Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Expect the expected from ACC newcomers
By Eamonn Brennan
How do new leagues affect the teams that join them? Are we even sure they do?
Take Butler. Last summer, when the Bulldogs left the Horizon League to join the limited-offer-one-time-only 16-team Atlantic-10, the immediate reaction -- that it would have to evolve to keep up with its purportedly bigger, more athletic, more monied leaguemates -- was born of a notion that Butler's success was of a piece with its longtime conference home. Instead, in what would be Brad Stevens' final season at the helm, with zero lead time to allow for said evolution, the Bulldogs went 11-5 in league play, 27-9 overall and finished ranked No. 45 in the Pomeroy efficiency ratings. In Stevens' five previous seasons, from 2008 to 2012, Butler finished, in order, ranked No. 32, No. 45, No. 12, No. 41 and No. 110. Throw out the outliers and 2013 was a perfectly normal Butler year. The conference changed. The results did not.
This is why tempo-free analytics -- particularly those that bake competition strength into their formula -- make us better observers of the game. There are always outside factors to consider, sure, and if Butler had been moving to the Big Ten, the story would have been different. But in general, when a league and a team come together to form a mutually beneficial union, it's because the calculus is going to be simple. If Butler was good enough to finish in the top 50 in adjusted efficiency while in the Horizon League, it was good enough to do the same in the A-10. And so it did.
In other words, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame shouldn't spend too much time stressing this season's long-awaited move from the old Big East to the new ACC. Indeed, they should spend even less time worrying than Butler -- or any of its conference-climbing brethren -- ever did.
That might be the most important point: The Orange, Panthers and Irish didn't leap to the ACC because it was a better basketball league. All three are well-established, successful programs to varying degrees, and all three leapt for drastically different reasons than your average mid-major social climber.
Indeed, it can be argued that all three do more for the ACC than the ACC does for them. Whether the league will be the best in college hoops history, as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is so fond of saying, is up for endless debate. One thing's for sure: When all three arrive this fall, the ACC is not merely going to get better. It's also going to get more consistent.
Notre Dame is easily the least impressive of the new ACC additions entering the league in 2013-14. Before Notre Dame fans stop studying their color-coded football depth charts long enough to register anger at the previous sentence, they should know it says more about their fellow travelers than it does about the Irish.
Indeed, before Mike Brey arrived in 2000, the Irish spent the 1990s under Digger Phelps successor John MacLeod, who averaged a whopping 13.3 wins a season from 1991 to 1999. The fact that MacLeod averaged 13.3 wins a season and lasted for eight seasons tells you everything you need to know about where basketball ranked among the sporting priorities in South Bend, Ind. (I'd place it roughly between Interhall Football and Saturday morning consumption gymnastics.)
Brey has changed that. Since 2003, the Irish have ranked no lower than No. 48, and no higher than No. 15, in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. They posted just two sub-.500 conference records in that span, have gone to nine NCAA tournaments in Brey's tenure and have never advanced past the Sweet 16. They've been a top-50 efficiency defense just twice. They've ranked lower than No. 22 offensively the same number of seasons. The highs are never too high, the lows never too low. Notre Dame basketball stays in its lane.
Expect the same in 2013-14. The Irish will have to compensate for the loss of the country's best rebounder, Jack Cooley, but returns essentially everyone else (notably senior backcourt Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins, intriguing rising sophomore Cameron Biedscheid, and sophomore shooter Pat Connaughton) from a 2012-13 team that did what Notre Dame does: 25 wins, an 11-7 Big East record, top-20 offense, mediocre defense, culminating in an early tournament exit at the hands of Iowa State.
Brey is desperate to get the Irish deeper into the tournament, and understandably so, but the baseline he has set is admirable in and of itself. For better or worse, Notre Dame is a model of reliability. Relative to the topsy-turvy recent editions of the ACC, the program is a rock -- and a near-lock for a top-half finish next spring.
When you look closely, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame share a swath of similarities.
Both programs languished in the 1990s before a rejuvenation in the aughts. Neither program recruits surefire NBA prospects on a yearly basis, preferring to develop overlooked preps into cohesive four-year veterans. The Irish are always at their best on the offensive end; with rare exceptions, so is Pitt. The Irish always play so slowly they earn an undeserved reputation for defense from the tempo-free-averse; Pitt always plays so slowly people assume it's a great defensive team whether it deserves it or not. (And sometimes the Panthers do.) The Irish habitually stall out early in the NCAA tournament; Pitt has advanced past the Sweet 16 only once since 2004.
There is one main difference, however. Under Mike Brey, Notre Dame has been consistently Notre Dame. Under Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh has been consistently great.
That greatness hasn't always translated to single-elimination March success, but there's no denying what Dixon has built since he took over for Ben Howland in the spring of 2003. The Panthers have averaged 26.2 wins per season during his tenure, notched two Big East regular-season trophies and one conference tournament title and missed the NCAA tournament only once (in 2012, when they ranked No. 151 in adjusted defensive efficiency, only the second time Dixon's team finished outside the top 40 defensively). In those nine tournament appearances, the Panthers' average seed is No. 4.
Plus, it's not as though Dixon's teams don't deserve their hard-nosed reputation. They are almost always very good, and occasionally excellent, defensively. But they're really at their best -- and, yes, most consistent -- on the offensive glass. In 10 seasons, the Panthers have grabbed 40.2 percent of their available misses. They've ranked in the top five nationally in offensive rebounding rate in four of the past five seasons. It's not hard to figure out why Dixon's teams have earned a reputation for defense: They're slow and they don't shoot the ball well. Chalk it up to defensive intensity, right? Sometimes, maybe, but more often than not Pittsburgh excels on the offensive end because it outworks opponents for second chances on every possession.
This is going to be the case in the ACC from the opening tip in January. In 2012-13, only three ACC squads (Maryland, UNC and NC State) were among the nation's 100 best on the offensive boards, and only four (Virginia, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Miami) ranked higher than 120th in preventing opponents from grabbing second chances. The Panthers lost senior guard Tray Woodall to graduation and freshman center Steven Adams to the NBA draft, but return their typical panoply of high-motor frontcourt players and add No. 15-ranked freshman power forward Mike Young to the mix.
Whether Pittsburgh will be talented enough on both ends of the floor to win a conference title is an open question, but it will absolutely be the best rebounding team in the ACC. That should be more than sufficient to push for a top-five finish -- and maybe more.
Syracuse's greatest gift to the ACC might well be its putative and cabbie-trumpeted status as "New York's College Team." But let's be real: The addition on the court is just as big a get. The Orange are the fifth-winningest basketball program of all time. In 36 years under coach Jim Boeheim -- the second-winningest coach in college hoops history -- Syracuse has been staggeringly consistent: 34 20-win seasons, 29 NCAA tournament bids, 10 Big East titles and on down the line.
There's no reason to expect less in 2013-14. The Orange lost a significant talent load (Michael Carter-Williams, James Southerland, Brandon Triche) from their Final Four run in March, but, as is tradition, they will have plenty of talent to take their place. Boeheim has three top-100 players -- guard Tyler Ennis and forwards Tyler Roberson and B.J. Johnson -- arriving this fall. Ennis, the No. 5-ranked point in the 2013 class, is a lock to get big minutes, if not start. (Meanwhile, don't forget former Indiana signee Ron Patterson, a talented Indianapolis shooting guard who returned to prep school after failing to keep his grades up at IU last summer.) Returning senior C.J. Fair turned down the NBA draft in favor of another collegiate season of doing just about everything well. Sophomores Jerami Grant, Trevor Cooney and DaJuan Coleman -- the latter missed much of 2012-13 following knee surgery, and may be the brightest talent here -- will have big roles to play. Baye Keita is a horrifyingly long rim protector who blocked 8.2 percent of available shots last season. Rising sophomore Rakeem Christmas is even better (11.0 block rate).
That's what has made Syracuse so consistently good for nigh on 40 years: Even when the Orange are just OK offensively, Boeheim's strategic clarity, and his ability to recruit the right mix of players to play within it, have made Cuse a reliable defensive juggernaut.
Boeheim has been at this since 1976, three years before Dave Gavitt founded the original Big East. He has won 920 games since. The Orange may have a new conference logo patched onto those iconic uniforms, and Boeheim will have to search Yelp for a new Denny's for his pregame meals. But other than that, why would we expect anything to change?