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Cameron Johnson ending his slump is big for No. 15 North Carolina

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When it comes to the long-term hopes of No. 15 North Carolina, not only to win the ACC but to also be a national title contender, the play of veterans Joel Berry II and Luke Maye will be critical.

Rated among the best in the country at their respective positions, Berry and Maye entered Tuesday’s game against No. 20 Clemson averaging a combined 35.6 points per game.

Yet it would be two other Tar Heels, Kenny Williams III and Cameron Johnson, who combined to do the damage that dropped the visiting Tigers to 0-59 all-time in Chapel Hill. North Carolina won 87-79, holding off a Clemson squad that shot 61.3 percent from the field in the second half due in large part to the work done in the first half.

While both Maye and Berry II were kept quiet in the first half, Williams (12 points) and Johnson (eight) combined to score 20 points in the stanza. Johnson would finish the game with 21 points, the most that the Pitt transfer has scored in a North Carolina uniform, and Williams would add 15 as Roy Williams’ team moved to 4-2 in ACC play.

Berry (17 points, four assists), Theo Pinson (12 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Maye (11 points, four rebounds, five assists) all performed better in the second half, making it possible for the Tar Heels to hang on despite being challenged by a team that made ten of its first 11 second-half shots.

Williams and Johnson have proven themselves to be capable supplementary scorers this season, with the former averaging just over 12 points per game on the season and the latter at 9.7. But in the case of Johnson, following up his 2-for-10 effort in Saturday’s win over Notre Dame by shooting 7-for-10 from the field (6-for-9 3PT) is a needed bounce-back effort.

Prior to Tuesday night, Johnson reached double figures just once in the four games prior (14 vs. Boston College) and shot a combined 3-for-16 from three. Getting Johnson back on track is a big deal for North Carolina, and if his performance against Clemson can serve as a spark that would certainly bode well for the Tar Heels moving forward.

A productive Johnson affords Roy Williams the luxury of playing a “small” lineup in which Johnson mans the four and Maye the five. This North Carolina team isn’t like past editions in the Williams era, as many of those squads possessed the ability to have two “true” big men on the court at all times. With the big men lost from last year’s national title team, it’s been Maye carrying much of the load with freshmen Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley both looking to work their way into the fold.

A consistent Johnson not only makes North Carolina better, but it’s also a necessity given the team’s available options.

As for Clemson, this game felt like one of the program’s best chances to finally pick up that elusive win in Chapel Hill. Brad Brownell’s group entered the game with a 15-2 record, and with the improvements both in the post (Elijah Thomas) and on the perimeter (Marquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell) this is a group that has some staying power.

But Reed, Mitchell and forward Donte Grantham got off to frigid starts, combining to score two points on 0-for-13 shooting from the field in the first half. Despite the first-half efforts of Thomas the hole was too deep to climb out of, with Clemson pulling to within two on multiple occasions in the second half. Reed got hot in the second stanza, finishing the game with 21 points, and Mitchell would add 18 points to the effort.

Now 1-1 halfway through an important four-game stretch — Notre Dame next, followed by a trip to Charlottesville to take on No. 2 Virginia — when it comes to their NCAA tournament seeding prospects, Clemson paid the price for its inability to knock down shots in the early going. But in their comeback, the Tigers put forth a performance along the lines of what they’ve managed to do for much of this season to date.

Unfortunately for Clemson, its supplementary scorers were unable to match the production of Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams III.

ACC Conference Reset: How many contenders are there?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the ACC.

MIDSEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Marvin Bagley III

He’s getting overshadowed some by fellow freshman Trae Young, but Bagley has been awesome this season. He’s averaging 21.2 points and 10.9 rebounds while shooting 61.7 percent from the floor and a respectable 34.6 percent from 3-point range for a 6-foot-11 forward. He’s gone into Duke and been dominant, helping the Blue Devils to a 12-1 record while easing the burden – and dimming the spotlight – on Grayson Allen. If Duke wins its sixth national championship, Bagley very well could be the reason why.

THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM

  • MARVIN BAGLEY, Duke
  • BONZIE COLSON, Notre Dame: The 6-foot-6 power forward is one of the most fun watches in college basketball. The senior is at the height of his powers, averaging 21.3 points on 54.1 percent shooting
  • LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: He’s averaging a double-double of 18.1 points and 10.5 rebounds a year after putting up 5.5 and 3.9, respectively. Pretty clear he’s no NCAA tournament fluke.
  • GRAYSON ALLEN, Duke: It’s nice to only be talking about Allen’s game after last season’s tripping-induced meltdown. His 137.1 offensive rating is by far a career best, as is his 45.2 percent mark from 3-point range.
  • KYLE GUY, Virginia: The top knot may be gone, but Guy’s production has stayed with the new haircut. He’s getting buckets in bunches while carrying a big offensive load for the Cavaliers.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, Miami, Clemson, Notre Dame, Florida State, Louisville
  • NIT: Virginia Tech, Syracuse, North Carolina State
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Boston College
Marvin Bagley III (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. VIRGINIA STAYS VIRGINIA: Tony Bennett’s program continues to be one of the most consistent in the country. The losses of Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill led to a 23-11 season and a five-seed in the NCAA tournament last year. The Cavaliers looked prime for a slip with the graduate of London Perrantes and the transfer of Marial Shayok, but instead they’re 11-1 and an established ACC frontrunner.

Of course, Kyle Guy’s offense and Devon Hall’s emergence on that end of the floor has been huge, but it’s all about defense with the Cavaliers. They’re allowing an opponent effective field goal percentage of 42.4, seventh in the country. That’s powered by an opponent 2-point shooting percentage of 39.9, an absurdly low number. The pack-line just produces, or, rather, stops others from producing.

2. THIS DUKE TEAM LOOKS FAMILIAR: A truly special group of freshmen – including a dominant big man, an efficient point guard and a dynamic wing – surrounding a special senior. The Duke of 2017-18 is looking suspiciously like Mike Krzyzewski’s 2014-15 team that cut down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The separation between the two right now is defense – the Blue Devils currently rank 73rd in adjusted defense – but that 2015 group was pretty brutal on that end of the floor as well until its NCAA tournament run rocketed them up the rankings. If Duke continues to rate as the country’s best offense, the defense only has to get marginally better for this Duke team’s season to finish in the same manner as 2015’s.

3. LUKE MAYE IS A STAR: Maye’s career path is astounding. He went from agreeing to initially walk-on at North Carolina to barely playing as a freshman to being a rarely-used reserve as a sophomore who became a sensation with his breakout play in UNC’s run to through the NCAA tournament to a national championship last year. He’s proving he’s no novelty act this season.

Maye is averaging a double-double while shooting 52.8 percent from the floor and 45.9 percent from 3-point range. He’s adding in 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks per game too for good measure. He’s not a complete rags-to-riches story as Maye had plenty of high-major offers coming out of high school, but his development – in conjunction with his expanded role – is something rarely seen in the college game today, especially at a blue blood like North Carolina.

Luke Maye (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. HOW MANY CONTENDERS ARE THERE?: Duke is probably the consensus favorite to win the ACC, but the conference looks strong at the top. How many teams can legitimately lay claim to contender status? Right now, the number looks like six, including the Blue Devils.

Virginia’s case has already been laid out above. The Cavs are going to defend, and that’s going to give them a shot. The Tar Heels, a loss to Wofford notwithstanding, look a worthy successor to last year’s title team. Miami’s defense looks legit, Clemson has wins over Ohio State, Florida and South Carolina while Notre Dame and Florida State have looked intriguing enough.The bottom of the league may be soft, but the top will be a brawl.

2. WHAT’S NEXT FOR LOUISVILLE?: David Padgett and the Cardinals are 10-2, but their best win is over an Indiana team that already has six losses (shoutout to Indiana State and Fort Wayne). Against their only other real competition, Purdue and Seton Hall, Louisville lost by nine and two points, respectively. So, how good is this team?

Here’s betting they’re somewhere around “meh.” The offense hasn’t really hummed all year, and the defensive numbers are probably inflated by substandard competition. With a mediocre offense and a good-but-probably-not-great defense, Louisville is probably on track for the bubble. Then begins the incredibly intriguing situation regarding its coaching position.`

3. COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT: Clemson’s Brad Brownell and Boston College’s Jim Christian both entered the season under some serious pressure to win. The Tigers made the NCAA tournament in Brownell’s first season, 2010-11, but haven’t since while Christian’s Eagles had six ACC wins in his first three seasons, including an 0-18 campaign in 2016.

Both are off to strong starts – Clemson is 11-1 while BC is 10-3 with a win over Duke – but both their futures will likely be decided in how the next three months play out. What’s good enough? For Clemson, it’s probably a tourney birth. For Boston College, the bar is probably competency and competitiveness in the ACC. The other situation to monitor is Pitt. Kevin Stallings is in just his second year, but season No. 1 was something of a debacle and this campaign already features losses to Navy and Montana. If the Panthers can’t hang in the ACC, it wouldn’t be shocking to hear the drum beat from Pitt fans to give Stallings an early hook gain some momentum.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. BONZIE FOR PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Marvin Bagley is the best player in the conference, but here’s betting that Colson gets the nod for ACC Player of the Year. Colson is going to put up big numbers, Notre Dame should be pretty good and voters will probably break any ties by giving the nod to a senior with a distinguished career over a freshman who was never destined to spend more than a few months on campus. Right, wrong or indifferent, that’s the way it often works. And Colson is awesome, so he could just win the thing going away.

2. DAVID PADGETT DOESN’T KEEP THE LOUISVILLE GIG: Padgett has done a good job in a bad situation. He’s kept Louisville together despite the turmoil that’s inherent to the circumstances of losing a Hall of Fame coach and athletic director amidst the fallout of a federal investigation into corruption in college basketball (what an amazing sentence, tbh). The Cardinals are playing well and go into tonight’s game against Kentucky with a puncher’s chance. Still, it seems unlikely he’ll win enough to force Louisville to keep him on, and given the expectations in the program and fan base, that would seem to be the only way they hire a 32-year-old with no previous head coaching experience on full time.

3. N.C. STATE WILL SURPRISE: The Wolfpack raised some eyebrows when they knocked off Arizona, but that proved to be more about the Wildcats as it tipped off their three-game losing streak. NC State followed it up with losses to Northern Iowa and Tennessee, and then dropped one to Greensboro. So, not exactly a completely promising non-conference slate for Kevin Keatts’ group. They’re still kind of intriguing, though, The offense is pretty good, the defense seemingly has to get better and there’s plenty of talent on the roster. The Wolfpack probably won’t immediately figure it out and become an NCAA tournament shoe-in, but look for them to jump up and cause some problems for the league’s top teams.

Miami SG Bruce Brown Jr. to miss next 2 games

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No. 10 Miami will be without a starter for at least the next two games, beginning with Tuesday’s home game against Boston University. The program announced that sophomore guard Bruce Brown Jr. will miss at least two games due to a left hand injury, with the expectation being that he will be able to play in the Diamond Head Classic later this month.

After Tuesday’s game the Hurricanes will be off until December 16, when they visit George Washington. Following that is the Diamond Head Classic, with Miami opening play against host Hawai’i on December 22.

The 6-foot-5 sophomore from Boston is averaging 11.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists in 32.3 minutes per game this season. Brown’s shooting 46.5 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from three, with both percentages being improvements from his freshman season.

In averaging 11.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game last season, Brown shot 45.9 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from three.

With Brown out of the lineup, freshmen Lonnie Walker IV and Chris Lykes stand to get even more opportunities for the 7-0 Hurricanes. As reserves Walker and Lykes are averaging 7.6 and 7.0 points per game, respectively. Walker’s played an average of 21.0 minutes per game, with Lykes not far behind with an average of 16.1 minutes per game.

Walker was moved into the starting lineup for Tuesday’s game.

Georgia Tech loses after tipping missed shot into its own basket

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Just days after beating Northwestern on a Tadric Jackson layup as time expired, Georgia Tech lost a game in shocking fashion to Grambling State Friday night. After trailing for much of the game the Yellow Jackets mounted a furious rally and was one stop away from escaping with the win.

Josh Pastner’s team was unable to get that stop however, as Ivy Smith Jr.’s missed layup was mistakenly tapped into the basket by a Georgia Tech player. Both Curtis Haywood II and Ben Lammers attempted to grab the rebound, but the combination of hands wound up knocking the ball into the basket. Final score: Grambling State 64, Georgia Tech 63.

Entering Friday’s game, Grambling State was on a run of 63 consecutive losses to teams from high-major conferences. And in the five seasons prior to the 2016-17 campaign, a season in which the Tigers won 16 games, Grambling State won a total of 18 games.

Grambling State wasn’t expected to be in the game at all, much less play as well as it did before Georgia Tech made its second-half rally. The Tigers got the win in the end, albeit in bizarre fashion.

NC State loses Darius Hicks to torn ACL

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Shortly before the team’s game against Penn State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the NC State men’s basketball program announced that it will be without two front court players. Darius Hicks, who injured his right knee during practice earlier this week, will miss the remainder of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Also sitting out Wednesday’s game is senior Abdul-Malik Abu, who has been dealing with soreness in his right knee. Abu, who suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain in the knee in October, is considered to be on a “game by game” basis with regards to his return to the court.

Hicks, a 6-foot-7 sophomore from Quitman, Mississippi, has been on the fringe of the NC State front court rotation for much of his time on campus. This season he played an average of 8.5 minutes per game, accounting for 4.3 points and 3.0 rebounds per night. Hicks, who did not play in the Battle 4 Atlantis last weekend, scored ten points and grabbed five rebounds in a win over Bryant on November 14.

As for Abu, the 6-foot-8 senior from Boston was expected to a key cog in the Wolfpack front court attack after averaging 11.8 points and 7.0 rebounds per game as a junior. Abu did not make his 2017-18 debut until the Battle 4 Atlantis, playing 17 minutes and tallying eight points and eight rebounds in NC State’s win over then-No. 2 Arizona.

With Abu out of the lineup for the foreseeable future, the production of senior Lennard Freeman and sophomore Omer Yurtseven will be of even greater importance for the Wolfpack. Freeman is averaging 12.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game this season, with Yurtseven accounting for 11.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per night.

Virginia Tech’s Khadim Sy leaves program

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Virginia Tech lost a piece to its frontline on Thursday, as the program announced that sophomore forward Khadim Sy had left the program.

“We are genuinely grateful for the fifteen months Khadim was part of our program, and all he contributed on and off the floor,” Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams said in a statement. “I will be watching the rest of his career unfold, and wish him only great things.”

Originally considered a three-star prospect by Rivals, the 6-foot-10 Sy picked the Hokies over Georgia Tech, Kansas State, Miami, and Purdue. In his lone season in Blacksburg, he started in 28 of 32 games, averaging 4.0 points and 2.7 rebounds in 11.4 minutes per game.

Sy’s departure leaves Virginia Tech’s front court in an even more precarious situation entering the 2017-18 season. Zach LeDay, the team’s top scorer and rebounder from a season ago, has graduated. Chris Clarke is coming off a torn ACL he suffered in February. Ty Outlaw suffered an ACL tear of his own less than two months ago. Kerry Blackshear Jr. returns after missing all of this past season in order to recover from a foot injury.

The only other forwards on Virginia Tech’s roster are freshman P.J. Horne and 6-foot-10 Nick Fullard, who sat out last season after transferring from a Division II program.

Since late July, Buzz Williams has lost two returning starters. The Hokies still have a strong backcourt led by the veteran trio of Ahmed Hill, Justin Robinson, and Justin Bibbs. Even with a healthy Clarke and a healthy Blackshear, depth up front is a serious concern for the Hokies

Virginia Tech opens its season on Nov. 10 against Detroit Mercy.