CBT Weekly Roundtable: Figuring out the ACC

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In a new series here on College Basketball Talk, every Friday we’re going to have a discussion about some of the hot topics in college basketball. The inaugural installment focuses on the ACC, the now 15-team conference that some stated was the greatest conference ever assembled before a game had been played. Now that we’ve seen the teams in action, who’s the favorite to win the regular season crown? And who else can make a run at challenging for the title? 

Rob Dauster: The ACC, especially the teams at the top, started out the season in fairly ugly fashion, with Duke losing to Kansas, UNC losing to Belmont and Virginia losing at home to VCU. But over the last couple weeks, Duke bounced back with a win over Michigan, Syracuse won the Maui and UNC has proven they’re going to be Team Schizophrenia this year.

Who’s your pick for winning the league? Right now, I’m still riding with Duke, especially if Marshall Plumlee can find a way to be as effective over 15-20 minutes as he was on Tuesday in six minutes. I think Syracuse is right there with the Blue Devils as well, and I’d probably slot North Carolina 4th and Notre Dame, UVA and Florida State from 5-to-7 in some order. Here’s the sleeper though: Pitt. They’re the third best team best team in the league, period.

Raphielle Johnson: I like Duke, especially with Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker on the wings and an improved point guard in Quinn Cook running the show. But who are they going to defend? The Blue Devils have put forth better efforts in their last three games, and they won’t be as bad as they were against either ECU or Vermont as the season wears on. That being said, those who are thinking that a player who isn’t even averaging ten minutes per game could potentially be the “rim protector” the Blue Devils need may not be thinking clearly.

Enter Syracuse, who has no such issues on the defensive end of the floor. Their 2-3 zone has length on the wings, and what starting guards Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney lack in that department they’ve made up for with sheer activity. And offensively this is a group that will only get better, especially as Cooney improves after struggling last season. C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant are two high-level forwards, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best out of Michael Gbinije either. This should definitely be a fun race to watch, but I’m taking Syracuse to win it with Duke, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Virginia and North Carolina next in line.

RD: I don’t think Duke necessarily needs a rim protector to be good enough to win the ACC, especially if they are going to defend on the perimeter the way they did against Arizona and Michigan. The Blue Devils game-plan well to take away what their opponents want to do and have a long track of success executing those game plans. That’s not to discredit Syracuse, because I think they’re awesome this year, but writing Duke off is just dumb, especially if Marshall Plumlee can find a way to build on the game he just played.

Seriously, though, Pitt! I’m telling you, this team is legit. Outside of Casey Prather and Xavier Thames, I can’t think of another senior that is having a more pleasantly surprising season that Lamar Patterson. Frankly, if the season ended today, he’d be an all-american. He’s been that good.

RJ: Point taken regarding Duke, and I’m with you on Pittsburgh. Outside of the one hiccup in which they landed in the CBI (and ended up winning it), the Panthers have been a consistent factor under Jamie Dixon. I don’t think that changes in the ACC, with Patterson and Talib Zanna leading the way in the front court. But here’s another name for you: Cameron Wright. He may not be the most improved player in the ACC (Maryland’s Jake Layman and Syracuse’s Jerami Grant), but Wright’s name will come up in those discussions as the season wears on. He’s given Pitt the perimeter scorer they needed with Tray Woodall graduating, and that also relieves a little of the weight on James Robinson’s shoulders.

But here’s something else I want to touch on. Prior to the season Boston College and Georgia Tech were two teams expected to show signs of improvement this season, but it can be argued that their W/L records won’t be the greatest indicator based on the strength of the ACC. Now that we’ve played some games, it’s become evident that the Eagles would have trouble guarding stationary objects. Can they turn things around before the start of league play? I like the offensive pieces, but I’m not sure they can based upon how they defend.

RD: I’ve given up on BC. Eight games into the season. Awesome.

Olivier Hanlon and Ryan Anderson are still two of the best players in the ACC, but there just isn’t the kind of toughness up and down that roster that will allow them to compete in a league as strong as the ACC.

And while we’re here … look, you shouldn’t have listened to anyone who told you that this year’s ACC was going to be the best conference of all time. If you did, that’s your fault. Maybe one year, when Syracuse, Duke, Louisville and North Carolina all are having a top ten-caliber season, we can revisit this conversation. Until then, no.

But that doesn’t mean the ACC isn’t good this year. I mean, this is still the ACC. Florida State beat the brakes off VCU. North Carolina, a team that I think will struggle to finish in the top four of the conference, has beaten Louisville on a neutral court and won at Michigan State. This is still a tough league.

RJ: I agree with your point on the “best of all time” talk. I know people were excited about the programs the ACC was adding, but that’s crazy talk based upon the fact that the league had yet to play a season in its new form. And while I get your point about the high-level programs needing to have top-ten caliber seasons, I’m not sure they’re the ones who will ultimately determine how great this league is. I know March and national polls are what most people use to determine strength in college basketball but hear me out. We know (mostly) what we’re going to get from a Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina or Louisville, and programs such as Notre Dame and Pittsburgh are solid as well. But if this league is to be the “best ever” it’ll take the improvement of the programs in the middle and lower portions of the league pecking order.

Yes they’re going to take losses in conference play, but the number of “bad” losses outside of the ACC can’t be what they’ve been in recent years. For example Georgia Tech, with the amount of talent in the Atlanta area, needs to take steps in the right direction and Wake Forest needs to do enough to get its fans to stop buying billboard space calling for the jobs of their head coach and AD. That all takes time, and that’s why there shouldn’t have been so much chatter about this being the best league ever during the preseason. But is also means that the folks who immediately jumped to bury the league last month need to exercise restraint as well. Let’s allow it all to play out, and it’ll definitely be fun to watch.

RD: Agreed.

And when North Carolina ends up winning the ACC title over Notre Dame and Virginia, we’ll just pretend this conversation never happened.

VIDEO: Allen-to-Bagley oop beats the Syracuse zone

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Usually, you’ve got to shoot a team out of a zone.

Duke might be able to dunk Syracuse out of it.

Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley connected for a beautiful alley-oop Friday in the second half of the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 contest against the Orange.

That will work as a zone-buster.

VIDEO: Duke slaps the floor on defense…while playing zone

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Slapping the floor on defense has its advocates and its detractors.

Some applaud the old-school, hard-nosed nature of putting hand to floor. For others, its a bit corny.

What everyone agrees on is that you don’t drop a floor slap if you’re playing zone.

Unless you’re Duke, apparently.

Presumably, the whole point of slapping the floor is to psyche yourself and intimidate your opponent with aggressive man-to-man defense. Not sit-back-and-guard-this-spot-whether-there’s-a-guy-there-or-not defense.

C’mon, Duke. You’re making it too easy for your haters.


Late run sparks Villanova past West Virginia, into Elite Eight

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BOSTON — It is always just a matter of time before the avalanche comes.

And when it does, you better hope that lead you have is big enough to withstand what’s coming.

For No. 5-seed West Virginia, it was not. With 11 minutes left on Friday night in Boston’s TD Garden, the Mountaineers led 60-54 and had seemingly wrestled control of the game from the No. 1-seed in the East Region. Less than five minutes later, after the Wildcats hit four of their next five threes, Villanova had taken a 76-66 lead by going on a 22-6 run, and West Virginia was never able to recover.

Jalen Brunson led the way for the top-seeded Wildcats with 27 points and four assists while Omari Spellman finished with 18 points, eight boards and three blocks and Mikal Bridges chipped in with 16 points despite playing relatively poorly — by his standards — on Friday.

With a 90-78 win, Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight and a date with the winner of tonight’s game No. 2 Purdue-No. 3 Texas Tech.

That’s the way that it works with this Villanova team. Armed with the most potent, high-volume three-point shooting attack in college basketball — maybe in the history of college basketball — fans of their opponents are just waiting for the inevitable.

On Friday night, Villanova shot 13-for-24 from three, which is damned-impressive and exactly what we expect at the same time.

But what changed the game was that 22-6 run that eventually turned into a 29-11 surge.

And it all started with a free throw.

Brunson drew a foul on Lamont West — a common theme for the Wildcats in the second half — and got to the foul line with 10:58 left on the clock. After he missed the second free throw, Spellman knocked the rebound out of bounds off of Esa Ahmad. Brunson against drew a foul, this time earning an and-one. A missed jumper from Beetle Bolden led to two Eric Paschall free throws before Jalen Brunson someone managed to find Mikal Bridges for a three that gave the Wildcats the lead and led to what might have been the most important sequence of the game.

Spellman spiked a Bolden shot straight down into the floor and then corralled the loose ball. He found Phil Booth with an outlet, and after a missed layup, Spellman beat everyone else down the floor for a massive tip-dunk that set off the Villanova-favored crowd:

“We expect that of him,” Brunson said of Spellman. “He’s supposed to play at a high level every game.”

After that stretch, Villanova threw it into cruise control. That West Virginia defense that had bothered them so much for the first 30 minutes of the game seemed to be nothing more than a mild annoyance, a little brother batting at the ball as the Wildcats pulled away. First it was Donte Divincenzo — who was flat-out bad, the player that was most-victimized by West Virginia’s pressure — hitting a three to push the lead to six. Then after two West Virginia free throws, Brunson dribbled Jevon Carter into the post before kicking the ball out to Spellman for a three. Paschall would dunk on Sagaba Konate the next time the Wildcats had the ball before Brunson capped the run by drilling a step-back three in the face of Carter.

Once that happened, everyone knew the end result was inevitable.

“We got used to the physicality, we got used to the aggressiveness, and we were executing better,” head coach Jay Wright said. “We thought that was going to be the case. You just can’t simulate that, you know. You got to just get in that game and feel it.”

“I have so much respect for the way West Virginia plays, how physical, how relentless they play, how mentally tough they are. Really, you’ve got guys, they don’t talk any junk. A little with Konate and Omari got into it a little bit, no biggie, but the whole game, they don’t say anything. They just come at you physically, aggressively, and mentally tough. So if you’re not better in those areas, they’re going to get you. And to see our guys come out, more to be able to compete with them physically and mentally, it was really impressive to me.”

Me, too.

VIDEO: Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall with mammoth dunks for Villanova

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Villanova took the lead on West Virginia and turned the tide of momentum with a pair of emphatic dunks in transition.

It started with Omari Spellman, who had an unbelievable sequence, spiking a shot into the floor before throwing down a put-back dunk all over a defender:

A couple of possessions later, Eric Paschall finally did the impossible.

He dunked on Sagaba Konate:

I am having way too much fun at this game.

No. 1 Kansas into Elite Eight with win over No. 5 Clemson

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OMAHA, Neb. — Once Kansas found its stride, Clemson had little chance of keeping pace – even after a late stumble.

The No. 1 Jayhawks ran away from the No. 5 Tigers with a second-half flurry that powered them to a 80-76 victory Friday night at CenturyLink Center to put them in the Elite Eight on Sunday against either Duke or Syracuse.

Kansas moves on to the Midwest Region final on the back of a second-half offense that Clemson had nearly no success in slowing until the final minutes, when the Tigers turned a 20-point laugher into  a six-point nail-biter.

“I thought for 30 minutes, I thought we played very well,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “But we just kind of played not to lose down the stretch and allowed them to put some game pressure on us.

“But they say this time of year is survive and advance, and we were able to do that. And certainly very happy about getting a chance to play in the biggest game of our season thus far Sunday.”

Malik Newman paced Kansas with 17 points while Devonte Graham 16 and Udoka Azubuike 14 and 11 rebounds.

“My confidence is sky high,” Newman said. “I’m not really out there thinking anymore, just playing, doing what Coach asked me to do and just trying to make plays, winning plays for the team to win. I mean, I just credit it to my teammates and the coaches.”

Clemson got 31 points from senior Gabe DeVoe, but there just wasn’t enough help around him for the Tigers to keep things competitive after the Jayhawks hit them with three-consecutive 3s in the opening minutes of the second half to open up a 20-point lead.

“I just tried in any way possible to give my team a chance to win at the end,” DeVoe said. “Really tried to rally the guys in the first half when we got down, just continued to fight. Made
some big stops down the stretch, gave us a chance but we just weren’t able to get over the hump.”

Clemson was already hanging on by a threat after it shot just 35.7 percent from the floor and committed eight turnovers. DeVoe’s 12 first-half points kept the Tigers afloat, but they never enjoyed a lead before halftime.

The Jayhawks, meanwhile, had five players  score at least six points in the first half, including 10 from Azubuike, Their usual strengths – 3-point shooting (4 of 13) and Devonte Graham (1 of 7) – were absent in the first half, but Clemson was unable to take advantage as Kansas continued to get quality looks inside and stops on defense.

The Jayhawks previously played Syracuse in December, beating the Orange by 16 on a neutral floor in Miami. They haven’t faced the Blue Devils, though they have already shared a building with them once this year in the Champion’s Classic. Kansas topped Kentucky, 65-61, while Duke defeated Michigan State, 88-81, that November night in Chicago.