A Quick Whip Around the ACC

Posted by Matthew Auerbach on January 16th, 2018

The real-time eulogies for Duke on Monday night at Miami (FL) were erased as quickly as they were written. The consensus preseason favorite shrugged off a listless opening 12 minutes of the second half, saving its energy for a scintillating four-plus minute stretch of 18 straight points, swinging the margin from down 13 points and in trouble to up five and in control. While just a snapshot on a canvas of maddening inconsistency, what Monday’s game-changing run proved, once again, is that Duke’s best is still better than anyone else’s. The Blue Devils’ intoxicating freshman class was on full display during the surge, most notably the pure shooting stroke of Gary Trent, Jr. The 6’6” shooting guard knocked down a trio of triples during the decisive run, on his way to a career-high 30-point evening. Wendell Carter, Jr. added 15 points, 14 boards and four blocks; Marvin Bagley contributed a quiet 13 points and 12 rebounds; and point guard Trevon Duval (17 points; eight assists) navigated Miami’s generally stingy defense like a seasoned veteran. The issues with this team remain legitimate: its man-to-man defense is an atrocity (its zone, however, stagnated Miami and helped to swing the game) and Grayson Allen’s needs to find his stroke, but the height of the Blue Devils’ ceiling with all cylinders firing re-entered our collective consciousness last night.

Duke’s Comeback Kids Did It Again Last Night (USA Today Images)

Left for dead in the wake of the manhandling Kentucky put on the Cardinals to close out 2017, Louisville has recovered nicely from that 30-point defeat in Rupp Arena. After splitting a pair of games with Pittsburgh and Clemson, the Cardinals then halted Florida State’s 28-game home winning streak in Tallahassee with a second half comeback victory that nobody saw coming. Next, David Padgett’s team followed that up with an impressive 94-86 home win over Virginia Tech, featuring 13 three-point field goals from a team that typically doesn’t shoot or make many. While Deng Adel’s career-high 27 points was the most notable performance, sophomore Ryan McMahon’s contributions of 21 points in the pair of victories seemed to inject some life into a bench that has been noticeably devoid of offensive spark. It was convenient and perhaps even justified to dismiss Louisville as an ACC or national contender given the backdrop of an ongoing FBI investigation and the loss of its Hall of Fame head coach. But with only an overtime road loss to Clemson keeping the Cards from sitting atop the league standings, now is the time to remember that this roster was always considered NCAA Tournament second weekend good.

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ACC Weekend Review: 01.15.18 Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 15th, 2018

There were several exciting games in the ACC on Saturday, capped by North Carolina’s last-second survival in South Bend against a determined if undermanned Notre Dame squad. Earlier in the day, Florida State topped Syracuse in a two-overtime thriller in Tallahassee; Louisville beat Virginia Tech in a shootout; and Clemson took over late to outlast Miami. On Sunday night, Virginia handled NC State, leaving the Cavaliers as the lone remaining undefeated team in ACC play. Here are the highlights from the weekend around the ACC.

Donte Grantham leads the cheers in Clemson’s win over Miami.

  • Best Win: In the only ACC game of the weekend involving two ranked teams, Clemson broke open a close second half to topple Miami in Littlejohn Coliseum, 72-63. The Hurricanes have the seventh-best defense in the land according to KenPom‘s efficiency rankings, but thanks in large part to a 12-of-21 performance from three-point land, Clemson converted a robust 1.17 points per possession against Miami. Senior Donte Grantham led a balanced Tigers’ attack with 18 points, connecting on all four of his shots from deep, including a last-minute dagger that put the game out of reach. Brad Brownell‘s team next plays at North Carolina on Tuesday night, where Clemson has never won (0-58).

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ACC Weekend Preview: January 13

Posted by Mick McDonald on January 13th, 2018

As we move into the middle of January, each weekend features games that will have a major impact on how the ACC will ultimately shake out. This long holiday weekend is no exception, with a pair of games featuring major bubble implications (already!) on the docket, and a chance for one team to stake its claim as a surprise ACC title contender. (All stats through games of January 11 and rankings via KenPom.)

Saturday, January 13

Leonard Hamilton Isn’t Worried About a 1-3 ACC Start (USA Today Images)

  • #45 Syracuse at #31 Florida State. Don’t be fooled by Florida State’s 1-3 ACC record. The Seminoles received a brutal schedule to start conference play, dropping games at Duke and Miami followed by a home loss to Louisville. None of those three losses alone are reason for concern, but the Seminoles need to address their recent shooting woes. Florida State has made just 27 percent of their attempts from long-range in the last two games, and Phil Cofer (42.3% 3FG on the season), in particular, has really struggled (2-of-10 3FG). Against Syracuse’s long and athletic zone defense, Leonard Hamilton will need Cofer to regain his form as the designated zone-buster. The Orange are likely to keep Florida State out of the paint, as Syracuse is allowing opponents to shoot just 42.0 percent from two-point range this season, the seventh best mark in college basketball.
  • #29 Miami at #14 Clemson. Is Clemson a legitimate ACC title contender? We are about to find out. The Tigers are 3-1 after losing to NC State in Raleigh Thursday night, but their schedule gets much tougher very quickly, beginning with this weekend’s visit from the Hurricanes. A key for Brad Brownell’s club this year has been the development of junior big man Elijah Thomas. He is posting a 26.6 PER and 63.1 percent effective field goal rate on the offensive end, while also becoming a dominant rebounder (26.1% defensive rebounding rate) and shot-blocker (11.8% block rate.) It will be fun to watch Thomas take on Miami’s much-improved big man Dewan Huell, who is posting an 85.8 Defensive Rating and shoos 65.6 percent from the field. Huell was terrific in the Hurricanes’ recent win over Florida State, scoring 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting while grabbing eight rebounds.

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Close Games in the ACC: Part III

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 12th, 2018

This is Part III of a three-part series. Part I can be found here.  Part II can be found here.

In our final examination of close games in the ACC, we will examine the extreme cases in both directions — the best and worst seasons over the last 11 years with respect to performance in tight games. Then we’ll see if history gives us any indication of what to expect for the four ACC teams with extreme results in one-possession games last year.

Brian Gregory and the 2015 Georgia Tech squad were historically inept in close games. (AP Photo)

  • Most 1-Possession Games – 2012 Virginia Tech (10), 2012 Virginia (9). These intrastate rivals chose the same season to participate in the highest number of games decided on the game’s final possession. Each team won four of their tight contests but the Cavaliers (9-7 ACC record) did much better in the rest of their league outings than the Hokies (4-12). As you might expect, both meetings between these two schools in 2012 came right down to the wire, with each team winning on the other’s home floor.
  • Least 1-Possession Games – 2007 N.C. State (0), 2011 Duke (0). These two squads avoided nail-biters in different ways. Duke (13-3 ACC) won most of its games comfortably in 2011, including 11 of their 16 conference games by double-figures. Meanwhile the Wolfpack (5-11) were often on the short end in lopsided affairs, posting a mark of 3-9 in games decided by 10 points or more. Ironically, in its ACC Tournament opener that year, N.C. State finally experienced a close game – beating Duke in overtime in Sidney Lowe’s first year at the helm.
  • Best Record in 1-Possession Games – 2013 Florida State (6-0). A year after their first and only ACC Championship, the Seminoles (9-9 ACC) would have been in much worse shape if they didn’t dominate their six close games.
  • Worst Record in 1-Possession Games – 2015 Georgia Tech (0-8). Brian Gregory’s squad in 2015 (3-15 ACC) was so snake-bitten that the next highest number of losses during this era was four.

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Close Games in the ACC: Part II

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 10th, 2018

This is Part II of a three-part series. Part I can be found here.

In the second installment of our analysis we will test several common theories regarding close games. We’ll first determine if having an experienced squad helps a team prevail in tight match-ups. Next, we’ll figure out how important coaching is to a team’s chances to come out on top in those close games. Finally, we’ll discover whether winning tight contests in fact does prepare a team for greater postseason success. Alas, we couldn’t figure out how to test for one of the most popular theories across ACC fandom – that biased officiating decides most of these games. For many ACC fan bases, the fact that Duke and North Carolina consistently win a majority of their close games is the only proof necessary that Blue Blood bias exists among the league’s officials. Given that aside, here are the theories that we could test.

Theory 1: Experienced Teams Win More Close Games

FINDING: Not True. To test this hypothesis, we assigned a seasonal experience rating to each ACC team over the past 11 seasons by using the national experience ranking from KenPom – which is derived from average player experience in years and adjusted by minutes played. For example, a team where seniors play every minute of every game all season long will have an experience rating of 3.0. In the above chart we have plotted the experience level of each ACC team along with how that team performed in games decided by fewer than seven points or in overtime – expressed as Net Close Wins in such contests, e.g., a team that played six two-possession games and won four of them would have +2 Net Wins. A trend line in the graph reveals that the experience level of ACC teams has little to no influence on the outcomes of close game. In fact, only six of the 11 most experienced squads in this analysis had a winning record in close games.

Theory 2: Coaching Matters in Close GamesFinding: True (Experience Over Reputation). In order to get a decent sample size for this analysis, we evaluated the six current ACC head coaches that have been in the league for the last six seasons. It’s interesting to compare these coaches’ actual results in close games with their reputations for in-game coaching acumen. It should come as no surprise that Hall of Famers Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams consistently win when late game execution decides the outcome. What may be surprising to some longtime ACC fans is that Williams is every bit Krzyzewski’s equal when it comes to winning close games. Even among a substantial portion of his own North Carolina fan base, Williams is not highly regarded as an in-game tactician. But regardless of whether it’s actual coaching decisions or player preparation that drives these results, the numbers certainly show that the Tar Heels’ leader is getting it done at crunch time just as well as his long-time rival over in Durham.

What may surprise some is that Williams is Krzyzewski’s equal when it comes to winning close games (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Two other coaches on this list exhibit close game results that are well-aligned with what their reputations would suggest. Miami’s Jim Larranaga is highly regarded in college basketball coaching circles, and, as expected, his teams have done very well in tight contests. Meanwhile, Clemson’s Brad Brownell has been on the ACC coaches’ hot seat list for the better part of the last half-decade in large part because of his inability to close out games in the final minutes. With respect to the remaining two coaches in the chart, their results are quite surprising. In fact, no other result in our entire analysis of close games was as eye-opening as the performances of Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton. Bennett is nationally well-respected and considered one of the brightest minds in coaching, but his Cavaliers have performed below average in close games. In fact, the tighter the contest, the less effective Virginia has been. Conversely, Hamilton has never been described as a late-game coaching wizard, yet his Seminoles have put together an incredibly impressive 16-3 record in nail-biters over the past six seasons. Maybe Hamilton’s calm sideline demeanor has a positive influence on his players at the end of games? The caveat in the data is that he’s not nearly as good at preventing his team from being blown out – an average of five losses each year by double-figures — while Bennett’s team has only lost by 10 or more points once per year.

It’s also important to point out that the four older coaches on the list are much more successful in close games than Bennett or Brownell. So while we didn’t see any advantage to having experienced players when the games are tight, it could be that experienced coaches make a difference.

Theory 3: Winning Close Games Prepares Teams for the Postseason

Finding: Not True. In the above table we divided all ACC teams over the past 11 years into three groups based on their performance in one-possession games. Since we’re only concerned with how these teams ultimately perform in the postseason, we removed the two teams that were ineligible for postseason play (2015 Syracuse and 2016 Louisville). That leaves us with a decent sample size of 142 teams. To measure postseason success, we looked at how each of these squads performed in the ACC Tournament compared with how their respective seed number would be expected to perform. The group in the middle that went .500 in close games performed almost exactly as expected in the postseason. But teams that had positive Net Wins of two or more did not meet seed expectations. Conversely, squads with negative Net Wins of two or more outperformed their expected tourney wins. There is a slight bias at work here because several #1 seeds fell into the top group and it is mathematically impossible for those teams to outperform expectations. However, even when those four teams are removed from the analysis, the average wins for that group versus expected only improve to -0.25.

This is admittedly not a huge data set so there is a distinct possibility of some random noise in these numbers. Still, there may be something else going on here. It’s obvious that there is some luck involved in winning games that are decided by one possession, so it’s also logical to assume that sometimes the final ACC regular season standings are skewed – teams can be seeded higher or lower than their actual ability because they were either very fortunate or very unlucky in close games. So while those teams may play to their actual ability in the ACC Tournament, it doesn’t necessarily correspond with how they were seeded

On Friday we will find the most extreme cases of ACC close game performance for a season since 2007 and see how those teams performed in the following season.

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A Quick Whip Around the ACC

Posted by Matthew Auerbach on January 9th, 2018

With the calendar now flipped to 2018 and conference play in full bore, three teams remain undefeated atop the ACC standings. Notable by its absence among that group is consensus preseason favorite Duke, which, after dropping Saturday’s tilt in Raleigh to NC State, is now two games behind the triumvirate of leaders (ClemsonVirginia and Notre Dame).

The Looks Say It All (USA Today Images)

A primary culprit for the Blue Devils’ struggles in league play thus far is the frigid shooting of senior guard Grayson Allen. Allen, a preseason all-ACC selection, is shooting just 33.3 percent from the field in conference play, including a 21.7 percent clip from beyond the arc. While it’s easy to hone in on Duke’s sieve-like defense when evaluating its losses, Duke also needs Allen to perform up to his All-America capabilities to become the team it expects. Remember, with Marvin Bagley III relegated to the bench in the second half of Duke’s victory over Michigan State in November, it was Allen’s elite shot-making that made the difference. Much like the 2015 National Championship team, these Blue Devils are heavily relying on their young stars to take them home. But, for all the heroics of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Allen himself three seasons ago, there would have been no fifth banner in Durham without the quiet and steady leadership of senior Quinn Cook. For Mike Krzyzewski to earn his sixth title, Allen needs to snap out of his recent funk.

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ACC Weekend Review: 01.08.18 Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 8th, 2018

After the second full weekend of league action, three ACC teams have surged to the top of the standings with identical 3-0 records. Virginia handled North CarolinaClemson edged Louisville in overtime; and Notre Dame staged a frantic rally to overtake Syracuse. While the two ACC preseason favorites — Duke and North Carolina — have struggled to 1-2 records, their misfortune has given other teams an opportunity to make early claims to the league crown. On Sunday night, Miami defended its home court by defeating intrastate rival Florida State to cap off a wild weekend. Here are the highlights from the weekend around the ACC.

Duke suffered another road loss and court-rushing at NC State’s PNC Arena on Saturday night.
(Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Best Win: Things were looking bleak for Notre Dame at the Carrier Dome on Saturday afternoon. The Irish were without their two injured senior stars — Bonzie Colson (broken foot) and Matt Ferrell (sprained ankle) — and they came out ice cold early. But Mike Brey‘s team hung around as it always seems to do, pulling out the tough road win thanks to Rex Pflueger‘s putback basket moments before the final horn. The Irish won with defense and hustle, holding the Orange to 39.1 percent field goal shooting and capturing seven steals. Notre Dame also held a huge edge on the boards, including a +13 advantage in offensive rebounds. Considering all of the injuries he is dealing with, Brey has already emerged as a front-runner for ACC Coach of the Year honors.

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Close Games in the ACC: Part I

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 8th, 2018

There’s no doubt that winning close games is pivotal to a team’s success. A few bounces here and there over the course of a 30-game season can mean the difference between a protected NCAA Tournament seed in your own backyard versus a Thursday morning start in somewhere like Spokane, Washington. With that in mind, we decided to dig into the historical data to test some theories concerning close game performance in the ACC. Some of the questions we considered include: Which schools perform the best when games go down to the wire? What are the common characteristics of teams that excel in such situations? Is it player experience that matters most or game-coaching expertise? Or is it just plain luck? Are teams that win most of their very close games better prepared for postseason play? We will also review some recent extreme team performances – both good and bad – in games decided by one to three possessions. Finally, we’ll determine if history helps us predict what will happen to the ACC squads that were either very good or extremely poor in close games last season. In today’s first installment of a three-part series, let’s tackle the historical component.

First of all, let’s look at the breakdown of victory margins in ACC regular season games over the last 11 years. As you can see in the above pie chart, approximately a quarter of all ACC league games are decided by a single possession or in overtime. And over half the time, the final margin is fewer than 10 points. This data makes it abundantly obvious that a team’s performance in so many tight affairs will have a huge impact on its placement in the conference standings. Which schools fare the best in all those tight games? Read the rest of this entry »

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ACC Weekend Preview: January 6-7

Posted by Mick McDonald on January 5th, 2018

Conference season is underway and this weekend does not lack for intriguing action around the ACC. Duke looks to show it can win on the road; Miami hopes to bounce back; and there’s a heavyweight match-up to consider in Charlottesville. (All statistics through games of January 4 and all rankings via KenPom.)

Saturday, January 6

Virginia Just Keeps On Keeping On (USA Today Images)

  • North Carolina (#12) at Virginia (#3). In one of the best games of this weekend, Virginia welcomes North Carolina to Charlottesville. While the Tar Heels play a fast tempo that produces 84.9 points per game (26th nationally), they are also aa solid defensive team, allowing just 43.5 percent from two-point range (29th). Combine that with Virginia’s normally excellent defense (allowing 40.9 percent from two-point range and 39.4 percent from the field) and this should be a rock fight. We know Devon Hall and Kyle Guy are Tony Bennett‘s scorers this season, but finding a third option has been solved. In his last four games, point guard Ty Jerome has averaged 17.8 PPG while shooting 57.8 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from three-point range.
  • Louisville (#39) at Clemson (#18). Clemson put together a solid non-conference resume last year but the Tigers were done in by close loss after close loss in ACC play. So you can imagine what Tiger fans were thinking as Clemson played in yet another tight game at Boston College on Wednesday night. However, Brad Brownell’s bunch kept it together down the stretch this time and left Chestnut Hill with a win (which is more than Duke can say). Senior Donte Grantham continued his impressive campaign, scoring 23 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in the victory. The Tigers will need both Grantham (67.7% eFG) and Elijah Thomas (64.0% eFG) to be precise around the rim against Louisville’s stellar front line defense of Anas Mahmoud and Ray Spalding. After a rough start to the season, Cardinals point guard Quentin Snider is coming on, shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range over his last nine games. Louisville will need Snider to continue his hot shooting given that the team makes just 33.7 percent of its attempts from long range (232nd nationally.)

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ACC Weekend Review: 01.02.18 Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 2nd, 2018

It was supposed to be a relatively boring first full weekend of ACC play as most of the league’s big dogs came into Saturday’s action as healthy home favorites. However, North Carolina and Duke each needed a late rally to vanquish Wake Forest and Florida State; Virginia held off a pesky Boston College team to win by a single point; and Notre Dame overcame a halftime deficit to beat Georgia Tech. On Sunday night, Syracuse closed out the weekend with an impressive home win over Virginia Tech. Here are the highlights from (the real) opening weekend around the ACC.

Freshman Oshae Brissett lead Syracuse to a big win at home over Virginia Tech on Sunday. (Mark Konezny – USA TODAY Sports)

  • Best Win: Defending your home floor is paramount for achieving success in conference play, and Syracuse did just that in taking care of Virginia Tech, 68-56, on Sunday night. The Orange used their famous zone defense to keep the high-powered Hokies in check. Virginia Tech entered the game as one of the highest scoring teams in college basketball, averaging over 90 points per outing, but Buzz Williams’ team was held to only 34.6 percent shooting in recording its lowest scoring output of the season. Freshman forward Oshae Brissett led the attack for Jim Boeheim’s squad with 19 points and a sterline 9-for-10 performance from the free throw line.

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