ACC Basketball

ACC basketball: What we learned from nonconference play

jgiglio@newsobserver.comJanuary 2, 2014 

On the back of the media guide for its new 15-team league, the ACC put the tag line: “The best get better.”

After two months of college basketball, and mostly nonconference action, the results don’t support the ACC’s claim.

The best? The ACC has only one team (No. 4 Syracuse), in the top 25 of the RPI, compared to four each from the Big Ten and Big 12.

As a conference, the ACC ranks fifth in RealTimeRPI’s conference RPI ranking, behind the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big East – which lost Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame to the ACC.

Instead of a nine- or 10-bid league, the ACC enters conference play Saturday with three sure things – Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina – for the NCAA tournament, a bunch of bubbly question marks and a certified train wreck in Boston College (4-10).

What we’ve learned from the first two months of the season:

1) The newcomers aren’t the problem

Syracuse, led by C.J. Fair and ranked No. 2 by the AP and the coaches, has held up its end of the bargain, with a 13-0 start that put itself in prime contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with wins against Villanova and Baylor, a pair of top 10 RPI teams.

The Orange opens ACC play Saturday at home with last season’s champion Miami, which might be the league’s worst team – at least on offense – this season.

While much of the attention nationally has been on the freshmen trio of forwards (Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky’s Julius Randle), Syracuse freshman guard Tyler Ennis has quietly, with 11.8 points and 5.4 assists per game, been everything coach Jim Boeheim has needed with the departure of guard Michael Carter-Williams to the NBA after last season’s run to the national championship game.

Pittsburgh (12-1), on track for its 12th NCAA bid in 13 years, has been the solid, yet unspectacular addition, it was supposed to be. Pitt’s only loss is to Cincinnati, but its best win is against Stanford (No. 68 in the RPI). The Panthers bring their meat-grinder style to Raleigh on Saturday for their ACC debut against N.C. State.

Notre Dame (9-4) had some issues, with home losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State, before losing its best player in senior guard Jerian Grant (19.0 points, 6.2 assists per game) to an academic suspension on Dec. 22.

Without Grant, the Fighting Irish will have to regroup on the fly, against a new set of conference foes. Notre Dame’s welcome the ACC is a home game with preseason favorite Duke on Saturday.

2) Duke is not there yet

So far, the Blue Devils (11-2) have not been as good as the sum of their parts. To be fair, No. 7 Duke has been good, with solid wins against Michigan and UCLA, just not great, with respectable losses to Kansas and Arizona.

With Parker, sophomore wing Rodney Hood, junior point guard Quinn Cook and sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon, the Blue Devils have the athletic parts to dominate, but they have struggled to find the right combinations and to defend, which has led to closer-than-expected calls against Vermont (91-90) and East Carolina (83-74).

Mike Krzyzewski did not win 5 bazillion games by accident. If anyone can solve the personnel puzzle, and mold this group into ACC champions, he can.

3) UNC is the most dangerous team in the country

There is room for interpretation in “dangerous.” The Tar Heels could get to the Final Four or they could lose in their second game.

Consistency has been an issue, but the team’s biggest woe, free-throw shooting, is correctable. UNC went 22 of 48 from the line in a three-point home loss to Belmont, 4 of 11 in a four-point loss at UAB and 24 of 47 in a three-point loss against Texas. Are they really going to shoot that poorly in March?

There is no argument that the Tar Heels have the best collection of wins – Michigan State, Kentucky, Louisville – of any team in the country, which should help them start the tournament.

UNC never got troubled guard P.J. Hairston back, but the development of sophomore guard Marcus Paige should once and for all quiet questions about Roy Williams’ coaching ability.

4) The media still can’t figure out N.C. State

The media was wrong about the Wolfpack last season, when it picked Mark Gottfried’s team to win the league (it finished fifth).

And given the depth and disappointments in the soft middle of the ACC, the media will probably be wrong about this preseason’s 10th-place prediction for the Wolfpack (10-3).

Sophomore forward T.J. Warren leads the ACC in scoring, 23.9 points per game, and has Gottfried’s third team on solid footing heading into league play.

Freshman guard Anthony “Cat” Barber and fifth-year senior forward Jordan Vandenberg have been the keys in the Wolfpack’s improvement since an overtime home loss to N.C. Central on Nov. 20.

While the Wolfpack has shown promise, a group of teams picked ahead of N.C. State – and expected to contend for NCAA tournament spots – have struggled.

Virginia, Maryland, Boston College and Georgia Tech were supposed to rise up and help the “best get better.” Simply put, they’re still soft and still closer to the bottom (Miami and Virginia Tech) than the top.

The Cavaliers, who won 11 ACC games last season, have fallen flat in all their major nonconference tests. The Terps, in their final ACC season, have dropped home games to Oregon State and Boston University.

Boston College, the league’s biggest disappointment the first two months, limps into ACC play at 4-10, which includes a home win against Division II Philadelphia University.

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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