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: #1 Kansas 80, #5 Clemson 76

Posted by Walker Carey on March 23rd, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is in Omaha for the Midwest Regional this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Kansas Heads Back to the Elite Eight For the Third Year in a Row (USA Today Images)

  1. Udoka Azubuike showed how important he is to Kansas’ success. The sophomore big man is finally back from a knee injury that kept him out of the Big 12 Tournament and limited his minutes during the First and Second Rounds of this NCAA Tournament. With Azubuike now healthy, Kansas forced the issue with him early and often as he finished the evening with 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting and grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds. While those statistics suggest to the casual eye that he just had a good game, you have to look beyond the box score to realize just how important he is to Kansas’ success. The Jayhawks at the very least look his way for an easy bucket every time he’s on the floor, and he is a stalwart in the middle on the defensive end. If Kansas is to win Sunday and advance to Bill Self’s third Final Four, what Azubuike brings to the fold on both ends of the court will be an important factor.
  2. Devonte’ Graham needs to play better if Kansas wants a trip to the Final Four. The final statistics show that Graham finished with a pretty standard outing, totaling 16 points while collecting five rebounds and four assists on the night. While the senior point guard gathered his numbers, he would also be the first to say that he did not play nearly as well as he needs to for his team to advance to San Antonio. Graham made just one of seven shots from three-point range and finished just 4-of-12 from the field. He also committed three uncharacteristic turnovers, including one where he threw the ball away followed by an ill-advised foul that gave Clemson an and-one opportunity. Graham has been quite steady throughout his collegiate career so it is certainly reasonable to expect he will play better against Duke or Syracuse on Sunday. Kansas is going to need a quality performance from him because it cannot advance to another Final Four without Devonte’ Graham playing like the Big 12 Player of the Year.
  3. Clemson deserves a ton of credit for fighting until the final buzzer. There are no good losses or moral victories in the NCAA Tournament, but Clemson’s performance tonight would certainly qualify if there were. Playing in front of a very partisan Kansas crowd, the Tigers fell behind by 20 points early in the second half and it looked like their run was over. It would have been understandable if Brad Brownell‘s squad simply went through the motions for the remainder of the game, but the Tigers instead fought tooth and nail to the final buzzer to lose by only four points. Behind senior guard Gabe DeVoe‘s career-high 31 points and some tenacious defense, Clemson put considerable game pressure on Kansas as the final minutes ticked away. Their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but you would have to be a significantly jaded individual if you do not come away from that game impressed with Clemson’s fight.

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ACC Conversation: NCAA Tournament Opening Weekend

Posted by Mick McDonald on March 21st, 2018

Rush the Court’s ACC microsite writers Brad JenkinsMatt Auerbach and Mick McDonald chatted this week to recap a wild opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament and preview the chances of the four remaining ACC schools making the Final Four.

The Answer to Your Trivia Question is Virginia (USA Today Images)

Brad Jenkins: OK guys. Before we look ahead to the Sweet Sixteen, let’s recap the crazy first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. I guess we have to start with the surprising outcomes that I witnessed in Charlotte. Mick, we’ll go ahead and let you give your take on what happened to Virginia.

Mick McDonald: Do I have to? I haven’t had the stomach to go back and watch it, and frankly, most of the game feels like a haze. Sort of like a bad dream you try to forget. That said, it was a collection of things, all of which were a worst case scenario for Virginia. Early foul trouble for Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins, plus Tony Bennett’s refusal to play Marco Anthony, meant they had to play the same five guys (including Nigel Johnson and Jack Salt, who aren’t scorers) most of the first half. Secondly, their jump shots weren’t falling. Third, UMBC hung around long enough to get their confidence up. All of that still led to a halftime tie. Most Virginia fans were having Coastal Carolina flashbacks to 2014, still thinking they’d put it together. When the first play of the second half was an and-one to give Wilkins his third foul, things felt different. Then UMBC couldn’t miss, Virginia lost its composure and it was over. And yes, not having DeAndre Hunter hurt. But it was by no means the lone reason they lost.

Matt Auerbach: Obviously we’ve been beaten to death with every talking head, captain obvious rationale: Virginia isn’t built to play from behind; its style lends itself to keeping inferior teams in the game; and so on. But the truth remains that this tournament is a one-and-done scenario, and for that reason, remains random at its core. If they play 10 times, the Cavaliers win the other nine with a few of those games by 30-plus points. There’s no reason to attempt to explain it. It’s one of the reasons we love this event so much, unless, as in this case, you’re on the Virginia end.

Mick McDonald: Well said, Matt. Pat Forde, a columnist I usually respect and enjoy, published a column hours after the game calling the entire Virginia/Tony Bennett program fraudulent. That’s insane (and certainly trolling clickbait, but that’s another discussion). Bennett will keep winning and will eventually get to a Final Four. Just like every other great coach who “couldn’t win in March” before him.

Matt Auerbach: That article was written about Mike Krzyzewski 30 years ago, and was written about Jim Boeheim and his zone for a long time too. The antithesis was said about Tom Izzo; how’s that been working out?

Mick McDonald: People just have such a hard time accepting that events can be random and not need some massive underlying reason why they happened. This event breeds wild one-time results.

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Rushed Reactions: #5 Clemson 84, #4 Auburn 53

Posted by rtmsf on March 18th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish.

Three Key Takeaways.

Clemson Will Not Soon Forget This Performance (USA Today Images)

  1. Sheer Dominance. Not even the #1 vs. #16 match-ups earlier this weekend were this lopsided. Chalk it up to Clemson’s outstanding defense combined with Auburn’s inept offense, but the point remains that a run that started with a 13-13 tie at the 12-minute mark of the first half became a 40-point lead 20 minutes later. FORTY. Not even Cincinnati can blow that kind of advantage. The statistics are marvelous in their ugliness (e.g., Auburn’s 26 percent shooting), but the key stretch was really the last 10 minutes of the first half when Auburn missed 18 consecutive shots while giving up 25 points in a series of layups and three-pointers on the other end. It was a blitzkrieg, magnificent in its efficiency and domination. And it propelled Clemson to the Sweet Sixteen for just the fourth time ever.
  2. Is Clemson Good? Obviously, yes, but just how good? Today’s victory was a real eye-opener for a lot of people wondering if the Tigers were capable of making a deep run. New Mexico State was a trendy upset pick on Friday, and Clemson manhandled the Aggies without too much concern. Today’s game was 32 minutes of curb-stomping. The question with Clemson has never been with its defense, which ranks among the top 10 in college basketball this season, but rather whether they had enough play-makers to get past the likes of elite programs. Their best win this season was over North Carolina in Littlejohn Arena, but it they lost relatively close games to Duke and Virginia (the ACC Tournament game). The Tigers may get their chance to prove themselves in the Midwest Regional next weekend, as Kansas awaits next followed by ACC brethren Duke or Syracuse. In a ball-control kind of game where the shots aren’t falling (a typical Jayhawks loss scenario), it wouldn’t be impossible to see Clemson advance two more rounds just like its Palmetto State rival from a season ago.
  3. Auburn Still Had a Great Season. No team likes to go out of the NCAA Tournament like Auburn did today, but sometimes the forces align and there’s not much a team can do to manage the buzzsaw. Still, Bruce Pearl put together a fantastic season that included a first-place finish in the SEC (the Tigers were projected ninth in the preseason by SEC media), the school’s first NCAA appearance (and win) in 15 years and a buzz that had been missing around the basketball program for a very long time. Depending on how the FBI thing shakes out, Auburn is poised to get back to the NCAA Tournament for years to come — only hopefully with better performances than the Tigers gave today.

Player of the Game. Elijah Thomas, Clemson. Thomas set the tone in the first half with 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting as the Tigers simply overwhelmed the other Tigers. He finished with a highly-efficient 18 points, 11 rebounds and a pair of assists on 7-of-10 shooting. But really, the entire Clemson team was the player of tonight’s game.

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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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ACC Conversation: End of Season Awards

Posted by Brad Jenkins, Matt Auerback, Mick McDonald on February 28th, 2018

Rush the Court’s ACC microsite writers Brad Jenkins, Matt Auerbach and Mick McDonald chatted this week  about who they think should take home All-ACC Honors.

Duke’s Marvin Bagley Will Assuredly Find Himself on the All-ACC Team (USA Today Images)

Brad Jenkins: Last week we focused on teams. This week, we can discuss individuals. How do you guys feel the All-ACC first team will shake out? Mick, why don’t you go first.

Mick McDonald: Sure thing. In terms of how I *think* it’ll shake out, I’d be pretty surprised if it wasn’t Marvin Bagley III, Luke Maye, Jerome Robinson, Tyus Battle and Kyle Guy. Personally, I’m not sure I’d have Battle there and I would definitely have Devon Hall over Guy.

Matt Auerbach: From my perspective, I totally agree with Mick that the top three are locked in, as Bagley, Maye and Robinson’s individual prowess has far exceeded the rest of the conference. I think Battle has a ton of empty calories in his 19 PPG, so I’d opt for Joel Berry II in his stead. As for the conference champion’s representative, I’m with Mick. It may be Guy over Hall, but that is wrong. For me, Hall is the glue that holds the whole thing together on both ends of the floor.

Mick McDonald: Hall gets no love because he only averages about 12 PPG, but he has been insanely good. He ranks second in the ACC in Offensive Rating and fourth in Defensive Rating.  Also, he’s second behind Bagley in Win Shares. It would be insane to put Guy over him because he averages 2-3 more points per game.

Brad Jenkins: I think the fascinating thing to watch will be how the voters handle the Virginia players. They absolutely should get a guy on the first team, and I agree it should be Hall. The only statistic in which Guy is better is scoring, and that’s because he takes five more shots a game.

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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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Close Games in the ACC: Part III

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 12th, 2018

This is Part III of a three-part series. Part I can be found here.  Part II can be found here.

In our final examination of close games in the ACC, we will examine the extreme cases in both directions — the best and worst seasons over the last 11 years with respect to performance in tight games. Then we’ll see if history gives us any indication of what to expect for the four ACC teams with extreme results in one-possession games last year.

Brian Gregory and the 2015 Georgia Tech squad were historically inept in close games. (AP Photo)

  • Most 1-Possession Games – 2012 Virginia Tech (10), 2012 Virginia (9). These intrastate rivals chose the same season to participate in the highest number of games decided on the game’s final possession. Each team won four of their tight contests but the Cavaliers (9-7 ACC record) did much better in the rest of their league outings than the Hokies (4-12). As you might expect, both meetings between these two schools in 2012 came right down to the wire, with each team winning on the other’s home floor.
  • Least 1-Possession Games – 2007 N.C. State (0), 2011 Duke (0). These two squads avoided nail-biters in different ways. Duke (13-3 ACC) won most of its games comfortably in 2011, including 11 of their 16 conference games by double-figures. Meanwhile the Wolfpack (5-11) were often on the short end in lopsided affairs, posting a mark of 3-9 in games decided by 10 points or more. Ironically, in its ACC Tournament opener that year, N.C. State finally experienced a close game – beating Duke in overtime in Sidney Lowe’s first year at the helm.
  • Best Record in 1-Possession Games – 2013 Florida State (6-0). A year after their first and only ACC Championship, the Seminoles (9-9 ACC) would have been in much worse shape if they didn’t dominate their six close games.
  • Worst Record in 1-Possession Games – 2015 Georgia Tech (0-8). Brian Gregory’s squad in 2015 (3-15 ACC) was so snake-bitten that the next highest number of losses during this era was four.

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Christmas Wish List for ACC Head Coaches

Posted by Mick McDonald on December 21st, 2017

What’s on the Christmas wish list for each coach in the ACC this holiday season? Let’s take a look.

Jim Christian May Have Already Gotten His Gift With a Win Over Duke (USA Today Images)

  • Jim Christian (Boston College): A healthy Deontae Hawkins. The Eagles pulled off a surprising upset of Duke thanks to red-hot three-point shooting, but they won’t be able to sustain it without some help on the interior. Hawkins was averaging 12.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game before suffering a season-ending knee injury on November 29 at Nebraska. Sadly, Santa can’t fix knee tendons.
  • Brad Brownell (Clemson): Some luck in close ACC games. The Tigers appear poised to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Brownell’s first season, but they will need to avoid being snake-bitten like last year’s team that lost nine ACC games by six points or fewer.
  • Mike Krzyzewski (Duke): Trevon Duval’s jumper to improve. Teams like Boston College are leaving the freshman point guard open for jumpers in favor of helping on Marvin Bagley III, and Duval is falling into the trap, making just 5-of-33 three-pointers on the season.
  • Leonard Hamilton (Florida State): Somebody makes a free throw. The Seminoles shoot 65.8 percent from the line (295th nationally) and M.J. Walker (13-of-16) is the only regular making over 78 percent this season.

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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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