By Al Featherston
When I was a young man, I was very interested in ESP.
It didn't hurt that the world's foremost authority in the phenomena worked at Duke University. Dr. Joseph B. Rhine, who taught philosophy and psychology at Duke, electrified the scientific community in 1934 with the publication of his book "Extrasensory Perception" which offered scientific evidence for the existence of clairvoyance, telepathy, psychokinesis and precognition.
His theories - and his results - remain wildly controversial to this day, but Dr. Rhine became the father of parapsychology.
By the time I got to Duke in the fall of 1967, Dr. Rhine had retired and moved off-campus - just over the East Campus wall to a white building that housed the Foundation for the Research into the Nature of Man. I visited and was tested, but I showed no special abilities.
I thought about Dr. Rhine and my early flirtation with ESP last month when I came across an article detailing the research of a Nobel Prize winning physicist - Dr. Brian Josephson on Cambridge University. He's been doing experiments that show that precognition - the ability to see into the future - is widespread and measurable.
Without getting too detailed, what he and his associates did was to put subjects under brain scanners to measure their response to positive and negative stimuli. What they found was that the subjects' brains were consistently responding three seconds before the stimulus. That experiment has been repeated in many labs and verified.
It suggests that most humans can see three seconds into the future.
For the last month, I've been trying to test myself while watching basketball games. Every time a player shoots a 3-pointer, I try to guess whether it will in or not. I don't have any valid test results to report - I get too caught up in the action and often forget my count (plus, my guesses are probably influenced by the quality of the shot and the shooter) - but my early impression is that I'm not exceptionally good as calling hits and misses.
I do KNOW that I can't see any further than three seconds into the future, which is why I'm always reticent to make predictions or to participate in preseason polls. Obviously, as someone who knows and studies basketball, I can make some educated guesses about the future - it wasn't very difficult to project going into this season that a veteran, proven North Carolina team would do very well, while the youngest, most unproven team in ACC history would struggle at Boston College.
But that's not the same as predicting the future.
Take last year's ACC preseason projections. EVERYBODY picked Duke to win the ACC and the big debate was over which team would finish No. 2. I take that back, it wasn't quite "everybody" - one idiot TV reporter picked UNC ahead of Duke, but later claimed it was a mistake.
As it turned out, he was right (although I refuse to withdraw the word 'idiot' since he repudiated his own pick). North Carolina did win the ACC regular season title in 2011, finishing a game ahead of Duke.
But were the prognosticators who picked the Blue Devils last fall all that wrong?
After all, Duke did win the ACC in 2011 (since the title is decided in the tournament). Duke did finish higher in the final AP poll (Duke-3, UNC-7). Duke did beat UNC two out of three times. Duke did earn a No. 1 seed, while UNC was a No. 2 seed.
That's what's always bothered me about preseason polls. What are we voting on? Are we trying to pick the best team at the moment of the vote? The best team over the course of the season? Or the best team at the end of the season?
I don't know. I just know that those are often very different teams.
Go back to that 2010-11 preseason poll.
At the moment it was taken, Duke was the best team in the ACC. Period. I would argue that for the eight games that Kyrie Irving started at the point, Duke was clearly the best team in the nation.
Then Irving got hurt and went to the sidelines. Duke kept winning and remained No. 1 until after a mid-January loss at Florida State. For more than a month after Irving's injury, Duke's No. 1 ranking was an illusion - the Blue Devils were still good, but no longer the nation's best team.
North Carolina's season turned on an even more unforeseeable event. The Tar Heels started the season like the team they were projected to be, one that would struggle to hold off Florida State for second place in the ACC. UNC lost three of its first seven games and four days after Duke lost a heartbreaker in Tallahassee, the Heels were blitzed by 20 points at Georgia Tech.
But when Roy Williams replaced Larry Drew II at the point with freshman Kendall Marshall, everything changed. Drew got angry and took his so-called talents to Westwood, removing a cancer from the Tar Heel roster. Marshall proved to be the most impactful freshman in the ACC (maybe second only to Jared Sullinger nationally). His playmaking abilities were in the Hurley-Corchiani-Cota range and while his defense and his shooting might have been subpar, his floor vision and passing skills made Marshall a star â¦ and made UNC, for a while at least, the best team in the ACC.
Over the course of the entire season, Duke was the better team (reflected in the poll ranking). And maybe at the very end of the year, when opponents had figured out some of the limitations in Marshall's game, the Blue Devils probably regained the top spot (as reflected in the decisive ACC championship game win), but for the bulk of the ACC season, UNC was the better team.
Should we have foreseen all that? Irving's injury? Marshall's emergence? Drew's abrupt departure?
We might or might not be able to see three seconds in the future, but nobody can see the three or four months it would take to accurately predict a season.
A MURKY CRYSTAL BALL
There's an interesting parallel between the 2010-11 ACC preseason media poll and the 2011-12 projections. In both cases the No. 1 pick was clearcut â¦ all the debate was over the second pick. And in both seasons, the other challengers for No. 2 fell away, leaving Duke and UNC to battle for league supremacy.
At least that's what it looks like today as the ACC prepares to begin conference play. Who knows what the picture will look like in a month or at the end up February, when we're gearing up for postseason play?
The best we can do is to take a series of snapshots of the league. Flip through them fast enough and you get a moving picture.
Right now, I offer two snapshots. The first is the ACC's preseason media poll:
1. UNC (57 first-place votes)
2. Duke (2 first-place votes, none by mistake)
3. Florida State
6. Virginia Tech
8. N.C. State
10. Georgia Tech
11. Wake Forest
12. Boston College
Looking back on that list, it seems logical to me. Personally, I had Miami and N.C. State a bit higher and Clemson much lower, but I have to admit that I thought FSU was being underrated and should push Duke for No. 2.
Now let's look at how everybody stands as of Tuesday morning. I'm going to rank them by Pomerory's poll, which is in my opinion the most accurate rating system out there (RPI rank including in parenthesis):
5. North Carolina (13)
7. Duke (2)
30. Virginia (46)
35. Virginia Tech (42)
39. Florida State (66)
59. N.C. State (41)
68. Miami (68)
97. Clemson (202)
102. Georgia Tech (130)
164. Maryland (105)
174. Wake Forest (100)
271. Boston College (251)
There are some interesting differences between Pomeroy's rating and the RPI. I believe the RPI is less valid, but it's more important in that the NCAA Selection Committee gives it more weight. But it's too early to start bubble-watching, so let's hold off on that evaluation for the time being.
Instead, let's try and use our two snapshots to project the trajectories of our 12 ACC teams. Obviously, any scientist will understand how dangerous it is to try and massage too much information from a limited amount of data and we still have very limited data to work with.
But I believe we have enough evidence to divide the ACC into four classes - a 2/4/2/4 breakdown. Here's how I see the league today:
How often has the ACC come down to Duke and Carolina ( or Carolina and Duke, if you prefer) in recent years?
Pomeroy and the Associated Press voters have UNC ahead of Duke. The RPI and the Coaches' poll has Duke ahead of UNC.
It's that close.
Duke has far more good wins (Michigan State, Michigan, Kansas, Washington â¦ even Belmont and Davidson) than UNC (Michigan State, Wisconsin, Texas â¦ maybe Long Beach State). Duke has one loss on the road at Ohio State â¦ UNC can match that loss with a loss at Kentucky, but also has a loss to UNLV.
It's a good sign for Duke that the Devils, still very much of developing team, have accomplished more than the veteran Tar Heels. Remember, the main reason that UNC was ranked preseason No. 1 in the nation is that Roy Williams returned all five starters from last season's Elite Eight team. That kind of stability is a big advantage early â¦ but leaves less room for growth.
That's not to say I would revise my preseason guess - UNC-1, Duke-2 - but after six weeks of the season, I'd have to say it is much closer between the two than I anticipated.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Virginia is easily the most pleasant surprise in the ACC so far, while Florida State is easily the biggest disappointment. Virginia Tech and N.C. State are also establishing themselves as teams that could make the NCAA field.
Interesting that of the four second-echelon teams, only FSU made the NCAA field last year.
Keep in mind, however, that Florida State lost four times in preseason a year ago. Three were to powers Florida, Ohio State, Butler), but one was an inexplicable loss to Auburn. That one was worse than anything the 'Noles have done this season (including that recent homecourt loss to Princeton). FSU was 11-5 and coming off two straight losses when they upset Duke a year ago to turn their season around.
"We're in a similar position to where we were this time last year," Leonard Hamilton noted Tuesday morning. "We've been a team in transition. We've had a bunch of guys coming and going."
This FSU team still plays great defense and is tough on the boards. The offense continues to sputter and turnovers (18.5 a game) remain a problem. But that was the same profile that carried last year's Seminole team to the Sweet 16.
Virginia's turnaround is being taken as a sign that Tony Bennett has his program on the right track, but it should be noted that the core of the Cavalier success are four veterans that he inherited from the previous regime, including fifth-year senior Mike Scott, who would get my vote for ACC player of the year if we had to pick today. The Cavs actually have some long-term issues (Bennett better recruit some big men fast!), but that just means that they need to cash in on the opportunity this year.
Virginia Tech might have a more solid foundation. Veteran guards Erick Green and Dorenzo Hudson are getting a lot of help from young forwards Jarrell Eddie and Dorian Finney-Smith and first-year wing Robert Brown. The Hokies, who have been living on the wrong side of the bubble for the last few years, have done nothing in preseason to hurt their selection chances, but still need more on their resume than two wins over Oklahoma State.
You've got to like the way Mark Gottfried is developing a talented, but previously directionless N.C. State team. He's turned Lorenzo Brown into a budding star at point guard, figured out how to use one dimensional Scott Wood effectively, gotten Richard Howell into shape and is starting to harness C.J. Leslie's immense talent.
He's made playing a brutal pre-ACC schedule pay off. The Pack has been very respectable in losses to Vanderbilt, Stanford, Indiana and even for most of the game against No. 1 Syracuse. He has good wins over Princeton and Texas. Lack of depth may prove to be a fatal flaw for the Pack, but at least this team has what none of Sidney Lowe's teams did - a chance.
It would be a mistake to read too much into Miami's 9-4 record or into Maryland's 10-3 start. Neither team has played most of the season with the team that will compete in the ACC.
"Last night was the first time we had all eleven players we started the season with in uniform," Larranaga said Tuesday morning.
In Miami's case, the recovery of center Reggie Johnson from knee surgery appears to have transformed the 'Canes. Johnson is a veteran big man who first proved his effectiveness in the 2010 ACC Tournament. He's always been limited by foul trouble and excess weight, but few players are more effective with the ball down low. He's the perfect complement to Jim Larranaga's bevy of quality perimeter players.
Early results appear to indicate that Johnson has turned up in good shape. He's showing no evidence of his offseason knee surgery. His presence appears to have helped Florida transfer Kenny Kadji step up his game. Unfortunately, the 'Canes haven't faced a strong opponent since Johnson's return, so while it's fair to discount those early losses to the likes of Memphis, Purdue, West Virginia and even Ole Miss, we can't really judge HOW much better Miami is now.
But the return of Johnson - which coincides with the return of athletic wing DeQuan Jones - certainly suggests that the 'Canes can move to the next level.
Maryland's record is deceiving in two ways. In the first place, performances against the likes of Iona, FIU, Florida Gulf Coast and Mount St. Mary's would suggest the Terps rank closer to the bottom of the ACC than even the middle. Even an impressive victory over a decent-but-not-great Notre Dame isn't enough to change that perception.
But all those games occurred before first-year coach Mark Turgeon was able to add two huge pieces to his puzzle. Sophomore point Pe'Shon Howard is a comparable talent to classmate Terrell Stoglin, who has emerged as the ACC scoring leader. His presence allows talented freshman Nick Faust to move to his natural wing position and not struggle at the point.
More importantly, 7-1 Ukrainian Alex Len has finally gained his eligibility. He gives the undersized Terps a chance inside. Len's impact is still hard to judge - some have suggested he's a lottery pick; others have labeled him a stiff. His numbers in his first two games are solid (13.5 ppg., 7.5 rpg.) but that's against inferior competition.
If Len is the real deal, the Terps have a chance to improve their woeful RPI numbers and move into tournament contention.
The bottom of the ACC is worse than it has ever been. At least four teams (and it's still possible that Maryland will join this group) appear to be hopeless going into conference play.
That was expected for Boston College, who has seven freshmen, a sophomore and a transfer among its top nine players. There is some promise among Steve Donahue's kids, but that promise won't be realized this year.
The best that can be said for Wake Forest is that the Deacs are better than last year. They've managed to pull out homecourt wins over High Point and Yale that they would have lost a year ago. They have a couple of dynamic players in junior guard C.J. Harris (who missed the loss to Wofford) and sophomore forward Travis McKie (the ACC's No. 2 and 3 scorers), but neither sophomore point guard Tony Chennault nor sophomore center Carson Desrosiers has made the kind of jump this season that the Deacons had hoped for.
Georgia Tech is much worse than a year ago. The Jackets haven't found a consistent second scorer to support Glen Rice and there's nothing resembling a point guard on the roster. Interesting that a year ago, Iman Shumpert became one of the few players in ACC history to lead his team in scoring, rebounding and assists. Rice has a chance to do that this season - he's going to lead in points and assists â¦ right now, he's just 0.4 rebounds a game behind center Daniel Miller.
Clemson is the biggest disappointment among the bottom group, losing at home to the likes of Coastal Carolina and the College of Charleston. Those are quality mid-majors, but decent ACC teams don't lose at home to mid-majors. The Tigers were projected to be a mid-level ACC team, but Coach Brad Brownell just doesn't appear to have the firepower to compete.
HANDICAPPING THE RACE
The irony is that the ACC's weakness at the bottom could end up helping the league's middle echelon teams.
The key for all the teams in middle is to sweep the teams at the bottom. Just check the schedules for the middle six ACC teams and see how many games they have against the bottom four. Florida State, Maryland, Miami and Virginia all play five such games. Virginia Tech gets six. N.C. State gets seven.
Sweeping those teams would provide a strong foundation for those NCAA wannabees. Do that and split with the other middle echelon teams and you wouldn't be in bad shape on Selection Sunday.
But a loss to the bottom four - that could be disastrous. With the low RPIs they are going to finish with, any loss to Boston College, Wake Forest, Clemson or Georgia Tech will hurt badly.
For Duke (five games against the bottom four) and UNC (an ACC-low four games against the bottom four), a loss in such a game would be a difficult hurdle to winning the ACC regular season championship and earning a No. 1 NCAA seed.
At least that's the way it looks today. Remember, it's just a snapshot.
Nobody can predict the future - at least not farther ahead than it takes me to type this sentence.
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