordan Roper was on fire Saturday – making 7 threes in Clemson’s win over Florida State. (Dawson Powers/USA TODAY Sports)

  • Best Win: Even though Virginia beat a higher rated team in Notre Dame (KenPom #31), we will go with Clemson and it’s win over a good Florida State (#40) squad. Brad Brownell’s team was desperate for a win after dropping three straight, and losing all six of its previous meetings with teams rated in KenPom’s top-220. Surprisingly, the Tigers did it with offense, scoring 1.25 points per possession against a Seminoles’ defense that had previously not allowed better than 1.07. Senior guard Jordan Roper led the way with 23 points and made a sizzling 7-of-10 from deep. Five other Tigers scored at least nine points, and Clemson controlled the boards by a +11 margin. Brownell hopes this performance can give his team confidence, because the Tigers will be underdogs in its next five games – at Syracuse on Tuesday, followed by four straight games against top-25 ACC teams.

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Georgia Tech Still Struggling to Finish Close Games

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 4th, 2016

With just under six minutes to go in the Smith Center on Saturday afternoon, Georgia Tech was in great position to snag a precious ACC road win in Chapel Hill. The Yellow Jackets had started strong, leading by three at the half. North Carolina was playing its third game in six days, and with a Big Monday road trip to Florida State looming, it seemed as if the Tar Heels were looking ahead. Roy Williams’ team was uncharacteristically sloppy on offense early, committing seven first half turnovers, and was forced to battle Georgia Tech’s beefy frontline without injured starting center Kennedy Meeks. However, just as it did so many times in ACC play last season, Brian Gregory’s squad just couldn’t close the deal, falling by a final score of 86-78.

 Adam Smith's three point shooting has brought balance to Georgia Tech's offense. (Photo by Chris Rodier/Icon Sportswire).

Adam Smith’s three point shooting has brought balance to Georgia Tech’s offense. (Photo by Chris Rodier/Icon Sportswire).

The pivotal moment in the game came when Adam Smith missed a wide open three with 5:41 to play and the Yellow Jackets on top 67-66. That miss kicked off an 8-0 Tar Heel run to take control of the contest, leaving Gregory wondering if his team will ever get over the hump in finishing winnable games. Not all hope is lost, however; this season’s group has shown potential that it may have what it takes to turn that trend around in 2016. That faith rests largely in a much improved offense, led by three seniors: center Charles Mitchell, wing Marcus Georges-Hunt, and the sharp shooting Smith. After Saturday’s game, Roy Williams talked about facing this year’s Yellow Jacket offense:

“I told Brian [Gregory] — this was before the game — that I liked his club. It’s so, so much better than they were last year, and he’s done a great job with them, got some new guys that look like they’ve been there the whole time the way they’ve bought into what he wants for them to do. But when you’ve got a three-point shooter like [Adam] Smith, you’ve got a guy that drives it to the basket and gets to shoot 15 free throws like Marcus and you’ve got [Charles] Mitchell and those guys doing everything inside, it’s tough to guard that kind of team.”

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Wake Forest Enters ACC Play Firmly Ahead of Schedule

Posted by Matthew Auerbach on January 3rd, 2016

As the calendar flipped to 2016, even the most pessimistic Wake Forest fan would have to admit that second-year head coach Danny Manning is a full year ahead of schedule in his rebuild of the once proud Tobacco Road program. After winning nine of their 12 contests in this year’s non-conference slate, the Demon Deacons enter league play at Louisville tonight with a realistic, if not likely, opportunity to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010.

The senior Thomas, has led an otherwise young Demon Deacons' squad to a surprisingly strong start

The senior Thomas has led an otherwise young Demon Deacons’ squad to a surprisingly strong start

Patience was the buzzword in Winston-Salem after Manning, the 1988 National Player of the Year at Kansas, took over the program at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season. After winning just 13 games a season ago, Manning welcomed a highly regarded recruiting class headlined by Bryant Crawford, but it was widely assumed that this season’s youthful roster would act as a bridge to a brighter future. Someone, however, forgot to relay those plans to Devin Thomas. The senior forward, who has started all but one game in his Wake Forest career, has led the way in building a resume which includes four KenPom top 100 wins, highlighted by victories over Indiana and UCLA, at the Maui Invitational.

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Overlooked Stars to Watch in Conference Play

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on December 30th, 2015

We already have a good idea about some of the star players that we will watch compete for league championships and carry their teams deep into this season’s NCAA Tournament. There are electrifying lottery-bound talents like Duke’s Brandon Ingram, Utah’s Jakob Poeltl and LSU’s Ben Simmons. There are seasoned veterans like Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine. But several very important players for excellent teams go unnoticed because they are overshadowed by brighter stars on their own teams or because their particular skills are difficult to appreciate. As we begin conference play this week, here are a few key under the radar players who will make a huge difference for their teams over the next three months.

Anthony Gill, F, Virginia

Anthony Gill might STILL be the most underrated player in the country. (Getty)

Anthony Gill might STILL be the most underrated player in the country. (Getty)

Is Gill one of the best players in the country? Of course not… right? Well, according to KenPom’s player rating system, he currently ranks fourth and, as a matter of fact, he came in seventh last year. Virginia may be Malcolm Brogdon’s team (incidentally, Brogdon sits at third on Pomeroy’s list), but the numbers support Gill’s value. His offensive rating is second nationally among players using at least 24 percent of his team’s possessions, and Gill achieves such great efficiency by staying within himself. He hasn’t attempted a three yet this season; he rarely turns the ball over; he shoots 57 percent from inside the arc; and he gets to the line frequently and shoots 80 percent when there. Combine this with a solid 6.5 rebounds per game and a prominent role in one of the nation’s most stifling defenses, and it’s easy to see why Gill is so valuable. For a Virginia team looking to make its first trip to the Final Four in three decades, he may be the Cavaliers’ X-factor. Read the rest of this entry »

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Louisville’s Second Legitimate Test of the Season Awaits in Lexington

Posted by Matt Auerbach on December 26th, 2015

The elephant in the room with respect to Louisville’s 11-1 start is the uncharacteristically weak competition it faced to compile its gaudy record. None of the Cardinals’ wins have come against a team rated higher than #131, according to KenPom, and that team was Grand Canyon. To their credit, Dan Majerle’s charges own a win over San Diego State, but nevertheless, the softness of this team’s schedule has left many wondering just how good this team is as it heads into its annual tussle with archrival Kentucky.

Kentucky vs. Louisville is Must-See TV For College Basketball Fans (USA Today Images)

Kentucky vs. Louisville is Must-See TV For College Basketball Fans (USA Today Images)

Statistically speaking, the Cardinals have been terrific. Employing its typically stingy defense, Louisville ranks third overall in defensive efficiency (89.9 points per 100 possessions) and fourth in defensive effective field goal percentage (40.4%). Sparked by graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, the Cards have also outperformed expectations offensively, ranking 20th in efficiency (113.4 points per 100 possessions), led by Lee’s 13th-best national offensive rating (137.3). Shooting a blistering 57.5 percent from inside the arc, the Cards have also proven to be remarkably adept when they misfire, rebounding greater than 44.3 percent of their misses, good for second nationally.

Impressive as all that sounds, it isn’t unreasonable to scoff at the numbers when considering Louisville’s level of competition, ranked as the 332nd toughest schedule to this point. The Cards’ lone loss may have been the most instructive data point, in a good way, as the Cardinals led top-ranked Michigan State for the majority of their game in East Lansing only to fall victim to the expert playmaking of Denzel Valentine down the stretch. Perhaps the most positively illuminating development was the play of Lee, who was the best player on the floor for much of the night, proving to any doubters that his game would translate to the high-major level.

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Playing ACC Secret Santa: Part II

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 25th, 2015

In offices all across the nation this week, people are playing the Secret Santa game. So let’s pretend that our company is made up of the ACC’s 15 men’s basketball teams, and we drew every head coach’s name out of the hat. As tempting as it may be to hand out traditional gifts like cheese logs and fruitcakes (yuck!), we instead will look at the specific needs for each squad right now and try and make each team better with our gifts. Part I, which published on Christmas Eve, can be found here.

Here are our gifts of choice for each of the ACC’s seven remaining schools (in alphabetical order):

  • Duke (Mike Krzyzewski) – We can’t do anything about Amile Jefferson’s injury except hope that the senior can recovery in time to re-acclimate himself into the Blue Devil lineup before the stretch run. So instead, we will give Coach K something very useful in the short term. We will turn on the light bulb for freshman big man Chase Jeter. We know that not all McDonald’s High School All-Americans are made alike, and some need more time to adjust to the college game. But it was very telling to see Jeter only get on the floor for six minutes in Duke’s recent loss to Utah – a game where help was certainly needed due to illness and foul trouble.
  • Louisville (Rick Pitino) – To date, the Cardinals have played a terribly weak non-conference schedule, which ranks 60th out of 65 power-five conference schools according to KenPom. So it’s really hard to analyze the needs of Pitino’s squad right now. With no real on-the-court need for this team that has been exposed so far, we will give them the gift of focus going forward. Louisville has basically been able to concentrate on basketball since the regular season games began, after a tumultuous preseason due to the stripper scandal. But eventually, the scrutiny of possible NCAA sanctions will begin again, and the players will have to handle that distraction.

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Playing ACC Secret Santa: Part I

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 24th, 2015

In offices all across the nation this week, people are playing the Secret Santa game. So let’s pretend that our company is made up of the ACC’s 15 men’s basketball teams, and we drew every head coach’s name out of the hat. As tempting as it may be to hand out traditional gifts like cheese logs and fruitcakes (yuck!), we instead will look at the specific needs for each squad right now and try and make each team better with our gifts. In the first of two installments of this piece (check back on Christmas Day for Part II), let’s look at the eight ACC teams that need Santa’s help the most.

presents

It’s Secret Santa Time in the ACC!

Here are our gifts of choice for the eight ACC schools that need them most (in alphabetical order):

  • Boston College (Jim Christian) – This is the easiest coach of all to shop for. When you already don’t have anything, there is no such thing as a bad present. The Eagles desperately need quality players. Among the 65 power-five conference programs, only hapless Rutgers is lower in the current KenPom rankings than the Eagles are. So we would give Christian what he needs the most – a recruiting budget that is comparable with the upper level schools in the ACC. The only way this program is going to improve is for his staff to evaluate and talk with as many high school players as possible, all over the country. That takes money.
  • Clemson (Brad Brownell) – What Brownell needs more than anything right now is a quality win. Actually, just a halfway respectable win would do right now. So far, the Tigers’ best victory this season is over Wofford (KenPom #234). Against teams rated higher than that, Clemson is 0-5 after being blown out by Georgia on Tuesday night. The next opportunity will come next Wednesday at North Carolina, but asking Santa Claus to help Brownell and company break their famous winless streak in Chapel Hill feels very greedy.

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Depth and the Devils: The Worries of Duke’s Shrinking Rotation

Posted by Shane McNichol on December 23rd, 2015

Over the last decade, Mike Krzyzewski’s teams at Duke have shifted toward the new era of college basketball. Duke brings in NBA-bound one-and-done players at a much higher rate than it once did, possibly even surpassing John Calipari — the recent king of transcendent freshman — at his own game. Including this season, the Blue Devils have spent the last three years among the 100 youngest teams in America in terms of college basketball experience.

duke experience

This year’s team includes three freshman receiving a heavy dosage of minutes yet appears to rely on more veterans than last year’s group. That would imply that these Blue Devils returned a reasonable amount of production from last year’s National Championship squad, but a little digging reveals that’s not really the case. The four Blue Devils who played the highest percentage of the team’s available minutes last year departed after the season. This year’s team may be slightly older, but the experience they bring is somewhat misleading. Of the seven players to log time in Duke’s most recent game versus Utah, only one player, Matt Jones, received more than 25 percent of Duke’s available minutes last season.

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Virginia’s Offense Fueled By Most Underrated Backcourt in America

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 22nd, 2015

Since Tony Bennett turned around Virginia’s program during his third season in Charlottesville, the program’s staple has been a suffocating pack-line defense annually among the nation’s stingiest units. But times may be changing for the two-time defending ACC regular season champs, as the Cavaliers have been downright offensive this season. In fact, after Saturday’s impressive 86-75 victory over Big East power Villanova (which included a 53-point Cavalier second half), Virginia ranks not only first in KenPom’s overall ratings, but the Cavaliers are also first in adjusted offensive efficiency. It’s not like there’s been a huge dropoff on the defensive end — Virginia currently  ranks 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency — but the Cavaliers are now scoring at a rate of efficiency we haven’t seen in the Bennett era, making them even a greater threat to get over the Sweet Sixteen hump this season.

Anthony Gill has been dominant in the paint recently for Virginia. (Brad Penner - USA TODAY Sports)

Anthony Gill has been dominant in the paint recently for Virginia. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

Virginia’s offensive improvement — 77.3 PPG compared with 68.8 PPG in the team’s first 10 games a year ago — can be attributed to a combination of tempo and efficiency. Always one of the nation’s slowest teams, the Cavaliers once again rank near the bottom of college basketball in pace (#348). Still, Virginia could act as the poster child for the NCAA’s new rules and enforcement strategy, as its adjusted tempo of 63.5 possessions per game would have ranked about 100 places higher a season ago. That difference in tempo is almost completely due to Bennett’s squad playing a little more quickly on the offensive end. Opponents still take a long time to find a good shot against the Cavaliers (19.2 seconds per possession compared with 19.5 last season), but on the other hand, Virginia has cut its length of offensive possession by over two seconds (from 21.1 to 18.9). The main reason that Virginia’s scoring is up, however, is its increase in efficiency (particularly with respect to its shooting). The shot selection table below shows that the Cavaliers are more accurate shooters this season from all areas of the floor. Additionally, the Cavaliers have lowered the percentage of two-point jumpers taken (easily the least efficient way to score) and are getting to the rim much more often. Read the rest of this entry »

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Can North Carolina’s Offense Compensate for Its Porous Defense?

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 22nd, 2015

Free throws, threes, layups and dunks — the distance or form didn’t matter. For much of the second half in Saturday’s game against UCLA, it felt like North Carolina couldn’t miss. And for a crucial six-minute stretch late in the second half, it didn’t. The Tar Heels made 11 consecutive field goals, during which its lead ballooned from five to 16 points. From there, Roy Williams‘ veteran team put the Bruins in the rear view mirror and never looked back. For opponents that have never experienced the frenzy of North Carolina’s offense, the task of slowing it down once it gets rolling can be daunting, and UCLA was only the latest victim to conveniently fall into this trap. Still, for a team that blew the doors off of another quality opponent, questions linger about the quality and legitimacy of the Tar Heels’ defense.

North Carolina Carved Up the UCLA Defense (USA Today Images)

North Carolina Carved Up the UCLA Defense. (USA TODAY Sports)

The North Carolina offense is humming. The Heels boast seven players averaging more than eight points per game and rank second nationally in offensive efficiency. But a heavy reliance on an uptempo attack to generate all those points comes with the caveat that their two losses this season came against teams that are among the slowest in college basketball. Texas and Northern Iowa like to slow down the pace, and both have experienced guards who manage to limit turnovers, and hence, the overall number of possessions. As such, North Carolina stands at 8-0 this season in games with 70 or more possessions and is 1-2 in games where it failed to reach that threshold. While its offense is averaging a robust 14.6 seconds per possession, its defense is using 18.8 seconds per possession — one of the 10 slowest teams nationally. In other words, North Carolina is spending an inordinate amount of time in its games laboring away on the defensive end. Read the rest of this entry »

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Syracuse Struggling to Develop an Identity Without Jim Boeheim

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 14th, 2015

Jim Boeheim’s tenure is virtually unrivaled. With a laundry list of accomplishments including a national championship, 966 wins and four-time winner of Big East Coach of the Year over his 40 year career, Boeheim has been the face of Syracuse basketball for what seems like an eternity. Recruits, fans and opponents alike have all come to equate Syracuse with Boeheim, whether the result of the pesky 2-3 zone he implemented on the defensive end or the sideline tantrums he’s thrown in response to an unfavorable call. To say Boeheim has changed the landscape of college basketball would be an understatement. So when the NCAA chose to uphold its nine-game suspension of the renowned head coach for recruiting violations, the decision rippled throughout the program. It signaled not just a temporary problem but a structural one with many unresolved issues. How would the team perform in his absence, and more importantly, what is the long-term outlook with his inevitable retirement looming on the horizon?

The absence of Jim Boeheim is already having a huge effect on Orange basketball. (Getty)

The absence of Jim Boeheim is already having a huge effect on Orange basketball. (Getty)

With this news in hand, interim head coach Mike Hopkins stepped into the spotlight. Hopkins has been with Syracuse as an assistant coach since 1996, in the shadows cast by the monumental program Boeheim built. His intentions were the same, but the outcomes couldn’t have been any different thus far. Only days after the suspension, Syracuse dropped a road game at Georgetown. Then the following week, the team suffered tremendously in what was presumed to be a surefire win against a rebuilding St. John’s team. Two storied rivalries dating back to the beginning of the Big East and games that Boeheim undoubtedly would have cherished. Hopkins was noticeably emotional, not just because of the loss, but the thought that Boeheim could have done better. “He’s always with us at the end of the day… he built us, built the program. I wanted this one for him tonight,” said Hopkins. Read the rest of this entry »

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Florida State Newcomers Making Huge Impact

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 13th, 2015

In the 2014-15 season, Leonard Hamilton’s Florida State squad was severely hampered by a lack of depth on the perimeter. But, what was a weakness last year is now a strength of this year’s Seminoles. Led by a pair of explosive freshmen, Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley, Florida State (5-2) not only is more talented this season, but it may be one of the most balanced teams of Hamilton’s 14 years at the helm in Tallahassee.

Florida State's Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley are the nation's leading freshmen scoring duo. (youtube/Nation Hoops)

Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley are the nation’s leading freshmen scoring duo.
(youtube/Nation Hoops)

With no real quality depth last season, Florida State’s three primary perimeter players all averaged about 35 minutes per contest. Certainly that made it almost impossible for the Seminoles to play the way Hamilton usually likes his teams to play — using waves of athletes to pressure opponents. So far this year, only sophomore Xavier Rathan-Mayes is logging over 28 minutes per game and his time on the floor (30.4) is almost five minutes less than it was a season ago. Bacon and Beasley are each playing around 27.5 minutes per contest as starters and fellow frosh Terance Mann is coming off the bench for about 15 minutes of action each game. It’s fair to say that Florida State’s freshmen class has performed above expectations so far. Compared to the consensus top two rookie classes in the country (see table below), the Seminoles newcomers are outperforming Duke’s rookies and are statistically close to Kentucky’s.

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