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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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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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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Sentimental Value: On the Notion of an ACC Regular Season Crown

Posted by Christopher Kehoe on March 14th, 2014

Since many of the ACC’s founding members sprang from what was known as the ‘Southern Conference’ in 1953, the ACC adopted many of the SoCon’s mannerisms and bylaws. The Southern Conference traditionally anointed a champion via their postseason tournament and out of that came their postseason automatic bid. Ever since the ACC formalized the wording of a similarly fateful decision in 1961, the ACC regular season title has been all but a formality. The idea behind awarding a postseason victor in a short and somewhat chaotic multi-day tournament setting was to provide a free-for-all environment that was both entertaining and unpredictable. This ACC Tournament gave lower seeded teams who had a less successful regular season a chance at making The Big Dance. And back in the day and age where these rules were first enacted, only 15 teams were awarded chances at the NCAA Tournament, making a bid all that more valuable and cherished.

Is ACC Tournament success a strong indicator of NCAA Tournament success?

Is the ACC Tournament success a strong indicator of NCAA Tournament success? Florida State parlayed a win in the tournament in 2012 into a solid showing in the Big Dance.

In a format where games are played on top of each other with little or no rest or time to prepare, less superior teams would essentially be able to pull a win out regardless of their records. But while all the other major conferences today at least recognize officially the regular season champion, why has the ACC lagged behind is perplexing to say the least. The ACC finally began paying homage to the regular season winners in 1990, and retroactively recognized the winners from 1954-1989 in that same year. But why it took them so long, and why more conferences do not go along with the Ivy League method of a regular season champion is beyond me. ESPN‘s entrance into the foray and emphasis placed on Championship Week may have something to do with it, glamorizing the end of season postseason tournaments as bubble bursting madness.

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ACC Bracket Watch: March 8 Update

Posted by Chris Kehoe on March 8th, 2014

A lot can change in the world of college hoops as it relates to the NCAA Tournament, and recently, a lot has. Since the last update we did in early February, Syracuse is no longer undefeated; Virginia is the regular season champion; and UNC has embarked on a mind-boggling winning streak. While the top tier of the ACC has become even more clear since Pittsburgh fell off the face of the Earth, most of the ACC bubble teams living in the #7-#10 seed range have largely disappointed on their way to the outside looking in — surely perennial bubbler and current ESPN personality Seth Greenberg can relate from his ACC days. But while tallies in the loss column have mounted high enough for Syracuse and Duke to be largely removed from #1 seed consideration, Virginia has quietly pushed itself into the discussion. The Cavaliers find themselves in this position thanks to its 16 conference wins and the startling point differential in which they secured them.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett must be ecstatic with the Cavaliers' most recent bracket projection (photo: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

Virginia coach Tony Bennett must be ecstatic with the Cavaliers’ most recent bracket projection (photo: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

So while North Carolina and Virginia’s stocks are soaring, Syracuse and Duke have taken a hit. It remains to be seen if the ACC can land a bid outside of its top four programs, but at this juncture it seems improbable. Since the last update, Florida State and Pittsburgh have both fallen into a steep decline. Jamie Dixon’s team remains close, residing in and around most people’s ‘Last Four Out’ category, but the Seminoles are nowhere to be found. N.C. State also created some February rumblings about making a run at the bubble until the Wolfpack lost badly to Clemson and Miami in a period of two weeks. The ACC Tournament provides the sole venue for teams seeking an automatic bid, but a team running through the slate of Syracuse, UNC, Virginia and/or Duke seems rather daunting at this point.

‘Busting the Bracket’ Projected ACC Seeding*

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Malcolm Brogdon Ascends from Anonymity to the ACC POY Conversation

Posted by Chris Kehoe on March 5th, 2014

Virginia sophomore Malcolm Brogdon was largely an afterthought. Disregarded in almost all of the literature projecting breakout stars (including here), the redshirt sophomore sat out last year recovering from foot surgery. Even on his own team, sophomore cohorts Justin Anderson and Mike Tobey had higher expectations coming into their second campaigns. But Brogdon has outshone them all, hoisting himself up into the first team all-ACC picture and ACC Player of the Year conversation. Brogdon is the leading scorer on a Virginia team that has rolled to a 16-1 ACC record and landed a top-five AP poll and #2 ranking on KenPom’s system. Speaking of Mr. Pomeroy, Brogdon comes in at #7 on his National Player of the Year standings, quite a feat for someone playing on a deep and well-rounded Cavaliers team.

Malcolm Brogdon Is the Real Deal (Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty)

Malcolm Brogdon Is the Real Deal (Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty)

While freshmen Jabari Parker and Tyler Ennis spent the early months dominating the ACC POY conversation, some more seasoned conference performers have come on strong of late. ACC sophomores have dominated the individual headlines in recent weeks, from UNC’s Marcus Paige and his second half heroics, T.J. Warren’s scoring outbursts (see: 41 points at Pittsburgh), and Brogdon’s consistently solid play on a dominant Virginia club. Coming into this season, you could have asked just about anyone who the undisputed star of the team would be for Virginia, and senior Joe Harris, the team’s consummate do-it-all leader, would have been the most popular answer. But no one outside of the immediate program expected such a meteoric rise for Brogdon or his team, blasting to the regular season title and looking to become the first ACC team to ever win 17 conference games. Bottom line — there are a lot of firsts happening in Charlottesville this season, and as much as head coach Tony Bennett deserves the lion’s share of the praise, the superb play of Brogdon cannot be disputed as a primary factor.

After sitting out his redshirt year to go through rehabilitation, Brogdon consumed mass quantities of film to make sure he would come back better than ever. While his game is still catching up to his work ethic, Brogdon’s lethal shooting ability — 39.2 percent from three; 90.4 percent from the line — has already propelled him to the ACC Player of the Week and CBS Sports’ National Player of the Week accolades. For a guy who just last week set a career high of 19 points (versus Syracuse), it says here that his streak of double-figure scoring games (17) and impressive leadership has set him apart from the rest of the ACC field. Who would have thought such a thing possible on New Year’s Eve, after a zero-point performance resulting in a 35-point loss to Tennessee the day before? And to think we almost forgot all about Malcolm Brogdon — it’s a good thing that we didn’t. He might just turn out to be the unlikeliest ACC Player of the Year in a long, long time. 

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The ACC’s Unknown Superstars: TJ Warren & KJ McDaniels

Posted by Chris Kehoe on February 28th, 2014

T.J. Warren and K.J. McDaniels are two of the best wings in college basketball and you’d never know it. Most of their lack of attention has to do with their respective teams’ success — N.C. State (17-11, 7-8 ACC) and Clemson (17-10, 8-7 ACC) — and the fact that the Wolfpack and the Tigers are on the outside of the bubble looking in. Both players have assumed huge responsibilities and increased roles this season, a necessary component for N.C. State after losing a huge contingent of talent and for a Clemson squad lacking star power.

Will he stay or will he go? Warren's season has Wolfpack fans hoping for more T.J.(Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Will he stay or will he go? Warren’s season has Wolfpack fans hoping for more T.J. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

T.J. Warren has risen to the occasion, solidifying himself as a legitimate all-ACC candidate in leading the league in scoring at 23.8 PPG, five points per game higher than Duke’s Jabari Parker. While it was unreasonable to expect Warren to continue his otherworldly efficiency of last season when he shot 62.2 percent from the field and 51.9 percent from behind the line, he still is shooting very well from the field (52.3 percent from the field, 29.5 percent from three). He clearly is a massive piece to the Wolfpack offense and quite possibly the only thing keeping them afloat. While he is known for his scoring credentials, he is no slouch in the rebounding department either, collecting 7.0 caroms per contest for the Pack. Warren’s superb play has helped the Wolfpack outdo preseason expectations and explains why N.C. State has a great shot at a top-half conference finish.

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ACC Big Men Have Bright Futures: Will Their Teams Follow?

Posted by Chris Kehoe on February 22nd, 2014

It is often bandied about that guards win games (along with defense) because they have the ball in their hands most often and thus affect the action more than other positions. While this is certainly a valid viewpoint, interior post players can often mean the difference between a championship team or a bubble team. The popular mindset is that big men take longer to develop in the college ranks because of the learning curve required to manage their combination of power, size and dexterity. Most post players come to the Division I ranks with a limited post game but raw with athleticism and length, prized characteristics that NBA GMs in every professional franchise covet.

Kennedy Meeks is a handful in the paint (USA TODAY Sports)

Kennedy Meeks is a handful in the paint (USA TODAY Sports)

The ACC this season is rich in young frontcourt talent that is likely to stay for more than a year in the collegiate ranks. North Carolina is a great example of the conference’s youthful exuberance in the post, sporting a terrific breadth of versatility in that regard. Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson are the tip of the iceberg, both terrific rebounders with vastly different approaches.  At 290 pounds, Meeks is a strong and sturdy freshman who isn’t a terrific leaper but uses his body and angles to score and rebound the offensive glass very well. He also possesses one of the nation’s best outlet passes, a perfect conduit for guards Nate Britt and Marcus Paige to start Roy Williams’ break. Johnson, on the other hand, is a long beanpole of a forward who has had a breakout sophomore year for the Tar Heels, ranking fourth in ACC field goal percentage at 54.5%. UNC’s frontcourt depth doesn’t completely end there, though, as the Heels also have 6’10”, 280-pound sophommore Joel James, who is a load in the paint but hasn’t found consistent playing time this season. Freshman Isaiah Hicks too has a bright future ahead of him at UNC; the McDonald’s All-American recorded seven blocks and pulled down an insane 30 rebounds in his state’s high school championship game last year. But the ACC’s young frontcourt brigade of talent doesn’t end in Chapel Hill.

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Virginia: The Quiet and Legitimate Title Contender

Posted by Chris Kehoe on February 20th, 2014

Kansas, Syracuse, Duke, Wichita State, Arizona, Michigan State: These are some of the teams typically first mentioned when discussing this season’s NCAA championship contenders. While Virginia is laden with senior leadership, elite defense, and loved by the advanced metrics, the Cavaliers are rarely mentioned as a contender along with the others. At 22-5 and 13-1 in the ACC, however, the Cavaliers are well on their way to a top-two finish in one of the country’s best conferences. With Syracuse’s surprising loss last night versus Boston College and a tough pair of road games upcoming, Tony Bennett’s team appears to be well on its way to capturing the ACC throne for the first time since a 2007 tie, and their first sole ACC regular season title since 1981. 

UVA's Joe Harris has a lot to celebrate with Virginia's winning ways. (USA Today).

UVA’s Joe Harris has a lot to celebrate with Virginia’s winning ways. (USA Today).

So why is a projected ACC regular season champion — one that will likely carry 25+ wins into the NCAA Tournament — not getting enough buzz? For starters, the nation is enamored with superstar culture, and Virginia doesn’t have a transcendent individual who is destined for NBA greatness and seated atop all the mock drafts. While this team has several really good players who mesh very well together, they do not have a Julius Randle, Doug McDermott, or Jabari Parker — someone who generates mass publicity and draws droves of NBA front office personnel at their games.

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Tobacco Road Rivalry Morphs into Friendly Bond in Los Angeles

Posted by Chris Kehoe on February 14th, 2014

Both Ryan Kelly and Kendall Marshall were highly regarded prospects coming out of their respective high schools in the south — Marshall from Bishop O’Connell in Northern Virginia and Kelly from Ravenscroft Academy in the heart of ACC country, North Carolina. Marshall was the pure, pass-first point guard who at 6’4” could see over the top of most defenders, and Kelly was a 6’11” reed thin stretch-four. Both chose to play in the ACC, but at different programs that happened to be a part of one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports. Marshall went to North Carolina, where he bid his time behind Larry Drew until he set an UNC single-season record with 351 assists and won the Bob Cousy Award his sophomore season at Chapel Hill. While Marshall was breaking records in his first two seasons as a Tar Heel, Kelly had a longer and more arduous route to prominence as a Blue Devil in Durham. Kelly really emerged as a junior and senior, where he began to average over 25 minutes per game and double figure points. He clearly became an integral part of Duke’s interior defense as well, not rebounding extremely well for his size but being a great help defender, communicator and rim protector alongside Miles and Mason Plumlee. His defining moment came in his return from injury in a 36-point performance versus a loaded ACC champion Miami (FL) team at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Kendall Marshall & Ryan Kelly cheer on the Lakers bench (lostlettermen.com)

Kendall Marshall & Ryan Kelly cheer on the Lakers bench (lostlettermen.com)

Unfortunately during their collegiate careers, both Kelly and Marshall suffered through rough injuries, Kelly with a recurring foot problem that caused him to miss a good stretch of games and Marshall’s fractured wrist which took him out of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. But even after his wrist injury, Marshall declared for the NBA Draft and was taken in the late lottery at 13 by the Phoenix Suns, one pick before UNC teammate John Henson. A product of a crowded backcourt of Goran Dragic, Shannon Brown, Sebastian Telfair and even Jared Dudley, Marshall struggled to find consistent playing time. But, Marshall also lacked the ability to create for himself, score in isolation, or shoot from the perimeter. His size was a huge benefit at the next level but his lack of elite athleticism had people worried if he would ever make it in the NBA.

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Scintillating Battle for ACC ROY Under Way This Season

Posted by Chris Kehoe on February 14th, 2014

No offense to Ben Emelogu, Kennedy Meeks or Anthony Barber, but it was never really much of a contest to begin with. From the moment they stepped foot on their respective campuses, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis made it clear they were the biggest and baddest freshmen around. And from November up until present day February, it has been painfully clear that Ennis and Parker are two of the best (if not the two best) freshmen in the entire country.

Tyler Ennis shocks Pittsburgh with this 35-foot miracle. (ESPN screenshot)

Tyler Ennis shocks Pittsburgh with this 35-foot miracle. (ESPN screenshot)

While Parker started white-hot, recording countless 20+ point games in his first few weeks in a Blue Devil uniform, Ennis remained steady and consistent. Parker dominated the national POY conversation up until about December, when he ultimately handed the torch to Creighton’s Doug McDermott, who has not relinquished his grasp on the top honors since. So while it seems unlikely Jabari, or anyone else for that matter, will be able to catch McDermott, Parker still has his eyes set on ACC POY and ROY trophies in what will likely be his only season in Durham. While no one debates Parker’s next-level readiness from an offensive arsenal standpoint as well as physical makeup and his NBA-ready frame, Parker’s defense is lacking and he can be a liability at times. That gap in his game is overshadowed by the dunks, step back isolation jumpers, often gaudy rebounding numbers and solid rim protecting, but the ‘other’ side of the ball still remains an issue. It is understandable why he continues to receive what some might call backhanded praise, comparing him to Carmelo Anthony, who while a prolific scorer, is not known for his defensive prowess by any means. While Parker’s projected national-level accolades have dropped since his scorching start, Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis has been shooting up the rankings over the past few months.

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