Rushed Reactions: Duke 73, Florida State 63

Posted by Brad Jenkins on March 16th, 2019

RTC’s Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) is providing on-site coverage of the ACC Tournament all week long.

Three Key Takeaways.

Duke’s RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson celebrate after winning the program’s 15th ACC Championship of the Mike Krzyzewski era. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
  1. Duke’s defense was the difference. With all the attention generated by Zion Williamson’s spectacular scoring plays, it is easy to forget what he means to Duke on the other end of the floor. With his return to the lineup this week in Charlotte, the Blue Devils seem to have regained their defensive mojo. In tonight’s title game, Florida State led for most of the first half and was tied with Duke at the break. But after intermission, the Blue Devils tightened up their defense, holding the Seminoles to 25.0 percent shooting from the floor. And this was a Florida State team that had just shot 56 percent against the mighty Virginia defense in Friday’s semifinals. The Duke running game got going as a result of getting those stops, leading to transition dunks for Williamson and RJ Barrett that gave the Blue Devils a working margin that they would never relinquish.
  2. Florida State is going to be a tough out in the Big Dance. The Seminoles may have surprised the college basketball world by beating top-seeded Virginia in this ACC Tournament, but it’s not like they came out of nowhere this season. Leonard Hamilton’s club closed regular season play by winning 12 of their last 13 games and have already set a school record with 27 wins. They’re athletic, experienced and deep. Their best player is probably Mfiondu Kabengele, who may be the best sixth man in the nation. Kabengele kept the Seminoles within striking distance tonight. finishing with 14 points and making 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. Additionally, Florida State’s size and length will make the Seminoles one of the most unique defensive teams in the NCAA Tournament — one that nobody should look forward to facing in the coming weeks.
  3. Duke may have locked up the overall #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. There’s little doubt that Duke will be on the top line when the brackets are presented Sunday evening, but conference tournament losses by Virginia and Gonzaga have opened up the overall top spot for the Blue Devils. The Selection Committee is expected to judge Duke with Zion Williamson in the lineup, and that Duke team went 23-2 with a 4-1 record against the other six programs in contention for the #1 seed line. Mike Krzyzewski’s squad is not without flaws — once again tonight they triumphed despite a cold shooting night from distance (2-14 3FG) — but they can overwhelm opponents in several other ways. Against the tall and imposing frontline of Florida State, the Blue Devils managed to post a decisive 42-18 edge in points in the paint, and had a solid advantage (+7) in fast break points. Point guard Tre Jones’ assertiveness (18 points) also gave the Blue Devils a boost tonight, and was reminiscent of the play of his older brother Tyus in leading Duke to the national title in 2015.

Player of the Game. Zion Williamson, Duke. The college game’s brightest star completed a successful return from injury by scoring 81 points in three days and winning the ACC Tournament MVP award. Tonight he scored a game-high 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the floor, grabbed five boards, and helped Duke’s defense hold Florida State to 31.7 percent shooting.

Quotable.

  • “He’s a world class athlete. He changes things.” – Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton on going against Zion Williamson.
  • “To start 1-and-4 in the league and end up in fourth place… it’s outstanding.” – Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski praising the coaching job of Leonard Hamilton this season.
  • “When he’s able to score, it definitely opens it up for the rest of it.” – Duke’s RJ Barrett on the aggressive play tonight from Tre Jones.

Sights and Sounds. It was not nearly the same atmosphere in the Spectrum Center tonight as it was for the Duke-North Carolina semifinal clash, but it was a pretty full house tonight even if the energy level was merely good, not great.

What’s Next. Duke and Florida State have each improved their NCAA Tournament resumes this week in Charlotte and they will hear their paths to Minneapolis revealed on Sunday night.

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ACC Stock Report: Volume VII

Posted by Matt Auerbach on February 28th, 2019

Sitting alone atop the conference at 11-1 and with a sweep in hand over defending champion Virginia, the smart money a little over a week ago was on Duke to cruise to its first ACC regular season title since 2010. An explosive sneaker appears to be the only thing that can slow down the freight train known as Zion Williamson, and his freak injury has led the Blue Devils to drop two of its last three games, leaving the door open for the Cavaliers and North Carolina. At 13-2 in the standings, they both now sit a game clear of Duke with only three left to play.

Stock Rising: Kerry Blackshear, Jr.

Kerry Blackshear Has Been a Stalwart for Virginia Tech This Season (USA Today Images)

Virginia Tech was looking like a fashionable dark horse Final Four contender after winning 17 of its first 20 games this season. However, when senior point guard Justin Robinson went down with an injury that has kept him sidelined all February, those high hopes turned into a matter of survival. The play of Kerry Blackshear, Jr., however, has the Hokies back on the attack.

After losing two of their first three with Robinson out, Buzz Williams’ squad has now won four of five, including Monday’s upset victory over Duke. In that game, Blackshear led the Hokies in scoring for the fourth consecutive time, finishing with 23 points and 10 rebounds. The junior has averaged 22.6 points per game and 10.0 boards per contest over this key stretch. Holding on to fourth place in the ACC standings and maintaining its relative KenPom placement (11th at the time of Robinson’s injury and now) has been no small feat without its floor general and best overall player around — the inspired play of Blackshear is the reason why.

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ACC Stock Report: Volume VI

Posted by Matt Auerbach on February 19th, 2019

With Virginia’s win over Virginia Tech on Monday night, North Carolina is now in position to create a three-way tie at first place in the ACC standings with an upset victory at Duke on Wednesday. 

Stock Rising

Florida State is Riding High Again (USA Today Images)

Florida State: Just one short month ago, the Seminoles blew a 10-point halftime lead at Boston College to extend their losing streak to three games. That defeat dropped Florida State to 1-4 in ACC play and out of the national polls. With a promising season circling the drain, Leonard Hamilton’s veteran squad has responded by winning every game since. In ripping off those seven consecutive wins, Florida State has vaulted itself back into the second tier of the league behind Virginia, North Carolina and Duke. Only a dramatic comeback overtime victory over Louisville and a nine-point handling of Clemson were close games. In typical fashion, the Seminoles are winning with balance, depth, length and defensive acumen. Five different players have led the team in scoring over the past seven games, and only the Cardinals reached 70 points against their top-20 defense.

Sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele has been a revelation, leading the Seminoles in scoring despite not starting a single game. Senior Terrance Mann is the only other player averaging in double figures, but Florida State’s lack of an explosive scorer is made up in the balance of having eight guys notching 6.5 points per game or better. The Seminoles face a stiff test in keeping its current winning streak alive, as a trip to a desperate Clemson team looms tonight followed by a visit to Chapel Hill. But, with a split, and with all of its final four games coming in Tallahassee and at Wake Forest, Hamilton’s squad could find itself right where most envisioned prior to its slow start — as the #4 seed heading into the ACC Tournament.

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ACC Weekend Preview: February 9

Posted by Mick McDonald on February 8th, 2019

It’s a busy weekend around the ACC, including the #1 vs. #2 rematch we’ve all been waiting for in Charlottesville. Rush the Court ACC writer Mick McDonald (@themickmcdonald) gets you prepped. (All rankings via KenPom)

Saturday, February 9

Clemson Needs a Win and Virginia Tech Visits on Saturday (USA Today Images)

#9 Virginia Tech (18-4, 7-3) at #35 Clemson (14-8, 4-5). This feels like the kind of game Clemson needs to win if it realistically hopes to make the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers’ current resume has no meat on the bone, so an opportunity to beat a top 10 KenPom team is one they can’t squander. They’ll need to take advantage of a Virginia Tech club without much interior size, which means feeding Elijah Thomas (29.6 PER, 65.9% eFG) like they did in their win over Wake Forest last Sunday (23 points on 10-of-11 FG). What cannot happen is that Thomas instead gets into foul trouble, like he did on Wednesday night at Georgia Tech (seven points in 17 minutes). Given the Hokies’ firepower from the outside, it’s difficult to envision a Clemson victory without another monster performance from its big man.

#42 NC State (16-7, 4-6) at #75 Pittsburgh (12-11, 2-8). My, how things can change in just a week. Only 10 days ago, NC State was *this close* to taking down Virginia. After losing in overtime, however, the Wolfpack followed up with embarrassing displays on both offense (24 points in a home loss to Virginia Tech) and defense (allowing 113 to North Carolina in Chapel Hill). So what we have is something that feels like an important game for Kevin Keatts, one in which he really needs a breakout performance from Torin Dorn. The senior shot just 35.3 percent from the field and made only one three-pointer in the last two games, but the bigger issue is that Dorn hasn’t played well since conference play began. In league games only, Dorn (14.3 PER, 41.9% eFG) has been much worse than his overall numbers (20.8 PER, 50.7 eFG%) — if the Wolfpack expect to turn things around, it starts with their small-ball four recovering his groove.

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ACC Stock Report: Volume V

Posted by Matt Auerbach on February 7th, 2019

Saturday’s rematch between Virginia and Duke looked for a while like it would be the deciding factor in this year’s ACC regular season race. Maybe it will turn out to be just that, but let’s not rush so fast on calling it the game for the crown.

Stock Rising

North Carolina is Quietly Waiting on Duke and Virginia to Falter (USA Today Images)

North Carolina’s Backboard Dominance: Don’t look now, but Roy Williams’ bunch has officially made the ACC regular season championship a three-horse race. Since its curious blowout loss to Louisville three weeks ago, North Carolina has ripped off six consecutive wins, including a return-the-favor beatdown of the Cardinals on Saturday. Despite some hiccups, North Carolina has never dropped out of KenPom‘s top 10, and currently rates seventh nationally on the strength of both a top-20 offense and defense. During their recent run, it has been notable how the Tar Heels have gotten back to dominating the backboard, a staple for Williams’ squads in Chapel Hill. Since being outrebounded in the January 12 loss to Louisville, the Heels have averaged more than 10 rebounds per game than its opposition, highlighted by a +17 advantage on Saturday. Now 19th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and 15th in keeping jits opponents off of the offensive boards, North Carolina has gotten back its identity as an elite rebounding unit. If the Heels hold serve against Miami at home on Saturday, Monday’s home tilt with Virginia could set up as a battle for the top slot in the conference standings — assuming the Cavaliers can protect their home court against Duke — which will be no easy task thanks to…

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ACC Stock Report: Volume II

Posted by Matt Auerbach on January 16th, 2019

With #1 Duke’s home loss to Syracuse Monday night — and more significantly the injury and extended absence of Tre Jones — some of the luster of this weekend’s highly-anticipated match-up with conference-leading Virginia has eroded. Or perhaps Tony Bennett’s squad just appears like it will inevitably run roughshod through the ACC for the second consecutive campaign.

Stock Rising:

Jeff Capel is Making a Mark in Pittsburgh Already (USA Today Images)

Jeff Capel: While he wasn’t Pittsburgh’s first choice, Capel has left little doubt that he was the right choice to clean up the mess of the two-year failed marriage with Kevin Stallings. Capel entered the program last spring having to do yeoman’s work just to construct a playable roster. But now, after Monday night’s victory over Florida State, the feisty Panthers have already vanquished two NCAA Tournament likelies (Louisville), and in doing so, have brought back some of the energy that used to be synonymous with the Peterson Events Center.

Behind the precocious freshman trio of Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney, Capel’s crew has already exceeded last season’s win total by four, and in so doings has risen from 138th in KenPom to start the season to a current standing of 68th. Pitt’s upcoming schedule is arduous, however, as three of the Panthers’ next four games are away from home (and the home game vs. Duke), but it is undeniable that a basketball trajectory is veering upward again in the Steel City.

Stock Zig Zagging:

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Finals Week Analysis: Addressing Duke’s Preseason Questions

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

Heading into the 2018-19 season, we knew that Duke’s talent would be at a very high level, but there were a handful of legitimate questions surrounding Mike Krzyzewski’s youthful club. With 10 games now in the books and students in the midst of finals, it seems like a good time to assess how the Blue Devils are addressing those preseason concerns. Duke’s 9-1 record has been achieved with superstar freshmen Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett grabbing most of the headlines, but two of their classmates may hold the key to a truly spectacular season.

Trey Jones has been the catalyst behind Duke’s improved man-to-man defense. (Lance King/Getty Images)

Question #1: Would the Blue Devils be able to play effective man-to-man defense?

In the preseason, Krzyzewski praised the defensive potential of his team, citing its quickness and length on the perimeter. In recent years, however, Duke has not been very successful in executing Coach K’s favored pressure man-to-man defense. Youth cannot entirely be blamed for those struggles — those teams frequently had effort issues as well. For example, halfway through last season, the Blue Devils’ defense was so bad that Krzyzewski gave up on it and began exclusively playing zone. Based on Duke’s current defensive numbers, that will not be a problem this year. The Blue Devils currently rank fifth in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings, while holding opponents to very good shooting rates — 42.4 percent shooting on two-pointers, and 28.2 percent from behind the three-point line.

According to Krzyzewski, freshman point guard Tre Jones deserves most of the credit for the defensive resurgence. Jones’ pressure on the ball is something we haven’t seen from a Blue Devils guard in many years — maybe since Chris Duhon 15 years ago. This allows Duke’s rangy wings to get in passing lanes, generating live-ball turnovers that often lead to showtime dunks at the other end. Duke leads the nation in steal percentage (14.5%) and is forcing turnovers on 21.8 percent of opponents’ possessions (50th nationally). In the previous four seasons, the Blue Devils have not been among the nation’s top 200 teams in forcing miscues. Gonzaga last month achieved some success in attacking Duke’s ball-screen defense when Marquise Bolden was on the floor, but Krzyzewski’s counter to that strategy may be to give more minutes to the more mobile Javin DeLaurier. DeLaurier, who allows the Duke defense to switch at all five spots, made his first start of the year against Yale last Saturday.

Question #2: How good (or bad) will the perimeter shooting be?

Duke has finished among KenPom’s top 10 offensive efficiency rankings in every year of the past decade. A big component of that success has been the Blue Devils’ sustained ability to knock down perimeter shots, year after year. Over the past nine campaigns, Duke has converted at least 37 percent of its shots from long-range, finishing well above the national average each year. While immensely talented, none of this season’s four ballyhooed freshmen came to college known for their expertise in shooting the ball. And with no returning players of note, outside shooting acumen was a huge question for this team heading into the Champions Classic. After 10 games, this is still a concern – Duke is currently making just 33.2 percent of its three-point efforts.

A deeper dive into the numbers, however, reveals that Duke’s perimeter shooting woes may not be as bad as its season mark suggests. The Blue Devils were ice cold in their last two outings, making just 10-of-47 from distance, but prior to those two games, they sank a respectable 36.0 percent of their three-point attempts. And perhaps surprisingly, Duke is shooting better when it faces tougher competition – making 37.6 percent from beyond the arc versus the five best defenses they have faced. One potential caveat here is that Krzyzewski’s club is too dependent on Cam Reddish’s game-to-game accuracy. As Duke’s highest-volume deep shooter, Reddish’s propensity for streakiness is concerning. After starting the year on fire – 10-of-21 from three-point range in his first two games – he has struggled lately. Reddish was largely responsible (1-of-14) for Duke’s poor three-point shooting in its last two contests, and a cold night from him could be problematic when Duke begins to tackle the better defensive teams in the ACC.

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ACC/Big Ten Challenge: Tuesday Preview

Posted by Mick McDonald on November 27th, 2018

After Monday’s games, the 2018 Big Ten/ACC Challenge is tied with a pair of surprising results — Nebraska won at Clemson and Boston College outlasted Minnesota. ACC microsite writer Mick McDonald (@themickmcdonald) previews tonight’s heavy slate of action. (All rankings via KenPom as of Tuesday, November 26.)

Clemson Gave up a Home Game Last Night Against Nebraska (USA Today Images)

  • #16 Virginia Tech at #38 Penn State. Buzz Williams has another terrific offense brewing this season in Blacksburg. The Hokies currently rank seventh in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency and are making 41.4 percent (26th nationally) of their shots from long distance. They’ve also gotten the start of a breakout season from sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walker (29.8 PER, 60.6% eFG). Their hot shooting will be tested tonight by a Penn State defense that is allowing its opponents to make just 22.9 percent (fourth nationally) of their attempts from three-point range. While excellent on the perimeter, Virginia Tech lacks size and could be vulnerable to Nittany Lions forward Lamar Stevens (26.6 PER, 24.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG).
  • #95 Illinois at #52 Notre Dame. Mike Brey’s club currently ranks just 51st in offensive efficiency, which is an odd sight to see. The last time a Brey team finished outside the top 50 in that category was all the way back in 2004-05. Part of the struggles this season have laid at the feet of T.J. Gibbs, the expected star of this team who has shot just 32.4 percent from the field and 21.1 percent from three-point range. Notre Dame will need to make some shots tonight to get a win, as the Illini feature a talented young backcourt of sophomore Trent Frazier (17.6 PPG, 58.3% eFG) and freshman Ayo Dosunmu (14.5 PPG, 57.6% eFG).
  • #8 Michigan State at #58 Louisville. Hello, Jordan Nwora. It hasn’t taken long for the talented Cardinals’ sophomore to break out this season, already the team’s leading scorer (18.4 PPG) despite coming off the bench. Nwora (29.4 PER, 57.6% eFG) is not simply a scorer, however. He’s posting a 27.8 defensive rebounding percentage and his turnover percentage is much improved this season despite more usage. While Nwora is actively turning into an ACC star, the Cardinals still have issues on the defensive end. They’re allowing opponents to shoot 43.8 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from long distance. They’ll have a tough task scoring tonight against Michigan State (eighth in KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency).

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Several ACC Takeaways From Opening Night

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 7th, 2018

Opening night of the 2018-19 season was a total success for the ACC as league members swept their nine opponents last evening by convincing double-figure margins. Here are some takeaways from the three most prominent contests played by conference squads Tuesday night.

DUKE’S NEWCOMERS EXCEEDED THE HYPE

Zion Williamson and his fellow freshmen lived up to their immense hype in Duke’s big win over Kentucky. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

It doesn’t sound possible after all the preseason buzz surrounding the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class, but Duke‘s rookies were even better than advertised in a 118-84 thrashing of top-five Kentucky. This game represented a mismatch in talent from the outset, as Duke’s celebrated trio of RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish combined to finish with 83 points on 56.6 percent shooting. Barrett and Williamson, in particular, were amazing in transition, but they also scored much more easily in the half-court against a bevy of long and athletic Wildcats. At least for one glorious night in early November, Mike Krzyzewski’s squad had all of the answers to its preseason questions surrounding outside shooting (12-26 3FG), defense (Kentucky lingered around 1.0 PPP most of the game) and depth (eight Blue Devils saw double-figure minutes). After years of struggling to find a true point guard to orchestrate the offense, Duke looks like it has a diamond in Tre Jones, who finished with seven assists and zero turnovers. Even junior Jack White came off the bench to play 30 solid minutes, scoring nine points and grabbing a game-high 11 boards. Yes, it’s only one game — but if the Blue Devils can stay healthy, their potential is downright scary.

FLORIDA STATE’S DEFENSE IS LEGIT

Duke wasn’t the only ACC team to dominate a highly regarded team from the SEC last night, as Florida State used a strong second half start to pummel Florida, 81-60. Leonard Hamilton‘s team utilized old school defense to fuel its NCAA Tournament run to the Elite Eight last March, and it was more of the same against the Gators in holding their rival to a frigid 37.0 percent from the field and forcing 16 miscues. The Seminoles weren’t bad on the other end of the floor (1.12 PPP), either, especially considering they are currently without leading scorer Phil Cofer (broken foot). Florida State converted a robust 11-of-23 from three-point land, with PJ Savoy leading the way in nailing 5-of-7 from deep. Normally, Hamilton’s teams usually take some time to gel, but it looks like Florida State is already set to roll this year. If this is the ACC’s seventh best team (per the ACC Media preseason poll), then the league is in outstanding shape relative to the rest of college basketball.

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ACC Burning Questions, Part 5: Duke, North Carolina & Virginia

Posted by Mick McDonald on November 2nd, 2018

To wrap up our ACC team previews, Mick McDonald (@themickmcdonald) brings us home by reviewing league favorites Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.

Duke Burning Question: How will Duke’s talented freshmen gel on the court?

The Duke Freshmen Are Ready to Roll (USA Today Images)

Duke has the most talented roster in the country, but as we know, talent alone doesn’t always mean championships. After losing almost his entire roster from last year’s Elite Eight squad, Mike Krzyzewski reloaded with four of the very best prospects in the country. The question is how those pieces will fit together. While Zion Williamson (who is basically a cross between Justin Bieber and LeBron James on YouTube) is the Blue Devils’ biggest star, R.J. Barrett is the best player on the team. He dominated for Team Canada in the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup last year and is likely be the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. The smooth lefty likes to have the ball in his hands, so it will be interesting to see how he interacts with expected starting point guard Tre Jones.

Will fellow freshman Cam Reddish accept not being the lead banana on a team with plentiful options? Will anyone outside of sophomore Alex O’Connell (48.9% 3FG) make any three-pointers? Will juniors Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier be able to stay out of Krzyzewski’s doghouse to support the talented freshmen? Whether you believe that Duke will figure it all out and win the national title or if you have concerns about egos overtaking the team en route to an early exit in March, Duke is without question the most fascinating team in college basketball this season.

North Carolina Burning Question: What lineup does Roy Williams want to use?

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