In a development that will both shock and amaze – but mostly shock – ACC basketball coaches, media members covering the league are not omniscient, it turns out.
It’s a terribly surprising revelation, to be sure, but the proof is in a comparison between the ACC’s preseason media poll and the current standings. We got a few things right, at least.
North Carolina, which astute media members in the preseason picked to finish first, is indeed leading the league at the midpoint of the conference season. And the trusty ACC media corps was right, too, about Boston College.
The Eagles were picked to finish in last place, and not only are they headed toward making that a reality, but Boston College appears destined to be remembered as one of the worst teams in conference history.
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So at the top and at the bottom, we reporter-types knew what we were talking about, after all. It was just the other 13 teams that gave us some problems.
But who could have predicted the debilitating injuries at Duke and N.C. State, and Clemson’s rise, and Virginia’s early struggles on the road and Virginia Tech’s ascent to respectability and all the other unpredictable events during the past month or so?
After a little more than a month of conference play, we have something that we lacked earlier: clarity. So let’s look back at the first half of the ACC season and look forward to the rest of it with a sense of perspicacity that just might redeem the media’s ill-fated preseason projections.
Three surprises in a good way at the midpoint of the conference season
The Tigers were picked to finish in 12th place, and here they are, tied with Virginia for third in the ACC. If they can win on the road this week at Wake Forest and at Virginia Tech, Clemson will be 8-3 and in good shape for an NCAA tournament bid. Jaron Blossomgame is one of the best players that no one knows nationally.
Virginia Tech is decent
The Hokies were supposed to be fighting Boston College to stay out of last place. Instead, Virginia Tech isn’t all that bad – an accomplishment given where this program was a year ago. Six of the Hokies’ eight ACC games have been decided by five points or less, and they’ve been competitive, and pesky, even in recent defeats against Notre Dame, UNC and Louisville.
Louisville is better than expected
This was supposed to be a rebuilding season for Rick Pitino. Instead it’s starting to look like one of his better coaching jobs. The Cardinals didn’t play well in a 63-47 loss against Virginia on Saturday, but they’re still in second place in the ACC. Louisville has been one of the nation’s best defensive teams on a per-possession basis (fifth nationally adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com).
Three surprises in a not-so-good way
Duke is certainly not Duke
In the memorable words of former Virginia coach Pete Gillen: “Certainly Duke is Duke – they’re on TV more than ‘Leave it to Beaver’ reruns.” And while the TV part remains true, Duke is not Duke – not after losing three NBA draft lottery picks and not after Amile Jefferson’s injury. Depth is a major issue, and the available players sometimes fail to form a cohesive unit. Still, it’d be an even bigger surprise to see the Blue Devils in danger of missing the NCAA tournament in another month.
Florida State floundering
The Seminoles have shown some signs of life of late, especially in a victory against Clemson on Saturday. Still, a losing record at the midpoint wasn’t the expectation in Tallahassee, not when the Seminoles’ trio of Dwayne Bacon, Malik Beasley and Xavier Rathan-Mayes is about as good as any in the country.
N.C. State’s forgettable season
The Wolfpack is like Duke, only with fewer high school All-Americans. Both teams lost important players from last season; both teams lack depth, and both teams have had to endure an injury to a significant contributor. You knew the Wolfpack was in trouble when it lost against William & Mary in the season opener, but things have been worse than expected. At least N.C. State responded to coach Mark Gottfried’s recent challenge with a victory against Miami on Saturday.
And now for some if-the-season-ended-today awards …
First-team midpoint All-ACC:
G Cat Barber, N.C. State
G Grayson Allen, Duke
G Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
F Jaron Blosssomgame, Clemson
F Brice Johnson, UNC
Thoughts: Allen, Brogdon and Johnson are first-team locks. They have to be on there. After that it gets debatable – even with Barber, who is the ACC’s leading scorer (23.1 points per game). Barber at times has been the Wolfpack’s only option, and he has produced, but how many players would have similar numbers if they took 17 shots per game? It’s a valid argument, but you can’t argue that Barber has taken advantage of the opportunity and has been among the best players in the league.
Second-team midpoint All-ACC:
G Sheldon McClellan, Miami
G Damion Lee, Louisville
F Brandon Ingram, Duke
F Anthony Gill, Virginia
F Zach Auguste, Notre Dame
Thoughts: It’s difficult to put together a first team because of the lack of clear locks, and it’s the same thing with the second team. Not because there aren’t enough good players but because there are so many it’s difficult to see much separation among many of them. Ingram has to be on the second team, at least. Lee has been Louisville’s best player, so he gets the nod. McClellan is having a great season. Auguste is averaging a double-double, and Gill probably doesn’t get the attention he deserves at Virginia.
Midpoint ACC Player of the year: Brice Johnson, UNC
Johnson has separated himself amid a crowded field of contenders for ACC Player of the Year. He’s averaging a double-double (16.8 points, 10.2 rebounds), and he’s becoming so consistent that the kind of performance he had in a victory on Saturday against Boston College (17 points, 11 rebounds) is no longer viewed as anything special. The question now: Can he keep it going against more difficult competition?
Midpoint ACC Coach of the Year: Brad Brownell, Clemson
If Clemson keeps it up, there will be no debating this award at the end of the season. The Tigers’ improvement has been among the best stories in the country during the past month or so, but they’ll probably need to get to 12 ACC wins to feel good about an NCAA tournament bid.
Midpoint ACC Freshman of the Year: Brandon Ingram, Duke
But the race is closer than you might think. Statistically, Florida State’s Malik Beasley is right there with Ingram. They’re both averaging more than 17 points per game (17.5 for Beasley, 17.1 for Ingram), and Beasley is the better shooter. Ingram, though, is the better rebounder, and after some early-season growing pains, he has perhaps exceeded expectations to this point.
Three questions for the rest of the season:
How good is North Carolina, really?
We’re about to find out. Owing to the ACC’s imbalanced schedule – a topic that last week inspired strong condemnation from both Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim – the Tar Heels haven’t often been tested in conference play. That’s about to change, with all of their most difficult games coming in the second half of the schedule. UNC is very good, undoubtedly, but the next several weeks could answer whether the Tar Heels are best-team-in-the-country good.
When does Amile Jefferson return, and how much better will Duke be when he comes back?
Jefferson hasn’t played since early December, and it’s unclear when he’ll return from a broken foot. It could be as early as next week. More likely, though, it could be sometime in the middle of February. Whenever he comes back, his return will become one of the most interesting story lines in the country. The key questions: How quickly can he play as well as he did earlier in the season when he was healthy and averaging nearly a double-double (10.3 points, 9.3 rebounds)? And how much better does Duke become with Jefferson back in the lineup?
How many teams does the ACC get into the NCAA tournament?
When the ACC expanded to 15 teams, the expectation was that the league would have no trouble sending seven or eight teams, at least, to the NCAA tournament every season. But six ACC teams have made the tournament in each of the past two seasons since the addition of Louisville, Notre Dame and Syracuse. That should change this season, with UNC, Virginia, Louisville, Clemson, Notre Dame, Miami, Duke and Pittsburgh all in good shape, in early February, to make it. In 2007 and 2009, the ACC sent a record seven teams to the tournament. That record could, and should, be broken this season.