The ACC finally has a race worth watching
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Time was tight. Roads were still melting. But just after 5 p.m. ET Saturday, on Interstate 40 near Exit 285 between Durham and Raleigh, one task seemed more necessary than usual: scanning the XM stations, searching for the Boston College-Virginia and Wake Forest-Georgia Tech scores.
After watching Duke throttle Maryland, and en route to an NC State-North Carolina showdown, there was already plenty of notable hoops action to absorb. And during most ACC seasons of late, those "other games" probably would have been an afterthought, what with Duke and/or UNC mostly dominating the top of the standings for the past decade and a half.
But something feels different so far this season.
Upperclassman-heavy Miami -- still considered more of a "football" or "baseball" school -- is the only undefeated team in ACC play, at 5-0. Four teams, including top-ranked Duke and No. 18 NC State, already have two league losses. UNC has three.
Four upsets -- Miami and NC State over Duke, Maryland and Wake Forest over NC State -- have led to court-rushing celebrations. And it's only late January.
Even Georgia Tech and Boston College (both 1-5) had given conference foes fits.
Call it parity, call it mediocrity -- realistically, it's some combination of the two -- but there's finally a reason to pay early attention to what's going on throughout the ACC and to teams that don't play their home games near Tobacco Road.
"If you take somebody lightly in this league right now, you're going to lose,'' UNC coach Roy Williams said before his team blew out Maryland and Georgia Tech last week, only to be dominated by the Wolfpack. "I don't care who you are or who you're playing."
Williams said he thinks there's more balance in the league, from top to bottom, than any other time in his 10 seasons as the Tar Heels' coach.
A few of the wild swings:
• Virginia opened its ACC season by beating UNC, only to lose on the road versus Wake Forest and Clemson, only to then come home and win three straight by double figures. The Cavs are currently tied for third place in the league.
• Wake followed a two-point upset of 18th-ranked NC State with a 20-point loss at Georgia Tech (which had been the final winless team in the league, until Saturday). Predicted to finish near the bottom of the league, the Deacons are tied for fifth place, with four losses.
• Duke beat three top-five teams during a three-week stretch in nonconference play, only to go 2-2 in its past four games without starting forward Ryan Kelly. The Devils, like NC State, are trailing the No. 25 Hurricanes by two defeats.
There are multiple reasons for the trickle down of balance: New coaches (nine in the league since 2009-10) have finally had a chance to cultivate their teams and game plans, adding some new traction. Meanwhile, early (and earlier) entry into the NBA has left other squads, such as UNC, scrambling to fill holes they weren't expecting.
The traditional top teams -- especially now that Duke is rejiggering without Kelly -- aren't as good, and only three squads are ranked.
Meanwhile, Nos. 10, 11 and 12 in the ACC standings aren't quite as bad.
"The parity in the league -- it's early in the conference season, guys are still feeling guys out," Virginia Tech first-year coach James Johnson said earlier this week. "I think it's young. You put a lot of young players out there on the floor, the inconsistency with certain guys, you can see that."
Plus, the league is in the first year of a new 18-game schedule, meaning more contests and more opportunities for upsets -- and, the coaches hope, growth.
"I think North Carolina's pretty good," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said last week. "They weren't that good earlier in the year, but they were [against the Terps last weekend]. Florida State's pretty darn good. They struggled early, they're athletic, gave us some problems. I think Virginia can potentially be better than they were last year.
"You can go through all the teams, see a lot more consistency. Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, we know are better. I do think it's a much deeper and better league than it was last year."
With the potential to be very different a month from now.
It will be curious to see, over the next few weeks, when separation in the standings starts to occur. Is Duke finally starting to mesh again, sans Kelly? Will clutch shooter Michael Snaer put Florida State on his back once again? Can Maryland and Virginia, who have the potential to be NCAA tournament teams, make a push? Which way will UNC go after losing to rival NC State for the first time since 2007?
From top to bottom, it's finally worth tuning in.
Five things I learned about the ACC on Saturday:
1. NC State has oodles of potential. Three guys recorded a double-double and two others scored in double figures to break the Pack's 13-game losing streak to rival UNC. If they can stretch Saturday's first 20 minutes of defense over entire games, as well -- wow.
2. Duke is still vulnerable. It was great to watch freshmen Rasheed Sulaimon (25 points) and Amile Jefferson (11 points, nine rebounds) stand out during a bounce-back win after Wednesday's debacle in Miami, but the team is still adapting while Kelly's right foot heals.
3. Virginia is a really, really good defensive team. So, duh, we already knew this. But considering only one ACC foe has scored more than 60 points (and one, FSU, managed only 36), it bears repeating.
4. UNC is confusing. What is this team good at, consistently? (Besides being inconsistent?)
5. Wake Forest is still Wake Forest. Following a two-point upset of the Wolfpack with a 20-point meltdown at Georgia Tech? Road games are always tough in this league, but that's not the way to bolster Jeff Bzdelik's job security.
Three things I still want to know about the ACC:
1. How long can the Hurricanes stay undefeated in the conference? They've got a home game against FSU today and road games at Virginia Tech and NC State this week. Predictions, anyone?
2. When does Erick Green get 40 this season? The Virginia Tech guard, who leads the nation in scoring, scored 35 in a loss to Virginia earlier this week, and it doesn't appear he'll be slowing down anytime soon. His season low is 12.
3. How many ACC teams ultimately make the NCAA tournament? ESPN's Joe Lunardi has fluctuated between four and five thus far in his Bracketology, including Duke, NC State, Miami, UNC and Maryland. But Virginia and FSU could still be factors.
Observations from Saturday's games
1. Kentucky does not look like a tournament team. Unless the tournament in question is the NIT.
I know, I know: A win is a win, and Kentucky held on for a 75-70 home victory over LSU on Saturday. And I know: There's still some time left for this young Kentucky team to figure it all out. But it's clear, at least right now, that the Wildcats have some pretty significant flaws, flaws that could put their already tenuous tournament position in even greater jeopardy the rest of the way.
Chief among them? Defense. The Wildcats had allowed .97 points per possession in SEC play prior to Saturday, seventh-best in a league that most certainly does not house seven good teams. (Maybe three.) It ranked last in the league in forced-turnover rate, and it had allowed SEC opponents to grab 32.1 percent of available offensive rebounds, 10th-best in the conference. These same flaws were apparent Saturday, too. Kentucky scored efficiently throughout the game; it shot 52 percent from the field and a tidy 61 percent from inside the arc (it shot 11 3-pointers and made just two). And still the Wildcats allowed the Tigers -- a 10-7 team with a 1-5 SEC record and the 209th-ranked offense in the country, per KenPom.com -- to put up 70 points at Rupp Arena, to push for a game-tying play until the final possession, to make Ashley Judd a nervous wreck on live television.
Kentucky began the week with a No. 10 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest bracket, and that sounds about right, but that was before Tuesday's loss at Alabama. If I had to bet on UK making it to the tournament or not this season, I'd take the former option. But if it can't get at least some separation from the worst teams in its own down league at home, John Calipari's team will find itself at serious risk of missing the tournament just 11 months after winning it all. Heck, that risk is already here.
2. Minnesota's losses are starting to pile up. Lose at Indiana? No big deal -- you're supposed to lose at Indiana. Lose at home to Michigan? Not preferable, but hey, Michigan's really good. Lose a low-scoring game at Wisconsin? Welcome to the last decade of Big Ten play, right?
Taken separately, none of those three losses -- the latest of which came today, 45-44 in Madison -- is cause for overwhelming concern. But taken alongside Minnesota's 55-48 loss at Northwestern on Wednesday, it's no wonder why Gophers fans are starting to freak out. Saturday's result makes for four consecutive losses in Big Ten play.
That would be bad enough, but the methods by which these losses have come have been a product of both bad defense (Indiana and Michigan scored a combined 1.24 points per possession) and bad offense (the Gophers were held to just .84 points per trip against Northwestern and Wisconsin) -- a veritable sampler pack of ways to lose Big Ten games.
Even worse? Forward Trevor Mbakwe reinjured his wrist on the final play Saturday, which forced forward Rodney Williams to take the game-deciding free throws, the last of which he clanged. If that injury causes Mbakwe to miss games, the Gophers, who rely so much on offensive rebounds, could lose their best rebounder and interior scorer. You never want to encourage panic in January, not for a team this good anyway. But if Minnesota fans start freaking out ... well, you can understand where they're coming from, at least.
3. Duke had a "program win" over Maryland. That's what guard Quinn Cook called Duke's 84-64 win over the Terps on Saturday afternoon, and whether you're willing to go that far or not, the fact of the matter is that Duke rebounded from its unsightly 90-63 thrashing at Miami -- during which the Hurricanes slapped the floor defensively, openly (and comedically) taunting Duke in the second half of a blowout -- with gusto.
The freshmen led the way, particularly shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson, and that is excellent news for a team that needs other contributors to step up as Ryan Kelly recovers from the foot injury that has kept him out of Duke's lineup for much of January. More than anything, though, Saturday's bounce-back victory showed that the Blue Devils' horrific Wednesday night wasn't necessarily the sign of a larger decline. If anything, it was a sign of just how good Miami really is.
4. Iowa State got a huge win over Kansas State. Late January is not too early for a fan base to be concerned with its bubble team's prospective position, and right now it seems like it's the only thing many basketball fans in Iowa -- both fans of Iowa and Iowa State -- can talk about. The Cyclones will have other opportunities to get big résumé wins in Big 12 play, but they took advantage of a major one when they toppled No. 11-ranked Kansas State 73-67.
Led by Will Clyburn's 24 points and 10 boards, the Cyclones shot 64 percent in the second half, hoisting up 47 points on a good K-State defense. In Bubble Land, these are the kind of games -- against good but beatable teams at home -- you have to take advantage of. For Iowa State, which suffered a horrible loss at Texas Tech on Wednesday night, it was just what the doctor ordered.
5. It's time to pay attention to Arizona State. This is not the first time we've said as much about Jahii Carson and the Sun Devils* this season, but it is the first time Herb Sendek's team has backed it up with a quality win.
Just last week, as Arizona State prepared to play rival Arizona in its own building, we all perked up, forced to pay attention to a team with a 14-3 record -- coming off a three-point loss at Oregon -- hosting its hated in-state rival at home. Naturally, Arizona proceeded to stomp Carson & Co., and it was just as easy to discard Arizona State once more. After all, who had the Sun Devils actually beaten? Arkansas? Colorado at home? Meh. Meh.
Not anymore. Arizona State's 78-60 win over UCLA on Saturday eliminates wipes away that dismissive disclaimer. It's a good win in its own right, but it's made doubly impressive by the fact that UCLA is coming off its own uber-impressive victory Thursday night at Arizona. Maybe the Bruins were tired. They certainly looked it.
But it would be folly to take any credit away from ASU, which was led by a 40-minute performance from Carson (who has more 20-point games than any other ASU freshman in school history, save James Harden and Ike Diogu), a 22-point, 15-rebound performance (on 10-of-12 shooting, no less) from center Jordan Bachynski and a defensive performance that held hot-shooting UCLA to just 25-of-72 from the field (and just 5-of-24 from 3).
The win moves Arizona State to 16-4 and 5-2 in the Pac-12, a stunning turnaround from the depths the program sank into in 2011-12. Sendek has turned things around quickly, and it would be a mistake to dismiss Carson and friends anymore.
*Come to think of it, that would make a pretty good name for a band.
To read Eamonn's full post, click here.
Teams of the week:
Villanova and La Salle
The Wildcats beat top-five teams Louisville and Syracuse at home. When this schedule popped up, it was be hard to imagine the Wildcats sweeping the homestand. This is the same team that got run by Columbia, not exactly a dominant team in the Ivy.
Yet, Villanova coach Jay Wright has done an outstanding job of managing this young team. The Wildcats were the aggressor throughout the game. Wright said late Saturday night, "This week was a week of unity and confidence-building for this new group. They weren't a part of any of our past successes. This week, it is theirs to own.''
Own it they did. Villanova has put itself into the conversation going forward. There is still a lot of work to do because of losses to Columbia and Providence. The Cats have 11 games left, six on the road, and can't afford to lose to teams below them in the standings. Villanova needs to start to establish itself as an upper-half Big East team away from home and create some separation so the two top-five wins have the shelf life they deserve.
The Explorers knocked off ranked teams -- Butler at home and VCU on the road -- in consecutive games for the first time since the 1952 NIT. La Salle has a big-time talent who gets little pub in Ramon Galloway. All he did was score 31 points on the Rams, giving VCU only its third loss in 26 home games.
La Salle now has to be taken seriously in the A-10. The wins over Butler and VCU were not a fluke. John Giannini has been building toward this season for years. The patience will be rewarded with a team that is suddenly in the hunt for an NCAA berth or at the very least a real threat to win the conference tournament.
Five others worthy of mention
Miami: The Hurricanes established themselves as the team to beat in the ACC with a 27-point pounding of Duke in Coral Gables. Miami starts four of five seniors and has the depth to win the league. Getting Reggie Johnson back will only enhance this team's strength.
Georgetown: The Hoyas are suddenly a threat to be a Big East title contender again. Georgetown's defense held Notre Dame to 47 points in South Bend and then kept Louisville to 51 points. Now the Hoyas have to continue to find ways to score without Greg Whittington, who is out because of academics.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils swept the L.A. schools behind a balanced attack from Jahii Carson and Carrick Felix. ASU is emerging as a consistent top-four team in the Pac-12. Don't be surprised if ASU is in the thick of the race deep into February and early March for a top-three finish. The problem for ASU, like Arizona and UCLA, is the Sun Devils don't play Oregon anymore.
Ole Miss: The Rebels made the week even more interesting by dancing late into games with Tennessee and Auburn. But Ole Miss won both games to set itself up to chase Florida for the SEC title. Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson continues to make plays but probably needs to dial it back just a tad. He had the Auburn fans revved up and then showed them his shirt after the late-possession win, prompting some crude comebacks from the Tiger fans. Still, Henderson is a baller who will be in contention for SEC player of the year.
Lehigh: The Mountain Hawks had one of the best conference road wins of the season when the C.J. McCollum-less Hawks won at league favorite Bucknell. Lehigh remained atop the Patriot League standings heading into Sunday. If Lehigh can win the regular season, then Dr. Brett Reed should be considered a national-coach-of-the-year candidate.
-- Andy Katz
Editor's note: This edition is for games played from Sunday, Jan. 20, to Saturday, Jan. 26.
1. I'm really disappointed in VCU. I've been touting the Rams as a potential Final Four team all season, but their back-to-back losses to Richmond and LaSalle have me second-guessing myself. VCU led Richmond by seven points with 30 seconds left in regulation before allowing the Spiders to come back and force overtime, where they eventually prevailed. LaSalle is a solid squad -- as evidenced by its victory over Butler -- but there's no way the Rams should lose to that team at home. That's exactly what happened in Saturday's 69-61 setback. Maybe VCU isn't that great after all.
2. It's time to take Arizona State seriously. Entering the weekend, the Sun Devils had a gaudy record but were short on quality wins. But embarrassing UCLA 78-60 just two days after the Bruins spanked Arizona was impressive no matter how you slice it. Arizona State coach Herb Sendek has done a phenomenal job with this bunch after supposedly entering the 2012-13 season on the hot seat. He won't win it, but point guard Jahii Carson should at least be in the conversation for national freshman of the year.
3. I realize the thought isn't all that original, but I'm still shocked Kentucky isn't any better by now. The Wildcats almost lost to one of the SEC's worst teams (LSU) on Saturday -- at Rupp Arena. That probably shouldn't come as a surprise, considering they dropped a home game to Texas A&M earlier this month. The Aggies recently lost to LSU. I honestly think Kentucky was a better team in November than it is right now. If that's true, it says more about this team's mental makeup than it does its talent. At this point I don't see how anyone could think this is an NCAA tournament team. Yes, there are some opportunities for quality wins against Florida, Ole Miss and Missouri. But what has UK shown to make anyone believe it could beat any of those teams?
-- Jason King
Three things I learned
1. It's just one of those seasons in Chapel Hill. North Carolina is young, so it was not unreasonable to view their three-game winning streak in ACC play as a sign that a young but clearly talented team was finally coming together. After Saturday night's defensive disaster at NC State (and yes, UNC rallied late, but come on), I'm leaning more toward the belief that this season is just one of those years. They happen from time to time under Roy Williams: In 2009-10, after the leaders of that dominant 2009 national title team graduated and/or went to the NBA, the Tar Heels were just as young and just as talented but struggled through a 20-17 NIT year. This offseason, when Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, Tyler Zeller and John Henson all left for the NBA, UNC saw a similar level of turnover. The 2012-13 Tar Heels aren't as bad as that 2009-10 team -- they still have a chance to make the NCAA tournament, even if those prospects dwindle with each "marquee" loss -- but it is now safe to call this team what it is: talented, not terrible, with massive flaws that aren't likely to be overcome in the next two months. It's just one of those seasons.
2. Arizona State is to be taken seriously. Despite an impressive record, the Sun Devils were easy to dismiss in recent weeks. We all perked up to pay attention last Saturday when Arizona came to town; when Herb Sendek's team was blown out at home, those antennae went down just as quickly. But Arizona State's blowout win over UCLA on Saturday should renew, and even expand on, that interest. The Sun Devils still have a long way to go to get to the NCAA tournament, but Jahii Carson and company look totally capable of at least that much. (And by the way: How weird does DePaul's 78-61 win at ASU on Dec. 12 look now?)
3. The Mountain West is wide open. I don't think we should have expected anything else, but for a minute there -- after New Mexico raced out to a 4-0 start and San Diego State suffered back-to-back losses -- it looked like UNM might be able to sustain a commanding position in the league standings. On Saturday, the Lobos scored just 34 points (just nine more than everyone's favorite Saturday performance, Northern Illinois' 25 points) in a loss at SDSU, their first of the MWC season. As it stands, UNM, San Diego State, Colorado State, UNLV and Boise State will all have something to say about the conference title chase, and Wyoming is going to be just as tough to beat at home as ever. Enjoy (the rest of) the ride.
-- Eamonn Brennan
This week's starting five
Travis Bader (Oakland): On Thursday night, the Oakland guard scored a Division I season-high 47 points during an 89-71 win over IUPUI. On Saturday night, he scored 26 points in the Grizzlies' 67-60 victory over Western Illinois. He's shot 16-for-30 from the 3-point line in his past two games.
Lorenzo Brown (NC State): The point guard helped the Wolfpack recover from a midweek loss at Wake Forest, as he collected 20 points, 11 assists, two steals and a block (five turnovers) in a 91-83 home win over rival North Carolina on Saturday. Brown's standout performance (13 points, 10 assists, 2 blocks, 2 steals) on Tuesday wasn't enough to help NC State avoid an 86-84 loss at Wake Forest.
Darrun Hilliard (Villanova): Hilliard helped Villanova complete an amazing week when he scored 25 points (seven rebounds, six assists and a steal, too) in the Wildcats' 75-71 overtime win against No. 3 Syracuse on Saturday. He finished with 11 points, four rebounds and three steals in Tuesday's 73-64 win over No. 5 Louisville.
Ramon Galloway (LaSalle): The Explorers participated in their own impressive stretch for a Big 5 school. Galloway, a senior, scored 31 points in LaSalle's 69-61 win at No. 19 VCU on Saturday. He was 4-for-8 from the 3-point line. He recorded two steals in Wednesday's 54-53 win over No. 9 Butler.
Kenny Kadji (Miami): The senior recorded 22 points (9-for-18) in his program's 90-63 win over No. 1 Duke on Wednesday. It was Miami's first win over a No. 1 team. The Hurricanes had lost six previous matchups against No. 1 squads. Kadji also finished with six rebounds, two blocks and a steal.
Will Cherry (Montana): 28 points, six rebounds, three assists and four steals in 76-74 win over Weber State on Saturday.
Siyani Chambers (Harvard): 21 points, seven assists and two steals in 82-77 overtime win against Dartmouth on Saturday.
Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss): 15 points in a 63-61 victory at Auburn on Saturday; 28 points in 62-56 win over Tennessee on Thursday.
Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee): 15 points (7-for-11), 18 rebounds and two steals in Vols' 54-53 win over Alabama on Saturday.
Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State): 22 points (10-for-12), 15 rebounds, six blocks and a steal in a 78-60 home win over UCLA on Saturday.
-- Myron Medcalf