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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

NIT Quarterfinal Preview: How Three O26 Schools Can Reach Madison Square Garden

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 25th, 2014

With Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech and Belmont all playing in the NIT Quarterfinals tonight and tomorrow, let’s examine what it will take for each O26 hopeful to reach the Big Apple next week.

Southern Miss

Southern Miss will give Minnesota all it can handle in The Barn tonight. (RYAN MOORE — AP)

Southern Miss will give Minnesota all it can handle in The Barn tonight. (RYAN MOORE — AP)

  • Opponent: Minnesota
  • TV: 9:00 PM ET, ESPN, Tuesday (Minneapolis, MN)
  • How they got here:  The Golden Eagles hosted Toledo in the First Round, handling the Rockets 66-59, before knocking off Missouri on the road by eight. In the two victories, they outrebounded their opponents by nine boards on the offensive glass.
  • Why they win: Southern Miss did not win 29 games this season by mistake. This team is deep, physical, experienced and should give Minnesota all it can handle in The Barn tonight. The Golden Eagles force opposing offenses into a ton of mishaps – they boast the ninth best turnover rate in the country – by trapping and extending their zone pressure in the half-court to give ball-handlers all kinds of trouble. The Gophers are wholly average when it comes to taking care of the rock, ranking 151st in the country in offensive turnover rate. They might struggle against Donnie Tyndall’s unique, aggressive zone look. Likewise, Southern Miss is an excellent offensive rebounding club (despite its undersized frontcourt) that should be able to garner second chance offensive opportunities against their good-but-not-great defensive rebounding foe. Standing just 6’5”, athletic guard-forward Michael Craig is excellent on the boards.
  • Why they lose: For as many turnovers as they force, Tyndall’s club is just as bad when it comes to coughing up the ball. It was near the bottom of Conference USA in turnover percentage this year, which could spell trouble against the Gophers: Like his father, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino applies pressure and gets after teams defensively. Four of Southern Miss’ six losses this season were to opponents ranked in the top-50 in defensive turnover rate, including Louisville, which smacked the Golden Eagles by 31 back in November. Additionally, this is a true road game – never easy – against a squad that has proven capable of getting hot from behind the arc (shooting 11-of-19 from deep vs. Iowa in February). That very well might happen against USM’s zone look.
  • Why you should watch: This game has some serious intrigue. Aside from the game itself – which should be a tight one – former Golden Gopher Chip Armelin is now a Golden Eagle after transferring to Southern Miss following the 2012 season. Meanwhile, Minnesota point guard Deandre Mathieu began his career playing for Tyndall at Morehead State, before transferring to Hattiesburg after the head coach left.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Virginia Tech Earns Instant Credibility With Hire of Buzz Williams

Posted by Lathan Wells on March 25th, 2014

When Virginia Tech announced on Friday that it had poached head coach Buzz Williams from Marquette to replace the recently-fired James Johnson, the immediate reaction was that of general astonishment. Why on Earth would Williams leave a team he’d taken to the postseason in five out of six years on the bench to a program that had only reached the Big Dance once since 1996 and has finished last in the ACC three years running? While the reasons, thoroughly outlined here, became more apparent in the ensuing days, the real story is the amazing acquisition made by new Virginia Tech athletic director, Whit Babcock. The hiring of Williams and the way it managed to circle all of the major media outlets during the opening weekend of NCAA Tournament play, gave the Hokies basketball program something it hasn’t experienced in years: instant credibility.

Buzz Williams Virginia Tech PR campaign included a TNT appearance during the NCAA's (cbssports.com)

Buzz Williams’ Virginia Tech PR campaign included a TNT appearance during the NCAA Tournament (cbssports.com)

Williams oversaw a very successful Marquette program in the Big East, going an impressive 139-69 in his six years at the helm and taking the school to two Sweet Sixteen appearances and an Elite Eight run. No doubt his ability to navigate a difficult conference schedule (prior to realignment) and enjoy postseason success was extremely attractive to a Hokies program just trying to get noticed. Williams obviously looked around the ravaged Big East — a conference that the ACC raided to bring in Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh — and saw a chance to jump to the premier basketball conference in the land to match wits with four Hall of Fame coaches in Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, and Mike Krzyzewski. Some may have originally seen the move as a bizarre one (especially Williams’ pay cut from $3 million to $2.3 million annually) , but coupling the chance to compete in the new-look ACC with the uncertainty in the Marquette administration as well as the state of the weakened Big East, the decision began to make more sense.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Rushed Reactions: #11 Dayton 55, #3 Syracuse 53

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 22nd, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion@RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregionKenny Ocker is an RTC columnist and correspondent. He is covering the Spokane pods of the East and West regionals this week. 

Three Key Takeaways.

Dayton is headed to the Sweet Sixteen. (Photo : reuters).

Dayton is headed to the Sweet Sixteen. (Photo : reuters).

  1. Dayton meant business. Dayton guard Vee Sanford (the hero on Thursday) said during Friday’s press conference that he saw Syracuse as “just another game” and repeatedly mentioned the team’s business-like approach entering Saturday. If the Flyers’ performance tonight was any indication, that sentiment was genuine. Archie Miller’s guys – showing no signs of an upset-hangover – were sharp defensively and made a concerted effort to penetrate the teeth of the Orange 2-3 zone on offense. In the second half, they looked for more outside shots, crisply rotating the ball and nailing six big threes in the final 20 minutes. The game plan was deliberate, the players were focused, and the positive results followed – a berth in the Sweet Sixteen.
  2. More resilience from the Flyers. Syracuse took a three-point lead with about eight minutes remaining – its largest of the night – and looked to be on the cusp of a big run. It could have been the moment where Dayton fell apart and the Orange, with its roaring crowd, ran away with victory. Instead, the Flyers responded with a four-point possession to retake the lead, knocked down big free throws down the stretch, and never surrendered their advantage. Just like it did against the Buckeyes, Miller’s group showed its ability to counterpunch after taking a few in the chin.
  3. Shooting woes crippled Syracuse. Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney shot 6-of-33 in his team’s five losses entering Saturday night. Against Dayton, he finished 0-of-5 from behind the arc. But it wasn’t just the sophomore: As a team, the Orange shot a dismal 0-of-10 from distance and could never find much of a groove offensively. Forward Jerami Grant played a big role in the win over Western Michigan but was virtually non-existent tonight. Syracuse looked more like the team everyone questioned in the season’s final month than the one that started off 25-0.

Star of the GameDyshawn Pierre (14 points, six rebounds). For the second straight game, Pierre knocked down some huge free throws to keep the Flyers in control in the game’s final moments. The shots were especially crucial following a key miss at the line by teammate Devin Oliver.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

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)

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

James Johnson’s Dismissal Highlights the Other Unpleasant Side of March

Posted by Lathan Wells on March 17th, 2014

The month of March is one that brings joy to many college basketball programs across the country, as they now have the chance to chase a national championship via the NCAA Tournament (or to a lesser extent, an NIT title that at least yields a banner). But as many know, March is often a time of despondency across the college basketball landscape. It starts with the teams that had their hopes dashed on Selection Sunday when their names weren’t called, but it also extends to the programs whose seasons are completely over. That’s where the dark days in March occur, and Virginia Tech’s James Johnson experienced such a day today as he was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Hokies after a mere two seasons on the bench.

James Johnson's uninspiring term at Virginia Tech ended after only two years (newsleader.com)

James Johnson’s uninspiring term at Virginia Tech ended after only two years (newsleader.com)

Johnson was considered something of a surprise hire when he replaced the ousted Seth Greenberg two years ago. In fact, he had never been a head coach at all, having recently left Blacksburg to take on a similar assistant coaching role at Clemson. Instead, Greenberg’s messy exit coupled with resounding support from the holdover players convinced the administration to hire Johnson to take over the program, citing in particular his recruiting ability for some of the better teams of the Greenberg era. He inherited a bad team in his first season that only produced 13 wins, even with ACC Player of the Year and eventual pro Erick Green on the roster. His follow-up nine-win campaign, which resulted in a dead-last performance in a 15-team ACC, was due to an extremely underwhelming roster. In the preseason, Johnson made the bizarre decision to name an incoming freshman team captain despite the presence of seniors Jarell Eddie and Cadarian Raines returning. And it wasn’t a superstar talent like Jabari Parker who was named the leader, either; it was two- or three-star guard Ben Emelogu. Emelogu had a decent start to his first college campaign, but he was far from a star.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Bracket Prep: Florida, Virginia, Michigan State

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 17th, 2014

Championship Week has found its close, but here are a few final short reviews of each of the automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket this week. None of these titans really needed the “automatic bid” portion of their Tournament title gift package, of course, but with each figuring to play a key role in the weeks ahead, here’s what you need to know about a trio of Championship Week’s final victors.

Florida

Billy Donovan And The Gators Are SEC Champions Twice Over, But Florida Has Their Sights Set On A Greater Prize

Billy Donovan And The Gators Are SEC Champions Twice Over, But Florida Has Their Sights Set On A Greater Prize

  • SEC Champion (32-2, 21-0)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #2/#3/#3
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +16.1
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #1

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. In the final minutes of basketball before the 2014 NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled, Florida survived Kentucky to claim the SEC crown, complete their 21-game conference sweep, and keep alive a 26-game win streak. Quite a tidy going away package for the Gators, who will enter the Tournament as a #1 seed and among the two or three favorites to cut down the nets in Dallas. The one-point victory Sunday was only the fifth time this season that the Gators have won by three points or less – a testament to the workmanlike attitude that has extended this win streak time and time again.
  2. The Gators led the SEC in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Defensive weaknesses are hard to spot with the Gators, but despite the high overall level of offensive efficiency, there is a weak spot or two that opponents will seek to exploit. Florida’s free throw shooting is shaky (66.2% as a team, 295th nationally), and even primary ballhandlers Scotty Wilbekin (72%), Casey Prather (68%) and Kasey Hill (63%) are anything but sure things at the charity stripe. Three-point shooting isn’t a concern for Florida at first glance – they shoot 37% as a team, 73rd best in the country – but Wilbekin (58 3PM, 40%) and Michael Frazier (107 3PM, 46%) have combined to make over 70% of the team’s three-point field goals. The rest of the team shot just 27% from distance, so if an opponent can find a way to take away looks from either Wilbekin or Frazier – especially the latter, who is strictly a perimeter shooter – things could get pretty one-dimensional for the Gator offense.
  3. Florida is the perfect example of a team that used the entire season to grow into an elite squad. For much of November and December, Billy Donovan was just trying to keep proverbial head above water with his team, as pieces shifted in and out of the Gator lineup. Wilbekin, Prather, Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, and Chris Walker all missed time for various reasons, but save for road losses at Wisconsin and Connecticut (and no shame in those, either), the Gators kept on winning. Prather grew into an unlikely All-American candidate, Wilbekin has staked his claim as the best point guard in America, and Frazier is now second to none when it comes to perimeter shooters. None of these things happen without one of the best coaches in the game pressing all the right buttons from the sideline, but Donovan has spent the last four months constructing a team poised for even greater things in the NCAA Tournament. And after winning 26 games in a row en route to a sweep of the SEC titles, that, my friends, is saying something.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

NCAA Tournament Instareaction: ACC Teams

Posted by Lathan Wells on March 16th, 2014

Selection Sunday has now yielded a 2014 NCAA Tournament field, and the bracket is filled out. It’s time to analyze how the ACC teams fared in their quest to garner postseason success. Some teams seem to have an easier path than others, but it is March and nothing can be taken for granted. Some may be surprised that six ACC teams made the field, especially since Florida State was the presumed ACC team on the brink, but nonetheless the ACC tied for the second-most teams in the field behind the Big 12’s seven entrants. Here’s a look at the six ACC squads that were lucky enough to hear their names called, and what their NCAA Tournament might look like.

Virginia, #1 seed, East Region. The Cavaliers were rewarded (and justly so) for claiming the ACC regular season and tournament titles with a #1 seed in the East. They won’t have to travel far in the early stages, either, with the opening rounds in a familiar venue in Raleigh. After what should be an opening round win over Coastal Carolina, Virginia will have to tangle with either Memphis or George Washington. The Cavaliers are one of the few teams in the country that always controls the tempo, so a match-up with a running team like the Tigers won’t faze them a bit. Tony Bennett’s team has a good shot of advancing to the Final Four if it can survive a potential Sweet Sixteen match-up with a suddenly-healthy #4 seed Michigan State. Villanova as the #2 seed is not as potent as other regions’ second seeds, so the Cavaliers have a very realistic shot of ending up in Arlington.

Virginia's dominance of the ACC regular and postseason helped them grab a number one seed (usatoday)

Duke, #3 seed, Midwest Region. Duke also gets the favorable early draw of playing in Raleigh, opening with Mercer. The Blue Devils’ region arguably has the most questionable top seed in Wichita State, but a potential UMass meeting in the second game could be tricky. Duke’s NCAA hopes are always pinned on how they shoot from distance, and if they’re on they can beat anyone. If they’re off, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood have to make plays to rescue the team. The region’s #2 seed, Michigan, already tussled with Duke earlier in the year and fell short, so that should also bolster Mike Kzryzewski’s outlook. Nevertheless, Louisville lurks in the Midwest with a head-scratching #4 seed, so Duke is not without a test at every turn in its quest to bring glory back home to Durham for the fifth time.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

The Unofficial RTC ACC Superlatives

Posted by Lathan Wells on March 11th, 2014

While the more official hardware is beginning to be handed out, like Player and Coach of the Year and the All-ACC team’s, it’s worth looking at some more under-the-radar superlatives that players and coaches have earned through the course of the regular season on the precipice of ACC Tournament time in Greensboro.

Here are five awards that RTC found to be equally as important as some of their more official brethren:

Most Selfless Upperclassman: Joe Harris, Virginia.

His scoring dipped more than four points a game from a year ago as he watched Malcolm Brogdon become the go-to scorer and clutch player on the team, plummeting from preseason ACC Player of the Year prognostications seemingly from the first game’s opening tip. Nonetheless, Harris’ willingness to play team ball and enlarge his leadership role helped Virginia to their first outright ACC Title in 33 years and a current two-seed projection in the NCAA’s. Harris is a senior, so it’s rare for a player to back off in his final season and allow team success to trump personal statistics. Harris is still a force, but now knows he can operate in the background to help his team’s season become even more special.

Joe Harris' selflessness helped Virginia win the ACC regular season (UVAsports)

Joe Harris’ selflessness helped Virginia win the ACC regular season (UVAsports)

Best Coaching Job Outside of Charlottesville: Roy Williams, North Carolina.

Tony Bennett absolutely deserved the COY award for his unbelievable reclamation job with Virginia, but no one dealt with more adversity this year than Williams. Between the PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald saga, the academics issues brought to light by a former adviser, and the up-and-down start to the year with no set rotation and inconsistent effort, Williams had a ton on his plate in trying to get this team into postseason play. The Tar Heels won 12 conference games in a row, including a split with rival Duke, and own possibly the best non-conference wins of any team in the country. It’s arguably Williams’ best coaching job in Chapel Hill to date. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story