ACC Year in Review: Virginia’s Disappointment Stains Otherwise Strong ACC Season

Posted by Matt Auerbach on April 13th, 2018

For the first time since the 2014 Final Four in Arlington, Texas, the ACC was without representation during the season’s final weekend. Despite that disappointment, the ACC still finished the year rated as the second strongest conference via KenPom, with two of its nine NCAA Tournament entrants — Florida State and Duke — falling just a game short of a trip to San Antonio. That said, ACC regular season and tournament champion Virginia dominated the conference in stupendous fashion, winning the regular season by four games over runner-up Duke in large part thanks to the stingiest defense since the 38-1 Kentucky team in 2015. A convincing three-day run in Brooklyn left little doubt that Virginia was a worthy #1 overall seed heading into the Big Dance. We all know what happened next.

Virginia Became the First #1 Seed to Lose to a #16 Seed (USA Today Images)

  • Biggest Surprise: What happened in Charlotte several weeks ago defied all the laws of common sense and conventional basketball wisdom. The ignominious distinction of becoming the first #1 seed to fall to a #16 will sting the Virginia program for years — perhaps decades — but given the passage of time we can also start to begin to appreciate a tremendous season submarined by an inexplicable 40-minute sample size. And while that upset alone is the exact definition of a surprise, a Cavaliers team that was picked to finish sixth in the preseason laying waste to the entire ACC for three months qualifies as a legitimate surprise on its own right.

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Rushed Reactions: Virginia 71, North Carolina 63

Posted by Matt Auerbach on March 10th, 2018

RTC’s Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24) is providing on-site coverage of the ACC Tournament this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Virginia Won Its Third ACC Championship in Five Years Tonight (USA Today Images)

  1. Crown them. Despite being picked a middling sixth in the ACC preseason poll, Virginia pulled off the season sweep by comfortably cruising to the regular season title and backing it up with an impressive three-day run to capture the school’s third ACC Tournament crown. Detractors may still remain given the Cavaliers’ methodical style of play, but given the sheer dominance in which Virginia has owned a league filled with Hall of Fame coaches and NBA Draft choices, omitting Tony Bennett‘s group from your short list of national title contenders in San Antonio would be complete folly.
  2. Luke Maye and Kenny Williams kept the Tar Heels afloat. After Cameron Johnson and Joel Berry II opened the scoring column for North Carolina, nary a Heel other than Luke Maye or Kenny Williams made a field goal from the 18:07 mark in the first half until the 17:41 mark of the second half. Without the duo’s combined 23 of the team’s 30 points in the first, Virginia could have very easily run North Carolina right out of the building instead of only leading by four at the intermission.
  3. Kyle Guy is an unabashed shot taker and maker. Guy, Virginia’s leading scorer and most frequent shooter by a wide margin (117 more attempts than Ty Jerome coming into tonight) seized control on many of the important possessions in the second half. When the Virginia lead had been whittled down to just a bucket with 10 minutes left to play, Guy responded with a jumper to stretch the lead to four. And with North Carolina still within three points at the eight-minute mark, Guy knocked down a pull-up, and scored on a set play off a double screen on the following possession to push the spread to seven. While Virginia is a team in every sense of the word, Guy is the player who has the stones to hunt and convert critical buckets when such things are necessary.

Star of the Game: Kyle Guy, Virginia. Despite another evening of exceptional floor games from Ty Jerome (12 points, six assists, six rebounds) and Devon Hall (15 points, five rebounds, four assists), Guy’s willingness to take and make the biggest shots of the night ultimately earned him the tournament MVP. With a team-high 16 points, Guy has now reached double figures in 27 of Virginia’s 33 games this year.

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Rushed Reactions: North Carolina 74, Duke 69

Posted by Matt Auerbach on March 9th, 2018

RTC’s Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24) is providing on-site coverage of the ACC Tournament this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

It Wouldn’t Be a UNC-Duke Game Without Some Controversy (USA Today Images)

  1. Sweet Revenge. In winning this season’s rubber match in convincing fashion, North Carolina also exacted some revenge for a semifinal loss one year ago to its archrival. Coincidentally, that was also the last game the Tar Heels dropped in 2017 on its way to the school’s sixth National Championship. And while not many pundits expected this year’s version of the Tar Heels to make a third consecutive trip to the Final Four, you’d have to be crazy to dismiss their prospects at this juncture. Senior point guard Joel Berry II (13 points, six assists, three steals) is playing with the swagger of a reigning Final Four MOP — continuing a career that in many ways is synonymous this type of season. Versatile classmate Theo Pinson (eight points, seven assists and three steals while defending Marvin Bagley for most of the night) is playing unquestionably the best basketball of his career, while All-ACC forward Luke Maye (17 points, 10 rebounds) continues a remarkably productive junior campaign. Head coach Roy Williams, in perhaps the best coaching job of his illustrious career, has his team humming once again at just the right time. Sharing the ball, trusting in teammates and giving maximum effort on both ends, this team is a far cry from the same group that lost to Wofford at home three months ago, and a very legitimate threat to repeat as national champions a few weeks from now in San Antonio.
  2. Duke played young. While it’s presumed as a matter of fact that Duke is the most talented team in the country, it is undeniably also true that its elite talent is also very green. Despite a late charge to cut the lead to just three points inside the final minute, the preceding eight-minute stretch had been dominated by North Carolina, ultimately proving to be the difference in the game. Loose balls, 18 offensive boards from the Heels and countless hustle plays all tilted the momentum in North Carolina’s favor. Visibly frustrated, Duke dug itself a hole too deep to emerge from. That is something to keep an eye on heading into the NCAA Tournament. In a knockout scenario, a few lost precious moments of focus can lead to a team’s ouster, as Duke learned a year ago at the hands of South Carolina.
  3. Getting Defensive. While raggedy, the first half illuminated the improvement of both teams on the defensive end. The second- and fifth-ranked offenses in terms of efficiency both struggled mightily in the first 20 minutes, and their opposition had a lot to do with it. While Duke’s shift to becoming an exclusively zone team has garnered all the recent headlines, the Heels have also made great strides in getting stops. Duke shot just 36 percent from the floor in the first half, turning it over 10 times, while the Heels weren’t much better, connecting on 37 percent from the field with six miscues. No one questions whether these teams have the offensive chops to make a run at the Final Four, but becoming more balanced on both ends of the floor will serve both well when they inevitably endure an offensive dry spell.

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Rushed Reactions: Virginia 64, Clemson 58

Posted by Matthew Auerbach on March 9th, 2018

RTC’s Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24) is providing on-site coverage of the ACC Tournament this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

They’re Not Brand Names, But All They Do Is Win (USA Today Images)

  1. Virginia can flip a game quickly. Trailing 20-13 midway through the first half and looking like anything but the overall #1 seed heading into next week’s NCAA Tournament, the Cavaliers held Clemson without a field goal for the final 9:33 of the first half in converting a seven-point deficit into a nine-point advantage. The 19-3 spurt was sparked by De’Andre Hunter on both ends and punctuated by a pair of Kyle Guy triples, but it was the trademark Virginia defense that was most responsible for the game-seizing run. Clemson missed its last 10 field goal attempts of the half and was coaxed into a period in which the veteran team appeared both flummoxed and demoralized.
  2. De’Andre Hunter is a game-changer. Hunter, despite being on floor for less than half of the game, is the only other Cavalier besides Guy who qualifies as a major contributor, per KenPom, with a team-leading usage rate of 25.4 percent. After a Mamadi Diakite floater cut the Tigers’ lead to five, Hunter singlehandedly put the lead back in Virginia’s possession for good. A made three, a steal and hit-ahead to Guy for a dunk, followed by another bucket, gave the Cavs a lead they would never relinquish. A lethal combination of size and athleticism with a rapidly improving set of skills, Hunter’s presence on the floor presents a unique problem for opposing defenses. While Virginia’s offense generally is predicated on crisp ball movement and screening action to get a shot for the open man, Hunter provides a wrinkle that can wreck a defensive game plan, with the ability to score or create in pick-and-pop and isolation sets.
  3. Clemson will be fine.  No need to panic if you’re a Clemson fan. The Tigers will hear their name called on a Selection Sunday for the first time since 2011, and while this game will leave a sour taste in Brad Brownell’s mouth, the hard acceptance here is that Virginia has done this to just about all of its opponents this year. And while it is not debatable that the ceiling for this team was significantly lowered with the season-ending injury suffered by Donte Grantham seven weeks ago, Clemson has the grit, experience and defensive aptitude to find its way into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament with the right draw.

Star of the Game: Ty Jerome, Virginia. It is the ultimate compliment for a team like Virginia when the task of choosing just one player as the star seems equally as impossible as it is to consistently score on its defense. While Guy led the team in scoring and Hunter’s surge flipped the game, arguments could also be made for the efforts made by big men Diakite (10 points, four rebounds) and Jack Salt (eight points, eight rebounds). Ultimately, though, it was the defense in holding Clemson to 34.7 percent shooting from the field, led by Jerome and Devon Hall, in limiting the high scoring backcourt tandem of Marcquise Reed and Gabe Devoe to 14 points on a combined 5-of-23 shooting. Jerome, being the primary point of attack defender, and for dishing out a career-high 10 assists, gets the nod here — but again, it could’ve been any of this entire squad.

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The Curious Case of Grayson Allen

Posted by Matt Auerbach on February 8th, 2018

In many ways this college basketball season has been hijacked by Oklahoma freshman superstar Trae Young. What began as adulation and anointing has now flipped to interminable and, often times, laughably unfair scrutiny. Just one short year ago that same media microscope was being utilized to examine, analyze and admonish the on-court behavior of Duke superstar Grayson Allen. And while the senior guard is still in our collective consciousness, the discussion surrounding his senior year is most notably wondering: What happened? After an otherwise brilliant All-American sophomore season was marred by a pair of on-court tripping incidents, Allen entered his junior campaign as a strong NPOY candidate as well as the sport’s most hated son. Fitting in the Duke villain mold of Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner and JJ Redick, Allen had the game and presumptive arrogance to wear the target of most everyone’s venom. But after yet another tripping incident followed by a sideline meltdown that led to his suspension and loss of team captaincy, Allen’s game regressed in kind. A late ACC Tournament surge and an offseason to heal led most observers to assume Allen would set the world on fire in 2017-18.

Grayson Allen Has Been as Enigmatic as Controversial in his Duke Career (USA Today Images)

Popular opinion was the smart money for only a fleeting moment. With stud freshman Marvin Bagley III forced to miss the second half of this season’s Champions Classic tilt with Michigan State, Allen erupted for 37 points on 7-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc in a convincing Duke triumph. That game was in the middle of November, and we have yet to see that Grayson Allen again. The senior took a team-high 20 shots that evening, which he has only equaled once since in a dismal 5-of-20 effort at Boston College. That early December game (a loss) triggered a shooting slump in which Allen has connected on more than half of his shots in only two games since. Has Allen lost his confidence or is it something more?

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Red Hot NC State Charging Toward an NCAA Bid

Posted by Matt Auerbach on January 31st, 2018

While Virginia’s victory at Duke last Saturday afternoon deservedly dominated conference headlines, NC State was busy continuing its underpublicized midseason renaissance just nine miles down the road in Chapel Hill. The Wolfpack, winners of five of their last seven games, now own an NCAA Tournament resume that boasts equity in a trio of quality wins (Arizona on a neutral court; Duke at home; North Carolina on the road) that few bubble teams will approach.

All Smiles for NC State in Chapel Hill on Saturday (USA Today Images)

Kevin Keatts’ team looked dead and buried just a few short weeks ago. After a 30-point drubbing in South Bend dropped NC State to 0-2 in league play, the first-year coach has in the interim engineered a significant reversal of fortune. Playing an up-tempo, unselfish brand of basketball, the Wolfpack to date are taking exceptionally good care of the basketball (49th nationally in turnover percentage), sharing the wealth (six players average more than eight points per game), and have developed into a team-first bunch of veterans who believe that they can play with anybody. That shift in culture has not only made the Pack a joy to watch this season, but it has also been the impetus to yielding results that have exceeded expectations.

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ACC Stock Report: Volume IV

Posted by Matthew Auerbach on January 23rd, 2018

By week’s end, the conference slate will be at the halfway point for the majority of the league. And with that milepost will come some clarity, as unbeaten Virginia, which sits alone atop the ACC standings, is facing its toughest week to date. The Cavaliers’ difficult stretch commences tonight with a home tilt against Clemson and culminates with a trip to preseason favorite Duke on Saturday. Virginia’s modus operandi is painstakingly familiar, with an elite defense bogging down the opposition at a far stingier clip than any of Tony Bennett‘s previous teams in Charlottesville. Syracuse’s 61-point outburst against the Cavaliers two weeks ago represents the most points Virginia has allowed since its only loss, a seven-point road defeat to West Virginia coming at the beginning of December. Virginia’s style of play isn’t for everyone, but it is a pleasant reminder that the only numbers that truly matter in the era of advanced metrics are the ones on the scoreboard when the clock reads zero. Credit Bennett’s team for already knocking out three ACC road wins so far this year.

Virginia Basketball Does Not Go Away Quietly (USA Today Images)

Stock Up

Part of my reticence in buying into Virginia this season has been assuaged recently by the development of burgeoning prospect De’Andre Hunter. Just one short season ago, I scoffed at the love the computer rankings showed to the Cavaliers in large part because I couldn’t find a difference-maker on the roster in the mold of Mike Scott, Joe Harris, Justin Anderson and Malcolm Brogdon. That same critique fostered my negativity on Virginia heading into this season. But Hunter is a game-changer. The redshirt freshman is undoubtedly still raw, but his athletic potential and certain skill development under the tutelage of Bennett should make him a contributor on an NBA roster in the near future. After going scoreless in his first career ACC game, Hunter has posted double-figures in five of his last six outings while converting at a 59 percent clip. While the senior leadership of Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins along with the sharpshooting of Kyle Guy have represented the foundation for this team, it is a player like Hunter who can be carry Bennett through to his first Final Four. If Virginia can navigate the perilous waters that await this week, then it’ll be time to eat my crow and jump aboard the crowded Wahoos bandwagon.

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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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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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Clemson Looks to Reverse Its Bad Fortune

Posted by Matt Auerbach on December 19th, 2017

This article was supposed to be written a year ago. With the non-conference season winding to a close and the usual suspects proving themselves to be heavyweights, Clemson had the look of a squad ready to pose a viable threat to the conference elite. Except things did not go according to plan. Even with a preseason all-conference selection in Jaron Blossomgame and an 11-2 start heading into the new year, the Tigers proceeded to lose their next six games en route to a 6-12 ACC finish. As RTC’s Brad Jenkins has explained, many of those defeats came in excruciatingly close fashion — 12 of Clemson’s 16 losses a year ago came by fewer than six points. The biggest problem with that team was that there really wasn’t a big problem — Clemson was just exceedingly unlucky in close games, finishing 315th in KenPom’s luck metric.

Is Clemson Finally For Real This Season? (USA Today Images)

While bad luck certainly is attributable to last year’s failings, it’s not unprecedented for the head coach to take the fall in a season where expectations were elevated in both the preseason and heading into conference play. However, much to the surprise of many, Clemson opted to retain Brad Brownell for an eighth and presumably final chance to drag the program into fringe Top 25 and consistent NCAA participant territory. To this point in the season, things looks promising, but the Tigers have certainly been here before.

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