Matt Patton is the RTC correspondent for the ACC.
A Look Back
A lot has happened the past two weeks, so let’s tackle it in chronological order and we’ll sum things up at the end.
- Duke and North Carolina lived up to the hype. Last year just didn’t feel right with the games being lopsided. Kendall Marshall is probably the best passer from halfcourt I’ve ever seen. He’s not fast, but he pushes the ball up the court just as fast as Ty Lawson or Raymond Felton but he dishes from halfcourt instead of right around the basket. Marshall looked terrific in the first half against Duke, killing the Blue Devils on long rebounds which turned into quick points in transition and in halfcourt sets. Duke finally managed to neutralize him by playing the passing lanes in the second half and forcing him to score first and pass second. The other Carolina player that impressed me is John Henson. I’ve never been huge on Henson: he’s always struck me as a soft player that you should just back down. Why face up against him and allow him to use his length to alter your shot when you can back him down? But the more games I watch, the more shots I see Henson affect. The infusion of Kendall Marshall’s lobs has also made Henson much more dangerous on the offensive end. On Duke’s side of the rivalry, Seth Curry deserves some props for his recent play. Curry has been outstanding lately, becoming a legitimate third option and giving Nolan Smith some valuable time to work off the ball. This Duke team definitely has flaws, but if it plays like it did in the second half against Carolina, there aren’t many teams in the country that could keep pace.
Bubble Trouble: With only Duke and North Carolina representing the ACC in the “lock” category–though I’m inclined to put Florida State in assuming it wins two of its remaining four games (11-5 in the ACC with a win over Duke has to be enough, right?)–there are a lot of teams still working towards at-large bids. Perennial bubbler Virginia Tech leads the way, closely followed by Clemson, Boston College and Maryland. Only the Seminoles and Hokies managed a winning record during the last two weeks. Here’s a recap of those on the Bubble:
- Florida State went 3-0 against arguably the worst teams in the conference.
- Virginia Tech went 2-1, slaughtering Georgia Tech and beating Maryland at home, allowing Virginia to complete the sweep on the season before dispatching Wake Forest.
- Clemson beat Boston College (a huge game, bubble-wise), barely lost in Chapel Hill, inexplicably lost at NC State before beating Miami on the road.
- Boston College lost at Clemson, beat Maryland and barely lost at North Carolina.
- Maryland slaughtered Longwood in a meaningless nonconference game, lost at Boston College, lost at Virginia Tech and barely beat NC State at home.
Add all of that up and you get Florida State sitting at 9-3 in ACC play, Virginia Tech and Clemson suffering horrible losses, Boston College avoiding marquee wins and Maryland continuing to avoid any wins that might be described as decent. Ouch. Not a good week for the ACC bubble. Past Florida State, I think all of these teams need a significant ACC Tournament run (Maryland and Boston College might need to win the whole thing at this point). Conceivably, the ACC could have three teams in the tournament if no one steps up down the stretch. That’s pathetic for a conference that prides itself on basketball greatness (or really any major conference aside from the Pac-10 or SEC).
As for injuries, Chris Singleton hurt his foot in the game against Virginia. You can’t overstate Singleton’s importance for the Seminoles: he’s one of the best on-ball defenders in the country and he’s their primary scoring option. His versatility allows him to shut down the opposing team’s best player at the two, three or four. This gives the selection committee a lot to think about with Florida State. Without Singleton, this is a very different team. At the same time, a favorable schedule will mean it probably closes out the season at 11-5 in conference play. Personally, I think the Seminoles will squeak by barring a collapse of epic proportions, but the injury certainly opens the door for a lot more questions. Kyrie Irving is back in the news after a couple of optimistic tweets about his injury: from Saturday: “Rehab going really well…I’m getting that feeling back!!! Yessir”; from Monday: “I’m definitely op(toe)mistic!!”. Jeff Goodman of FoxSports.com later tweeted: “Getting mixed reports on whether he [Irving] will return. Tough to say yet.” Essentially, no one knows anything (largely because Duke has been so quiet in the matter), but things are sounding much more optimistic.
Player of the Week: Nolan Smith has been tremendous in ACC play. Currently, he’s averaging almost 22 points per game with more than five assists and just under five rebounds. He’s on pace to be the only player ever to lead the ACC in scoring and assists for a season. Against North Carolina, he had 34 (22 in the second half), good for his season high. He also put up 18, 22 and 28 points in wins at Miami, at Virginia and against Georgia Tech. Smith puts up gaudy tempo-free numbers too, posting the fifth-highest offensive rating among players used in more than 28% of their team’s possessions. You might recognize a couple of household names right below him: Jimmer Fredette (8) and Kemba Walker (9). I suspect we won’t see a unanimous national player of the year like last year, but Smith has certainly put himself in that top group (that should probably include Arizona’s Derrick Williams too).
Team of the Week: Duke. I just can’t give the award to a Florida State team that beat Georgia Tech, Virginia (at home) and Wake, so that leaves the Blue Devils. Ever since the St. John’s beating (which doesn’t look nearly as bad now), Duke has played at a much higher level–especially on the defensive end. Duke did get off to a very shaky start against North Carolina, but good teams make adjustments and win games (which Mike Krzyzewski did). My one concern with this team right now is its consistent struggle stopping penetration. That’s going to be crucial during the NCAA Tournament. Mason and Miles Plumlee need to be better at coming to help stop the drive (and I don’t mean by committing stupid reaching fouls). But other than that, Duke is one of the best teams in the country with the top spot in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings to prove it. Side note: the Blue Devils also sport top rankings in both polls, though their current resume lags behind Pittsburgh and Ohio State.
Bizarro Team of the Week: Maryland. Frankly, the Terps are trying to steal the season’s award out from under Wake Forest’s feet. Watching a Maryland game is one of the most frustrating things you can do: there’s clearly a good deal of talent on the roster, but they fold in the second half of every game. It’s unbelievable. Only two of Maryland’s losses have come by double digits (against Virginia Tech and Duke), but the Terps don’t have anything resembling a good win (best two are against Penn State and College of Charleston). Jordan Williams can’t do everything, but I could’ve sworn Gary Williams would have found a way to win close games by now.
1. Duke (25-2, 12-1) is in a real battle for a one-seed with Pittsburgh, Ohio State, Texas, Kansas and the winner of BYU and San Diego State. With only four to go around, two of these teams are going to make very dangerous two seeds. I think Duke is in control of its own destiny in that if the Blue Devils win out, I think they’re a lock for the top line (wins against Temple, Virginia Tech and at North Carolina plus whoever they face in the conference tournament would dramatically improver its resume). I think Duke can probably get away with losing at North Carolina, provided that’s the only slip-up. Any more than that and Duke will need some major help from the other contenders.
2. North Carolina (20-6, 10-2) showed it’s not quite all the way back to contender status after coughing up a huge first half lead at Duke. But I think the Tar Heels have a great shot to get revenge when Duke comes to Chapel Hill if they play with the same tenacity. The UNC that barely beat Clemson and coasted to a home win over Wake can’t show up, though.
3. Florida State (19-7, 9-3) needs to keep winning. I think 2-2 is enough in these last four games, but it definitely couldn’t hurt to steal one either at Maryland or home against North Carolina. Derwin Kitchen is going to be the key player for the Seminoles moving forward without Singleton.
4. Virginia Tech (18-8, 8-5) needs to learn to win games it’s supposed to. The Hokies had no business losing to Virginia to start ACC play, and they had no business losing to them last week. Those are the games that force Seth Greenberg to sit through sweaty and heartbreaking Selection Sundays. A win against Duke could help make up for the bad losses.
5. Clemson (18-9, 7-6) took a feather from Virginia Tech’s cap by losing at NC State last week. Brad Brownell has done a great job in his first year, but the Tigers will be on the wrong side of the bubble with any more losses like that. I think the final game against Virginia Tech will be as big as any game for the Tigers this season. Clemson has a similar problem to other ACC bubble teams: no real marquee wins. No offense to College of Charleston and Florida State, but the Tigers need to find another one before exiting the ACC Tournament.
6. Boston College (16-10, 6-6) is close to cooked between too many bad losses and just not that many good wins (Texas A&M can only carry you so far). This roster looks better on paper than in person right now, although Reggie Jackson is one of the best players in the conference.
7. Maryland (17-10, 6-6) is a team with tons of potential, but very little execution. If Jordan Williams doesn’t declare for the draft, though, look out for the Terps next year.
8. Virginia (13-13, 4-8) would’ve been a much scarier team without Mike Scott’s injury. This team will never be the most fun to watch, but Tony Bennett looks like he’s got the program moving in the right direction. And they did sweep Virginia Tech.
9. NC State (14-12, 4-8) is one of my biggest disappointments of the season. I thought the Wolfpack had the talent to compete for second in the ACC with Florida State, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. I still do. But for whatever reason, Sidney Lowe can’t capitalize. This team shows flashes of brilliance that make you wonder what might have been. I don’t blame Lowe entirely, but someone has to be held accountable for his thus far underachieving tenure.
10. Miami (16-11, 4-8) have had all of its conference games decided by seven points or less, except for two double-digit losses to Duke (by ten and eleven points). Miami’s record looks far worse than it should, which is why I think they could be very dangerous come the ACC tournament and next season. Durand Scott, Malcolm Grant and Reggie Johnson are only getting better.
11. Georgia Tech (11-15, 3-9) has three conference wins including one against North Carolina and one against Virginia Tech? The Yellow Jackets have talent, but right now it doesn’t fit together. The biggest problem is a total inability to win away from home (literally zero road wins this season).
12. Wake Forest (8-20, 1-12) is officially the worst major conference team, according to Ken Pomeroy (number 249 as I write this). The good news is things can only go up from here. The big problem with the Deacs right now is defense. When they hold opponents under a point per possession, they generally win (only one loss comes with a defensive efficiency rating of less than 100, and that’s a 99.1 against Gonzaga). This team is still very young.
A Look Ahead
Wednesday, February 23:
- Temple at Duke (7:00 PM, ESPN2) – Duke gets a shot at another top 25 opponent when the Owls come to Cameron Wednesday night in Coach K’s annual “strong mid-major we could see in the NCAA’s” game. Look out for Lavoy Allen and Ramone Moore, who are both outstanding players in the A-10.
- Florida State at Maryland (9:00 PM, ACC Network) – This game features the country’s fourth and 11th best defenses according to Ken Pomeroy in what is probably Maryland’s last gasp for an at-large (interestingly enough the ACC has defenses ranked 2, 3, 4, 11 and 18 in Duke, North Carolina, Florida State, Maryland and Clemson).
Saturday, February 26:
- Duke at Virginia Tech (9:00 PM, ESPN) – This is a huge chance for the Hokies to pick up a marquee win and close to seal their trip to the Big Dance. Jeff Allen will be key, as he should be able to have his way with Duke’s often soft interior. The best match-up will definitely be Nolan Smith and Malcolm Delaney (who is right behind Smith in scoring and assists).
Sunday, February 27:
- Maryland at North Carolina (7:45 PM, FSN) – In another match-up featuring excellent defense, Maryland takes on North Carolina. The most interesting part of this game will be to watch Jordan Williams take on Tyler Zeller and John Henson. North Carolina’s bigs have looked soft, and Williams is liable to put up a monster night.