College basketball’s conference play is in full swing and races are taking shape as the stretch run approaches. Last week we looked at how the best teams of the Big East are fairing, and this week it’s the ACC.
Duke: So what’s wrong with the Blue Devils? The school that won the national title two years ago and started this season 14-2 hasn’t looked like the dominant team in the country, much less the ACC (4-3 start). Duke has plenty of depth and talent, but it’s easy to forget all the youth on this squad. Two of Duke’s top contributors are freshmen (J.J. Redick and Shavlik Randolph), while third-leading scorer Daniel Ewing is a sophomore.
The growing pains have been evident in road losses to Maryland, NC State and Florida State. The Blue Devils were a favorite in two of those games, and blew a halftime lead at Maryland in an eventual 87-72 setback. The debacle at Florida State was particularly humbling. Duke was a 10-point favorite, yet shot 35 percent from the field and a miserable 57 percent from the free throw line.
Even more alarming to coach Mike Krzyzewski might be that the Seminoles, 1-6 in their first seven ACC games, shot 60 percent from the field. Duke is near the bottom of the league in defensive field goal percentage and rebounding margin. This week starts a key stretch, with games at Wake Forest (Thursday), at Virginia (Saturday) and home Feb. 19 against Maryland.
Maryland: The defending national champs have been solid all season with a nice blend of role players and brilliant defense under coach Gary Williams. The Terrapins have the best defense in ACC and are near the top in rebounding. Those stats explain how Maryland began the year 7-2-1 UNDER the total.
Two seniors dominating the inside are 6-foot-9 Ryan Randle and 6-10 Tahj Holden, while 6-9 junior Jamar Smith provides frontcourt depth. Maryland has great balance, shooting 47 percent from the floor to support its No. 1 ranking on defense. Senior guards Steve Blake and Drew Nichols give Maryland a smart, veteran lineup.
A tough early-season schedule (losses to Indiana, Notre Dame and Florida) seems to have hardened the Terrapins for ACC play and everything may be in place for a title defense. Maryland already has a leg up on Duke, holding the Blue Devils to 29-second half points in an 87-72 win Jan. 18. Maryland hasn’t been as strong on the road. With five of its remaining eight ACC games away from home, the champs will be tested.
Wake Forest: It’s always nice to have big guys up front for defense and rebounding, and Wake Forest has been a force in the ACC thanks to 6-6 senior Josh Howard and 6-8 sophomore Vytas Danelius. They lead the Demon Deacons in scoring and rebounding, grabbing roughly eight boards per game. Both players also hit over 80 percent from the line, which is not always the case for big men (Exhibit A: Shaquille O’Neal). Wake Forest, an excellent defensive team, is tops in the ACC in rebounding and free throw shooting.
The frontcourt will have to carry the Deacons, whose backcourt of sophomore Taron Downey and freshman Justin Gray is inexperienced. That weakness was evident when Wake played Duke and Virginia, teams that like the transition game. Wake lost by 19 at Duke and by 10 at Virginia, but controlled the boards (41-32) against Maryland and held the Terps to 38 percent shooting in an 81-72 upset victory. The Deacs have the beef up front to hang with anybody, but could struggle in March against run-and-gun teams with superior guard play.
NC State: The Wolfpack have a nice one-two punch in 6-6 sophomore Julius Hodge and 6-8 junior Marcus Melvin, who lead the team in scoring and rebounding. NC State threw its hat into the ACC race with a surprising 80-71 upset of Duke followed by a big win over North Carolina. Both victories were in Raleigh, however, and the Wolfpack has parlayed a relatively easy schedule with a string of home games.
The Wolfpack have played poorly on the road (1-3 both SU and ATS) and, for the most part, has been soft against above-average teams. NC State lost by 24 at Georgia Tech and 15 at Maryland, in addition to defeats against Gonzaga, UMass and Boston College. When State loses, it’s big (0-5 ATS in the first five setbacks). Offense has been a problem away from home (60 ppg). The Pack, last in the league in defensive field goal percentage, are the most likely team to fade from the race.
Georgia Tech: Back in November, nobody figured the Yellow Jackets would be tied with Duke in ACC play in early-February. It’s a vast improvement from a year ago when the Jackets were 15-16. Georgia Tech is a wild card with remarkable 6-10 freshman Chris Bosh, who shoots close to 60% from the field and leads the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots.
This is a young squad whose time is not likely this year, with three sophomores helping Bosh in 6-7 Ed Nelson, 6-6 Isma’il Muhammad and guard BJ Elder. Tech is one of the top ACC teams in rebounding margin per game. Like many young teams, Georgia Tech plays good at home, but wilts on the road (1-7 ATS). The Jackets also have struggled against top competition as an underdog (0-5 SU).
North Carolina: Hard to imagine the Tar Heels in the second division of the ACC, but that’s where they are. UNC broke a five-game slide with a one-point win over Florida State. Coach Matt Doherty’s squad is talented, but young and has struggled offensively from the perimeter.
Clemson: The Tigers, as is their usual pattern, start the year with a lightweight schedule to build up the victory total heading into the rough ACC season. Clemson then falls to the cellar. Heck, the Tigers have never won at Chapel Hill. We’re talking 0-49!
Florida State: The Seminoles are still considered a football school and has been unable to make much of a dent on Tobacco Road. The Seminoles have amazingly defeated Duke two years in a row in Tallahassee, but don’t expect many more highlights.