The halfway point of the regular season is almost here for ACC women’s basketball, and three things are pretty clear about the Triangle’s entries.
Duke is just as good as advertised.
UNC may be better than most people expected.
And N.C. State, although a decent team, needs to get things turned around quickly to avoid a tough March.
Duke stays perfect
Following a 90-53 road shellacking of a much improved Boston College team in which junior guard Chelsea Gray matched a conference record with her second career triple-double, No. 3 Duke is the only unbeaten Division I women’s basketball team in the country.
Like Coach Krzyzewski always mentions, Duke is a beatable team and we might see one of these losses occur over the next couple of weeks. More than likely, it will be Mason Plumlee's fault. He can't save Duke.
I can’t be too hard on No. 1 Duke either, because—whether or not I’m painfully undecided on whether this team is outplaying 11-1 Kansas—the Blue Devils’ starting five is still playing like a well-choreographed, pitch-perfect quintet. However, “The Temptations” would be an apt title for the Duke bunch, since the Blue Devils have appeared enormously tempted to force its offense to depend solely on Mason Plumlee’s efficiency in both scoring, and especially offensive rebounding—the inefficiency of which led to Davidson scoring 14 second-chance points in the first half of Wednesday night’s game.
Even Plumlee admitted that he had a bad game. If Duke would have suffered a loss to Davidson, all of the blame would have rested on Plumlee’s performance, even though that night should have belonged to Seth Curry—who after putting up a Duke career-high 31 points against Santa Clara returned to his hometown of Charlotte to put up a repeat performance against Davidson. It didn’t quite work out that way and Plumlee’s 10 points didn’t make the win look any prettier—you could see the rare ugliness on Quinn Cook’s face.
But how hard must it be for Mason Plumlee’s younger brother Marshall to sit on the bench game after game knowing that if he were able to offer his brother just a few more minutes of sibling relief, it could boost Mason’s game energy just enough to grab a few more offensive rebounds and maybe not turn the ball over as much. Mason never looks fatigued, but he often looks overused; and luckily, Ryan Kelly saves his ass. The Plumlee brothers’ tandem doesn’t seem to be something that Coack K is interested in exploring this year and if Marshall’s recovery from his injuries persist, he may not have a choice—unless Mason finds himself injured from constant wear and tear.
Here's the good news: the start of the ACC men's basketball regular season is finally here, with five games Saturday afternoon and another Sunday evening.
Here's the bad news: Just two of those games involve matchups between two teams in the national top 100, going by the Sagarin ratings. Those matchups are Miami (No. 26) at Georgia Tech (No. 72), and North Carolina (No. 46) at Virginia (No. 61).
Four league schools—Clemson, Virginia Tech, Boston College and Wake, are outside the top 100, between No. 109 (Clemson) and No. 163. These numbers are not likely to fundamentally change, since for the rest of the season ACC teams will just be playing one another. If one team rises above their current status, it will come at the expense of someone else.
Right now the league has three teams that we can comfortably project as NCAA Tournament teams: Duke, N.C. State and Miami. Having gone unbeaten thus far against the nation's ninth toughest schedule, Duke is No. 1 nationally by a handsome 3.6 points over No. 2 Louisville (not yet an ACC member) in the Sagarin ratings, which means that at the moment Duke would be projected as a 4-point favorite over Louisville on a neutral court. (Duke in fact beat the Cardinals by five on a neutral court in November.) State and Miami weigh in at No. 25 and No. 26 nationally.
Then there is Maryland, which has gone 12-1 against one of the weakest schedules in Division I (No. 343), giving them an overall ranking of No. 37. Maryland could prove to be a tournament team but the jury will remain out until the Terps have played some tougher teams.
The fifth-highest ACC school is North Carolina (No. 46), who also has a poor strength of schedule (No. 201), followed by Virginia (No. 61), which also has a weak strength of schedule (No. 331).
Taken as a whole, Sagarin judges the ACC to be the fifth-strongest conference in the nation, behind the Big Ten, Big East, Big 12 and even the Mountain West Conference. That ranking is also not likely to change before March Madness—there aren't any non-conferences games left, and hence the only possibility of the conference mean meaningfully changing is if the out-of-league teams ACC schools have played already see a sharp rise or fall in their performances the rest of the season.
In between Duke’s back-to-back blow-outs over Cornell and Elon this week, the national spotlight wasn’t focused on how the Blue Devils fantastically worked through its 11-day rust in the first game or overcame mental fatigue in the next. It barely touched on Jim Boeheim recently joining Coach Krzyzewski in the 900-win club, or the news from the previous day that Coach K was the co-recipient (along with Geno Auriemma) and five-time winner of the Team USA Coach of the Year Award.
Instead, everyone eagerly awaited for one of the country’s top college basketball prospects, Jabari Parker, to announce which school he would sign with for the 2012-2013 season. Well, he’s coming to Durham to play for Coach Krzyzewski.
The No. 1-ranked Blue Devils moved to an 11-0 record for the 14th time under Coach K this week and in the middle of back-to-back wins against Cornell and Elon, Duke also garnered a verbal commitment from one of the most coveted high school players in the nation—for the third year in a row. Some basketball analysts have the 6-foot-8 Ubermensch and Illinois’ "Mr. Basketball" as the missing piece Duke needs to make another run for the national championship.
By that logic, we might as well forget about Duke making a run for the championship this year or aiming for an undefeated season—which is not as far-fetched as it sounds, even if you’re willing to admit that Quinn Cook and Mason Plumlee are college basketball’s most effective twosome, and Rasheed Sulaimon is prematurely and freakishly composed for a freshman.
Parker’s reserved demeanor and religious background seem to have everyone fooled into thinking that he’ll be discerning enough to choose the high road and lend his talents to Duke for at least two years. Now, let’s make a farther projection into the 2014-2015 season. If Parker does forego the one-and-done scheme, stays for an extra year, and another Duke prospect from Chicago, dominant center Jahlil Okafor, decides to come to the university, then we have the missing pieces.
Call it a “good problem” if you want to, but next year’s Duke roster is full of shooting guards (Andre Dawkins, Matt Jones, Rasheed Sulaimon, Tyler Thornton), wingmen (Rodney Hood, Jabari Parker, Alex Murphy, Amile Jefferson, Semi Ojeleye) and one big man (Marshall Plumlee) who, so far, has had more injuries than any other statistic in his Blue Devil career. There won't be any missing pieces in that lineup. There'll be too many pieces and not enough puzzle glue.
This won’t force Coach K to abandon the current seven-man rotation that he loves today. Instead, Duke’s team might end up looking like this year’s Tar Heel team—a bunch of kids running around and, as Rob Harrington put it in his recent piece on an NIT-bound UNC team, “freelancing” on offense.
The frustrating looks on both Coach K's and point guard Quinn Cook’s face during next year’s season are almost inevitable, even with a freshman phenom like Jabari Parker chucking up shots from his predestined spots on Cameron’s floor.
That’s why when the country’s No. 2 high school basketball recruit held up a Duke t-shirt and gave the camera a shoulder-to-shoulder smile as he announced that he’d be playing here in 2013-2014, I didn’t see a championship in the near future. I saw the mechanics of an overheated offense exploding before my eyes. I saw Kyrie Irving dragging Duke fans down in his own race to the pros, and I saw Lehigh shove Austin River’s attitude down his throat in last year’s first round of the NCAA tournament play. They were great players, but not college champions.
But now that the Jabari Parker distraction is over, the Blue Devils can get back to being the best team in the country, starting with next Saturday’s home game against Santa Clara. The December 29th game airs at 12 p.m. on ESPN2.
As you know doubt already know, the buzz and anticipation surrounding this game has the entire state on the edge of their seats. Office holiday party talk has been dominated by little else than position-by-position analysis of matchups for this once-in-a-lifetime encounter.
Or. . . not.
OK, on its merits there's little reason to think the actual game will be much different from the other December blowouts in the Smith Center that have become a holiday tradition.
Still, it's worth recognizing that UNC and ECU do have basketball history, and one that is more significant than you might remember.
In spring 1993, I happened to have a chance to ask Bill Guthridge, assistant coach on the 1993 national champion Tar Heels, which game during the tournament run had made him nervous. I guessed he might answer with the name of the Sweet Sixteen opponent, but instead he said "East Carolina," the Tar Heels' first-round opponent.
Why would that be? The Pirates, after all, were, at 10-17, a surprise entry to the tournament field, having upset the field in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament.
Guthridge gave two reasons: First, Carolina was coming off a loss in the ACC Tournament final to Georgia Tech, and he didn't know how the team would respond. Second, point guard Derrick Phelps, who had suffered a bruised tailbone in the ACC Tournament semifinal against Virginia and missed the Georgia Tech game, would be returning to action, and they weren't sure how well he'd be able to play in the national tournament.
Guthridge might have added that the game was played in Winston-Salem—where the Tar Heels earlier that year had been humiliated in a 26-point loss to Wake Forest.
Carolina ended up winning the game in fairly ho-hum manner, 85-65. Carolina led by just 11 points at halftime, and the game never got out of hand. Phelps came off the bench to play 14 minutes, registering six points and two steals. More impressively, he took a charge and also converted a dunk despite playing with several protective pads.
It wasn't a memorable game, but it was a win. Carolina then looked much more impressive in blowing out Rhode Island by 45 points in the second round game two days later, with Phelps returned to the starting lineup. Carolina went on to play championship-caliber basketball the rest of the tournament.
And with that, your short history of the UNC-ECU basketball rivalry is a wrap.
There is of course a longer history about why (apart from a one-off in 1953) Carolina has not scheduled ECU before in the regular season. It dates back to Dean Smith's long-standing philosophy of not playing out-of-conference in-state opponents. Why not? First, because Carolina would have nothing to gain from such games in terms of prestige and reputation of the program. Second, because Smith thought that if he started playing one in-state opponent, he'd be under pressure to play all of them and the basketball matchups would turn into a political hot potato—as has been the case historically in the UNC-ECU football series.
In 2006-07, Bobby Frasor began the season starting ahead of rookie Ty Lawson, who was obviously the superior player. In 2010-11, and despite howls from nearly everyone invested in the program, Williams opted to start Larry Drew ahead of freshman Kendall Marshall even after that team began the year so terribly.
But this season opened with a different dynamic. Most believed that senior Dexter Strickland would receive the starting nod over the 6-1, 157-pound Paige, but Williams ended the competition before it could begin by preemptively stating that Paige would occupy the spot.
Strickland could have made a case for himself. He started at shooting guard for the Elite Eight squads of 2011 and 2012, and he had accumulated substantial experience sharing point guard duties with Drew in 2010 and backing up Marshall in 2011 and 2012. Prior to the season-ending knee injury he suffered last January, Strickland had been enjoying his finest season as a Tar Heel.
Despite Strickland’s extensive experience, Williams asserted that he never had been a true point guard. What Williams didn’t say was that Paige represents the team’s future at that position and that Strickland, in his final season, would not be around to quarterback stronger teams than the 2012-13 edition.
It’s the Christmas cupcake season for ACC basketball fans. With conference play still about a month away, it’s a good time to dust off the Roland Rating (RR), one popular statistic in the field of APBRmetrics, to divine early trends and difference makers among the Triangle schools.
For those unfamiliar with the RR, it comprises the difference between the net points a team scores/allows while a particular player is playing, minus the same differential for the minutes the player isn’t on the floor. Compiled by StatSheet, a company headquartered in Durham, N.C., the RR isn’t useful in assessing the contributions of players who appear only briefly during a game, or those who play all but a few minutes since their RR will usually mirror the team’s overall performance. Blowout wins or losses aren’t always instructive, either, since the team will likely amass or surrender a large number of points irrespective of which players are on the court.
However, it is an enlightening statistic for determining how players receiving regular playing time stack up against their teammates during key and/or close contests. For North Carolina, N.C. State and Duke, some of the findings are obvious, but some are surprising.
The 2012-13 college basketball season has now been going on for a month. Most league teams began play on Friday Nov. 9; tomorrow is Saturday, Dec. 8, and features 10 games involving conference teams.
That's right, 10 nonconference games on a Saturday, a month into the season. A look at the schedule reveals that this might well be the dullest full day in ACC basketball history (leaving aside the first day of the ACC Tournament since the move to 12 schools).
To be sure, there is one game of legitimate national interest: Duke takes on unbeaten Temple at its satellite campus in East Rutherford, N.J. And there is one other game that fits what used to be called a "cross-sectional," made-for-TV contest a rare matchup between nationally ranked Arizona and Clemson. Finally, I can imagine someone in western Virginia getting marginally excited about the matchup between West Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Beyond that, you have a lot of fairly sorry games: Cleveland State at NCSU, East Tennessee State at UNC, South Carolina State at Maryland, Mississippi Valley State at Virginia, UNC-W at Georgia Tech, and St. Francis (NY) at Boston College.
How weak a lineup is that? Well, for starters, we might observe that for the first time in quite a while Carolina is playing a game that is not on broadcast or cable TV, anywhere, though it will be streamed online by ESPN3.
We might go on to observe the Sagarin ratings of those six visiting schools: Cleveland State (#136), East Tennessee State (#237), South Carolina State (#340), Mississippi Valley State (#319), UNC-W (#283), St. Francis (NY) (#225).
To be fair, Boston College is just No. 197 in the Sagarin ratings at the moment, and there is some interest I suppose in seeing whether they are a legitimate contender to be one of the worst teams in league history, a possibility raised by the double-digit loss to Harvard earlier this week.
And Wake Forest, bless them, host a a bona fide Top 100 opponent from a power conference, Seton Hall. Even so, I don't expect many neutrals to go out of their way to catch the highlights of that one.
Taken as a whole, though, this is an incredibly weak slate of games. Here we are, the first full Saturday after college football, and this is the best the league can serve up? Duke fans should watch the Temple game, but otherwise I would advise other hard core ACC fans to spend Saturday shopping for Christmas, celebrating Hanukkah, working on your holiday card, checking your car for winter fluids, planning your dental appointments over the next year, and just about anything else that doesn't involve paying attention to the league's basketball slate.
You can’t say they’re slumping. If anything, North Carolina’s three-point shooters have opened the 2012-13 season on fire. After two years of disappointing accuracy, the Heels finally have rediscovered the touch that enabled them to strike offensive balance during the 2007-09 era.
Carolina has shot threes better on a percentage basis than even Duke — 38-37 —which sports an undefeated record and No. 2 national ranking.
And yet, the Heels themselves have appeared spotty out of the gate. They’ve yet to defeat a top-100 opponent and in their two defeats fell behind by 29 points to both Indiana and Butler, failing to mount an effective scoring attack against quality opposition.
The overall numbers tell one story, and the carnage versus the Hoosiers and Bulldogs screams another. UNC’s 6-2 record and 102-point outburst last weekend versus Alabama-Birmingham sound like the biscuit-loving Tar Heels of norm. They’ve broken triple digits in three of their first eight games, including once (versus Mississippi State, in Maui) on a neutral floor.
Pitted against IU and Butler, however, Carolina squeezed out just 71 and 59 points, respectively.
Numerous factors must be considered to explain such a profound discrepancy, but Carolina’s uneven three-point shooting heads the suspect list.
When this week’s Top 25 college basketball polls were released, the most baffling thing was that regardless of the 8-0, No. 2-ranked Duke Blue Devils having defeated three top-five teams in November (something that no other team has ever achieved) they still weren’t able to land the country’s No. 1 spot in either the AP or USA Today polls.
Last Saturday, after Duke’s 80-55 win over Delaware and inside what Coach Kryzewski has recently dubbed “Club Cameron”, the Cameron Crazies hoisted a poster that read “What Does It Take to Be Number 1?”, which also pictured the team logos of Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State all crossed out in crimson ink—an Indiana Hoosier’s team color.
Therein lies the answer for the Blue Devils; beat No. 1 Indiana or at least get the poll’s voters to ignore the narrative behind Hoosiers head coach, Tom Crean’s basketball revival dreams in Indiana. Neither seems possible, unless the two teams meet in the NCAA Tournament or Indiana starts to plummet after some tough losses during upcoming Big Ten conference play.
The Duke vs. Ohio State revenge storyline from this year’s ACC/Big Ten challenge failed because Ohio State was missing a combined 41 points from ex-Buckeyes Jared Sullinger and William Buford and, well, because point guard Aaron Craft was eviscerated into a flushed ball of failure. Instead of playing the Buckeyes two years in a row, a more difficult test for the Blue Devils would have been to go head-to-head with Indiana, matching up National Player of the Year candidates Mason Plumlee and Cody Zeller and laying all comparisons to rest.
Despite Mason Plumlee’s season averages of 19.6 points and 11 rebounds per game—four more than Zeller in both categories—Zeller is often celebrated as the better center. And there's a plausible case for it: Where Plumlee lacks in finesse and patience on the offensive end, Zeller is a controlled bullet train on offense. Zeller, with only 11 blocks on the season compared to Plumlee’s 15, isn’t celebrated for his defense, but won’t get criticized for the sort of delayed reaction time that haunts Plumlee’s brain and legs.
Since the Ohio State game, Plumlee became Duke’s all-time leader in dunks (150), which, when you think about it, is a pretty useless statistic. But, many of those dunks have been delivered via alley-oop passes from this year’s breakout point guard, Quinn Cook. Can we agree that those mid-air connections between the ball and the hands require a sense of precision and timing on Plumlee's behalf?
So, why can’t Plumlee apply that on the defensive end as well? The three blocks he amassed against Delaware showed improved timing, but against a more dominant player like Cody Zeller, Plumlee would need to be playing about a half-second ahead of time. Ryan Kelly, who Coach K recently described as, “a heck of a player right now”, understands this, which is why he leads the team with a total of 18 blocks on the season. Yes, again, "heck of a player" leads the Duke Blue Devils in blocked shots even with high-flying, top-of-the-backboard-alley-oop-catching Mason Plumlee occupying the paint.
Would any of this make-or-break Duke’s chances of getting the No. 1 ranking at least before conference play on Jan. 5? Probably not, but as soon as Plumlee’s all-around game gets the respect it needs, the Cody Zeller Effect on everyone’s affection toward Indiana will melt away. Even if both of these teams make it to 13-0 before conference play—barring Indiana losing to Butler on Dec. 15, or Temple upsetting Duke in East Rutherford this weekend—Duke has to land at No. 1.
By then, we’re assuming that the youngest Plumlee, Marshall, will have made his debut in a Blue Devil uniform, and that reserves Amile Jefferson and Alex Murphy will have found their niche in the Duke rotation. Then, what can compete with that?