ACC Notebook

Parity and the ACC tournament

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 1, 2013 

On the road to Greensboro …

If competitiveness is your thing, the ACC tournament that begins in Greensboro in two weeks could be among the best in recent memory. Have there ever been as many teams with a realistic chance of winning?

Miami. Duke. North Carolina. Virginia. N.C. State.

If aesthetically pleasing basketball is your preference, though, this ACC tournament might be lacking. Parity has increased in college basketball during this era of one-and-dones and near-constant roster turnover, and that parity was on display again in Charlottesville, Va., on Thursday night, and in Winston-Salem last weekend.

But what does that parity suggest about the strength of the ACC’s supposed best teams?

Virginia’s victory against Duke and Wake Forest’s win against Miami were captivating in part because they were unexpected – though the Cavaliers were a slight favorite, according to oddsmakers. Even so, they provided further proof that no team in the ACC is in a class of its own.

After Virginia’s 73-68 victory against the Blue Devils on Thursday night, the Twitter account belonging to ESPN’s SportsCenter posted a jarring statistic: Duke’s loss at Virginia was the 19th time this season that a top-five team had lost to an unranked opponent.

That’s happened four times in the ACC – three at the expense of Duke and one at the expense of Miami. The Hurricanes’ 80-65 defeat at Wake Forest last weekend might have been the most surprising result of the conference season, though maybe it shouldn’t have been.

Wake, which has been terrible on the road, has played well at home. Miami had been struggling. And besides, who can be all that surprised anymore when a top-five team loses to an unranked opponent? It happens with regularity.

It doesn’t happen because the highly ranked opponent forces its opposition to rise to greater heights. It happens, it seems, because lesser teams are either dragging opponents down to their level, or taking advantage of awful offensive execution. Or both.

Duke failed to shoot better than 40 percent in two of its three losses against unranked teams – one of which came against Miami before it ascended in the national rankings. The Hurricanes shot an ugly 39.1 percent in the loss at Wake. Defense deserves some credit for those miserable shooting performances, sure.

But they’re also indicative of another trend: the inability to score in college basketball.

Seven ACC teams, for instance, average less than 70 points per game. As recently as the 2008-09 season, only one ACC team failed to average 70. The lack of offense has closed the talent gap between the haves – like Duke – and the have-nots.

It also has helped to increase parity, and create a season that has been impossible to figure.

BUBBLE WATCH

It has been difficult to make sense of a regular season that has been as unpredictable as any. So it’s perhaps fitting that two weeks before selection Sunday the ACC’s postseason picture has come into clear focus.

Duke and Miami have long been locks for the NCAA tournament. Joining them as a lock, thanks to its four-game winning streak, is North Carolina. And Virginia, whose postseason aspirations were once in jeopardy after three losses to Colonial Athletic Association teams – including an abysmal defeat against Old Dominion, has to be in, thanks its victory against Duke.

N.C. State hasn’t come close to meeting its preseason expectations, but the Wolfpack aren’t in danger of missing the tournament. Which brings us to Maryland. The Terrapins puzzling losses at Boston College and Georgia Tech have left them on the wrong side of the bubble. But the Terrapins, whose final three games come at Wake Forest, against UNC and at Virginia, can still play their way back into contention.

FAST BREAK …

Welcome to the ACC Player of the Year discussion, Joe Harris. The Virginia guard scored 36 points in the Cavaliers’ victory against Duke. You could argue that no ACC player has been as valuable to his team as Harris has been to the slow-tempo Cavaliers. He has accounted for 26.5 percent of Virginia’s points … And speaking of ACC Player of the Year honors, when’s the last time no real frontrunner had emerged to win the award with one week left in the regular season? Four candidates for first-team All-ACC honors – Harris, Duke’s Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry and Miami’s Shane Larkin – all are likely to split votes for player of the year.

FINAL FOUR

In recognition of the four most sense-defying results in ACC play: 1. Feb. 23 – Wake Forest 80, Miami 65; 2. Jan. 23 – Miami 90, Duke 63; 3. Jan. 22 – Wake Forest 86, N.C. State 84; Feb. 19 – Boston College 69, Maryland (days removed from beating Duke) 58.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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