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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Devil down, Heels up: Of dominance, Duke and Dulkys on ACC Championship Sunday

Posted by on Sun, Mar 11, 2012 at 11:42 AM

These friendly fellows officiated at an N.C. State preseason event, not yesterday in Atlanta.
The most annoying thing about poor officiating is that it shoves basketball talk almost completely out of the picture. Some very dubious ref work in yesterday's semifinal between North Carolina and N.C. State has dominated the X's and O's, the whys and wherefores, the bracketing and bickering. Instead of talk of fame and fortune, we have the slings of infamy (or perhaps shame) and outrageous misfortune.

My colleagues Rob Harrington and Neil Morris are all over the Tar Heels and the Wolfpack, whose tilt yesterday overshadowed the one between Duke and Florida State. The Seminoles prevailed, weathering the Blue Devils' second half rally (yet another one) from a 10-point deficit and watching Seth Curry's potential game-tying three-pointer from near midcourt rattle the rim and bounce out at the buzzer. The final was 62-59.

The result pushed Florida State into a well-charged rematch with North Carolina, about which more down below. But what does it mean for Duke?

The short and practical answer is: not too much. Duke appeared to be headed for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament before the ACC Tournament started, and that's almost surely what they'll get. They might have managed a No. 1 seed by winning in Atlanta, but I'm not sure they would have gotten the nod over teams like Missouri and Michigan State, even though Duke beat the Spartans early this season (for Mike Krzyzewski's record-breaking 903rd career victory).

Symbolically, it's weird not having Duke at least make it to the ACC Tournament final if not win it. The Blue Devils have won an astounding 10 of the last 13 trophies, and are a virtual television fixture on the second Sunday afternoon in March every year. (North Carolina, by contrast, has only appeared in the final five times in those 13 years, winning it twice and losing to Duke the other three times.)

Krzyzewski is a great tactician, which suits him to tournament environments, so it's not a huge surprise that Duke has been so potent in the ACC Tournament. He was playing this one without two of his pieces, though, and ultimately his team was slightly outmatched. They barely prevailed over Virginia Tech in the quarterfinals on Friday, and lacked the weaponry to overcome Florida State yesterday.

Two pieces, you ask? Ryan Kelly, of course, is out with a foot sprain—no word yet on whether he is expected back for the NCAA Tournament—but who is the other? Ah, that would be Andre Dawkins. The sweet-shooting swing guard has stopped being sweet or swingin' lately. Dawkins led Duke to its impressive 74-66 win over Florida State in Tallahassee on February 23 (which avenged the earlier home loss to the Seminoles). He scored 22 points, making six of nine three-point shots, in 21 minutes of action. Since then, he's 1-14 from outside the arc, with a grand total of three points in five games. His playing time has dwindled to about 12.5 minutes per game. In yesterday's loss to Florida State, one of his three-point attempts—not off of a curl screen like he likes it, but straight up from a standstill—was an airball.

Without Dawkins and Kelly, Duke is a weirdly limited offensive team. They don't seem like they should be. They have impresarios Seth Curry and Austin Rivers, who can usually be counted on to score about 30 points per game and, perhaps more importantly, create opportunities when offense becomes critical.

But in order for Curry and Rivers to create them, sometimes other players have to convert them. With Dawkins ice cold and Kelly out, there is no other three-point gunner unless you count Tyler Thornton—the Plumli, in the interior, are just not consistent scoring threats. To be fair, Thornton has hit some big shots for Duke this year, but he is no Andre Dawkins at Dawkins' best. Thornton scored a career-high 13 points on Friday night against the Hokies, which sounds impressive, but he needed to take 16 shots in order to do it. He went 3-13 from three-point range. This was probably just what Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg was hoping for—Tyler Thornton left open, shooting Duke out of the game—and had the Hokies not shot an appalling 30.2 percent (despite making half of their three-pointers!), they'd have won the game.

Unless Dawkins is tired from a season on the hardwood or somehow emptied of confidence by his recent skid, there's every reason to think he'll find his stroke again. He has a naturally smooth shot and he runs his routes well. If not, Duke will have to have a healthy Ryan Kelly back, because someone other than Curry and Rivers is going to have be able to put the ball in the basket. Duke is 16th in the country in scoring at 77.5 points per game, but in their last two they've only managed 59.5. Some of that is due to the slower, more grinding style of play that tends to obtain in the ACC Tournament, but there can't be any denying that it mostly owes to the absence of Kelly and Dawkins' lack of productivity.

Duke has done it all year with variety, not consistency. Some days it's a Plumlee, some days (or halves, anyway) it's Dawkins, occasionally it's Kelly. The thing is, once you've lost two of the assorted flavors, consistency from those that remain becomes absolutely necessary—and there is no reason to suppose that Duke has that. Even the apparently steady Seth Curry scored only nine points against Virginia Tech, Miles Plumlee three (with only three rebounds).

And so on. You can actually do well in the NCAA Tournament with variety and unpredictability because that is precisely what March offers (just like the month's weather). But in order to succeed that way, you have to have the full range of parts. We'll see if Duke regains them.

***

And what of today's final between North Carolina and Florida State? As you surely know, in the teams' only prior meeting this season, down in Tallahassee, the Seminoles won by what appeared to be a glaring typo of a score, 90-57. But no, that was how it ended, and the difference was almost entirely made by Deividas Dulkys, Florida State's part-time shooting guard (and full-time Lithuania Mania!). Dulkys, who averages 6.7 points per game, scored a career-high 32 against UNC on January 14, making eight of 10 three-point shot attempts. He has scored in double figures just twice in 15 games since then.

The game ended in a surreal haze when North Carolina head coach Roy Williams agreed to leave the court about 14 seconds before the game ended, with all of his personnel in tow save the five Blue Steel reserves left on the floor to try to escape the imminent court-storming.

It was, in other words, an unmitigated disaster for the Tar Heels, both on the court and off, while Florida State went into warp speed with the momentum of the win. They won their next five games—including the win over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium—and took over the top spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But not so fast. The Seminoles then stumbled at lowly Boston College, somehow losing to the Eagles 64-60, and fell to Duke in a rematch in Tallahassee and then to Miami three days later. They have won four games in a row since then, but the question persists: How good is Florida State, really? They average less than 70 points per game, and are 247th in the nation in assists per game. Their defense and rebounding are very good—Bernard James and Xavier Gibson are two big forces inside—but are they that good? Good enough to overcome an inconsistent offense that has only one reliable weapon, Michael Snaer? (According to Ken Pomeroy, UNC's adjusted-defense rating is actually better than FSU's, despite the never-ending maligning of the Tar Heels' D.)

That is why, to lean on the old line, they play the games. Today's final may help clarify exactly which team is the ACC's dominant one this season. Duke was it for a while but seems to have lost the top of the hill, especially after North Carolina shoved them down, 88-70, at Cameron last Saturday. Florida State plays hard and heavy, but their offense sometimes deserts them and their talent, frankly, isn't really all that convincing. Dulkys is really a role player, James is all force and no finesse, Ian Miller hasn't played with enough poise, and so on. That's why Leonard Hamilton was named ACC Coach of the Year: He got this team to the upper ranks of the conference, with a chance to win the ACC Tournament—and that chance came by beating Duke again, taking two of three from the Blue Devils and pushing the Seminoles' stock up higher.

As for Carolina, a win today, avenging the humiliating loss to Florida State in January, would put to rest the last lingering doubt about this team of hugely talented but at times unfocused and inconstant players. Indeed, except for Virginia, the ACC this season has been characterized by inconsistency, from Duke and Florida State and UNC all the way down to the 4-12 trio of BC, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, which stormed back from a 23-point deficit and nearly upset Duke a couple of weeks ago.

Carolina used the motivating sting of its home loss to Duke and came out swinging against the Blue Devils in Durham, perhaps a sign that they've got more revenge on their minds today. A win for UNC would not only silence the last shouts of criticism, it would also settle, once and for all, the hash of the 2011-12 ACC season. It would make UNC, in the end, the dominant storyline of the year, as was more or less predicted last fall before the games began. But the Tar Heels may have to do it without John Henson, who sprained his wrist in an ugly fall against Maryland on Friday afternoon and did not play yesterday against N.C. State—as of 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, there's no word whether he'll play today. Freshman James Michael McAdoo started in Henson's place against the Wolfpack, but he's really no substitute for the ACC's two-time Defensive Player of the Year, especially against the Seminoles' tough, tenacious James and Gibson (plus slasher Okari White). With Henson, I'd predict a Carolina victory; without him, who knows?

And the unpredictability flits on.

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Duke has done at all year with variety, not consistency—and so has the entire ACC.

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