ACC basketball: 6 hot topics before the opening tip

November 7, 2013 

News & Observer sports columnist Luke DeCock and correspondent Barry Jacobs debate some of the big issues facing ACC basketball this season, from the conference newcomers and Duke’s title chances to the new officiating standards and Jeff Bzdelik’s job security.

1. WHICH OF THE ACC’S THREE NEW TEAMS WILL HAVE THE BIGGEST IMPACT?

Luke: Syracuse is an obvious choice here with C.J. Fair coming back from a Final Four team, but it’s generally accepted that the eighth-ranked Orange will be a top-three team in the ACC. Notre Dame is the team with the real chance to shake up the standings. Picked fifth by the media in the preseason poll, the Irish return four starters, including all-ACC pick Jerian Grant. No. 21 Notre Dame has the potential to end up in the mix with Duke and Syracuse atop the league.

Barry: Syracuse will have the greatest impact by far because of the way it plays. Teams in the old Big East had plenty of opportunities to prepare for the Orange, yet struggled to handle its 2-3 zone. They also began adopting their own zone tactics. And while the holdover ACC clubs threw in zone alignments now and then – even Mike Krzyzewski resorts to a matchup zone on occasion, and concedes zone principles are embedded in his defensive approach – expect to see more teams emulate Jim Boeheim’s club. After all, Boeheim has 920 career wins, second only to Krzyzewski among men’s coaches all-time. He must be doing something right.

Luke: It’s possible, if unlikely, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh will be three of the league’s top five teams, or maybe even top four. This round of expansion really was about basketball. (And just imagine if No. 3 Louisville were in the league this year instead of Maryland.)

2. WILL DUKE WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE?

Barry: Duke has a better chance than most to win the 2014 NCAA championship. The Blue Devils have plenty of scoring, leadership, athleticism, experience and depth. They’ll be able to play the sort of aggressive, extended team defense on which Krzyzewski made his reputation. In Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood they potentially have a pair of go-to players along with several effective 3-point shooters. Worries about a lack of a burly big man in the post are overblown – last we checked, the Miami Heat did just fine winning NBA titles while starting willowy Chris Bosh, a player physically similar to Amile Jefferson, Duke’s version of a center.

Luke: What really distinguishes Duke, in a year when the deep end of the NCAA pool is quite a bit deeper than it was a year ago, is the unique matchup problems Parker and Hood will create. It’s possible there has never been a team with two players of that size who are that comfortable on the perimeter. Game-planning against one is hard enough. Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville might be more talented overall, but it’s hard to judge Duke against them because Hood and Parker make the Blue Devils such an anomaly.

Barry: Despite its strengths, don’t expect Duke to win the title. Even if the Blue Devils avoid injury, bad bounces, and other ill fortune, it’s a bit much to expect a squad reliant on two assertive, gifted newcomers to meld without turmoil. We’re more apt to remember this club, like the 1999 team it resembles, as entertaining and effective but ultimately short of champions.

3. WHAT EFFECT WILL THE NEW OFFICIATING STANDARDS HAVE?

Luke: In an attempt to rein in physical play, the NCAA changed the rulebook to reduce contact by the defensive player while guarding the ball. Putting a hand on an opponent or jabbing with the forearm, both techniques common to the way defense has been taught, will now result in fouls. That’s led to a parade to the free-throw line in lengthy exhibitions so far.

Barry: Officials, players, and coaches will adapt quickly to shifts in emphasis that promote freedom of movement on offense. But major rules changes, with the exception of a stricter interpretation of the block/charge to the advantage of the offensive player, aren’t necessary. The will to change is what matters. Scoring is down overall, but the degree of difficulty is increased by greater numbers of athletic defenders and by more league contests. Coaches surveyed during the offseason were more concerned with regulating practices decried for years (hand-checking, bumping cutters) than were the coordinators and officials who administer the rules. And it’s coaches who talk to the media and shape public opinion. Support the calls, and the game will prosper.

Luke: The NBA went through this a few years ago, and it’s long overdue in the college game. The basic elements of good defense – positioning, quickness, hustle – haven’t changed. Coaches and players will eventually adjust, and it will be a better game once they do.

4. CAN JEFF BZDELIK SAVE HIS JOB AT WAKE FOREST?

Barry: With the latest market-driven expansion, trying to escape the second division, where Wake Forest has lingered since Bzdelik’s arrival, is tougher now than ever. Bzdelik has recruited good players and the coach and athletic director Ron Wellman insist a key, if hidden, achievement has been smoothing edges within the program that grew rough prior to Bzdelik’s arrival. He’s also worked to embrace Wake history and tradition. But Bzdelik has yet to post a winning mark in three tries. He’s also failed to connect with the fan base. Many Demon Deacon supporters are alienated, if not downright hostile, creating an atmosphere that’s undermined Wellman and even threatens football coach Jim Grobe.

Luke: Bzdelik knows as well as anyone this business is about wins and losses. He’s been given an extraordinary amount of time to put his stamp on the program by today’s standards, but back-to-back 13-win seasons don’t cut it. If he doesn’t approach 20 wins this season, it will be impossible to justify the four that came before it, no matter how much intangible progress was made. Wake Forest deserves better.

Barry: Wake’s league schedule is tough and just achieving a winning record, let alone breaking into the conference’s upper echelon, will be a formidable task. But without marked improvement it’s difficult to see how Bzdelik can survive a fourth straight year as an ACC also-ran.

Luke: Who are we kidding? He’s not going anywhere. If Bzdelik can win 17-18 games and show any improvement at all in the ACC, it’ll be enough for Wellman to defend keeping him.

5. WILL FANS BOO JIM BOEHEIM AT THE GREENSBORO COLISEUM?

Luke: No. When the Syracuse coach was a Big East outsider poking fun at the ACC, its geography and its traditions, it came off as a mix of sour grapes and ignorant elitism. Now that Boeheim is part of the family, his curmudgeonly ways and sardonic humor is more easily appreciated, the grumpy uncle at the Thanksgiving table. By the time the ACC tournament rolls around, no one at the Greensboro Coliseum will be all that bothered.

Barry: Of course fans will boo Boeheim, even if it’s in good fun. He’d expect no less. The coach had to know he’d provoke a strong response when he compared Greensboro to New York City and implied the big city was obviously a superior place to spend time. Media folks from New York adopted a similarly condescending tone last year during coverage of the John Edwards trial. ACC folks know Greensboro is not New York. Most are fine with that. So go ahead and be the grumpy uncle. But don’t disrespect the group you were just invited to join.

6. WILL NORTH CAROLINA STRUGGLE WITHOUT P.J. HAIRSTON?

Barry: Expect the Tar Heels to struggle without Hairston, their top returning scorer, most prolific 3-point shooter and leader in foolish off-court choices. His absence is especially likely to sting if he’s out against the likes of Louisville (a possible opponent), Michigan State (Dec. 4) and Kentucky (Dec. 14). Then again, last year’s squad sputtered to a 10-5 start and still wound up with 25 victories and a third-place ACC finish. That’s similar to what this group can ultimately expect, assuming Hairston comes back by the team’s ACC opener on Jan. 5 at Wake. Standards are higher in Chapel Hill, and what passes for struggle there would be the envy of most other programs.

Luke: If Hairston were in a position to miss ACC games, that would be one thing. But that’s extremely unlikely, and an eight-game suspension – a realistic possibility – would still have him back in the lineup to face the Wildcats. Hairston’s absence will give the Tar Heels a chance to take a long look at James Michael McAdoo at small forward, give J.P. Tokoto some much-needed experience and see how Marcus Paige and Nate Britt fare on the court at the same time. Whatever losses the Tar Heels sustain without Hairston might be outweighed by the long-term development of his replacements.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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