For all the talk about the ACC this season – about how difficult it is, about how deep, about how maybe it’s the best basketball conference ever – the final week of the regular season will be anticlimactic. The race is over, after all: North Carolina has already won the regular season.
Yes, it’s still possible for Florida State, Louisville or Notre Dame to win a share of it. They can do that if they win their final two games, and if the Tar Heels lose at Virginia on Monday and against Duke on Saturday. Even then, though, UNC will still be the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament.
And so the ACC’s regular-season race is over, done, finished. No drama left, at the very top.
That the Tar Heels wrapped it up on Saturday, with eight days remaining before the ACC’s regular season ends, speaks to the kind of season they’ve had, one in which, lately, relatively easy victories have become routine. It speaks to something else, too: Roy Williams’ continued coaching mastery.
Now, Williams probably won’t win the ACC’s Coach of the Year award. That much is all but assured, because coach of the year awards often aren’t so much about the best coach – or the best coaching job anybody did – as much as they’re about which coach’s team most exceeded preseason expectations.
And no team in the ACC more exceeded those expectations than Georgia Tech. At times during his first season there, Yellow Jackets coach Josh Pastner has said – perhaps joking, perhaps not – that he was told when he took that job that his team might not win a single conference game.
Instead it has won seven conference games. The Yellow Jackets have beaten Williams’ Tar Heels, and defeated a Florida State team that has the pieces to make a deep NCAA tournament run.
And because of that – the seven ACC victories, the two marquee wins – Pastner has emerged as the favorite to win ACC Coach of the Year. He’s a deserving candidate, undoubtedly, but let’s not kid ourselves: Pastner would win the award because Georgia Tech, as it turned out, isn’t terrible.
But what about basing that kind recognition on the opposite? What about rewarding greatness?
In fairness to the history of the ACC Coach of the Year award, it does often go to a coach whose team finished at or near the top of the league standings. Miami’s Jim Larranga won it last year, after the Hurricanes surpassed their preseason expectations.
Virginia’s Tony Bennett won it the two seasons before that, when his teams went a combined 32-4 in the ACC. And the season before that, during the 2012-13 season, Larranaga won the award for the first time.
So in the past four years, Bennett has won ACC Coach of the Year twice, and so has Larranaga. In other words: Those two coaches in the past four years have won the award the same number of times that Williams received it during his first 13 seasons at UNC.
Williams is now in his 14th season as the Tar Heels head coach. He just guided UNC to its eighth ACC regular-season championship of his tenure. And yet he’s been recognized as conference coach of the year only twice – during the 2005-06 and 2010-11 seasons.
In both, Williams deftly led the Tar Heels through some challenging circumstances. The ’05-06 team (which included an All-American freshman named Tyler Hansbrough) was the one that came after the 2005 national championship and the exodus that followed.
And the 2010-11 team, reliant on freshmen Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, brought UNC back to prominence after the Tar Heels failed the reach the NCAA tournament the season before. For Williams, those are it – his only two ACC Coach of the Year awards.
He’s deserving as any coach, if not more so, this season. The Tar Heels lost their two most important players from a team that reached the national championship game a season ago and, nearly a year later, it’s somehow arguable that UNC might just be better without Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige.
UNC has had to overcome its share of injuries, too. Theo Pinson, the team’s most versatile player, missed more than half the regular season after breaking a bone in his foot in October. More recently, Kenny Williams, who ascended to a starting role in Pinson’s absence, was lost with a knee injury.
And then there’s the biggest challenge of all: the so-called “junk,” as Williams calls it. He has acknowledged that the past few years have been the most difficult of his coaching career for a variety of reasons, and the ongoing NCAA investigation into bogus African Studies courses is at the forefront of those reasons.
The investigation continues to negatively affect recruiting. Williams has had to continue to defend his integrity, and that of his program. And though the public scrutiny surrounding Williams has diminished some, the investigation still lingers, ominously.
And yet, much to their detractors’ chagrin, the Tar Heels just keep rolling along. They won the ACC regular-season and tournament championships last season. They won the regular season again this season, and will enter the ACC tournament as the No. 1 seed.
And they keep winning with good, likeable players that are easy to root for. They include Johnson and Paige and the affable Joel James, a fan favorite, a season ago. And now, among others, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Pinson, the team jester, this season.
Indeed it’s true that Williams has some natural advantages that other coaches don’t. UNC should be great, after all, given the history and the tradition and the support. And it’s true that, even without Johnson and Paige, UNC’s talent and depth is the envy of just about every coach in the country.
This is also true, though: Winning is hard, even when everything appears to be there to win at a consistently high rate. If talent was the only thing, then Duke would likely be in first place in the ACC, perhaps with a commanding lead, and N.C. State would be in line for an NCAA tournament bid.
Instead the Blue Devils are tied for fifth in the league, and the Wolfpack, perhaps the nation’s most disappointing team, have underperformed so badly that it cost Mark Gottfried his job. Meanwhile, here are the Tar Heels, back on top of the ACC for the second consecutive season.
It’s difficult to suggest Williams doesn’t get his due. He is, after all, a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Still, he’s often overlooked in comparison to Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari and others who also coach and succeed at the highest level. Williams isn’t ever at the top of those “best coaches” lists people come up with.
His team continues to be on top of the ACC, though. The Tar Heels won the conference last year. They’ve already won at least one league championship this year. Williams might not win his third ACC Coach of the Year award, but there’s a strong case to be made that he should.
-Justin Jackson as the ACC Player of the Year favorite
Ten days ago Jackson, the UNC junior wing forward, already appeared to be a lock for first-team All-ACC honors. Now after UNC’s past three games Jackson might have positioned himself as the frontrunner for ACC Player of the Year. In those three games – victories against Virginia, Louisville and Pittsburgh – Jackson averaged 21.3 points and made 46.4 percent of his 3-point attempts.
-Miami as the team nobody will want to play in Brooklyn
The Hurricanes lost four of their first six ACC games. Since then they’re 8-2, with victories against UNC, Virginia and Duke, on Saturday. Miami hasn’t allowed its past four opponents to score more than 65 points, and the Hurricanes have quickly become one of those teams nobody will want to face in the postseason – starting next week in the ACC tournament.
-Duke as the national championship favorite
Wait a minute. Weren’t the Blue Devils just trending up as the favorite (again) to win the national championship? Well, life moves pretty fast. One week you’re riding a seven-game winning streak, looking like the team everyone expected to be the nation’s best. The next you go on the road and lose two in a row.
-Dennis Smith Jr.’s college legacy.
Smart piece by N&O colleague Joe Giglio on the legacy of Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State’s sure to be one-and-done freshman guard. And what is Smith’s legacy, exactly? Whatever it turns out to be, it’s unlikely – barring a miracle run through the ACC tournament – to be anything close to what Smith and many others thought it’d be when he arrived at N.C. State.
The four most intriguing stories to follow during the final week of conference play:
1. ACC tournament seeding: Five teams are vying for three remaining double-byes.
2. The player of the year race, which looks like it might be Justin Jackson’s to lose.
3. UNC vs. Duke on Saturday in a game with no stakes … and all the stakes (as always).
4. Can the ACC get 10 NCAA tournament teams? Wake Forest and Georgia Tech have work to do.