On the road to Greensboro …
Two days before the first game against Duke, North Carolina coach Roy Williams went on his weekly radio show and praised Mason Plumlee, the Blue Devils’ senior forward who’s among the favorites to win ACC Player of the Year honors.
Williams said a lot of kind things about one of his fiercest rival’s best players and it was clear, too, that Williams admired Plumlee for remaining at Duke for his senior season. It’s not a crime these days, Williams said.
Of course, you wouldn’t know it based on how quickly college players come and go. Williams has described college basketball as a “bus stop” – a forced detour for players who’d rather get to the NBA.
But what about those guys who stay? Quality seniors have always been valuable, but their value has increased in recent years, given the exodus of underclassmen to the pros.
It’s no coincidence that the rise of the so-called mid-major has come in this era. While power programs are forced to adjust their rosters every season – or often enough, if not every season – teams like Butler and Gonzaga and Creighton and New Mexico can build cohesive and unified teams over time. That counts for something.
Even in the ACC. Miami isn’t a mid-major, yet the Hurricanes are built like one, with a core group that has been around a while. Outside of Shane Larkin, Miami’s sophomore point guard, Miami’s key players – guards Durand Scott and Trey McKinney-Jones, center Reggie Johnson and forward Kenny Kadji – have all been in the program for at least three years.
Contrast that with, say, North Carolina – which is reliant on a freshman point guard and without a junior or senior frontcourt player – and it’s easy to see Miami’s advantage. The Tar Heels have talent, but the Hurricanes have talent and experience. So, too, does Duke. And N.C. State.
The value of seniors in the ACC is reflected in the league’s individual awards, too. The past three players who have earned ACC Player of the Year honors – UNC’s Tyler Zeller, Duke’s Nolan Smith and Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez – were all seniors. That trend is likely to continue this season.
More than ever, college basketball has become a game of roster management. Successfully recruit enough high school All-Americans with one-and-done potential, and you might get to the Final Four or win a national title. The next season, though, after all those players leave, you might struggle to make the NCAA tournament.
Sound familiar, UNC, Kentucky?
Williams has said he’ll still recruit one-and-dones. He’ll still welcome players like Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright. Who wouldn’t? There’s something to be said, though, of building a team around guys who won’t – or maybe can’t – treat the college game like a bus stop.
Stock rising: UNC. The Tar Heels have looked like a different team since going to a four-guard starting lineup. They’re playing faster and with more urgency. They’re more difficult to defend. They have more life, it seems. A victory Saturday at home against N.C. State would almost make UNC a lock for the NCAA tournament.
Stock falling: Maryland. What a monumentally important victory for the Terrapins at home a week ago against Duke. It sprung Maryland off the bubble and into the NCAA tournament field, according to the experts. So, naturally, the Terps follow that up with a baffling, terrible loss at Boston College.
Fast break …
Virginia Tech guard Erick Green still leads the nation in scoring (25.2 points per game). If he finishes the season that way he’ll become the first ACC player in more than 50 years to lead the nation in scoring. South Carolina’s Grady Wallace (31.2 ppg) did that during the 1956-57 season … UNC guard P.J. Hairston went through an ugly shooting stretch a season ago but that’s become more and more of a distant memory. He has now made at least one 3-pointer in 23 consecutive games – the longest active streak in the ACC. … On Jan. 23, Miami was ranked 25th in the Associated Press top 25. Now the Hurricanes are No. 2 – their highest ranking in school history. Lopsided wins against Duke and UNC have given Miami attention, but it’s the Hurricanes’ ability to close out close games that perhaps has been most impressive. Miami in the past week won by four points against Virginia and by two at Clemson. Don’t forget one-point victories at N.C. State and Boston College, too.
FINAL FOUR (in recognition of the four ACC seniors who have come the farthest during their senior seasons): 1. Duke F Mason Plumlee; 2. Virginia Tech G Erick Green; 3. Duke G Seth Curry; 4. N.C. State F Richard Howell.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter