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ACC Roundup

Is State the most improved team in the ACC? Could be.

Trevor Cooney's definition of air time
Trevor Cooney's definition of air time
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

It's a bit early for perspective, but what ACC wins would you say are most impressive to date? UNC's big wins over Louisville, Kentucky and Michigan State, to be sure. Can't overestimate those.

Notre Dame's gutty wins over Indiana and Duke? Maybe.

Wake's win over UNC? Nice, but UNC has shown a distinct tendency to play down to competition this season. Syracuse's smackdown of Villanova? Strong argument there, just like there's a strong argument for Florida State's 85-67 whipping of VCU.

But you have to make room for State's win over Notre Dame, and here's why.

No other team has traveled as far as State has and as quickly.

Since losing to NCCU, in an ACC first, State ripped off seven straight wins and nearly made it eight against Missouri.

Consider this as well: if State had knocked off Missouri, the Pack would have gone 10-1 since that seemingly catastrophic loss.

And don't forget that the only returning players were TJ Warren, an undersized point guard in Tyler Lewis and a 7-1 senior in Jordan Vandenberg who previously stood out only for being ineffective. In 2011-12, for instance, despite playing 12 minutes a game, the big Aussie got just 2.7 boards a game. He did double his average from his freshman year to his junior year - from 1 ppg. to 2 ppg.

This year? Not bad. Not All-ACC or anything, but reliable and productive and a reasonable defender.

As far as Lewis goes, he's a skilled player but in basketball terms, physically, he's a 12-year-old.

He's not, obviously, he's 5-11 if you believe State (we don't; he's more like 5-9).

So that means Mark Gottfried has had to incorporate the following players into his rotation: Trevor Lacey, Cat Barber, Desmond Lee, Lennard Freeman, Beejay Anya, Ralston Turner and Kyle Washington.

The biggest improvements have probably come from Freeman, Washington and Anya, who have become reasonably reliable, certainly in the aggregate but also individually.

Warren is leading the ACC in scoring and the other guys have been put into mostly useful roles.

Against Notre Dame, a tough team and on the road, State played together and maturely, particularly down the stretch, which they did not do against Pitt. The big men pounded inside and didn't back down.

In fact, Notre Dame keyed on Warren, much as the Irish keyed on Jabari Parker, and held the sensational forward to 17.

But other guys stepped up, and that's not something that seemed likely early in the season.

Barber and Lee combined for 28 points from the backcourt.

Vandenberg pulled down 11 boards, while Warren added seven, Lee four, Freeman five and Anya four.

You have to give a lot of credit to Mark Gottfried. His Alabama career ended under a bit of a cloud, as he controversially resigned mid-season in 2009.

There's not much question the guy can coach a bit. Even with the vacuum of CJ Leslie, his teams ran the UCLA offense he learned under Jim Harrick very effectively.

So why is the win over Notre Dame so impressive? Boiled down, simply this: a team with one returning star and two question marks, a team which looked lost very early, a team with only one unproven returning big man, and a team which really needed all four freshmen to come through, went into a tough arena against a much more experienced team and was never in trouble. Not only were they in the game every step of the way, after Barber's half-court shot at the end of the first half, Notre Dame never led again.

In terms of confidence, in terms of team building, in terms of placing an exclamation point on State's season so far, we're not sure anyone else has done better.

Yes, the crushing of Villanova by Syracuse was impressive, but the Orange are #2 in the country for a reason.

UNC's trio of big wins are offset by chokes against Belmont, UAB, Texas and Wake Forest.

State has become the ACC's most pleasant surprise.

The schedule is favorable as well. State's next two games - Virginia and Wake - are winnable, and if Duke continues to play poorly, so is that road game. After that it's Maryland, Georgia Tech and Florida State at home before a trip to UNC. Then it's Miami on the road and Wake at home. Does 17-7 seem like a stretch by February 11th? Not to us.

State has a solid chance at 20 wins and more if the Pack continues to improve. That was hard to see back on November 20th.

It's too early to talk about the tournament for State, but unlike some schools - Maryland, Georgia Tech, Miami and BC - no one is talking about the bubble, the NIT, or just staying home.

Not an issue for Syracuse. Even if the Orange only win the games you'd fully expect, Syracuse finishes with about 24 wins and quality non-cons over IU, Villanova, St. John's, Minnesota, Baylor and Cal. It'd take a real disaster to keep Syracuse out. We just can't imagine it as long as Boeheim's guys win the games hey should, which they certainly did against Virginny Tech.

Syracuse really got no guff from the Hokies, who played fairly meekly: only CJ Barksdale reached double figures for VT, though Adam Smith and Ben Emelogu were close with nine each.

Jarrell Eddie, who has averaged 17.4 ppg, was held to just six on 2-9 shooting.

Coach James Johnson sounded a bit dazed afterwards, telling the media that

"You work on the zone, but you can’t work against the length and the athleticism. They did a much better job than we thought of getting out to our shooters.

"Nobody plays that zone in our league. … Nobody plays that zone for 40 minutes like that."

It will be different for a lot of teams, no doubt, and he's right that beating it's easier said than done. But the key to beating a zone, any zone, is always ball movement. If you keep it zipping, your chances of keeping the zone off balance, and therefore the defense off balance, are greatly improved.

Or you can get yourself a JJ Redick. There's no zone we know of that can guard a guy with 35-40 foot range.

On Wednesday, Wake takes a shiny 11-3 record to the tar pit of John Paul Jones, where Tony Bennett takes great delight in putting sand in your gearbox.

Remember that guy Butterbean? The boxer? (He's moved on to MMA stuff now, apparently). He's 5-11 and weighs 420.

There's nothing you can do. His enormous body just absorbs the blows and when you punch yourself out, he knocks you out.

That's the packline defense. It just sucks you in, slows you down, frustrates you, and allows Virginia to win with 50 points or less.

You can beat it by moving so fast it can't set up - again easier said than done - or, again, a Redick comes in handy.

Usually, Virginia controls the pace and therefore the game. It's a big challenge for Wake.

The other game is UNC and Miami, and that's a wild card, partly because of Miami's startling near-upset of Syracuse at Syracuse and partly because UNC is so erratic this season.

We have a simple theory about basketball which  probably should be a law rather than a theory: teams reflect coaches personalities.

So that's a big explanation, to us anyway, for why UNC is different under Roy Williams than it was under Dean Smith.

Roy Williams has a mercurial, ornery personality and he's not afraid to demonstrate it. Hence the periodic suicide references to jumping out of airplanes or tall buildings or suggestions of humiliating his team by making them run sprints at halftime.

His UNC teams (and his Kansas teams also) have reflected a more brittle nature than Smith's teams had.

Smith lost his share of games and some badly, but his reputation as a master coach was deserved. He was brilliant; in his prime, UNC won many games before they were played, because no one expected to beat the Heels.

That whole UNC mystique of comebacks? It was Smith. It was partly strategic genius - don't argue, it's true - and partly his insanely competitive nature.

Williams is highly competitive too, and he's also very successful. Smith's self-destructive behavior, such as it was (a certain amount of drinking and heavy smoking, basically) was off stage. Roy's is front and center.

Whether he's demeaning fans or blaming his players for losses (Smith always gave others credit and took the blame himself), Williams treats his emotions like free range chickens. They could use some confinement and it would likely help his team.

Of course that's not the only problem UNC has. With Marcus Paige as the primary outside shooter and some help from the reinstated Leslie McDonald, everyone and their mother is going to focus on shutting Paige down.  Miami will try to as well.

As tough as it is for State to start over with just three players, Jim Larranaga lost his top six. Miami has struggled some this year and that's not over, but the 'Canes are currently 8-6 and the near upset of Syracuse reminds us, in case anyone forgot, that Larranaga is a tremendously gifted coach.

Could Miami pull off an upset? We'd say no if it wasn't UNC, a team that's shown the ability to surprise in good and bad ways this year.

Here's one way it could happen: So far this season, Miami has outscored UNC from three point range, 237 to 144.

UNC's getting around 3.4 threes per game while Miami's knocking down around 5.6. Miami's also shooting 70.8% from the line while UNC is hitting 62.4%.

That leaves room for lots of variables, from who you played to home court advantage and many others.

Still, after the Syracuse game, Miami's bound to think they can play with anyone. And UNC knows that a number of weaker teams have taken the game right to them this season. There's no particular reason why a confident and improving Miami can't do it too.