ACC Conference Catchup: Duke, Virginia and Louisville give the league star power

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

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

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

MIDSEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jahlil Okafor, Duke

Okafor has been the best player in the country this season, so naming him the Player of the Year in the ACC shouldn’t come as any surprise. What Okafor does for Duke is hard to limit to just one paragraph. He’s a lethal scorer on the block if you try to guard him one-on-one but he’s also a talented enough passer that Duke can run their offense through him.

THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM

  • Jahlil Okafor, Duke
  • Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: Grant is second in the league in scoring (18.4 points) and leads the conference averaging 6.2 assists. His return is the biggest reason the Irish look like a top 25 team.
  • Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: Harrell is not only averaging 16.0 points and 9.3 boards for the Cardinals, but he’s also their emotional leader and defensive sparkplug.
  • Justin Anderson, Virginia: Anderson is the leading scorer for a top five team and an ACC contender, shooting 60.9 percent from three on the season while playing his typical brand of defense.
  • Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse: The fact that Christmas is one this list is the most surprising part of the ACC season. The senior center is averaging 17.3 points and 8.8 boards.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Duke is the ACC’s best, but Virginia’s not far behind: The Blue Devils are clearly the best team in the league — they’re the closest thing to Kentucky outside of Lexington — but the Cavaliers are going to give Duke a run for their money for the league title. Virginia doesn’t have the same kind of talent that the other ACC contenders have, but they are the most disciplined and detail-oriented defense in the country. There offense isn’t high-powered, but it is efficient and balanced. All Tony Bennett does is win.

2. North Carolina is a step below the top three: Entering the season, the ACC looked like it had a pretty clear-cut top four, but through the first month and a half of the year, it’s become pretty clear that the Tar Heels are a step below Duke, Virginia and Louisville. Part of the issue is that Marcus Paige hasn’t quite found a groove this season — he will eventually — but the other part is that North Carolina just doesn’t have the ideal personnel for Roy Williams’ system. They’re still good, but they’re closer to being a top 20 team than they are a real ACC title contender.

3. There’s a major drop off after the top five: Add Notre Dame into the mix with Duke, UVA, Louisville and UNC and the top five in the ACC are better than the top five in any league in the country. After that? It gets ugly, as there isn’t a single program that looks like a lock to make the NCAA tournament. The best of the bunch is probably Syracuse, and they are in a bit of a rebuilding year this season. Florida State and Pitt lost key players, N.C. State has underperformed, Miami has fallen off a cliff since they’re hot start.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Will Louisville find a third-scorer, and what happens with Chris Jones?: Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell is the best one-two punch in the conference, but the Cardinals have yet to find a consistent third-option offensively. Chris Jones wants to be that guy, but he hasn’t grasped the concept that he’s not Russ Smith yet. There’s an argument to be made that Jones has been to worst offensive player on any top 25 team this season. He was benched in Louisville’s last win and has caused chemistry issues all season long.

2. When will the real Marcus Paige show up?: Marcus Paige is currently averaging 13.6 points and 3.8 assists while shooting 34.4 percent from three. That’s not exactly bad, but when you consider that Paige was showing up on most preseason first-team all-american lists, those numbers are a bit underwhelming. Some of it is that he’s been playing out of position as a pure point guard, but some of it is that Paige is just missing shots he usually makes. The ceiling for this Carolina team changes if he plays like an all-american.

3. Can Syracuse play their way into the Big Dance?: There are all kinds of issues with this Orange team. For starters, they have just one point guard on the roster — freshman Kaleb Joseph — and he’s been up and down in that roll. Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough have been really good up front, but there is no depth behind them. Michael Gbinije has played great of late, but he and Trevor Cooney have had consistency issues throughout their careers. They’ve played much better in recent games, but the lack of a marquee non-conference win could end up being a killer.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Duke takes home the league title: They’re the best team in the conference, they have the best player in the country and they’re the most difficult team in the league to matchup with. The two keys for Duke: Quinn Cook continuing to embrace his role as the off-guard and Justise Winslow’s ability to matchup with power forwards on the defensive end of the floor.

2. Notre Dame’s defensive issues catchup with them: The Irish are one jumper from LaDontae Henton from being undefeated entering ACC play, and they’ve done it while posting the nation’s second-most efficient offense, according to Kenpom. But they are also atrocious on the defensive end of the floor, finding themselves ranked between Akron and New Hampshire at No. 147 nationally. Notre Dame will win their share of games this season, but they need to find a way to tighten things up on that end.

3. The ACC sends two teams to the Final Four: I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s hoping Duke makes it to the Final Four and gets a chance to square off against Kentucky, but if any conference is going to send two teams to the Final Four, the ACC is the safe bet.

HOW THEY FINISH

NCAA: Duke, Louisville, Virginia, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse

NIT/CBI: Pitt, N.C. State, Miami, Florida State, Boston College

NO POSTSEASON: Clemson, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

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Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.