The shakedown cruise is over. Nonconference action is all but complete until the March postseason tournaments. Then selection committees and not self-interested parties will orchestrate the matchups. “We have to start playing a heck of a lot better now, it’s a different ballgame,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams noted the other night as ACC play loomed.
The end of scheduled non-league competition – other than Virginia’s test at Villanova in late January, and Georgia Tech’s breather against Tusculum in early February – means we can put away the maps and quit searching the web to look up mascots, head coaches and leagues of unfamiliar opponents appearing on ACC schedules. OK, we still needed to look up Tusculum, a small east Tennessee school in the South Atlantic Conference, a Division II league whose members (Queens College, Carson-Newman, Mars Hill and Lenoir-Rhyne, among others) rarely take on ACC teams outside exhibitions.
Every now and then a familiar face cycled through the pre-New Year’s schedule – Rick Barnes at Tennessee, King Rice of Monmouth. After the Tar Heels dispatched Rice’s team, snuffing its nine-game winning streak, there was much talk of friendship and homecoming. There were also tears shed as Rice, who played at UNC from 1988-91, visibly struggled to elevate appreciation for the moment over his anger at game officials who called three technical fouls on his squad, including one on him, that foreclosed any chance at a rally.
The stocky Rice holds a special place among connoisseurs of basketball as taught and regimented by Dean Smith, less for an achievement than for a violation of protocol in a December 1989 Smith Center win over DePaul. Leading a two-on-one fast break, the point guard threw away a behind-the-back pass. Perhaps a simple mistake in some programs, such ostentation and unsound fundamentals were anathema in the Tar Heels universe. Worse, the faux pas was a repeat offense.
Smith, fond only of calculated risks, had halted a practice two years earlier when Rice attempted the same pass. The coach directed the freshman to a spot on the floor – Rice can still pinpoint the location on a diagram of a court – then challenged him to make the same play 10 times in a row without a misfire. If he could meet that standard, he could employ the flashy move in a game. When the second try failed, Rice was told never to attempt a behind-the-back pass again.
But two years later Rice couldn’t resist. He threw the pass. Smith’s discipline was swift. Before DePaul even inbounded the ball, reserve Jeff Denny was en route to the scorer’s table as a substitute for Rice. Nearly three decades later, coaching a tough mid-major squad that won 28 times last season, Rice recalled the wordless DePaul slapdown with a smile before heading back to New Jersey and the Metro Atlantic Athletic Association.
Williams meanwhile confronted the prospect of playing 18 ACC games over a 64-day span, supposedly a more daunting task than usual due to the caliber of league teams in 2017. “Whether I like it or not, we’re here,” Williams said of his 14th conference season.
Much already has been made of the ACC’s mighty men, accompanied by chatter on how many of its 15 teams will reach the NCAA tournament and the Final Four. Last year, you’ll recall, UNC and Syracuse made the Final Four and half the contestants in the Elite 8 hailed from the ACC. In all, seven league squads got tournament bids; Louisville, a likely eighth, voluntarily sat out of the postseason due to NCAA rules violations.
This year the ACC may be better than it was last season, when it had fewer teams ranked in the AP poll and fewer in the top 10 as the nonconference season concluded.
Virginia continues to lead the nation in throttling other teams’ offenses, and to win low-scoring games. Louisville’s Rick Pitino has mastered the art of reloading without seeming to rebuild. North Carolina and Duke have prospered despite injuries (and a suspension) that periodically cost them the services of at least one starter each, and at least one other prominent player. For all their paper depth, the Devils, No. 1 in preseason, surprisingly relied most heavily on overlooked sophomore Luke Kennard. The wing’s 35.8 minutes played per game not only paced the ACC but ranked among the highest averages in modern Duke history.
Several of last year’s weak links, notably N.C. State and Florida State, are resurgent. FSU is playing devout defense for the first time since winning the conference title in 2012. Guard Dwayne Bacon is a top-10 ACC scorer, playmaker Xavier Rathan-Mayes a top-10 assist man.
The Wolfpack is healthy and deep in Mark Gottfried’s sixth season at Raleigh. Shooting well, the Pack is represented among the ACC’s top 10 scorers by Dennis Smith Jr. and Terry Henderson. N.C. State has boasted at least one top-10 scorer every year under Gottfried, offensive punch matched only by Duke over that span.
Smith, not yet the superstar promised by his coach, also leads the league in assists. No other player in the conference ranks in the top 10 in both passing and scoring.
Notre Dame continues to make do without a strong post presence, its greatest strengths a strong perimeter and .847 free throw accuracy. That’s 12.3 percent better than anything ever posted across a season by an ACC squad.
Clemson, buoyed by the return of All-ACC wing Jaron Blossomgame, is sniffing its first NCAA bid since 2011, Brad Brownell’s first season as coach. Always tough defensively under Brownell, the Tigers have developed some punch too, scoring more than 80 points on six occasions, at least 90 three times. Last year’s high score was 85 in an ACC tournament overtime defeat.
Despite its best start since the beginning of the decade, Clemson was not among the six ACC squads ranked in last week’s AP top 25. Jeff Sagarin’s ratings for USA Today had North Carolina, Duke, Virginia and Louisville among the top eight, with Florida State and Notre Dame also ranked. Ken Pomeroy had Virginia, Duke and North Carolina 1 through 3, with nine of his top 36 hailing from the ACC.
Overall, ACC members were off to an impressive start, winning better than 80 percent of nearly 190 nonconference games. Even downtrodden Boston College had one more win than loss.
But keep in mind Dean Smith’s swipe following that 1989 DePaul game, a warning that’s still germane when evaluating early-season prowess. “You’ve got to go by the schedule too, because Duke against Harvard is going to help the look of their overall statistics,” he said cattily of the Blue Devils.
Feasting on hand-picked rivals may cause ACC teams to appear stronger than they are. So keep this surprising statistic in mind, especially come postseason: ACC clubs dropped two-thirds of their games against top-25 teams through Dec. 30. (BC, Georgia Tech, Pitt and Virginia Tech played none.)
The ACC was a combined 6-12 against ranked competition, and a miserable 1-4 against squads from the top 10. Villanova, the defending champ and a top-5 team all year, handled Notre Dame and Wake Forest. Kansas edged Duke on a neutral court, and Kentucky did likewise to UNC. The only impressive nonconference win was posted at home by Louisville over UK in a rivalry that in-state followers misguidedly tout as the best in American sports.