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The Fallacy Of Early Judgment

Feather Looks At The ACC As Non-Conference Play Winds Down

Lots of ACC surprises so far including Rasheed Sulaimon's fall and apparent resurrection
Lots of ACC surprises so far including Rasheed Sulaimon's fall and apparent resurrection
Grant Halverson

A very promising 2000-01 Maryland basketball team had a hard time getting started.

Picked No. 5 in the AP preseason poll, the Terps lost three of their first four games and dropped all the way to No. 20 in the rankings. A strong stretch of games in December and January elevated Gary Williams' talented team back into the top 10, but on Jan. 27, the Terps blew a 10-point lead in the last minute against No. 2 Duke - the famous "Gone in 55 Seconds" game - and that loss sent the Terps into another tailspin.

Maryland lost four of its next five games (for five losses in six games, counting the Duke loss). The Terps reached their nadir in a 74-71 homecourt loss to Florida State (a team that would finish 4-12 in the ACC and 9-21 overall).

As Juan Dixon, Steve Blake and company left the court at Cole Field House that night, they were unmercifully booed by the worst fan base in the ACC (soon to be the Big Ten's problem). Several Maryland players said they would never forget how their fans gave up on them.

Not many Maryland partisans could have imagined that the '01 Terps would become the first team in school history to reach the Final Four. They would win 10 of their final 12 games, losing twice to eventual national champion Duke - both times in dramatic fashion. A year later, that same core group of players would win Maryland its first and only national championship.

I wonder how many Maryland fans would now admit to booing them off the court after that loss to Florida State?

I bring this up because the 2001 Terps are a perfect example of how even very good teams can struggle at points during a season. Sometimes it takes time for a team to gel. Sometimes a small injury can wreck havoc in a rotation. Sometimes a tweak in the lineup can ignite a sleeping giant. Sometimes the fluctuations are mental - a team can lose confidence or maybe suddenly gain it.

I've seen it all around the league. The 1997 UNC Tar Heels opened 0-3 in the ACC and were only saved from at 0-4 start when N.C. State's Ishua Benjamin melted down in Chapel Hill … they won the ACC title and reached the Final Four. N.C. State's 1983 team was left for dead when guard Derek Whittenburg was hurt at midseason … but he returned and helped the Cardiac Pack to the national title. The 2004 Georgia Tech team that played for the national title was mired in ACC mediocrity early in February of that season.

Unfortunately, fans don't always understand this fact of basketball life. They tend to live in the moment. Few fan bases are as idiotic as the collective Maryland base, but already this year I've seen posters on a Kentucky message board go from predicting a 40-0 season to despairing that like last year, this Kentucky team will end up in the NIT. UNC fans have ridden a similar rollercoaster. The Heels swoon after losses to Belmont and UAB and start predicting Final Fours after wins over Michigan State and Louisville.

The Duke fan base is not immune to this behavior.

Even on the DBR message board - which is in my opinion the most rational Duke forum on the internet - I've read missives of despair about this year's team. It can't play defense. Coach K has screwed up the rotation. Tyler Thornton plays too much. Marshall Plumlee doesn't play enough. Quinn Cook is too erratic. There is no way this Duke team will go deep into the NCAA Tournament.

Many of the concerns are valid - as of this moment. What's not valid is the assumption that because the team has a problem now, it must continue to be a problem all season. Maryland's 2001 team is not the only ACC team to get better … not by a long shot. In fact, it's almost a function of Mike Krzyzewski's long tenure at Duke that he usually - not always, but usually - finds ways to improve his team over the course of the season.

Maybe some Duke fans have forgotten this legacy because of the last three seasons, when the Blue Devils started strong, played their best basketball in November and December, then were far less successful in March.

But those were three unusual seasons in two ways. The 2010-11 team and the 2012-13 team each started with a strong core of veteran players that gave the Devils an early-season advantage over their opponents. The 2011-12 team was younger and less experienced, but had the advantage of the summer tour to China and Dubai to kick-start the season.

It's no wonder that those three teams were so spectacular early.

But why didn't they get better?

The answer is simple - each of those three teams suffered major injuries.

The 2011 Devils were 8-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation when Kyrie Irving was sidelined with a bad toe. Krzyzewski has since mused that the '11 Duke team might have made a run at a perfect season and a second straight national title with a healthy Irving.

The 2012 Devils were 26-5 and No. 4 in the nation when junior forward Ryan Kelly was lost with a broken foot. Duke had won seven straight ACC games in February - a streak that started with the dramatic Austin Rivers game at UNC and ended with Andre Dawkins bombing eventual ACC champ Florida State in Tallahassee. The season ended badly, but up until the Kelly injury, Duke was playing very well.

The 2013 Devils were 15-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation when Kelly was again lost with a foot injury. Duke had prevailed against the toughest non-conference schedule in the country, beating eventual national champ Louisville, as well as Kentucky, Ohio State, VCU, Minnesota and Temple. Kelly was a key component to a dominant Duke defense and his offensive game was at an unbelievable level - he had hit 21 of 30 3-pointers in the nine games before his injury. Although Kelly later returned - and had the best offensive game of his career in his first game back - he wasn't the same player after the injury. Duke's defense, especially, never recovered its pre-injury dominance.

But despite the special circumstances of the last few years, Krzyzewski's track record in team development is very, VERY good. His solution to problems is often very creative.

Go back to 1997, when he saved the season in late January by replacing undependable center Greg Newton with freshman forward Chris Carrawell. The result was a smallish, three-guard team - but one that won 11 of 12 games down the stretch and claimed an unexpected ACC regular season title.

Or take the championship season of 2001. Krzyzewski was forced to radically re-alter his rotation after center Carlos Boozer was injured in the last week of the regular season. He not only used the Casey Sanders-Reggie Love rotation in the middle to replace Boozer, but also replaced fifth-year senior Nate James in the starting rotation with freshman Chris Duhon (and brought James in as a Sixth Man). Duke became a small, quick 3-point shooting team and won 10 straight games to finish the season with a national title.

In 2005, Coach K didn't like his team's energy after a narrow loss at Virginia Tech. He responded by starting walk-on Jordan Davidson against Chris Paul and No. 5 Wake Forest. Davidson played less than two minutes, but his energy and defensive intensity rubbed off on his teammates. The Devils beat the Deacs that night and won nine of the next 10 games, including the ACC title … despite the late-season loss of starting point guard Sean Dockery.

In 2009, Duke began falling apart as late January turned into February. Sophomore point guard Nolan Smith melted down in a 74-47 loss at Clemson. Krzyzewski's first move was to restore three-year starter Greg Paulus to the point guard job. But Paulus, who essentially lost his starting job to injuries, was not the same player as a senior and Duke continued to struggle with back-to-back losses to UNC and Boston College. K tried a more radical move - he replaced Paulus in the starting lineup with freshman Elliot Williams and moved junior Jon Scheyer - a lifelong wing guard - to the point. Duke won 10 of the next 11 (including another ACC championship) with that lineup.

A year later, K changed everything in February again - inserting senior center Brian Zoubek into the starting lineup and changing his team's fast, helter-skelter style with a halfcourt game that relied on offensive rebounding (mostly by Zoubek) to beat teams. Duke won 18 of 19 down the stretch to give K another ACC title and his fourth national championship.

Of course, the magic doesn't always work. Sometimes K just can't find the trigger to improve his team, although usually such failures are the result of injuries (as in 2011-13) or illness (think Dunleavy in 2000 … several players in 2008) that he can't overcome.

The 2013-14 Duke basketball team is still in the process of forming its identity. We've already seen improvement from the defensive depths of late November - the one-point Vermont win was, in my opinion, the worst defensive performance by a Duke team in the Krzyzewski era. It followed a horrid defensive stretch against East Carolina.

But the defense has improved in December. The team has improved more than 100 places in Ken Pomeroy's defensive metric (up to 48th nationally after the Elon game). Duke held Michigan's leading scorer Nick Stauskas without a field goal (thanks largely to Tyler Thornton) and limited high scoring UCLA to a season low 63 points.

So there is progress.

But we're still watching the Rasheed Sulaimon soap opera play out.

When Sulaimon failed to get off the bench in the Michigan game, I was prepared to write a clever article comparing the moment to Gene Hackman's tactic in Hoosiers - when the Hickory coach plays four-on-five rather than re-insert a rebellious Rade Butcher into the game after he disobeyed an order to make three passes before a shot. I thought that there some kind of battle of wills going on between Krzyzewski and a rebellious Sulaimon.

I have since learned that I should have been thinking about another sports movie - Tin Cup.

Sulaimon's problem was not a matter of rebellion, but a crisis in confidence. I should have referenced the scene where Roy McElroy is on the driving range before the U.S. Open and he can't hit anything straight. His caddy Romeo (the always excellent Cheech Martin) tells him to move his keys from his right pocket to the left. Suddenly, McElroy is in the groove.

Sulaimon's recovery has not been as sudden or as dramatic, but you can see his game returning slowly. He played a forgettable five minutes in the lopsided Gardner-Webb win, but gave Duke a strong 18 minutes (eight points, five rebounds, 4 assists) against UCLA and has followed that with two more strong showings against Eastern Michigan and Elon. His defense is approaching the peaks he hit last year and he may be just about ready to move back into the starting lineup.

If this Duke team is to reach its potential, Sulaimon has got to become the player he was last year. More than that - he's got to become the player he appeared to be on track to becoming after last year. We've already seen 2013 freshman such as Olivier Hanlon, T.J. Warren and Marcus Paige take a major step forward in their games so far this season. I think Sulaimon has the same potential - can he take a similar step?

There are other issues that Krzyzewski has to address over the coming weeks. The coach is still trying to structure the offense around the skills of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. The offense is not bad (No. 2 nationally, according to Pomeroy), but it can be better. Defensively, Parker and Hood are still struggling to pick up K's scheme.

What is the potential of this Duke team?

The Blue Devils failed their first two major tests against Kansas and Arizona - but not in a way that makes me think they couldn't prevail in an NCAA rematch. Duke will be better in March (barring catastrophic injury). Kansas and Arizona will be better too - will they improve as much or more than the Devils?

That's what makes it interesting. This is a wide-open year without a bona fide super team. The title is up for grabs. Duke is one of a handful of teams with the potential to grab it. True, the Devils have to keep getting better … but improvement is a trademark of Krzyzewski teams.


There have already been two ACC games played this season, but the real conference action opens this weekend with six ACC games (and a seventh on Sunday).

I've always been a strong ACC partisan, but even I have to admit the new 15-team super-league has been a major disappointment. It's not that the league's non-conference record (138-52 … 72.6 pct.) is terrible, but it's hardly impressive - especially with a 29-34 record against the other power conferences.

Who has been impressive?

Well, No. 2 Syracuse (13-0) has certainly been very good with wins over No. 8 Villanova, No. 18 Baylor and No. 23 (in the coaches poll) Indiana, along with solid wins at St. John's and versus Minnesota and California in Hawaii.

No. 7 Duke (11-2) has balanced losses to No. 5 Kansas and No. 4 Arizona with wins over No. 23 Kansas and No. 22 (in the coaches poll) UCLA.

Note that both Syracuse and Duke have both has some ugly home wins over lesser competition - especially Duke vs. Vermont and Syracuse against St. Francis. But that seems to be happening a lot this season and not just to ACC teams. The important thing is that both have managed to win their embarrassing performances … and that's something too many other teams have failed to do.

The third rated ACC team is No. 19 North Carolina (10-3), which has got to have the nation's most bizarre resume. The Tar Heels have three of the ACC's four best wins - at No. 1 Michigan State, vs. No. 3 Louisville on a neutral court and at home against No. 11 Kentucky. On the other hand, UNC lost at home to Belmont and Texas, along with a loss to UAB. None of those are really terrible losses, neither Belmont nor Texas is as good as it was a few years ago.

Now that UNC has finally put the P.J. Hairston mess behind them (while finally getting Leslie McDonald back), we'll have to see whether UNC coach Roy Williams' team can find a measure of consistency. A couple of last year's so-so freshmen have made major strides - Marcus Paige is playing at an All-ACC level; J.P. Tokoto and Brice Johnson are emerging as solid players, and a couple of freshmen have made major contributions (surprisingly, not the much hyped Isiah Hicks). On the other hand, James Michael McAdoo remains the most over-hyped player in the ACC - with a few exceptions (the Kentucky game) he's actually been worse than he was a year ago, when he was one of the most inefficient players in college basketball.

The fourth ACC team getting praise in the early season going is Pitt, unranked but off to an 12-1 start. I'd be more impressed if the Panthers had actually beaten anybody. Their best win is over Stanford on a neutral court. The only top 40 team they faced was Cincinnati - and Pitt choked that one away. Like Duke, they haven't played a road game yet.

Whether or not Pitt is as good as its record (remember all those old Clemson teams that started strong against weak schedules, then finished at the bottom of the ACC), the Panthers have laid a nice foundation to their resume for the NCAA selection Committee. Now all they have to do is finish above .500 in the ACC.

Three ACC teams have been major disappointments so far: Notre Dame, Virginia and Boston College.

At ACC Operation Basketball, I almost picked Notre Dame as my preseason No. 1 team. My thinking was that the last two ACC champions - FSU in 2012 and Miami in 2013 - were the two most experienced teams in the league. Going into this season, Mike Brey's Irish were clearly the most experienced team with veterans at every position returning from a 25-win team.

Imagine my surprise when Notre Dame lost an early season home game to Indiana State. The Irish have also lost at home to North Dakota State and suffered a disappointing loss at Iowa in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. There were bright spots - a neutral court victory over Indiana and a strong showing against Ohio State.

But just when it looked like Brey's team was finding itself, star guard Jerian Grant - the team's best player - was dismissed for academic reasons. In their first game without him, Notre Dame barely survived at home in overtime against Canisius (thanks to a very fortunate blown call on a possession play by the ACC refs in the final seconds of regulation).

Notre Dame is going to need to do very well in the ACC - starting with Duke's visit Saturday - to extend its NCAA streak to five straight years.

Virginia, returning the bulk of a 23-win team, including first-team All-ACC guard Joe Harris, was another fashionable preseason pick to contend in the ACC.

The Cavaliers missed the NCAA Tournament a year ago because of one of the worst non-conference schedule strengths in the country (No. 300). Coach Tony Bennett has upgraded this year's slate (currently No. 37 in non-conference strength of schedule), but, unfortunately, the Cavs have not fared very well against it.

Virginia had a real chance against No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth in the second game of the season, but the Cavs were outscored 10-1 down the stretch and lost at home. Virginia also lost at home to Wisconsin, which isn't that bad (although the 2013 Cavs did beat the Badgers in Madison), but they followed that up with a loss to Wisconsin Green Bay. Just before New Year's, the Cavs were pounded by a so-so Tennessee team.

Virginia is currently 9-4 against a strong schedule, but the Cavs' best win is over SMU. Bennett's team will have to get much better in ACC play to avoid another trip to the NIT.

At least Notre Dame and Virginia still have a chance for success, if they can get better. In all likelihood, Boston College has dug itself a hole too deep to climb out of.

Now, nobody really thought the Eagles were going to contend for the ACC title, but with all five starters returning from a 16-17 team that finished strong a year ago while playing nothing but freshmen and sophomores, a lot of people - including me - though BC could take a major step forward this season … maybe enough to contend for an NCAA bid.

Instead, the team is playing as badly as in 2011-12, when Steve Donahue used nothing but freshmen (aside from one transfer). After Wednesday's lost to Harvard (its sixth straight loss in the series), BC is 4-10 - and one of those wins (vs. Philadelphia University) doesn't count in the NCAAs eyes.

The funny thing is that 2013 ACC rookie of the year Olivier Hanlon has actually stepped up his game, averaging almost 20 points a game. What's hurt has been an early season injury to 3-point specialist Lonnie Jackson and the failure of 7-foot center Dennis Clifford to recover from knee surgery.

This could still be a dangerous team on certain nights - the Eagles lost a heartbreaker to UConn and have played well in stretches against some quality opponents. But it's going to take a miracle to make BC even a bubble team at selection time.

On the other hand, Florida State is easily the most pleasant surprise in the ACC.

The 9-3 Seminoles could easily be 11-1 … they lost an overtime heartbreaker to No. 14 Michigan on a neutral court and by one point at No. 15 Florida. Where is Michael Snaer when you need him? Balancing the close losses, FSU ran No. 10 VCU out of the gym, beat a solid UMass team on a neutral court and absolutely obliterated a decent Charlotte team.

Leonard Hamilton's defense, which slumped a year ago, has re-asserted itself., Senior Okaro White and soph Aaron Thomas have been the defensive keys (along with the three 7-foot shotblockers who share the center spot), while White, senior Ian Miller and sophomore point guard Devon Bookert have give the 'Noles solid offensive leadership.

The entire point of this article is that things change, but as of right now, I like FSU better than preseason contenders Virginia and Notre Dane and more than 11-1 Pittsburgh.

Is there anybody else worth giving a thought to as ACC play opens?

Wake Forest (10-3) has beaten the teams it was supposed to beat (sometimes just barely) and has lost decisively to the teams it is supposed to lose to. The Deacs are almost certainly going to finish with the best overall record in the Jeff Bzdelik era, but the ceiling for this team (at the moment) looks like the NIT, not the NCAA.

N.C. State (9-4) has more upside. Mark Gottfried's Pack has demonstrated the process of improvement over the course of the season (or, in this case, the first two months of the season). The team that lost to NCCU at home was missing center Jordan Vandenberg to an injury, while talented freshman point guard Cat Barbour was still struggling to fit in after missing most of preseason with an injury. The Pack has played MUCH better lately. It's amazing the difference Vandenberg - a nonentity for three seasons - makes. He's almost like a poor man's Brian Zoubek.

[Note: I'm somewhat discounting N.C. State's poor showing in a narrow victory over UNC Greensboro earlier this week. My feeling is that was caused by a letdown after a heartbreaking loss to No. 25 Missouri two days earlier.]

I had thought that the addition of point guard Trae Golden (a transfer from Tennessee) might be the missing piece for Georgia Tech, but while the 9-4 Jackets have showed hints of potential (a win at Georgia; a home victory over Illinois) the overall picture is much less promising. The Jackets haven't loss to any bad teams, which is more than a lot of ACC teams can say.

Believe me, I'm as guilty as anybody of living in the moment. I have to keep reminding myself that things change - that teams get better … that teams go on hot streaks and have slumps. Who is to say that by February, Notre Dame and Virginia will be as good as we expected in preseason and that FSU will be the ninth-place team the Seminoles were projected to be?

With that said, I can't see Boston College, Virginia Tech, Miami or Clemson making any kind of run. I'm not saying those four teams won't pull a few upsets -- in fact, I'm sure they will - but I'd wager serious money that none will be playing in either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.

Then again, after four games this season, a Duke football team that was picked last in the Coastal Division was 2-2 and 0-2 in ACC play. Who would have thought the Devils would have rallied from that point to win eight straight games, win the division and finished ranked in the final BCS poll?

As the 2014 ACC basketball season gets underway this weekend, keep that in mind.