ACC Stock Watch: 01.30.15 Edition

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 30th, 2015

This week was an eye-opening one for ACC teams, with several marquee match-ups that shed greater light on the haves and have-nots of the conference race. Now moving into February, the teams with staying power are starting to emerge and those that are disappointing are showing their true colors as well. This is this week’s ACC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish keep beating good teams and are a stellar 8-1 in ACC play at the turn. They withstood a 10-point deficit from Duke on Wednesday night and never lost their composure. This is starting to look like a team that has major potential come NCAA Tournament time.
  • North Carolina. The Tar Heels’ six-game winning streak has put them in the thick of the conference race through four weeks. Marcus Paige seems to have regained some of his missing star power, and some timely shots falling for Justin Jackson and Nate Britt make the team more dangerous from the perimeter. Don’t forget Joel Berry and Theo Pinson are expected to return before year’s end, too.
  • Virginia Tech. Hokies’ fans had been waiting to see some early returns on Buzz Williams’ hiring, and this may have been the week they got a glimpse of what he’s building. Virginia Tech nearly knocked off undefeated Virginia last weekend before bowing out by just three points, then procured an overtime win over Pittsburgh on Wednesday for Williams’ first ACC win. Progress, people.
Adam Smith's game-winning three in OT gave Virginia Tech its first ACC win under Buzz Williams (USATodaySports)

Adam Smith’s (far left) game-winning three in OT gave Virginia Tech its first ACC win under Buzz Williams and reason for hope in the future (USATodaySports)

  • Nate Britt, North Carolina. After learning of the emotional state Britt was in prior to North Carolina’s ESPN Big Monday match-up with Syracuse, his performance became that much more admirable. Britt set a career high with 17 points, but perhaps more importantly for Roy Williams’ team was his 4-of-5 shooting from three. Could he finally be the long-range complement to Paige the Tar Heels desperately need?
  • Jerian Grant, Notre Dame. No need to talk too much about how outstanding Grant’s season has been as the national media has that pretty well covered, but anyone who watched his performance live against Duke had to be amazed. He was the best player on the court in that game (yes, including Jahlil Okafor) en route to a stat line of 23 points, six rebounds, 12 assists, three steals and two blocks. Yes, he’s for real.
  • Louisville’s Backcourt. The much-maligned Cardinals’ offense has shown signs of life, largely because of the clearly improved shooting of their guards. Terry Rozier and Chris Jones had an especially dominant week in wins over Pittsburgh and Boston College on the road; combined, they scored 94 points in the two contests on 65 percent shooting from the field and 67 percent from three.

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Inside the ACC Numbers: Volume II

Posted by Brad Jenkins on January 30th, 2015

This is the second edition of a weekly look at the current ACC standings and corresponding team performances, focusing on the teams that are playing better or worse than their records might indicate. We will also delve into some advanced metrics to find a few interesting team or player stats and trends. Finally, we will forecast how the final standings may look, and what that means for ACC schools’ postseason aspirations.

Note: All numbers are current for games played through Wednesday, January 28.

Current Standings

Jan29ACCPPP

Newsflash #1 – Virginia is pretty good at playing defense. I know you didn’t hear that here first, but I bet you didn’t know that the Cavaliers are so much better than the rest of the league. To date, the gap between Virginia and the second-best ACC defense,  Syracuse, is 0.14 PPP, a figure that is wider than the difference (0.13 PPP) between the Orange and the worst defense in the league (Pittsburgh). This is the fourth consecutive season that Tony Bennett’s squad has a defense rated among the nation’s top 25; over that period of 64 games, Virginia has only allowed 19 ACC opponents to score more than a point per possession. Interestingly, the only team that Virginia has failed to hold below that mark is its next opponent. But even though Duke has managed to be somewhat effective against the Cavaliers’ pack-line defense, the Blue Devils have only won two of those four meetings. Given the recent dismissal of Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke may face an uphill battle in converting possessions against a rested Virginia team.

It has been a tough last week-plus for the league’s middle-of-the-pack teams. The biggest slide came from N.C. State, which has now dropped three games in a row including two straight at home. As we mentioned last week, Syracuse and Pittsburgh were not playing as well as their records indicated, especially considering the relative weakness of each team’s conference schedule. Predictably, those former Big East rivals both lost two games in the past week. North Carolina is the next team on the list that may be in for a slight correction. The Tar Heels gaudy PPP margin has been built against the second-weakest conference schedule so far. Up next is a tough three-day stretch for Roy Williams as his squad travels to Louisville Saturday and then hosts Virginia on Big Monday.

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Rasheed Sulaimon’s Dismissal is Shocking For Several Reasons

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 30th, 2015

Yesterday’s news that Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski had dismissed junior Rasheed Sulaimon from the team came as a shock on a multitude of levels. First, Krzyzewski had never dismissed a player from the program during his entire tenure in Durham. Second, the Blue Devils had just played the night before, a hard-fought loss to an excellent Notre Dame team in which Sulaimon played 12 minutes off the bench, with a trip to undefeated Virginia on the docket Saturday. Third, it capped a remarkable fall from grace for the once-promising Sulaimon that no one outside of the program saw coming.

Sulaimon's (left) ouster qualified as shocking news and further depleted a now-thin Blue Devils roster (USAToday)

Sulaimon’s (left) ouster qualified as shocking news and further depleted a now-thin Blue Devils roster (USAToday)

Reports have surfaced suggesting that the decision to dismiss Sulaimon was a culmination of a multitude of events and that last season’s benching when the Blue Devils battled Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge should serve as a starting point. Sulaimon was benched for simply not doing what was asked of him in that instance, but body language has always been an issue for the Houston native as well. He often pouted on the court when whistled for fouls and has at times been seen restraining himself from celebrating his teammates on the bench. Still, because Sulaimon had never been otherwise suspended or even publicly chastised by Krzyzewski, it’s reasonable to wonder what happened in the aftermath of Wednesday’s loss in South Bend to make life without Sulaimon a necessity.

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ACC M5: 01.30.15 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on January 30th, 2015

morning5_ACC

  1. Raleigh News & Observer and Durham Herald-Sun: Duke very abruptly dismissed Rasheed Sulaimon from the team yesterday. There aren’t any details beyond that other than to say that it wasn’t related to academic or legal problems. But it appears to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. That’s underselling how huge this dismissal is because Duke isn’t deep and does not appear to be struggling with chemistry issues (at least not during games). Sulaimon was doing well as a defensive specialist who also ran the team when the other two point guards weren’t performing well. My guess is that Coach K gave Sulaimon an ultimatum at some point last season (probably after his one-game hiatus that wasn’t officially a suspension) and Sulaimon finally struck out. It’s amazing to think that Sulaimon is the first player Krzyzewski has ever dismissed from his team.
  2. Washington Post: This article does a fair job of explaining why John Feinstein is the last man ranking Virginia ahead of Kentucky in the AP poll. Weirdly enough, I think both of those teams are much more similar than people let on. The main difference is that Kentucky doesn’t have to worry about teams outside of the top 50 by virtue of its depth and length, while a hot-shooting Virginia Tech team gave the Cavaliers quite a scare. Furthermore, Kentucky has the unique ability to crush a good opponent into oblivion. I expect both teams to lose to a good (at least average-height) team that gets hot from long range because they can be outscored. That said, I think Feinstein enjoys being a voting outlier and that’s why he’s still voting for Virginia even after its close call in Blacksburg.
  3. College Basketball Talk: Jerian Grant is really, really good. He allows Notre Dame to run offense instead of plays because he’s a tremendous playmaker and competitor. Rob Dauster does a good job in showing how important he is to the Notre Dame attack. Grant is terrific, and he’s probably got the inside track on ACC Player of the Year unless the Irish take a February nosedive. I admit I need to watch more of Mike Brey’s team (which should be a pleasure), because based on the statistics, the Duke victory was somewhat anomalous in terms of his usage, a little low for a Player of the Year contender.
  4. Louisville Courier-Journal: Don’t look now, but Louisville‘s defense in ACC play has actually been worse than its offense. That’s bonkers. A lot of the credit goes to the rise of guard Terry Rozier, who has been tremendous in conference bouts. He’s not turning it over nearly as much as he was and he’s scoring at a really impressive clip. Chris Jones has also risen to the occasion, turning into a legitimate offensive weapon rather than a liability.
  5. Raleigh & Co.: Here’s a satirical case to get rid of NC State head coach Mark Gottfried. While I agree that the Wolfpack should hold onto him, this team has dug a hole for itself with its three-game losing streak (Clemson at home???). What remains to be seen is whether Gottfried can sustain a consistent, high level program or whether his teams are always talented but never meet expectations (often in a good way). If he gets this year’s group to the NCAA Tournament, I’ll be pretty solidly on the side of Gottfried sustaining a high level over time.
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ACC M5: 01.29.15 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on January 29th, 2015

morning5_ACC

  1. BballBreakdown.com: Josh Riddell does a great job reviewing the strengths and flaws of Duke‘s defense. Long story short (but read the article, it has lots of great GIFs to go with the analysis): Duke has the players to be a good defensive team but they’re still figuring things out. This team misses rotations (like the one that left Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia wide open for the dagger three last night) and doesn’t mask its weaknesses very well, but the Blue Devils need to find their mojo. A lot of things went into Wednesday’s loss in South Bend: Jerian Grant playing unconscious; missed layups and free throws; bricking three straight long jumpers after taking a 10-point lead. Duke’s defense is OK when it gets set, but where its youth shows the most is how different it looks after a missed shot versus a made one.
  2. Raleigh News & Observer: Speaking of developing, NC State’s young players are starting to show some of their promise. Joe Giglio focuses on Abdul-Malik Abu here in this article, but other young players are starting to come out of their shells too (such as the Martin twins). Unfortunately, NC State’s recent heartbreak loss to Notre Dame messed with the Wolfpack’s psyche as the team looked abysmal in a subsequent home loss last night against Clemson. Now Mark Gottfried needs to do something to turn things around, as the team’s best win is weakening (Duke) and its losses are piling up.
  3. Winston-Salem Journal: I like Danny Manning a lot. This isn’t exactly a hot take, but I think he’s going to get Wake Forest relevant again very quickly (assuming he’s not poached). Manning is up front with who he is and he believes in his system. After last night’s close defeat to Florida State, three of the Demon Deacons’ last four games have come down to the wire (a double-overtime loss, a single-overtime loss, and a loss by two points). Manning clearly needs some better players on his roster, but he has a reputation as a very serious recruiter, so I don’t expect that upgrade to take long.
  4. Pitt News: This is awesome. We’ve long heard about the manager games before big rivalries like Duke-North Carolina, but with more teams getting to game locations a day early manager games are starting to proliferate. The Pittsburgh managers think it has something to do with the ACC, which might be true, but a lot of current ACC teams are from the Big East. The games sound tremendous. There’s no shot clock and no officiating (no reviews!).
  5. College Basketball Talk: We know who is going to take part in this year’s McDonald’s All-American game, but we don’t know who a lot of these prep stars will play for yet. This year only Duke and LSU (what?) have two players in the game, although expect that to change as we get closer to the summer. Unless something changes in the near-future (I’m certain it will), North Carolina will be without a Burger Boy for the first time in the game’s long and illustrious history.
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Rushed Reactions: #8 Notre Dame 77, #4 Duke 73

Posted by Walker Carey on January 29th, 2015

Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Wednesday night’s game between Duke and Notre Dame in South Bend.

Irish Eyes Were Smiling Wednesday Night (USA Today Images)

Irish Eyes Were Smiling Wednesday Night (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Jerian Grant proved that he is one of the best players in the country. The senior guard turned in an amazing performance on Wednesday night, finishing the game with game-highs in both points (23) and assists (12). His dozen assists also set a new career-high. None of those assists were more important than the one he threw to sophomore guard Steve Vasturia for an open three to put the Irish up by four with 22 seconds to play. Points and assists were not the only categories where Grant excelled, though, as he showcased his durability by playing all 40 minutes and picking up six rebounds, three steals, and two blocks. Notre Dame is now 20-2 on the season and 8-1 in ACC play, and the biggest reason for the team’s incredible start to the 2014-15 campaign has been the All-America play of the team’s senior leader. The Irish now expect to be an ACC contender for the rest of the season, and if Grant can continue his play at such a high level, that expectation will become a reality.
  2. This was an incredible college basketball game. There has been talk this season about how college basketball has been a bit unwatchable, but that was absolutely not the case on Wednesday night as Notre Dame and Duke completed one of the most entertaining games of the regular season. Swings in momentum came fast and furious. For example: Notre Dame led by seven at the 9:01 mark of the first half before Duke went on a big run to take a three-point lead into the half; Duke then led by 10 at the 10:58 mark of the second half before being outscored 22-8 the rest of the way. Another reason why Wednesday’s battle in South Bend was so entertaining was that two of the best players in college basketball turned in star performances. Jerian Grant’s stat-stuffing game was mentioned above and Duke freshman big man Jahlil Okafor also turned in a performance that has practically become the norm for him during his first year in Durham. The freshman finished the game with 22 points on 10-of-18 shooting to go along with a game-high 17 rebounds. Sure, there are some nights where college basketball doesn’t put its best foot forward, but Wednesday night at Notre Dame, those nights seemed very distant. Read the rest of this entry »
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RTC Weekly Primer: Duke’s Hell Week

Posted by Henry Bushnell on January 27th, 2015

The hurdles just keep on coming. That’s what Mike Krzyzewski and Duke must be thinking right now. After a glorious Sunday and heartfelt celebrations, including a hero’s welcome back home in Durham, the Blue Devils have no time to bask in the glory of Coach K’s 1,000th win. Instead, they must hop aboard another plane, this time to the Midwest, and begin a murderous week. The ACC isn’t quite as relentless and unforgiving as the Big 12. But when it can deal a team a Wednesday-Saturday weekly slate that includes two games on the road at top-10 teams, it’s pretty darn strong. This past weekend on College Gameday, Jay Bilas even tried to argue that the ACC is the best conference in America. I’m not going to go that far (his logic was arbitrary and therefore a bit flawed), but it’s certainly up there. At the very least, the ACC will provide more marquee matchups than any other league. For evidence, look no further than this week.

After Sunday's Celebration, No Rest This Week for the Blue Devils (USA Today Images)

After Sunday’s Celebration, No Rest This Week for the Blue Devils (USA Today Images)

Three for the Money

  • Duke at Notre Dame | Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. EST, ESPN2. It’s an ACC trifecta this week because, as mentioned above, Duke’s mettle is going to be put to the test. And what’s more, that test, which begins Wednesday in South Bend, should be a whole lot of fun. Both Duke and Notre Dame are top-five offensive clubs nationally, and especially recently, neither is particularly stout defensively. The floor will be beautifully spread, three-pointers will be flying, and the Joyce Center should be rocking. If Notre Dame can match Duke blow for blow, and especially if it can win, it’ll be time to accept the Fighting Irish as a legitimate top-10 team.

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ACC Weekend Review: 01.27.15 Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 27th, 2015

This was easily the most entertaining weekend of ACC hoops so far this season. Of course, the league’s most important result was probably Duke’s win over St. John’s in New York’s Madison Garden, giving Mike Krzyzewski his 1,000th career win. The Blue Devils’ win also gave the ACC an important midseason non-conference victory on the road against a decent Big East team. Comebacks and exciting finishes were the norm as six of the seven league games were decided by four points or fewer. Conference leader Virginia needed to stage a late comeback to win at pesky rival Virginia Tech, while Notre Dame rallied from a huge early deficit to force overtime and eventually outlast N.C. State in Raleigh. In other close games, Miami won at Syracuse, Boston College edged Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Clemson beat Wake Forest on a putback at the buzzer, and North Carolina held off a furious Florida State rally on Saturday before itself rallying against Syracuse on Big Monday. In the only game that wasn’t in doubt in the final minutes, Louisville picked up a road win against struggling Pittsburgh. Here are some other highlights from over the weekend in the ACC.

Florida State's Xavier Rathan-Mayes explode for 35 points in Chapel Hill on Saturday. (Photo: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes exploded for 35 points in Chapel Hill on Saturday.
(Photo: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

  • Most Outstanding Player: Redshirt freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes single-handedly kept Florida State competitive in its 78-74 loss at North Carolina on Saturday, as his 35 points tied the second-highest total ever scored by a UNC opponent in the 29-year history of the Smith Center. The Seminole guard connected on 14-of-26 field goals, including five three-pointers, three of which came in the game’s last 35 seconds to make the Tar Heels sweat down the stretch. Rathan-Mayes was more than just a scorer, though, as he grabbed five rebounds, handed out four assists, and had two steals in the contest. He has a great chance to become Leonard Hamilton’s next special player in Tallahassee.
  • Best Win: While Duke’s win over St. John’s was important for the obvious historical reasons, we will instead honor the top performance in a conference game here — Notre Dame’s overtime win in Raleigh on Sunday night. It’s not just that the Irish won a hard-fought victory in a tough venue, but it’s the way that the Irish did so that makes this win the best of the weekend. With under four minutes remaining in the first half, N.C. State was ahead by 18 points and cruising. But Notre Dame closed the half with a mini-run that cut the lead to 12, giving the Irish some momentum to carry into the second half. After finally catching the Wolfpack with 13 minutes left, the Irish fell behind again before rallying to force overtime and win the game. Star guard Jerian Grant led the way with 25 points as the Irish won their seventh ACC game in eight tries. Notre Dame hosts Duke Wednesday in a huge game for both teams in the conference standings.

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RTC Rewind: No. 1,000, Kansas Bill Selfing, Crazy Endings at WVU, Maryland…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on January 26th, 2015

One thousand wins. One, zero, zero, zero. It was a busy weekend in college basketball, but everything else was overshadowed by that number. We’ll start by stating the obvious. In a career full of them, what a truly remarkable accomplishment for Mike Krzyzewski. It’s one thing to coach for a long time and break records and reach milestones based on longevity, but what makes Coach K so special is that he’s combined all those years with such consistent winning. His teams are perennial contenders. He’s established a tradition of greatness, and built a distinct culture over 30 years in Durham that has not eroded in the least.

Coach 1K Was the Story of the Weekend (USA Today Images)

Coach 1K Was the Story of the Weekend (USA Today Images)

One of the things that made win No. 1,000 so awesome was the way in which Krzyzewski and Duke achieved it. Their Sunday afternoon performance in the World’s Most Famous Arena was evocative of the culture and recipe for sustained success that he has crafted. Trailing by as many as 10 points in the second half, the Blue Devils fought back with a 26-7 run to end the game. The players, of course, knew what was on the line, taking it upon themselves to come through for their coach — playing with incredible passion, emotion and commitment. They slapped the floor. They punched the air. They were determined and focused. Afterward, when his team hugged Krzyzewski and his wife and donned shirts and hats to commemorate the milestone, their love for their leader was crystal clear. And in the end, that is exactly why Coach K has been able to achieve what he has achieved. And has he ever achieved a lot! Afterward, Krzyzewski was insistent that the focus remain on the present as opposed to the past. As big of a win it was for him personally, it was also a huge one for Duke. St. John’s — seeing the resume-enhancing possibility with Duke in its building — came to play on Sunday, and made things very difficult for the Blue Devils for most of the game. But in crunch time, Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook and Jahlil Okafor all found another gear, and it pushed Duke to a dominant finish that the Johnnies just couldn’t match.

And That Sets Up…

An ACC showdown on Wednesday in South Bend, because Notre Dame pulled out a massive comeback win of its own at NC State on Sunday. The Wolfpack jumped out to an 18-point first half lead, but the Fighting Irish’s consistent scoring allowed them to claw back into the game so that Jerian Grant and his supporting cast could showcase their ‘clutch genes’ down the stretch. Notre Dame is now 19-2 and will welcome Duke to the Joyce Center on Wednesday. What a game that will be.

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RTC Top 25: Week Ten

Posted by Walker Carey on January 26th, 2015

The last week of the college basketball season was highlighted by two previously Top 10 teams falling victim to a conference foe on the road. First, Maryland was knocked off Thursday night in Bloomington by a hot-shooting Indiana squad. Then on Saturday, Iowa State – fresh off of home victories over Kansas and Kansas State – went down to Lubbock and suffered a surprising defeat to Big 12 cellar-dweller Texas Tech. While the Terps and Cyclones were unable to avoid the road upset bug, #2 Virginia and #9 Notre Dame overcome road deficits Sunday to earn key victories. The Cavaliers trailed for most of the game at Virginia Tech before finally grabbing the victory. The Fighting Irish trailed by as many as 18 points at North Carolina State before storming back and securing an overtime victory. With the calendar flipping to February next Sunday, expect conference play to continue to deliver the good as we get closer and closer to March.

This week’s Quick N’ Dirty after the jump…

RTC25 01.26.15

Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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ACC M5: 01.26.15 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on January 26th, 2015

morning5_ACC

  1. Sporting News: Even before Duke manufactured an impressive comeback for Mike Krzyzewski‘s 1,000th win on Sunday, Mike DeCourcy made the case that Coach K is the best coach ever in college basketball. Specifically, DeCourcy makes the case for the ACC legend over John Wooden and his 10 national titles. The problem is (and this is part of his argument) that the game is simply incomparable now to that of UCLA’s heyday. Truthfully, it’s totally different than it was even 15 years ago. And that’s the best argument in favor of Coach K (if you’re one to compare apples and oranges), as he’s succeeded over a huge range of time. He’s easily the most accomplished coach of the modern era, but I’m not ready to sharpie him in over the likes of Bob Knight, Dean Smith or John Wooden in the history books. Each ruled an era and changed the game in their own images. That’s good enough for me.
  2. Syracuse Post-Standard: Jim Boeheim got a little salty (and rightfully so) that big man Rakeem Christmas was left off the Wooden Award watch list, calling him “probably the best center in the country.” That’s a pretty bold statement with Duke’s Jahlil Okafor playing in the same conference, but it’s true Christmas hasn’t been getting the national credit he deserves for putting up nearly identical numbers to Okafor (marginally fewer points and a little lower percentages, but better defense). Christmas is averaging 18/9 on 60 percent shooting this season, nearly doubling his usage without seeing much of a hit in his efficiency (although his block percentage is down). Here’s to hoping ACC voters give Christmas his due come all-ACC voting season.
  3. Soaring to Glory: So this article is both weirdly pessimistic and optimistic. About Boston College’s current players, it’s very pessimistic. That’s fair considering last season’s dumpster fire, but there’s more talent on this year’s team than say… Virginia Tech. But the roster is pretty thin thanks to Steve Donahue signing no one of consequence and a couple of transfers out of the program. But it’s at least tentatively optimistic on the prospects of first-year head coach, Jim Christian. This year’s group is playing with more heart than last year’s squad, but it’s hard to say how much of that comes from the top and how much comes from the change in player personnel. I think the Eagles are likely better off in the long run with Christian, but until we see what sorts of players he’ll bring to Chestnut Hill, it’s tough to get overly optimistic. In addition to offensive Xs and Os, Donahue excelled at finding “diamonds in the rough” (like Olivier Hanlan); he just couldn’t fill out an ACC-quality roster. Christian isn’t the type of guy who will be in the running for many four-star players, so he’s got to have good evaluation skills to succeed there.
  4. Tallahassee Democrat: Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes is starting to live up to his high school scouting report and fill up the scoring column. He’s still not a good shooter from long range, but he’s averaging 18.5 points a game in ACC play and was lethal against North Carolina over the weekend. Rathan-Mayes is apparently very open to coaching, which is good because he’s also prone to heat checks. You get the feeling that he’s got a chance to be a very special player in Tallahassee if he keeps on this trajectory.
  5. Fayetteville Observer: North Carolina is starting to pile up injuries on the wings that could make running challenging. Theo Pinson broke a bone in his foot, so he’s now sidelined along with Joel Berry and Stilman White. The good news for Tar Heels faithful is that the injury bug has mostly avoided the starters (although Marcus Paige is a little banged up). The bad news is that Berry and Pinson need the playing time to improve (and to give Roy Williams the rotation he likes).
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The Only Thing Standing in the Way of Arizona’s Pac-12 Coronation is Arizona

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 24th, 2015

For the first half of Thursday night’s battle for first place in the Pac-12 against Stanford, Arizona looked like the team that could only muster 56 points in a losing effort against Oregon State. But in the second half, the Wildcats showed why there is no other team in the conference that can hang with them when they are at full strength and minimizing their mistakes. The Wildcats actually jumped out to an early lead as the Cardinal’s thin frontcourt had absolutely no answer for Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson inside. But Ashley also picked up three cheap fouls in the first 12 minutes of the game and teammate Stanley Johnson picked up two of his own, and when they left the court, things started to fall apart. Without their two biggest offensive mismatches on the floor, Arizona struggled to take advantage of its distinct size advantage and instead settled for contested jumpers. On the other end of the floor, the Wildcats’ stout defense made things difficult for Stanford, at least when they weren’t fouling Cardinal players. Stanford made 13 free throws in the first half and star guard Chasson Randle scored six of his 14 first half points from the charity stripe. As a result, a first half that any casual observer would think Arizona should have won ended with Stanford up two points.

Arizona Has the Look of a Team Figuring It Out (USA Today Images)

Arizona Has the Look of a Team Figuring It Out (USA Today Images)

Of course slow starts and early mistakes have become something of Arizona‘s modus operandi this season, and nobody expected the Wildcats to go away. Ashley and Johnson returned to the floor in the second half and immediately made an impact, combining for 10 points in the first six minutes as Arizona slowly but surely took the lead for good. Even more importantly, the Arizona defense decided to start moving its feet and quit picking up cheap fouls, and all of a sudden, their suffocating defense returned in earnest. Once Randle made a difficult layup to bring Stanford within three points with just under 10 minutes to play, the Wildcats’ put the clamps down and the Cardinal didn’t make another field goal for more than eight minutes. By that point, the game was well in hand and Arizona was on its way as the odds-on favorite to run away with the conference regular season title.

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