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Friday, February 15, 2013

How good is Miami? P.J. Hairston? And more mid-season ACC basketball questions

Posted by on Fri, Feb 15, 2013 at 11:13 AM

C.J. Leslie of the underachieving Wolfpack, temporarily leaving a Miami player behind during a Feb. 2 loss at PNC Arena
  • Photo by Chris Baird
  • C.J. Leslie of the underachieving Wolfpack, temporarily leaving a Miami player behind during a Feb. 2 loss at PNC Arena
Carolina-Duke round one went to the Blue Devils Wednesday night, unofficially marking the end of the first half of the ACC hoops season. All the teams have played at least 11 of their 18 games, but the remaining slate carries added weight as teams jockey for postseason position. Plus, there's the ACC Tournament to come, which could prove critical to the NCAA hopes of one or more bubble teams.

Here are some questions on my mind to ponder for the stretch run:

1. Is Miami really that good? And if the Hurricanes are, does this mean Jim Larranaga really is a great coach, the equal of Coach K and Roy? And if this is so, doesn't it mean that our Triangle-centric view of the college basketball world is skewed, and that there are any number of other great coaches toiling away in the lesser conferences who would thrive given the opportunity? Or is Larranaga just a rarity—a lifer at the top of his game who made the move to the ACC at the peak of his powers, unlike the young up-and-comers generally favored by athletic directors?

2. If Duke is ranked No. 1 nationally, why are so few convinced that they can get any better? Are the Blue Devils headed for yet another slide to a fruitless March as the team wears down? Or will Ryan Kelly return to once again make Duke nearly unguardable?

3. What is the deal with N.C. State? The preseason favorites are lucky to have a winning record through 11 games. At times they have looked awesome—against Duke and Carolina at home in particular. And at other times they have paid the price for defensive and intensity lapses, as in the loss to Wake Forest. Will the Pack gel again and go on a run to close the season, echoing last year? At the end of the season, will high offensive efficiency make State the top 10 team so many expected?

4. Are Wake Forest fans warming to Jeff Bzdelik now that his young Deacon team has shown some signs of life and competitiveness? Can the Deacons pick up a few more wins, or has everything already been squeezed out of this freshman-heavy cast?

5. How high is the ceiling for P.J. Hairston—and for that matter, North Carolina? Hairston responded to the opportunity to start in Cameron Wednesday with a stellar all-action performance that would have been called dominant had he shot a little better than 1-7 from beyond the three-point arc.

Despite the loss Wednesday, Carolina's first half play electrified the Tar Heel fan base and raised hopes that 2013 might bear some resemblance to 2011 (and going back to Dean Smith's last year, 1997) when Carolina teams springboarded from a tough loss at Duke to go on a big run. Certainly if you look at Carolina's personnel, there are quite a few players still on the rising curve of experience and productivity—i.e. young players who have not yet reached their peak as college players. Can they do so, as individuals and as a unit, before the season runs out?

6. Do numbers lie? Roy Williams has long been fond of saying his pinky knows more about basketball than fans and writers and, for the most part, he's probably right. But what happens when detailed statistical analysis confirms what many Carolina fans saw with their own eyes, that UNC's startling lineup through the first half of ACC play wasn't its most efficient unit and that Hairston needs to be on the floor at the same time with Bullock?

(See, for example, Adrian Atkinson's analyses in Inside Carolina magazine. Premium subscription required.)

Is this a "Moneyball" moment, in which cold numbers analysis can expose the inefficiencies of older ways of looking at the game? Or can we instead assume that Roy and his staff are well aware of all the numbers and arguments but had their own reasoning for sticking with a Marcus Paige-Dexter Strickland backcourt plus Desmond Hubert at center?

Will Roy stick with the "small" lineup (with Hairston playing in effect as a power forward) that proved so effective against Duke, or was that a one-off? Williams didn't get into the Hall of Fame by taking tactical tips from fans, but surely he knows there could be a full-scale fan mutiny in the Dean Dome against Virginia Saturday afternoon if Hairston's name is not called in the starting five.

7. Speaking of Virginia, are they that good? And if so, does this mean Tony Bennett is a genius? The Cavaliers could book their own NCAA ticket and put Carolina squarely in bubbleland by completing the season sweep tomorrow. Virginia has less upside than State or Carolina (let alone Miami or Duke) as a team capable of making serious noise in the national tournament in March. But Bennett's ability to manufacture wins with limited talent is making himself look good, and a few of his coaching colleagues not so good.

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