ACC Stock Report: Volume II

Posted by Matt Auerbach on January 16th, 2019

With #1 Duke’s home loss to Syracuse Monday night — and more significantly the injury and extended absence of Tre Jones — some of the luster of this weekend’s highly-anticipated match-up with conference-leading Virginia has eroded. Or perhaps Tony Bennett’s squad just appears like it will inevitably run roughshod through the ACC for the second consecutive campaign.

Stock Rising:

Jeff Capel is Making a Mark in Pittsburgh Already (USA Today Images)

Jeff Capel: While he wasn’t Pittsburgh’s first choice, Capel has left little doubt that he was the right choice to clean up the mess of the two-year failed marriage with Kevin Stallings. Capel entered the program last spring having to do yeoman’s work just to construct a playable roster. But now, after Monday night’s victory over Florida State, the feisty Panthers have already vanquished two NCAA Tournament likelies (Louisville), and in doing so, have brought back some of the energy that used to be synonymous with the Peterson Events Center.

Behind the precocious freshman trio of Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney, Capel’s crew has already exceeded last season’s win total by four, and in so doings has risen from 138th in KenPom to start the season to a current standing of 68th. Pitt’s upcoming schedule is arduous, however, as three of the Panthers’ next four games are away from home (and the home game vs. Duke), but it is undeniable that a basketball trajectory is veering upward again in the Steel City.

Stock Zig Zagging:

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ACC Stock Report: Volume 1

Posted by Matt Auerbach on January 8th, 2019

With the non-conference portion of the season now in the rearview and the ACC schedule tipping in earnest last weekend, it feels like the appropriate time to assess a few programs and players in this year’s initial stock report.

Stock Up

Elijah Hughes: When considering Syracuse’s chances to contend at the top of the league, the preseason focus was on the returns of Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett. And while both have been good, it is perhaps Hughes, the transfer from East Carolina, who has been the most consistent player for the Orange. Coming off Saturday’s 22-point, 10-rebound game in a victory at Notre Dame — both career highs — Hughes is now second on the team in scoring, third in rebounding, and is by far the team’s best threat from long range with 36 made triples. Notching double-figures in all but two games, the 6’6” swingman has been a pleasant surprise for Jim Boeheim during a season that has been a bit more uneven than some (guilty as charged) presumed before it started.

Kyle Guy: Unlike Hughes, big things were expected from the 6’3” Virginia marksman who was coming off a sophomore campaign where he earned All-ACC first team honors and a third team All-America nod. As a junior, Guy is leading the undefeated Cavaliers in scoring just as he did a year ago, but the improvements in his game have been obvious both visually and statistically. Guy’s shot creativity and ability to elevate quickly over bigger defenders off the bounce is an addition to his always lethal shooting coming off curl screens in set plays. His offensive rating is up from 105.2 to 126.4, while his true shooting percentage has similarly seen a 12 percent spike, thanks to a career best 48.3 percent mark from inside of the arc. The Virginia star’s money is made from beyond the arc, however, and after blistering Florida State in the league opener by making five of six attempts, Guy now ranks 42nd in the nation, making 41 of his 85 three attempts.  

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NC State Hoping to Show Its Hot Start is the Real Deal Tonight

Posted by Matt Auerbach on December 19th, 2018

Perhaps college basketball’s most under-appreciated and terrific start this season is happening very quietly in Raleigh. NC State, winner of nine of its first 10 games heading into this evening’s battle with Auburn — the sole loss came to Wisconsin in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge — has done so in relative anonymity. Tonight, the Wolfpack have an opportunity to take center stage and announce their candidacy for legitimacy to the nation.

Kevin Keatts is Smiling With Good Reason (USA Today Images)

Only four other schools in Division I hoops have played easier schedules to date than Kevin Keatts’ team, so the raised eyebrow skepticism with which some observers view the Wolfpack’s gaudy offensive numbers (currently 12th nationally) is justified. That said, NC State is playing the same brand of uptempo basketball that earned a surprise trip to the NCAA Tournament last season, and Keatts’ proven ability in building cohesion and teamwork is already apparent. Eight of the Wolfpack’s nine victories have come by at least 11 points, a key component of the new NET ratings that the NCAA Selection Committee relies upon during its analysis.

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Finals Week Cram Session: What does each ACC Team need to improve?

Posted by Matt Auerbach on December 13th, 2018

In the spirit of Finals Week and the pause it creates in the flow of the non-conference slate, we thought now would be a good time for our own early-year evaluation. With only a few weeks of practice and a handful of tune-ups remaining before conference play, we took a quick look at what each ACC squad could stand to improve upon.

Did Duke’s Domination of Kentucky Taint Their Perception? (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Wake Forest: A 5-3 record, lowlighted by a home loss to Houston Baptist, has the Demon Deacons staring down the barrel of another lost season. Given the likelihood that freshman phenom Jaylen Hoard will spend just another few months in Winston-Salem, developing returning young talent should be paramount. Sophomore Oliver Sarr, who rates 34th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, needs more minutes. And given Wake’s putrid percentage on two-point field goals (48.1%, 239th nationally), Sarr’s prowess on the offensive glass will be of assistance in the near-term.

Pittsburgh: A home loss to Niagara notwithstanding, the Panthers have been feisty under first year coach Jeff Capel. Continuing to feature the freshman backcourt duo of Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens, the team’s first and third-leading scorers, respectively, should pay future dividends even if the pair take their lumps as rookies.

Boston College: The Eagles are a late-game collapse against Providence from standing at 7-1. Junior Ky Bowman has been as good as anticipated, but freshman backcourt mate Wynston Tabbs has been a revelation. Featuring a star like Bowman without stunting the growth of the talented Tabbs is a line that Jim Christian will have to balance throughout league play.

Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets rank 215th nationally in effective field goal percentage, which is somehow an improvement from a year ago. Once again Josh Pastner’s charges are locking down defensively (11th nationally) but simply cannot put the ball in the hoop. Since they can’t make twos (159th) or threes (250th), here’s a suggestion. For a team that rates 250th nationally in three-point attempt share, what could it hurt to throw caution to the wind and start hoisting a few more from beyond the arc?

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish uncharacteristically rank 258th (31.2%) in three-point percentage in struggling to a 6-3 start. For Mike Brey’s team to snap out of its funk, they need more from sophomore D.J. Harvey. After three straight double-figure scoring outings, Irish fans are hoping that the light is finally starting to go on for the highly-acclaimed wing who has mostly struggled in his time in South Bend.

Miami: The Hurricanes are currently enduring a curious four-game skid, the last two of which came to a pair of Ivy League foes. With this hole they have dug, Jim Larranaga’s club probably needs to sweep the remainder of its non-conference schedule in addition to notching at least 10 ACC wins to make the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year. To do that, they need a more efficient Chris Lykes, whose offensive rating has plummeted below 100.0 in each of the four losses.

Clemson: The Tigers have lost to the three best teams on its schedule thus far, including a neutral court defeat to Mississippi State last Saturday. Leading scorer Marcquise Reed missed that affair with a sprained knee, and for Brad Brownell’s club to return to the NCAA Tournament, they need him back in action pronto. The graduation of Gabe DeVoe, who made a team-high 86 three-pointers a year ago, has also shrunk the floor, but Clemson needs to find a way to vastly improve on its chilly 30.9 percent three-point shooting (266th nationally).

Louisville: Not much was expected in year one under Chris Mack, but the Cardinals have proven to be a cohesive, hard-playing bunch. Featuring burgeoning star Jordan Nwora while the rest of the roster excels in their specific roles is the recipe for Mack’s squad to maintain its chemistry and to further exceed preseason expectations.

NC State: Perhaps the biggest positive surprise the league has to offer this season, the Wolfpack’s remarkable offensive start has gone unnoticed nationally. Ranking 15th in offensive efficiency, Kevin Keatts has a deep, talented, unselfish roster, playing his brand of uptempo basketball. The team has great balance — with 10 players averaging at least 4.6 PPG — but if anything could be nitpicked, it is the frigid shooting of sophomore Braxton Beverly. The shooting guard is connecting on only 28.6 percent of his shots — a fact that has been masked by hot shooting among the rest of the roster — but Beverly will need to be reliable when others cool off.

Syracuse: Once again, the Orange just cannot shoot the basketball, and it is difficult to envision them improving much on this key metric. Freshman Buddy Boeheim is an easy target because of his last name, but he is one of the few players with the ability to create space for Oshae Brissett. The coach’s son must improve on his 6-of-29 start from three-point range, however, and, while we’re at it, Marek Dolezaj, should under no circumstances be averaging just three points and two rebounds per game.

Florida State: The Seminoles have been consistent on both ends of the floor in winning eight of its first nine games, with the lone loss coming to defending national champion Villanova. Imagine how much better the 27th most efficient offense in the nation would be if it wasn’t turning it over on an alarmingly high 22.4 percent of its possessions (321st nationally).

Virginia Tech: The Hokies can really shoot the ball, sporting the sixth most efficient offense nationally, on the back of the second-highest effective field goal percentage (61.0%). The backcourt of Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker can stake a claim to being the best in the country, as the two are combining for nearly 33 points and more than 10 assists per game. The Hokies as currently constructed, however, are not a team that can bail themselves out by getting easy points from the free throw line, as they rank 318th nationally in free-throw share. Buzz Williams‘ personnel are designed to get to the rim and create contact — it may just take a few cold shooting nights to provide the impetus to do so.

North Carolina: Here’s a scary proposition for the rest of the ACC: The Tar Heels rank fourth nationally in offensive efficiency and their two most ballyhooed players haven’t played very well this season. Preseason All-American Luke Maye is averaging just 13.7 points per game on 31 percent shooting from deep, while projected lottery pick Nassir Little is averaging fewer than 20 minutes per game. If Maye gets it rolling and Little’s immense talent starts to bloom, this team could be unstoppable on the offensive end of the floor.

Virginia: The Cavaliers are 9-0 to date and have barely had to break a sweat in achieving that perfect record. Ranking 12th nationally on offense and fourth on defense, Tony Bennett’s club is going about its business in its typically efficient, workmanlike manner. However, defensive menace and offensive conductor extraordinaire Kihei Clarke broke his wrist on Sunday, and although no timetable has been set for his return, missing significant time would be a blow to Virginia’s aspirations in capturing back-to-back ACC championships.

Duke: Coming out of the gates like it did against Kentucky in the Champions Classic almost worked against the Blue Devils in that we are unlikely to see them play at that level of dominance again. That certainly doesn’t mean Duke cannot achieve everything it wants — it’s just that its initial effort was so flawlessly sublime. Regardless of what happens in the next few months, Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and friends will be the favorite to win the national title in March. When situations get tight, though, sometimes games are won and lost on the free-throw line. At 65 percent to date, the Blue Devils need to be better from the charity stripe. But, other than that, they’re awfully good.

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With Chris Mack, Louisville Proving to be Ahead of Schedule

Posted by Matthew Auerbach on December 5th, 2018

When Louisville pried Chris Mack away from Xavier last May, the move was almost universally lauded around college basketball circles. Given the swirl of uncertainty that had become pervasive in the Cardinals’ program over the last few years, nabbing a head coach of Mack’s standing was viewed as a major coup. Sure, a commitment of seven years and nearly $30 million dollars helped, but no price was too steep to acquire someone of Mack’s ability and character. The end of the Rick Pitino era had been marred by very personal and very public lapses of morality mixed with fiery defiance and steadfast refusal of accountability concerning illicit recruiting practices within his program. The Hall of Fame coach’s excellence on the court — Louisville had returned to its historical status as a top 10 national program, just behind the perennial blue-bloods — gave him enough rope to survive a school-imposed postseason ban in 2016; but the final straw came in connection with allegations of fraud and corruption that rocked the NCAA to its core. Louisville saw that it was at a crossroads and its next hire would undoubtedly dictate the trajectory of the next decade of Cardinals’ basketball.

Chris Mack Has Been a Pleasant Early Surprise at Louisville (USA Today Images)

After making the NCAA Tournament in eight of nine seasons at the helm of his alma mater (most recently as a #1 seed), there were only a handful of candidates available who would consider a job facing such an uncertain future. Mack, whose wife is a native of Louisville, nevertheless took the leap, with the expectation that his first season would act as a bridge campaign with a roster largely barren of high-major ACC talent. Expectations are always a moving target, however, and the early returns on Mack’s hire are much better than anticipated. In winning five of its first seven contests, the Cardinals have looked exceedingly capable and competitive against the nation’s 24th-toughest schedule. The most recent four-game gauntlet of Tennessee and Marquette on a neutral floor, home for Michigan State, and at Seton Hall, yielded a respectable 2-2 split with discussion of an at-large NCAA berth considered a very real possibility.

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ACC/Big Ten Challenge: Wednesday Preview

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 28th, 2018

An extremely competitive ACC-Big Ten Challenge, one in which six games have already been decided by four points or fewer, comes to a close tonight. Locked at 4-4 going into tonight’s games, let’s take a look at what’s in store for this evening.

Jim Boeheim is Pleading for a Win (USA Today Images)

  •  #20 Syracuse (3-2) at #23 Ohio State (6-0). On the strength of two true road wins against top 40 teams, Ohio State was the top-rated team in the initial NET ratings that were released on Monday. The talented Orange have been disappointing in the early going, as Syracuse visits Columbus tonight with losses to Connecticut and Oregon weighing down its non-conference slate. Jim Boeheim‘s vaunted zone ranks as the nation’s sixth most efficient defense, but poor shooting has carried over to the tune of a 31.4 percent clip from beyond the arc. Oshae Brissett, the team’s best prospect, and Tyus Battle, the team’s leading returning scorer, are shooting 18.2 percent and 28.6 percent, respectively from deep. Point guard Frank Howard’s return to action will certainly provide a boost, but Syracuse will undoubtedly need to be a lot crisper on the offensive end to slow down a versatile set of Buckeyes.
  • #115 Rutgers (4-1) at  #22 Miami (5-1). Despite its most talented player, Dewan Hernandez, being withheld from competition amid a review of eligibility, the Hurricanes have been impressive in winning five of their first six games. Diminutive spark plug point guard Chris Lykes leads five Hurricanes averaging more than 11 points per contest, while Dejan Vasiljevic is making 52.5 percent of his threes, good for 77th in the country. Steve Pikiell’s Scarlet Knights have been stingy on the defensive end this season, turning teams over on 24.3 percent of their possessions. However, Rutgers has been especially brutal on the other end of the floor, checking in as the 263rd most efficient offense while turning the ball over  at an alarming 22.6 percent rate (312th nationally).

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North Carolina Off and Running Out of the Gate

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 14th, 2018

Two weeks ago, when asked to submit my preseason national rankings, I knew the decision to place North Carolina as my top-rated squad would draw some raised eyebrows. Three games into the season, however, I have seen nothing from the Tar Heels (maybe something from Duke) that has given me reason for pause — in fact, their performance in this small sample size has been even better than anticipated. For the first time in more than three decades, North Carolina opened its season with two true road games, a challenge rarely taken by the sport’s elite (Duke, for example, won’t play its first road game until January 8!). And while not tested by the strongest of competition, Elon and Wofford, which beat Roy Williams‘ team at the Dean Dome a year ago, provided difficult road environments that helped prepare the Tar Heels for what will be a conference schedule littered with those affairs.

North Carolina Has Been Quietly Humming Along Through Three Games (USA Today Images)

After rolling Stanford at home on Monday night for the third victory of the season, North Carolina now ranks third in the KenPom ratings, a product of strong performances on both ends of the floor (currently ranking fifth in both offensive and defensive efficiency). Rarely does Williams fret over his offense, but he must be reveling in the elite defensive potential that this year’s team has already shown. Freshmen Nassir Little and Leaky Black are the type of long, athletic and versatile wings whose sole purpose seems to be to disrupt the flow of opposing offenses. Little, for all of his natural ability, also appears to check all of the intangible boxes to boot — toughness, strength, desire. Those areas have not always been North Carolina’s calling cards, but this year’s squad has shown a willingness to be first to the floor and it seems to play harder than its opponents.

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Champions Classic Primer: Kentucky vs. Duke

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 6th, 2018

In the absence of significant injuries, it stands to reason that when the NCAA Tournament tips off in a little over four months from now, Duke and Kentucky will be viewed as two of the favorites to cut down the nets in Minneapolis. That is an elongated way of saying that the result of tonight’s top-five match-up in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis doesn’t mean all that much. But, it’s the start of a new season, and there’s really no better way to commence than having two national powerhouses square off in a game that will boast the most pound for pound talent that we will see all season long.

Duke and Kentucky Revisit Their Rivalry Tonight in Indianapolis (USA Today Images)

In something of a script flip, the Wildcats enter tonight’s game as the more experienced side with the less heralded freshmen. A trio of sophomores who combined to start a robust 80 games last year return to give John Calipari’s squad a relatively veteran feel. The returnee most likely to make the leap from precocious rookie to All-American is forward PJ Washington, a player who notched double figures in 11 of the Wildcats’ final 12 games last year. Classmate Nick Richards, who started every game as freshman, and Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis (two-time First-Team Pac-12) will combine to form one of the elite frontcourts in college basketball. The Kentucky group will be put to the test immediately, however, as Duke will counter with the three most highly-touted incoming forwards in the game. Consensus #1 recruit RJ Barrett, rim-rattling man-child Zion Williamson and elite prospect Cam Reddish will be difficult to slow down offensively despite being so green. It will be more interesting to see how they cope on the other end of the floor, as the Blue Devils under Mike Krzyzewski in the one-and-done era have struggled in mastering his patented man-to-man defensive schemes.

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ACC Burning Questions Part 4: Virginia Tech, Syracuse & Florida State

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 1st, 2018

As we head into another exciting ACC season, we will be reviewing the key question for each of the league’s 15 squads. Today Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24) works into the upper tier, with Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Florida State

Virginia Tech Burning Question: We know they’ll fill it up, but can the Hokies improve enough defensively to fulfill their potential?

Buzz Williams Needs to Improve His Defense to Contend This Year (USA Today Images)

Virginia Tech came out of the gates blazing a year ago, scoring more than 90 points in five of its first six affairs. And while the numbers understandably dipped as the competition toughened, the Hokies’ up-tempo, let-it-fly mentality, led to season marks of 28th nationally in offensive efficiency and sixth in effective field goal percentage. Lead guard Justin Robinson, the engine behind the high-powered unit, is back for his senior season, and pairs with sophomore sharpshooter Nickeil Alexander-Walker, as perhaps the most explosive backcourt in the ACC.

Robinson, a preseason all-ACC second team selection, is the model of consistency, and the type of point guard head coach Buzz Williams can trust to spearhead his attacking offense. An old-school point guard at his core, Robinson has developed in an old-school manner, as his three-point percentage, points, assists and steals per game have all steadily increased over his three years in Blacksburg. Another leap is a tall order for him after averaging 14.0 PPG, 5.6 APG and shooting nearly 40 percent from long-distance last season, but one that he may need to make given that senior Chris Clarke has been suspended from the team indefinitely. Clarke, the runner-up for ACC Sixth Man of the Year, was in line to start and become a major contributor. In his absence, the Hokies will need a healthy and productive Kerry Blackshear Jr. to replicate upon his excellent sophomore season. Coming off a redshirt year, the 6’10” Blackshear averaged just under 13 points per game on the back of a 63.4 percent true shooting rate. Without Clarke around to bolster the interior, he becomes the Hokies’ leading returning rebounder and will be relied upon to protect the rim.

In his first four years at Virginia Tech, Williams’ teams have never finished within the top 60 nationally in defensive efficiency. If this is to be the year that the Hokies break through and make a run in the NCAA Tournament, improvement on that end is absolutely necessary. There’s no doubt that this team’s offense will pressure opposing defenses, but seeking to outscore the opposition will only get a team so far.

Syracuse Burning Question: Can Syracuse make enough shots?

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ACC Burning Questions, Part I: Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech & Wake Forest

Posted by Matt Auerbach on October 24th, 2018

As we head into another exciting ACC season that tips off in just under two weeks, we will be reviewing the key question for each of the league’s 15 squads. Today Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24) begins at the bottom of the conference, with Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest

Pittsburgh Burning Question: Can Jeff Capel reignite the Oakland Zoo?

Jeff Capel Takes Over a Pittsburgh Program in Need of a Refresh (USA Today Images)

While the recently dismissed Kevin Stallings is an easy mark, the lazy conclusion is to heap blame upon his shoulders for the moribund state Pittsburgh basketball is in. Sure, Stallings’ 4-32 ACC record (including the first winless conference season in school history) rationalizes fan apathy, but a deeper look reveals that the rapid downward spiral tracks all the way to the top. The school’s decision to end its longtime affiliation with the Big East for football reasons has had a significant negative effect on what had been a stellar basketball program. In Pittsburgh’s last 12 seasons as a member of the Big East, the Panthers entered the AP top 10 in 11 of those campaigns. Their conference affiliation switch ultimately cost the very successful Jamie Dixon his job, leaving Pittsburgh basketball at a crossroads.

Enter Jeff Capel, Mike Krzyzewski’s top lieutenant and former Oklahoma head coach, to clean up the mess and re-energize the fan base. Capel’s first job was to shore up the roster and he did so in earnest — convincing eight of the 11 possible returnees to remain on campus and bolstering them with a four-man freshman class highlighted by top-100 prospect Trey McGowensJared Wilson-Frame is the most accomplished of the upperclassmen, a solid scorer (13 PPG) for a team that Capel promises will play faster than 338th nationally in tempo. Will Capel’s arrival along with a promise of a more appealing brand of basketball allow for a re-emergence of the Oakland Zoo — even if the Panthers still aren’t very good? Stay tuned on that question.

Georgia Tech Burning Question: Is there any juice down in Atlanta?

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