ACC Burning Questions: North Carolina Tar Heels

Posted by Matt Patton on November 10th, 2016

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Can the reloaded Tar Heels get back to the Final Four?

There's no question this year: this is Joel Berry's team. (Photo: Robert L. Poston/CarolinaBlue)

There’s no question this year: this is Joel Berry’s team. (Photo: Robert L. Poston/CarolinaBlue)

As was well-documented, North Carolina’s 2015-16 season was equal parts fairy tale and horror film. Roy Williams loses Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson from last year’s National Runner-Up, but this season’s team will likely be just as talented. First off, Joel Berry is criminally underrated. He was without a doubt the most important player on last year’s team, and he has a good chance to wind up on the short list for National Player of the Year. Second, Isaiah Hicks may finally put everything together last season and will go a long way toward filling Johnson’s shoes. However, there are some open questions here. Theo Pinson is out indefinitely after breaking his foot again, leaving the team overly reliant on Berry in the backcourt. He’ll have help in Nate Britt and freshman Seventh Woods , both of whom should get plenty of minutes (especially considering Roy Williams’ penchant for deep rotations), and Justin Jackson is a likely All-ACC wing. But the dropoff from the talent of Berry to Britt is steep, and Woods is still a freshman. That means Williams will need Berry on the floor for most of the game — especially once conference play begins. With Pinson out indefinitely, Jackson won’t have much help on the wing either. But don’t lose sight of the fact that Jackson and Berry are both elite, championship-level players. Read the rest of this entry »

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ACC Burning Questions: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Posted by Matt Patton on November 7th, 2016

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: How far do the Irish slide? (a.k.a. How good are Bonzie Colson and TJ Gibbs?)

Notre Dame probably won’t be as good as it was last year and the Irish definitely won’t be as good as they were two years ago. So where does that leave us? Mike Brey lost his two best players — Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste — and both are going to be nearly impossible to replace, especially defensively. The two most important returnees to watch are junior Bonzie Colson and freshman TJ Gibbs. Colson is an incredibly efficient offensive player already accustomed to high usage (albeit on limited minutes), which makes him a surefire success in many ways. The challenge for Brey will be finding a way for Colson’s increased minutes to not kill the Irish on the glass. Auguste was one of the best defensive rebounders in the country, whereas Colson is merely a good rebounder. Despite Auguste’s proficiency, Notre Dame was still an atrocious defensive rebounding team, so his loss doesn’t help a middling defense unless Colson improves or John Mooney turns out to be ACC-ready faster than expected.

VJ Beachem has the spotlight now, but Bonzie Colson has bigger shoes to fill. (Photo Credit: Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

VJ Beachem has the spotlight now, but Bonzie Colson has bigger shoes to fill. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Gibbs is less known. He’s a consensus top-100, four-star recruit, but he’ll be called upon to replace a former McDonald’s All-American. Point guards tend to translate quickly to the college game, but Gibbs may be a season away from the helm. He’ll likely start the season spelling junior Matt Farrell. Farrell has always proven to be a competent college player, but he is probably best suited for an important supporting role. He could make a quantum leap this season, but neither the eye test nor his statistics point in that direction. Colson and Farrell are joined by seniors VJ Beachem and Steve Vasturia. Beachem is most likely the best pure shooter in the ACC. He’s got fringe NBA talent but will need to show he is capable of handling a larger share of the offense this year.

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ACC Burning Questions: Syracuse Orange

Posted by Matt Patton on October 26th, 2016

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: How quickly will Andrew White and John Gillon slot into Jim Boeheim’s system?

Tyler Lydon will have help this year in Syracuse. (Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

Tyler Lydon will have help this year in Syracuse. (Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

Can you be a consensus Top 25 team as well as a conference sleeper? This question doesn’t pertain only to the Orange, but because of the deserving press of those two monolithic teams on Tobacco Road, Syracuse is flying under the radar this preseason. It’s not just the perpetual hype machine surrounding Duke and its bevy of one-and-dones or North Carolina following up on its heartbreaking ending. There are legitimate questions about this Syracuse team but you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of teams as talented as Jim Boeheim‘s group. The first question he needs to answer is how to replace the team’s best player and jack-of-all-trades, Michael Gbinije?

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ACC Burning Questions: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Posted by Matt Patton on October 20th, 2016

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: What sort of “sophomore leap” can we expect from Bryant Crawford, John Collins, and Doral Moore?

Wake Forest is coming off an incredibly disappointing season. Despite having a pair of talented seniors in the lineup, the Demon Deacons managed only two league wins last year, causing fans to suffer flashbacks of the Jeff Bzdelik era. The 2015-16 team was better than its record, though, and that discrepancy largely falls on the shoulders of the team’s most talented (and now graduated) players: Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas. This year the Demon Deacons will lack their senior leadership but that may finally provide Danny Manning the distance he needs to fully reshape the basketball environment in Winston-Salem. First, I’m an admitted Manning apologist. His results have so far been inconsistent, but Bzdelik passed along a culture so toxic that no one could have reasonably expected a quick fix. This, however, is the year Manning must start to show real progress (with next year being the year to make a leap in the conference standings). The road will be tough and the win total may not reflect significant improvement, but Wake Forest needs to beat the worst teams in the league (here’s looking at you, Boston College and Georgia Tech), while playing competitively against the better teams (hey, Virginia).

John Collins is an analytics darling, but can he make the leap the statistics say? (Photo Credit: Bob Hebert)

John Collins is an analytics darling, but can he make the leap the statistics suggest? (Bob Hebert/Getty)

To replace Miller-McIntyre and Thomas, look no further than sophomores Bryant CrawfordJohn Collins and Doral Moore. Collins in particular carries the Luke Winn-endorsed high usage and efficiency hallmark of breakout sophomores, and Crawford effectively replaced Miller-McIntyre’s role for much of last season. How competitive Wake Forest will be, though, depends mostly on the team’s ceiling (the ACC is stacked) and I’ll be surprised if Crawford and Collins aren’t the keys to the Deacs’ highest performance. Crawford will need to cut down on his turnovers while Collins needs to prove efficient in increased minutes, but those are achievable goals. Moore, on the other hand, showed flashes of brilliance last season. You can’t teach tall, but Manning appears capable of coaching up his bigs. If that holds true, Moore could become a real star in the ACC by the time he’s done there. Joining the trio of star sophomores are graduate transfer Austin Arians from Milwaukee, who should provide some immediate help on the wing. Don’t look for Arians to become a volume scorer in Winston-Salem, but he can keep opponents honest with his shot and he never turns the ball over. It’s also possible we’ll see a quantum jump from Mitchell Wilbekin this season. His brother Scottie Wilbekin made a big step forward at Florida between his sophomore and junior years. Read the rest of this entry »

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Five ACC Storylines to Watch this Offseason

Posted by Matt Patton on April 11th, 2016

With the long offseason ahead of us, let’s take a look at five key ACC storylines to keep an eye on over the summer.

  1. NCAA Sanctions: After investigations that surrounded both programs in different ways this season, there should finally be some closure for Louisville and North Carolina. Louisville is still trying to get in front of NCAA sanctions by self-imposing its own (in addition to this year’s postseason ban, the program also recently added recruiting penalties). This strategy has worked well for other schools, but predicting eventual NCAA punishments is an exercise in futility. North Carolina is the more interesting case — the Tar Heels may not receive any sanctions or they may get the book thrown at them. What remains unclear is whether there will be administrative fallout from either scandal. I would not be shocked if Rick Pitino ends up stepping down from his post — especially if the NCAA deems the Cardinals’ self-imposed penalties insufficient. But I would be shocked if Roy Williams did.

    Rick Pitino may be in for a stressful offseason. (photo: Getty Images)

    Rick Pitino may be in for a stressful offseason. (photo: Getty Images)

  2. Coaching Carousel: This is a slow year for the ACC in terms of coaching turnover. Pittsburgh lost Jamie Dixon to his alma mater, TCU, and Georgia Tech fired Brian Gregory. The Yellow Jackets were initially spurned by Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel and Bryce Drew (who went to Vanderbilt instead), and after reports that Cal’s Cuonzo Martin was their top candidate, athletic director Mike Bobinski hired Josh Pastner away from Memphis. Pastner is far from a sure thing in this spot, but he should be able to put more talented teams on the floor. Whether those teams will have more success than what Gregory mustered (two teams with winning records; no NCAA Tournament appearances) remains to be seen. In Pittsburgh, many fans were upset with the hiring of Kevin Stallings away from Vanderbilt (ironically, the response from Commodores’ fans mirrored Dayton fans after Georgia Tech hired Gregory). Stallings will have his work cut out for him in the Steel City, but he was a solid coach with several very good teams in Nashville. Like Jamie Dixon, he may have stuck around the same place a little too long, but there’s no reason to think he won’t do reasonably well there. Read the rest of this entry »
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North Carolina’s No Good Very Bad Ending to Fairy Tale Season

Posted by Matt Patton on April 7th, 2016

There’s no arguing that North Carolina is among college basketball royalty. The Tar Heels are one of only three programs with a truly national fan base (the other two are Duke and Kentucky). They own five national championships and consistently recruit a level of talent that most programs can only dream of. But with the news of a multi-year academic scandal and corresponding NCAA investigation hanging overhead, the carefully-curated lustre of “the Carolina Way” had faded. The uncertainty of the drawn-out investigation resulted in a surplus of negative recruiting and several classes that lagged behind the other national powerhouses.

Brice Johnson and North Carolina met their match Monday. (photo: Chuck Liddy / Raleigh News & Observer)

Brice Johnson and North Carolina met their match Monday. (Photo: Chuck Liddy / Raleigh News & Observer)

“When you’re a kid growing up, you don’t dream of missing the last second shot, or a team beating you at the buzzer,” he said. “You dream of having that moment. That confetti. Seeing your family over there crying tears of joy. Hugging guys you’ve had blood, sweat and tears with for four years. That’s what you dream of. We were close to that dream.”Marcus Paige

All of this set the stage for Roy Williams to rebrand his team — one of college basketball’s elites — as a Cinderella despite starting the season as the top dog (preseason AP #1). Some experts quickly left the Tar Heels’ bandwagon after they blew a mid-November double-figure second half lead at Northern Iowa (a team that was ultimately one broken press away from the Sweet Sixteen, remember). A narrative has existed over the last few years — promoted incessantly by Dan Dakich’s egocentric view of history — that North Carolina lacked toughness. The early loss to the Panthers played into that narrative, but it more or less became gospel when the Tar Heels allowed a lesser Duke squad to steal a February victory in Chapel Hill even with Matt Jones injured for most of the game. Suddenly Doug Gottlieb was mentioning that Williams was considering retirement to allow Hubert Davis to assume the helm. Since that loss on February 17, the Tar Heels played with an “us against the world” mentality that we hadn’t seen from them. Read the rest of this entry »

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On Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim: Hall of Fame Alumni

Posted by Matt Patton on April 2nd, 2016

Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim couldn’t seem more different on most days. Both reflect their environments: one is a cranky New Yorker; the other sounds every bit like he grew up in Swannanoa, North Carolina (a town of fewer than 5,000 people in the eastern North Carolina mountains). But the two have fascinating reputations to unpack.

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, left, and North Carolina head coach Roy Williams, right, greet each other before for the start of an NCAA college basketball game in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. Syracuse won 57-45. (AP Photo/Nick Lisi)

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, left, and North Carolina head coach Roy Williams, right, greet each other before for the start of an NCAA college basketball game in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. Syracuse won 57-45. (AP Photo/Nick Lisi)

Williams was a longtime assistant for Dean Smith, and he rarely lets an opportunity get by without letting you know about it. Everything from his disinterest in calling timeouts to stop opponent runs to his frequent first half subbing harken back to his assistant coaching tenure under Smith. After a decade on the Tar Heels’ bench, Williams left in 1988 to take over a Kansas program in disarray as a result of Larry Brown. Hardly a rebuilding job, though, Williams made the NCAA Tournament in every year he was in Lawrence except his first (the Jayhawks were still on probation). He wound up taking Kansas to the Final Four a total of four times, including the 2002-03 season, right before he left for Chapel Hill. At the time, Williams famously said, “I could give a sh– about North Carolina,” immediately following his championship game loss to (ironically) Jim Boeheim and Syracuse.

Back at his alma mater starting in 2003, Williams took over a floundering program that had lost 36 games in its previous two seasons (it would take Williams six years to log 36 losses). Matt Doherty bequeathed him a young team with many of the players Williams would ride to his first national championship — Raymond Felton, Jawad Williams, Sean May and Jackie Manuel. But Williams’ Tar Heels bore no resemblance to the ones coached by Doherty. They ran like the wind and turned the undersized May into an unstoppable juggernaut. It’s impossible to consider now, but North Carolina was arguably one more bad hire away from long-term irrelevance (with Coach K just down the road having just won his third championship in 2001).

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: ACC

Posted by Matt Patton on March 13th, 2016

The ACC got seven bids to the NCAA Tournament. While not a huge surprise, Syracuse was very, very fortunate to earn an at-large bid. Additionally, Roy Williams ended up correctly predicting that both North Carolina and Virginia would wind up on the top seed line. Here are some quick best- and worst-case scenarios for the ACC teams in the field.

North Carolina celebrates winning the championship game of the 2016 New York Life ACC Tournament in Washington, DC, Saturday, March 12, 2016. (Photo by Liz Condo, theACC.com)

North Carolina Celebrated Another ACC Tournament Title Yesterday. (Photo by Liz Condo, theACC.com)

North Carolina (#1 East): The Tar Heels were the second overall seed, which shows how much the committee respects winning both the regular season and conference tournament titles (and perhaps also considered the time Marcus Paige missed from injury). That means a pair of opening round games in Raleigh, but the bad news for North Carolina fans is that the #4 and #5 seeds in the region (Kentucky and Indiana) are both grossly underseeded. It almost guarantees a challenging Sweet Sixteen game in Philadelphia.

  • Best Case: The Tar Heels build on their recent momentum and win the National Championship.
  • Worst Case: North Carolina’s Sweet Sixteen opponent is firing on all cylinders from behind the arc and sends the Tar Heels packing.

Virginia (#1 Midwest): In another surprise twist, Virginia was a #1 seed and the third overall (the committee must have watched the ACC Tournament!) with a trip to Raleigh on tap for the first weekend. The Cavaliers have a great chance to make it to the regional in Chicago, but #5 Purdue could be a very challenging Sweet Sixteen opponent. The rest of the bracket is favorable with one glaring exception: #2 seed Michigan State. The Spartans will be favored to meet Virginia in the Elite Eight and have ended Virginia’s postseason in each of the past two seasons.

  • Best Case: Virginia finally breaks through and silences the doubters with the school’s first National Championship.
  • Worst Case: Virginia, worn out by an incredibly talented Purdue team, is destroyed by the Spartans (leaving Tony Bennett thrilled that he opted to not go to the Big Ten).

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Rushed Reaction: North Carolina 61, Virginia 57

Posted by Matt Patton on March 12th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways:

  1. North Carolina’s defense was tremendous, as it was all tournament long in Washington. Marcus Paige was mostly tasked with guarding Malcolm Brogdon (along with Kenny Williams, of all people) and held him to 15 points on 22 shots including only one trip to the foul line. After the game, Brogdon gave North Carolina credit for flooding the lane when he drove, but he also took a lot of responsibility for the poor performance. For his part, Roy Williams called Paige one of the five best defensive guards he’s ever coached. Looking past Brogdon, London Perrantes also struggled shooting with Joel Berry smothering him (he finished 3-of-14 from the field). The Cavaliers did a great job on the offensive boards, but couldn’t convert enough of those to second chance points.

    North Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks (3) and North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) celebrate winning the championship game of the 2016 New York Life ACC Tournament in Washington, DC, Saturday, March 12, 2016. (Photo by Liz Condo, theACC.com)

    North Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks (3) and North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) celebrate winning the championship game of the 2016 New York Life ACC Tournament in Washington, DC, Saturday, March 12, 2016. (Photo by Liz Condo, theACC.com)

  2. In the first 13 minutes of the game, North Carolina committed eight turnovers on 19 possessions. They were careless with the ball in the post, often trying to make passes that weren’t there. And while Virginia didn’t light up the scoreboard off of those turnovers, they led to a lot of extra shots. Some post turnovers are inevitable against Virginia — especially considering the Tar Heels’ love of quick post passes — but once North Carolina started hitting some jump shots, their post players started playing better with the ball.
  3. There’s not much Virginia should take away from tonight’s game because the Cavaliers controlled the tempo and dominated the offensive boards. Roy Williams was asked what he thought North Carolina’s chances would be if they had been killed on the glass and didn’t make their threes: “Zero,” he responded. The more I reflect on the game, the more it felt like this was Virginia’s game to win. That shouldn’t take away from what North Carolina accomplished here, but Virginia played a near-perfect game apart from missing its jump shots. One game sample sizes are cruel bedfellows, but don’t use this game to say that Tony Bennett’s team can’t win the NCAA Tournament over the next several weeks.

Star of the Game: It’s tough to choose, but Joel Berry was North Carolina’s difference-maker this whole tournament. As he’s evolved into a backcourt leader, the Heels have started taking on his persona as a team. They have more of an edge than they did at the start of the year, and a lot of the credit for that change in character should go to Berry. He plays for contact and isn’t scared of tough jump shots. Against Pittsburgh, Berry put the team on his back when their shots weren’t falling. Against Virginia, Berry hit the shot to take the lead for good along with a dagger three and four free throws to ice the game. Tonight, his defense and 19 points carried the day.

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Rushed Reactions: Virginia 73, Miami 68

Posted by Matt Patton on March 12th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways:

  1. This game featured a ton of experience. Miami started three seniors and two juniors with a senior as the first player off the bench; Virginia started two seniors and a junior with a senior as the first player off the bench. That experience helped Miami hang tight with Virginia throughout, but it also aided Virginia in stopping Miami from ever taking a lead. Jim Larranaga was frustrated by his team’s uncharacteristic mistakes (notably turnovers and fouling), but their opponent didn’t make anything easy, either. London Perrantes deserves credit for not committing a turnover all game. Maybe because the top of the league is so blessed with experience (the top four seeds all feature experienced lineups), there has only been one upset so far in the ACC Tournament — at least according to seed.

    Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon (15) is pressured by Miami guard Sheldon McClellan (10) during the semifinals of the 2016 New York Life ACC Tournament in Washington DC, Friday, March 11, 2015. (Photo by Sara D. Davis, theACC.com)

    Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon (15) is pressured by Miami guard Sheldon McClellan (10) during the semifinals of the 2016 New York Life ACC Tournament in Washington DC, Friday, March 11, 2015. (Photo by Sara D. Davis, theACC.com)

  2. Angel Rodriguez giveth and taketh away. On the same play, he threw a ridiculous behind-the-back pass at Ivan Cruz Uceda that should have been taken the other way for an easy two by Virginia. Instead Rodriguez got it back and hit a three to cut the game to a single possession. He was nearly perfect from the field, but turned the ball over once casually dribbling behind his back (he kicked it out of bounds) and once palming the ball. In a way, Rodriguez’s play was emblematic of his team’s performance, as every time they cut the game to three or four points a bad pass would wind up in Virginia’s hands.
  3. Virginia’s bigs didn’t have stellar games. Mike Tobey disappeared in the second half and Anthony Gill was saddled with foul trouble. Miami also did a great job of getting into the paint (the Hurricanes scored 32 of their 68 points in the paint, and that number would be much higher if you included free throws resulting from paint touches). The Cavaliers must defend that area of the floor better tomorrow or North Carolina’s front line will feast inside. Virginia also doesn’t have the depth up front to afford foul trouble against a deep Tar Heels front line.

Star of the Game: Malcolm Brogdon wasn’t perfect. He missed a lot of shots but he was still the player Virginia turned to whenever it needed a big bucket and he iced the game from the free throw line. His generally unflappable persona played a big role in Virginia’s cool demeanor when it looked like Miami might go on a run. Just on defense alone, Brogdon deserves national recognition, but his importance to the Cavaliers’ offense should make him a consensus first team All-American. It certainly made him the most important player on the floor tonight.

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