Jacobs: ACC basketball teams value defense

October 24, 2013 

Some misconceptions just won’t quit.

Jerian Grant plays basketball at Notre Dame for Mike Brey, an eight-year assistant coach at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski. He’s also a nephew of Horace Grant, the 1987 ACC player of the year and the only Clemson Tiger to win the honor.

So you might expect Grant, a preseason pick for the all-conference squad, to know more than the average youngster about the ACC, if only by osmosis.

Not necessarily.

Grant was asked what adjustments Notre Dame would confront as it moved to the ACC this season. “We're coming from the Big East where it was kind of more 45-40 games, versus the ACC where it’s 75-70,” the genial senior said last week at Operation Basketball in Charlotte.

Drawing the contrast so sharply may surprise observers of ACC basketball, in which physical, hard-nosed play is common. It might even surprise followers of the old Big East, if statistics and officiating are to be believed.

Just because Duke and North Carolina, the ACC’s traditional standard bearers, operate at a high level offensively doesn’t mean the league undervalues defense. That’s an old knock on the ACC that should have been put to rest years ago.

“I don’t think you can look at one team and say that team plays – soft is a negative word – that’s more of a finesse team,” third-year Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said of the ACC. “I don’t think you can look at one team in our league and say that anymore.”

Bruising contact and a commitment to defense are staples at many ACC schools. Duke has set a physical tone since the mid-1980s. Last season Maryland was 11th in Division I in field goal percentage defense. Virginia was fifth nationally in scoring defense and 16th in field goal percentage defense.

“We play about as half-court and as tough as anyone. When you play us, you know what to expect,” said Virginia senior forward Akil Mitchell. “Our style is not the typical ACC style. I think a lot of the teams in the ACC want to get up and down. A lot of teams, defense is important. But you’ve got to be able to score the ball in the ACC unless you’re really going to lock guys down like we do or like Clemson does.”

Yet any time Duke visits Tallahassee the action more closely resembles hand-to-hand combat than freewheeling basketball. As recently as 2011, Florida State led the nation in field goal percentage defense (.363) amid a run of four straight seasons leading the conference in that stat.

The Big East had no monopoly on low-scoring wrestling matches masquerading as basketball games, either. Fifteen times last season, an ACC team scored in the 40s or lower. Miami, the league champion, beat Clemson 45-43.

So much for fluid, fast-break basketball.

“I think that’s been the image of the ACC for a long time, that it’s an up and down, very free-flowing league. A lot of scoring,” said Clemson coach Brad Brownell.

That doesn’t mean it’s easier to score in the ACC than elsewhere.

“The coaches know better,” Gregory said. “Guys will be in for a rude awakening once they get to play at Clemson or Virginia. I think the big thing about our conference in terms of style of play, there’s not one style. I think some of the foundational pieces (are the same). Everybody is good defensively. Everybody can play with physicalness.”

A quick perusal of last season’s ACC and Big East statistics shows the fallacy of indulging in sweeping statements to distinguish either league.

Teams in the 15-member Big East averaged 67.6 points per game in conference competition in 2013 and gave up 63.1. The dozen ACC teams scored and yielded an average of 67.0 points. Based on those numbers, the Big East certainly was no more offensively challenged than the ACC.

Over the entire season ACC squads averaged 1.9 more points per game than squads in the Big East, and gave up 2.7 more. Last year, seven Big East and six ACC teams were among Division I’s top 100 in scoring margin.

To be fair, there were notable differences between the conferences. Offense tended to predominate in the ACC, in which a third of the teams had top-100 scoring offenses in 2013 – N.C. State, Duke, North Carolina, and Maryland. That was true for only one-fifth of the Big East (Louisville, DePaul, Syracuse).

Conversely, nearly half the Big East’s teams (seven of 15) ranked among the nation’s top-100 scoring defenses, compared to a third for the ACC (Virginia, Clemson, Miami, Georgia Tech).

Brey said ACC squads generally had a skilled second big man who could play facing the basket, contrasted with “a brute-force guy” at the position in the Big East. Gregory said you couldn’t survive in the ACC without a pair of ball-handling guards. Notre Dame “play(s) like an ACC team,” Brey said. “We have been very skilled. We have been able to spread the floor.”

Gregory and Brey said Big East teams were more likely to employ zone defenses, a tactic once considered a sign of weakness. Syracuse’s signature alignment is a 2-3 zone populated by tall, long-limbed athletes. “Everywhere you go, there’s someone there,” Baye Moussa Keita, a 6-10 Orange senior, said proudly.

Still, Brey called an emphasis on differences between the conferences “a little overrated.” As evidence, he pointed to a shared officiating roster that enforces the rules evenly across both leagues, preventing significant divergence in what teams can get away with. (Not that a coach would ever put it in those terms.)

The three officials working the 2013 ACC Tournament final, for example, did a combined 32 Big East games during the regular season. Karl Hess, among the best-known ACC referees, officiated 19 Big East contests last year.

Whatever the leagues’ previous similarities and contrasts, the newly amalgamated ACC figures to blur those lines, serving as a basketball “melting pot,” as Clemson’s Brownell put it. That should put to rest most lingering stereotypes. “Especially with more teams, you have more different styles,” he said. “I think that’s the uniqueness of the league now.”

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