ACC basketball success in January not a matter of who you play but when you play them

Roy Williams following win over Notre Dame: ‘I got my wish, I wanted to win one ugly’

Roy Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels' win over Notre Dame on Tuesday, January 15, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
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Roy Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels' win over Notre Dame on Tuesday, January 15, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

January basketball has a certain ungainly symmetry. One day you’re rolling, the next you’re rocked and reeling. Outcomes seemingly foreordained by venue and opponent suddenly turn on factors no one can foresee.

“It’s when you catch guys, there’s no question about it. And through 18 league games, which is going to become 20,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said with a pained laugh, looking a year ahead, “there’s going to be a lot of ebb and flow.”

That uneven prospect was perfectly illustrated during a four-day stretch mid-month, when team fortunes trembled like flags in a breeze and rebounding from adversity was among most everyone’s mid-season priorities.

Notre Dame was typical. Just prior to tipoff against Boston College, Irish starter and leading scorer T.J. Gibbs was sidelined by flu-like symptoms, which certainly sound unpleasant. Still, Notre Dame rebounded from a loss to Syracuse by topping B.C. at home by a basket. Then it traveled to North Carolina, commencing a run through a gantlet of league heavyweights.

Brey expected the proud Tar Heels to deliver a “big punch” following a 21-point loss to Louisville, smarting from a loss to Pitt. The margin of defeat at Chapel Hill was the most decisive of Roy Williams’ 16-season tenure.

“You’re in bounce-back mode a lot in this league, whether you’re a veteran team or a young team,” said Brey, seated in the visiting coaches’ locker room at the Smith Center. “I’m very realistic about who we are and our January league schedule,” he confided after his lineup with three underclassmen played the deeper, generally more experienced but slightly incoherent Heels to a draw for 35 minutes.

In defeat Brey was quick to identify and celebrate “silver linings” for his players, building awareness and confidence for the rest of this season and next, when everyone figures to return.

Over in Durham, on the brink of a game against Syracuse, Duke starter Cam Reddish was sidelined by an unspecified ailment strikingly similar to Gibbs’. Reddish had supposedly broken out of an extended funk by hitting the winning shot two days earlier before an uncommonly enthusiastic crowd at Tallahassee. Stunned Florida State, deprived of an affirming upset, then journeyed to Pittsburgh and lost there too.

Meanwhile, Syracuse arrived at Durham trying to recover from a double-figure home loss to Georgia Tech, like Pitt projected to finish near the bottom of the ACC. After trailing 12-0 out of the gate, an oncourt collision spared Jim Boeheim’s club a looming second-straight defeat. Already without Reddish, Duke indefinitely lost catalytic point guard Tre Jones to a shoulder injury less than six minutes into the game.

Duke Blue Devils freshman RJ Barrett scored 30 points in a 72-70 ACC basketball win over previously undefeated Virginia on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, at Cameron Indoor Stadium

Eventually the top-ranked Blue Devils fell in overtime, facilitated by 32 points from the Orange’s Tyus Battle. “Life happens. Life happened to our team tonight,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

N.C. State’s starting point guard was already hurt when the Wolfpack went to Winston-Salem the following day. Lacking Markell Johnson’s floor leadership, State suffered a second defeat in three outings after getting off to the program’s best start in 45 seasons.

The victorious Demon Deacons were deep in recovery mode after a loss at Miami, a third ACC defeat to open another season threatening to unravel. The Hurricanes had beaten Wake on the rebound from their own sour streak of three straight losses to open ACC play.

Veteran Jim Larranaga preached keeping things in perspective, preventing adversity from sullying spirits or depressing performance. “We talk about that stuff all the time,” the Miami coach said. “I use the expression: This is where we were, this is where we are now, and this is where we’re headed or this is where we need to be.”

Of course each team confronts a peculiar set of challenges. For those with thin rosters like Miami and Notre Dame, though, a lack of able players limits the options for adjustment.

A drained Gibbs, his squad’s only returning starter from 2018, played for the Irish at Chapel Hill, missed 8 of 9 shots, then got an IV treatment before leaving the arena. “Tonight we were really deep,” Brey, the coach with more wins than anyone in Notre Dame history, said facetiously. “We had seven players, seven and a half.”

The Hurricanes likewise use a seven-man rotation, composed mainly of last year’s reserves. Injuries drained Larranaga’s options. “If you look at our team, it’s like a M.A.S.H. unit,” he noted. The Canes also lost post Dewan Hernandez, one of last year’s starters, to NCAA ineligibility as fallout from the FBI bribery/agent probe,

Miami’s best perimeter players, guards Chris Lykes and D.J. Vasiljevic -- healthy after extended recuperation from injuries during the off-season -- are most effective at an uptempo pace in an open-court game. Unfortunately that approach is ill-suited to the rest of the roster. “We’re able to play at a pretty high level for awhile,” Larranaga said of his team, which saw late leads dissipate in several early-January contests. “The problem is sustaining it.”

Notre Dame proved to be the remedy for N.C. State on Saturday. The Wolfpack got a season-high 23 points from C.J. Bryce in a 77-73 road win over the Fighting Irish. (No Audio)

So the 35-year head coach tinkered with zone alignments after employing strictly man-to-man defense “90 percent” of his career. In that he resembled Krzyzewski, who made comparable compromises the past few seasons due to problems with depth or pervasive squad inexperience.

The difference, Larranaga noted tartly, speaking as a member of the ACC’s striving class, is “they do it with McDonald’s All-Americans and first-round draft choices. I’m doing it with a 5-7 point guard and a group of overachievers, and none of them are going to be drafted in the first or second round.”

As opposed to last year, when Miami’s Lonnie Walker IV and Bruce Brown, Jr., were picked in the NBA draft’s first and second rounds, respectively.

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