Back in the Jurassic Era when I was a young sports writer, I thought I could use my knowledge of local sports – and the inside info I was privy to – to make money. I thought that when it came to gambling, I would have an edge.
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It didn’t take long for me to learn that despite the advantage I thought I had, I couldn’t beat the bookies. I do flatter myself that I was smart enough to realize that after losing only a few hundred dollars and not a few thousand.
In the decades since, I’ve always refused to put my money where my mouth is. Even when I see what appears to be a sure thing in the betting lines, I keep my money in my pocket. In almost every case, those "sure things" have reinforced my belief that I can’t consistently beat the bookies because they usually turn out not to be so sure after all.
I have never bragged about my ability as a prognosticator. I do predict in print, because that’s part of the sports writers’ job – to look ahead and try and project what’s going to happen. But I usually include the caveat that the reader should not take my predictions too seriously ... and never, ever take them to the bank.
The truth is, I’m better at looking backwards and explaining what has happened than looking forward to what will happen.
But I have to confess that this ACC basketball season, my 20-20 hindsight is as blurry as my foresight usually is. The 2015-16 ACC race continues to startle and confuse me.
It’s just not me. Could anybody have predicted:
-- A Clemson team that was underachieving in November and December (7-5 in non-conference play, ending with two straight losses), would win five straight ACC games in early January – a home victory over FSU, a road win at Syracuse, followed by home victories over No. 16 Louisville, No. 9 Duke and No. 8 Miami?
-- A Virginia Tech team that was even worse in preseason (losing at home to Alabama State!) would open ACC play with four wins in five games, including an upset of No. 4 Virginia?
-- A Virginia team that was projected by many (including this myopic prognosticator) to challenge for the ACC and NCAA titles would lose three of its first five ACC games?
-- That Syracuse, N.C. State and Florida State – all with high expectations and some quality wins on their pre-conference resume – would open ACC play 0-4, 0-5 and 0-3 respectively?
Even individual games are too wacky to be believed.
A lot of the surprises have been built around homecourt success … a lot, but not all.
Take Saturday’s Syracuse at Wake Forest game. A Syracuse team that was floundering – losing four straight ACC games, including two at home, before a victory over a terrible Boston College team – goes to Winston-Salem to face a Wake Forest team that was playing everybody tough, especially at Lawrence Joel.
The moribund ‘Cuse absolutely destroy the improving Deacs, leading by as many as 33 points in the second half before winning by 28.
Virginia Tech, riding an 18-game ACC road losing streak, goes to Georgia Tech and rallies to beat a Yellow Jacket team that was off to a solid start in ACC play.
Then there was Notre Dame’s stunning upset of Duke in Cameron – less than a year after an Elite Eight Irish team lost by 30 to the Blue Devils in Durham. This is not nearly as good a Notre Dame team.
But this is not nearly as good a Duke team either.
Not without Amile Jefferson.
I know it’s an excuse and other teams have injury issues, but it’s hard to think of a player this year whose absence has changed a team as much as Jefferson’s has done. Maybe Denzel Valentine’s absence at Michigan State?
Duke is 6-3 without Jefferson, losing one-possession (in the last 30 seconds) games to Utah, Clemson and Notre Dame. I don’t think I’m being absurd to suggest that with Jefferson in the lineup, the Blue Devils would have won all three games.
That’s not to suggest that Jefferson is a superman or that his presence would have made Duke a superpower. But he was playing at a high level and his absence has hurt the team badly in the paint defensively and on the boards. With him in the lineup, Duke is a top 10 team … without him, the Devils are at best a borderline top 25 team.
It is kind of funny to look at Duke’s impending drop in the polls. The Devils have been ranked in 165 straight AP polls (since the final 2007 poll). That’s not only the longest active streak, but also the sixth longest streak in NCAA history. With one more week in the polls – and it’s going to be close after an 0-2 week – Duke would tie Marquette (1969-79) for the fifth longest streak.
The funny thing about Duke’s poll status is that "what-if" scenario. What if Jefferson had not broken his foot? Where would this Blue Devil team be ranked in today’s poll? Duke would most likely be 17-1 (instead of 14-2) and looking at the poll and how the votes have gone, I think that would make the Blue Devils No. 2 in the rankings – behind only 17-1 Oklahoma.
That’s fantasy, of course.
Duke has to deal with reality of moving forward with a seriously flawed team. A lot of things have gone right for the Blue Devils this season – Grayson Allen has blossomed as a star; freshmen Brandon Ingram and Luke Kennard have more than matched expectations; freshman Derryck Thornton has had his up and down moments, but he’s made reasonable progress for a point guard who came to school a year early; upperclassmen Matt Jones and Marshall Plumlee have been solid players.
But three things have gone wrong so far and unfortunately, they are all at the same position. Jefferson was playing great – averaging a double-double and anchoring the team’s defense (notice the disappearance of the 1-3-1 zone without Jefferson in the middle?). Losing him was the first and biggest blow. But that blow was compounded by two others – the inability of transfer Sean Obi or freshman Chase Jeter to make any kind of contribution off the bench.
Jefferson’s injury offered a great opportunity to each player, but neither has been able to seize that chance. To me, Obi’s failure is the most surprising, based on Mike Krzyzewski’s track record of transfers – every previous Coach K transfer has made a significant contribution – right away. Obi hasn’t done that. His lack of an offensive game is not a problem, but his lack of mobility is. He had knee problems before the season … is that what’s slowing him down?
Jeter’s problem is clearly immaturity. Yes, he needs strength, but so does Ingram and that hasn’t stopped him from contributing at a high level. Jeter has displayed good quickness, decent hops and some nice offensive moves at times, but he appears overmatched and mentally frazzled when forced into a key situation.
I still think that at some point, Jeter will be a very good player at Duke … I hope (but don’t expect) it to happen later this season.
So until Jefferson returns, Duke is going to be a flawed team.
"I’ve said this since Amile went out – the margin between us winning and losing is narrow," Krzyzewski said after the Notre Dame loss. "We’re a good team. We’re not that good. But we’re called Duke and we’re coached by me."
That means that even without Jefferson, expectations for the Devils are going to be high. And the path Duke must negotiate in the next two months is an extremely difficult one. There are no soft touches in the ACC this season.
Well, there is one – Boston College is a clear step behind the other 14 teams. But those other 14 teams range from excellent to dangerous.
"It seems to me that this league – from top to bottom – is as good as it’s ever been," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, who has been at Tallahassee since 2003, said last week.
"There are a lot more good players than there have been [in the ACC]," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.
What makes it interesting is that while there are a lot of good teams in the ACC this season, it’s not clear that there are any great teams in the league.
Virginia was supposed to be a great team, but the Cavs are below .500 in the ACC. Duke was supposed to be a top 5 team, but that was before Jefferson got hurt. And week ago, an ACC coach suggested off the record that Miami was the best team in the conference … then the ‘Canes went out and lost at Virginia and at Clemson.
Those are not earth-shattering losses, but still that 0-2 week is evidence that the ‘Canes are not a great team, just a very good one.
If there is an exception, it would have to be North Carolina, off to a 5-0 start in the ACC and likely to be a top 5 team in the AP poll that is released later this year.
Is North Carolina a great team?
I think that remains to be determined. Four of UNC’s wins have come against unranked ACC teams and the Tar Heels have not been especially dominant in any of them. The best league win on their resume is a homecourt victory over Clemson, but UNC always beats Clemson in Chapel Hill.
As I mentioned last week, UNC’s schedule is back-loaded. Starting Feb. 1, they play at Louisville and at Notre Dame. In the middle of the month, they play Duke and Miami at home. At the end of the month, they play at Virginia and at Duke.
Get through that stretch relatively unbloodied and we can start singing the praises of this Tar Heel team.
As it now stands, almost every ACC game appears to be life and death – with the exception of the occasional breather against Boston College. Last week, I suggested that the ACC dream of getting 10 NCAA Tournament bids might turn on the ability of the mid-level teams to beat up on the bottom four or five league teams. That doesn’t appear to be happening.
Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech are proving to be tough outs, especially at home. Clemson has played so well that the Tigers have put themselves back in the NCAA conversation, despite a terrible pre-conference resume.
On the other hand, potential NCAA teams such as Syracuse, N.C. State and Florida State have dug themselves a deep hole. That’s not to say that any other the three couldn’t pull a Clemson and put themselves back in the conversation (FSU has just won two good games in a row in the league … it’s a start), but that trio of underachieving teams needs a strong run – and not just an occasional upset – to get back in the picture.
The Blue Devils need to stay afloat until Jefferson returns and Krzyzewski can start rebuilding the team for postseason. That means winning the close games that have so far been eluding the Devils.
Coach K pointed out how a few more free throws and or one more defensive stop may have made the difference at Clemson or against Notre Dame.
"That’s the difference between being 5-0 and 3-2," he said. "That’s the league though. Overall, there’s not much difference."
And it’s likely to remain that way for the rest of the season.
At least that’s my prediction … for what it’s worth.