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Featherston: The Half-Way Point

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Ever since I was a kid, I've always hated those who tried to rush the Christmas season. Don't get me wrong. I love Christmas and everything about the weeks leading up to it - the shopping, the decorations, the music, the movies - not just the classics, but even the cheesy made-for-the Lifetime or Hallmark channel specials. I also love Christmas themed sitcoms.

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But I want to make one thing clear. Christmas season can't start until AFTER Thanksgiving.

There's a reason that Santa brings up the rear of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Allow us to enjoy Thanksgiving before we start hanging the lights and the mistletoe.

I hate to see Christmas ads in mid-November … I even saw a couple before Halloween this year. Hey, only 318 shopping days left before next Christmas!

I'm much the same way with NCAA Tournament selection debate.

Again, I love the debate. I love discussing bubble teams and speculating about the top seeds. I used to love it when Bill Brill would start mapping the field on the back of a box score. I cherish the memory of the time at the ACC Tournament when a couple of South Carolina writers interrupted a heated NCAA selection debate to offer us their projected NIT seedings (that was an era when the NIT was the height of ambition for the Clemson nation)..

But there is a time and a place for everything. Joe Lunardi always posts his first projected bracket in the spring, just weeks after the previous NCAA championship game. Too early. Wa-a-a-y too early. I don't even like discussions in December of how a certain win or loss impacts a team's NCAA chances.

Allow us to enjoy the season. I understand that the NCAA Tournament is the alpha and omega for the top college teams these days, but there has to be some perspective.

For me, the line is the first of February. Just as Thanksgiving is the starting line for the Christmas season … the first of February is the starting point for NCAA speculation.

It's also the approximate halfway point for the ACC conference season. Several teams played their ninth ACC game last weekend, the rest will get there by midweek.

It's time to start evaluating the conference and where everybody stands at the moment - and what they have to do (or avoid) to join March Madness.

Right now, I break the 12-team ACC into three rough groups:


Three ACC teams are compiling the kind of resumes that leave little doubt of their NCAA credentials.

Indeed, Duke and Miami are currently 1-2 nationally in the RPI and while that flawed measure is not the be-all, end-all for the selection committee, it's a powerful tool. N.C. State, struggling a bit at the moment in the absence of Lorenzo Brown, is still No. 20 in the RPI and with a 16-6 record against the nation's 10th toughest schedule, the Pack is going to get a bid, barring a total collapse.

The fortunes of the ACC's three best teams points to the impact that injuries have had on the ACC this season. More on that issue later.


There are five ACC teams that aren't going to get bids without winning the ACC Tournament (and the automatic bid that goes with that).

Clemson, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Boston College have neither the records or the ratings (Wake at No. 121 has the best RPI of the bunch) to even earn consideration. It would take a miraculous February win to put any of those five teams in the discussion.

That's not to say those teams don't matter in the NCAA picture - they do, but only as spoilers.


Ah, I love that phrase, although I know it drives some fans to distraction.

Still, it's a fair designation for four teams at the middle of the ACC pack that range from probably-will-make-it (UNC) to need-to-do-something-dramatic-to-get-in (Florida State).

Allow me to rank them going into this week's games:

-- UNC (14-6, No. 31 RPI) - The Heels are probably on track to make the field, although they have flirted with disaster a couple of times this season. Certainly, a homecourt loss to Virginia Tech Saturday (UNC rallied to win in overtime) would have been disastrous.

So far, UNC has avoided disaster. There really aren't any bad losses on the resume. The biggest problem for the Heels is that there just aren't many good wins either - just one top 50 win (No. 18 UNLV) and three top 100 wins. The Heels have home games with Duke and N.C. State to add to that total, along with road games at Duke and at Miami. Winning at least one of those games would be a big help.

UNC could be hurt by its blah non-conference strength of schedule (97), but unless this team stumbles badly this month, the Heels' resume is enough to get them in.

(Note: UNC's record is officially 15-6, but as far as the selection committee is concerned, the November victory over Division II Chaminade doesn't count).

-- VIRGINIA (15-6, No. 99 RPI) - The record is okay and the ACC performance - the Cavs are currently tied for third in the ACC -- is excellent, but that horrendous RPI is a reflection of why the Cavs are currently listed among Lunardi's first four teams out of the field.

Virginia's problems stem from a nightmarish non-conference strength of schedule (336). That's usually the kind of thing that the selection committee likes to punish.

However, the Cavs do have an excuse. The schedule would have looked a lot better, except for a stunning Nov. 13 loss to Delaware in the second round of the Preseason NIT. The Cavs were supposed to go to New York for the semifinals and finals. Instead, Delaware got to play No. 24 Kansas State and No. 38 Pittsburgh in New York, while the Cavs got home games against No. 316 Lamar and No. 253 North Texas State.

Virginia is another team that has been battered by injuries, especially early when the loss of senior point guard Jontel Evans forced Coach Tony Bennett to really scramble his rotation.

Over the last month, Virginia has played extremely well. But Sunday's loss at Georgia Tech - a game Virginia led most of the way - really hurt. The Cavs have a home game with Duke and a road trip to Miami. They need one - or maybe both - of those top RPI teams to bolster a resume that is so weak early.

-- MARYLAND (16-6, No. 70 RPI) - It's funny. Maryland has the same record at N.C. State, but is 50 points lower in the RPI. That's just a testament to how weak the Terps' schedule has been.

The non-conference schedule is No. 298 - and unlike Virginia, there are no excuses there. The Terps have one top 50 win (at home vs. N.C. State) and a losing ACC record.

There have been a handful of ACC teams in this century to qualify for the NCAA Tournament with a losing conference record, but this Maryland team won't be one of them.

It's going to take a complete reversal of the team's last month to even make a run. The Terps get just one more shot at the league's big three (when Duke visits Comcast on Feb. 16). Worse, a team that's already 0-4 on the road in the ACC has five more ACC road games (including three of the last four).

It's possible that Maryland could surge in February as Virginia did in January. But it's going to take a lot to make this team a viable contender.

-- FLORIDA STATE (12-9, No. 66 RPI) - Even Leonard Hamilton knows that this team is hanging onto the bubble by a thread.

"If we're going to find a way to get back in the NCAA tournament conversation, we're going to have to do something exceptional," Hamilton said after Saturday's loss to Duke. "We're going to have to do something a little out of the box,"

In the past few years, FSU has stumbled in pre-ACC play in November and December, but cancelled that out with strong in-conference performance. That's not going to happen this season. As FSU loiters around the .500 mark in ACC play, those early season losses to the likes of South Alabama and Mercer loom large.

What kind of "out of the box" event would it take to put FSU back in the conversation? Well, reeling off a bunch of wins against the likes of Wake Forest and Georgia Tech won't do it. The 'Noles have two games with N.C. State left and a home game with Miami. It might take a sweep of those two teams to get FSU in the field. And the way Hamilton's team is playing now, it's hard to see that happening - even with all of Michael Snaer's late-game heroics.


If the selection were today, I think the ACC would get four bids, but certainly Virginia and maybe Maryland are close enough to bump the ACC up to five bids.

One slight caveat.

While I think N.C. State is solidly in the field, a glance at their schedule suggests a possible doomsday scenario.

The Pack has lost two straight (without Brown) and will be an underdog Thursday night at Duke. Certainly they are capable of winning that game, but what if they lose? Then they'll take a three-game losing streak to Clemson, where Brad Brownell has the best career homecourt ACC winning percentage in the ACC (better than K!). In two and a half seasons, his teams are 17-4 at Littlejohn. N.C. State has lost four straight at Clemson - could the streak stretch to four straight?

After that, the schedule gives N.C. State a break with home games against Virginia Tech and Florida State. I THINK that if the worst happens this week and N.C. State falls to 16-8, they can right the ship win those two games in Raleigh before the trip to UNC.

Still, it's something to think about.


Duke fans understand how Ryan Kelly's foot injury has impacted Duke's fortunes. The Blue Devils were the best team in the country in November and December, when Kelly was healthy and the lineup intact.

In the six games since his departure, Duke has shown signs of adjusting to his absence, but there's no debate that the Devils are nowhere near as strong or as balanced as when he was in the lineup.

Duke has also had to deal with the foot injury that sidelined freshman Marshall Plumlee all preseason and for the first month of the regular season. True, he's now a marginal player, but no telling what his role would have been without the injury. Krzyzewski claimed that MP3 was one of the team's top six players when he went down.

Add to that the on-going leg problems that have limited Seth Curry to barely a third of the team's practices. He's had an extremely successful senior season so far, but how much better might it have been with good health?

Duke is not the only ACC team battling injuries. It's amazing how much impact physical problems have had on the league race.

-- I give Miami no pass for losing to Florida Atlantic early without Durand Scott (he was suspended, not hurt). But Miami's back-to-back losses in Hawaii came immediately after Reggie Johnson was sidelined with a broken thumb. Just as it took Duke time to adjust to Kelly's absence, it understandably took the 'Canes time to adjust without Johnson. But they did win five straight games (including three ACC road games) before Johnson returned in the homecourt rout of Duke.

-- N.C. State is 0-2 without Brown, probably their best player. Actually, he did start the Virginia loss, but he sprained his ankle five minutes into that one and hasn't played since. Significantly, N.C. State was leading when he left.

Freshman Tyler Lewis put up some good numbers against Miami in Brown's absence, but he's not nearly the all-around player. Good news for the Pack - no guarantee, but Brown is expected back for the Duke game Thursday night.

-- Boston College wasn't going to win the ACC anyway, but the on-going knee problems of sophomore center Dennis Clifford has sabotaged the Eagles' chances of moving into the middle echelon of the ACC. Coach Steve Donahue took his team to Spain last summer and Clifford was the team's leading scorer (averaging over 20 points a game) and leading rebounder (over 10 a game). So far this season, he's averaging 2.7 points and 4.5 rebounds in barely 18 minutes a game in ACC play.

-- Virginia might be the most banged-up team in the ACC. The early season loss of Evans was devastating. He missed nine of the team's first 13 games and was relatively ineffective in the four he did to play in. Malcolm Brogdon, who might have taken his place, hasn't played and looks like he'll miss the entire season.

Akil Mitchell, the team's best frontcourt player has had to play hurt and Darion Atkins, who was also starting up front has missed several games and played hurt in others.

-- Clemson's 2013 roster has only lost a handful of games to injury (senior Milton Jennings was suspended for two games after a drug arrest), but the Tigers were decimated before practice even began when guard Devon Coleman, the best of last season's freshmen, and freshman Jaron Blossomgame, the best of this year's recruits, were lost for the season with injuries.

-- Florida State lost veteran guard Ian Miller for four games in December and he was limited through much of January, but the big blow came at Virginia on Jan. 19, when veteran power forward Terrence Shannon - by far the team's toughest inside player - suffered a neck injury. He's missed the last four games and may be out the rest of the season. If so, it will be the third straight year his season ended before February.

-- North Carolina just got Leslie McDonald back after a five-game absence (that was part injury, part suspension). The Heels had to play one game without Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston just missed the VPI game and is expected to be out Tuesday against Wake Forest as he recovers from a concussion and also now the flu.

It's normal for players to suffer bumps and bruises over the course of the season - many of which don't get reported. But it's rare to see so many teams struggle with significant injuries.

For Duke, however, this is the third straight season that has been warped by injury.

Two years ago, Duke was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the nation when freshman point guard Kyrie Irving went down with an injured toe. Krzyzewski recently suggested that team had the potential to contend for a perfect season.

Instead, Duke revamped and finished as a solid team - 32 wins and a final No. 3 ranking. Still, it's hard not to be haunted by what might have been.

A year ago, Duke was 26-5 and ranked No. 6 in the nation when Kelly was lost with a broken foot. The team collapsed in postseason without him, losing to Florida State in the ACC Tournament semifinals, then to Lehigh in the team's NCAA opener.

Now Kelly is out again. Duke, which was 15-0 and No. 1 in the nation when he was hurt, lost two of the first three games they played without him.

That's three years in a row -- it's been a tough run of bad luck.