Take me back to the start – as that lovely Coldplay song goes – and back to the enchanting time in late October, when the leaves are in mid-turn, the temperature crisp and all of us so wise, so very, very wise, about the college basketball season ahead.
Of course, we don’t look so wise now, nearly two months into the season. But back then everything looked so certain – Duke and North Carolina at the top of the ACC, Marcus Paige the conference player of the year, Notre Dame in the middle of the pack. But can you believe it?
Can you believe that, for the 100th consecutive season – or however long they’ve been doing preseason media balloting – there were things we astute media types got wrong? OK, Duke at the top looks pretty good.
The Blue Devils were picked to finish first, and Duke has done nothing to diminish those expectations. As always, though, there’s plenty that hasn’t gone according to plan. So with that, let’s look back at what we thought we knew and compare it to what we actually know – all the while accepting that, with the start of conference play later this week, there’s still so much to learn.
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Better than we thought?
Let’s start at the top. Duke is better than we thought, no?
In the words of former Virginia coach Pete Gillen, Duke is certainly Duke – never lacking for talent or national television appearances. But something seems different about these Blue Devils, who have won all of their games – including the ones against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Connecticut – by double figures.
Duke should be 16-0 entering its game at Louisville on Jan. 17. So the No. 2 Blue Devils, with their effective field-goal percentage of 59.3 percent – third best in the country according to Ken Pomeroy – are better than we thought.
Virginia, though, is probably the team that has most outpaced its preseason expectations. And they weren’t low for the Cavaliers. We geniuses in the media picked Virginia to finish fourth in the conference, and Tony Bennett probably gets a good laugh out of that now, given the league appears to be a two-team race between his team and the one in Durham.
Looking back, it seems we overestimated the loss of Joe Harris and underestimated what the Cavaliers had coming back. Forward Malcolm Brogdon has been good – 13.1 points and 3.5 rebounds per game – but guard Justin Anderson might be the ACC Player of the Year at this point, what with his knack for making 60 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Other teams we slept on, as the kids say:
• Notre Dame, which was picked seventh and is instead in the top 25 nationally.
• Miami, which was picked 10th but entered the top 20 after an 8-0 start that included a win against Florida. The Hurricanes have some figuring-out to do, though, with losses in three of their past four.
Not as good as we thought
A moment of truth for me: I didn’t vote in the preseason ACC poll. Too busy writing words that day after Roy Williams’ reaction to the Wainstein report, if I recall.
If I had voted, though, I just might have picked North Carolina first. I was high on the Tar Heels, what with junior guard Paige back, and with the frontcourt tandem of Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson, and with the addition of Justin Jackson, who earned raves in the preseason.
UNC hasn’t been as advertised, at least not yet, and the losses against Butler and Iowa – and not so much the defeat at Kentucky – exposed the Tar Heels’ lack of toughness, both physical and mental. And so UNC will enter conference play with a somewhat underwhelming resume, and I’m prone to believe what Williams said recently: When Paige rediscovers his shot – and you have to figure it’ll happen sooner than later – UNC will be a different (and far better) team. Have patience, UNC fans.
The media did seem to miss on Syracuse, though. The Orange received two first-place votes, but as it stands – and yes, it’s way, way early – it appears headed for the NCAA tournament bubble.
We were wrong, too, about Florida State, which was picked to finish eighth but instead appears headed for a long winter. But no one saw Aaron Thomas’ ineligibility coming – coach Leonard Hamilton included, it seems.
The do-over ballot
We have a couple days worth of (mostly) warmup games this week – UNC-William & Mary or Clemson-Robert Morris anyone? – before the real thing starts Saturday, or at least starts in earnest. Six ACC games are scheduled on the first full day of conference play. So if we could vote again – or for the first time, in my case – what would the ACC’s predicted order of finish be? It’d probably look something like this (real preseason ballot finish in parentheses):
1. Duke (1); 2. Virginia (4); 3. Louisville (3); 4. North Carolina (2); 5. Notre Dame (7); 6. Syracuse (5); 7. N.C. State (9); 8. Pittsburgh (6); 9. Miami (10); 10. Georgia Tech (13); 11. Clemson (11); 12. Florida State (8); 13. Wake Forest (12); 14. Boston College (14); 15. Virginia Tech (15).
There are, it seems, some clearly defined tiers. I’d define them like so:
Tier I: Duke, Virginia
Tier II: Louisville, UNC
Tier III: Notre Dame, Syracuse
Tier IV: N.C. Sate, Pittsburgh, Miami
Tier V: The rest, with Virginia Tech in a league of its own at the bottom.
As for preseason player of the year – might it be time to do away with the award? What purpose does it really serve? Is there a Preseason Cy Young Award winner in baseball? The Preseason MVP in the NBA?
It’s kind of a silly exercise when you think about it. And then we get to label a guy a disappointment if he doesn’t live up to (our) hype. Or if he does live up to the hype it’s, oh well – that was supposed to happen. Fun times. Paige isn’t having the kind of season he wanted – at least not yet – but he hasn’t been bad.
Yet it’s a “disappointment,” according to the pundits, because he hasn’t been the best player in the ACC. Who has been? Difficult to name anyone other than Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor.
Your nonconference All-ACC team: Okafor, Anderson, Brogdon, Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell, Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant. I’d take that team.