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Operation ACC Basketball

Take heart ACC fans, it’s very nearly time.

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NCAA Basketball: ACC Operation Basketball

Oct 26, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski speaks to the media during ACC Operation Basketball at The Ritz-Carlton. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports



My memory of the 2016 ACC Operation Basketball will always be the image of a tattoo – Mickey Mouse dribbling a basketball.

Allow me to explain.

I was one of a half-dozen writers waiting for Buzz Williams to start his interview session Wednesday afternoon, just after lunch. One of the other writers noticed that Williams had a small tattoo on the inside of his left wrist.

Now, tattoos on players are so commonplace as to not be worthy of mention. But tattoos on a coach?

Williams showed us the ink – the first names of his four children, which he had done in 2015. Then he sheepishly admitted to another tattoo –on his right shoulder, he had a tattoo of Mickey dribbling a basketball. He pulled up his shirt to show us.

He explained that he got the tattoo in his first weekend as a freshman in college.

“It was the first time in my life that I got drunk,” he said. “And the last time. The tattoo is a reminder of the bad decisions you make when you drink.”

It was an entertaining personal moment and the kind of thing that Operation Basketball has been good for over the years. Of course, the all-day session is dominated by standard basketball talk – Who’s going to be your point guard? Which freshmen look good? Have you ever seen the league this deep?

But often there are times to sneak a peek behind the professional talk. Players (each team brings two players) and coaches sometime loosen up and talk to reporters as fellow human beings. Not always – and it was much more common in the days of Bobby Cremins, Dave Odom and even the combative Lefty Driesell and Norm Sloan – but often enough to make it worth attending every year.

This year’s event was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Charlotte – the exact spot was the epi-center of the Charlotte riots a little over a month ago. Maybe it was the location or maybe the upcoming elections or maybe the oncoming sports protests that started this summer with Colin Kaepernick, but there were a lot of questions Wednesday about the intrusion of politics on sports.

It’s an overlooked point, but in the ACC, football players are rarely on the field for the national anthem – hence, no real chance for visible protests. But in basketball, teams are almost always on the court for the anthem.

Last year, Virginia Tech’s Williams brought in a dozen or so military veterans to teach his players about respecting the anthem. The result was a particularly moving video that went viral.

I asked him if he had addressed his team again in the wake of the current athlete protests.

“I talk with them about that every day,” he said. “I find that as I’m getting older, I hope the depth of who I am changes from coach to more of an educator.”

Williams was one of a half-dozen coaches I talked to who have met with their team to discuss the issues that have led to the protests. Several have brought in law enforcement professionals to talk to their players.

The Virginia players met with the Charlottesville police chief after they were photographed kneeling in a team photo.

“It was good to have that time to sit down and speak freely about how we’re feeling and things we were confused about,” Virginia junior Isaiah Wilkins told reporters. “I know I asked some questions and he asked some questions. It was good to have that time to let go of some of the issues we were having.”

Miami coach Jim Larranaga also brought in a police veteran to meet with his team. His long experience provides him with a fairly unique view of the current atmosphere.

“This is nothing new,” he said.

He cited his memories of the 1968 Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously waved the black power salute from the victory stand and when the U.S. Men’s Basketball team was shorthanded because so many black athletes – including Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) – boycotted the American team.

Larranaga is not about to get upset now by a few players kneeling for the national anthem.

“Players should be able to think about their positions and decide whether or not they want to do something symbolic,” he said. “It’s not my job to tell them what to feel.”

Even Mike Krzyzewski, who has sometimes been portrayed as a political conservative – and is certainly as a West Point graduate is a staunch defender of the flag and the anthem – is dealing with the issues as an educator, not a dictator.

“We’ll meet as a team and talk about what will happen in that regard,” he said last week. “Our school is all about an education on and off the court; in and out of the classroom. We’re giving kids an opportunity to express their feelings. We’ll deal with that in an appropriate way. They have the freedom to do what they like.”

It will be interesting to see whether or not there are visible protests before games around the league this season. But I’m like Larranaga – an ex-hippie from the 1960s. To me, it’s no big deal.


Obviously, the main topic in Charlotte was basketball.

You’ve probably seen the results of the media vote – Duke is the preseason No. 1 pick, Grayson Allen projected as ACC player of the year, Dennis Smith Jr. the projected ACC rookie of the year.

No real surprises there (although I voted in a somewhat different order ).

Don’t take the preseason votes too seriously. That’s what I told Buzz Williams as he flipped through a record of previous Operation Basketball votes. He was amazed that it had been going on so long – the first Operation Basketball was in 1969 (before the ’69-’70 season).

I pointed out that we’ve only picked the correct regular season champion 22 times in 47 years – and even that’s generous since it counts six times when our preseason pick merely tied for the regular season title.

Williams was shocked to see that the ACC had just eight teams in that first poll. I pointed out that two years later, the league was down to seven teams (after South Carolina left) and it stayed that way though most of the 1970s (until Georgia Tech joined before the 1979-80 season).

The ACC now boasts 15 members – one reason that the league is so deep. Traditional powers such as Duke and North Carolina have been joined by historically strong programs at Louisville and Syracuse.

Over the last two seasons, the ACC has enjoyed the greatest NCAA Tournament run in the history of that event. A total of 13 ACC teams have gotten bids in those two seasons – and 11 have reached the Sweet 16 … seven have reached the Elite Eight … and three have made the Final Four.

One focus of the ACC’s postseason surge was Syracuse last season. The Orange finished a mere 9-9 in the ACC – tied for ninth place. Yet, Syracuse got on a postseason run and reached the Final Four (before losing to UNC, another ACC team).

Jim Boeheim told reporters that sometimes a good-but-not-great team can get hot and go on a roll in the NCAA Tournament, but he insisted that was not the case for his team.

“We didn’t play that much better in the tournament than we did in conference play,” he said.

Syracuse’s success is reminiscent of the ACC’s heyday in the mid-1980s. In 1983, an N.C. State team that won its last regular season game to finish 8-6 in the ACC, went on to win the NCAA championship. A year later, Virginia did something even more remarkable. The Cavs stumbled down the stretch, lost in the first round of the ACC Tournament and went into Selection Sunday with a 6-9 ACC record (17-11 overall). The Cavs somehow got a bid – it helps have your athletic director on the selection committee – and then won four straight to reach the Final Four (beating the Indiana team that upset No. 1 UNC in the regional semifinals). In 1986, a 7-7 N.C. State team got a bid and reached the Elite Eight before losing to Kansas in Kansas City.

ACC teams with .500 conference records routinely got NCAA bids in those days. In fact, Jim Valvano always said that was his goal – to finish .500 in the ACC, then go on a postseason run.

But the selection committee has not been as kind to the ACC in recent years. Just one year ago, both Clemson and Virginia Tech finished 10-8 in the ACC and were shunned.

Both teams had some great wins – Clemson beat Duke, Louisville and Syracuse (at Syracuse!).

But Virginia Tech’s Williams’ was realistic. He understands that his team took itself off the NCAA board with its slow start – losing at home to Alabama State in the opener was pretty much the death knell for the Hokies. Clemson’s Brad Brownell also understands that his team was not consistent enough to merit inclusion in the field.

“There is pressure to get off to a good start,” Brownell said. “It speaks to the strength of the league that our ninth place team could go to the Final Four – and it was not a fluke. There is a lot of buzz and excitement about our team. We have a chance to be one of the teams competing for the NCAA Tournament.

“But I think 13 of the 15 teams in the league feel the same way.”

ESPN had a story up not long ago wondering whether the ACC could match the all-time Big East record of 11 bids. There are several ex-Big East coaches in the conference who saw that happen in 2011. Of course, just two of those 11 teams reached the Sweet 16, although UConn – a mere 9-9 in the Big East regular season, did go on to win the national title that season.

“This year does have the feel of that Big East that we left not that long ago,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “There are probably 10-11 teams that are worthy.”

But with the league so deep and so balanced in the middle, it’s going to be tough for 10 or 11 teams to earn bids. Louisville’s Rick Pitino pointed out that the ACC’s unbalanced schedule doesn’t help – in contrast to the old Big East, which consistently played with its schedules to maximize the chances for bubble teams.

The ACC’s 2016-17 bubble teams – and there could be a lot of them – will have to take care of business outside the league. No more home losses to Alabama State or William & Mary.

It would also help if the national media would recognize the strength of the ACC. It hasn’t helped the last two seasons to see the Big 12 proclaimed as the nation’s best conference – then see that mighty league fizzle in postseason.

“That’s your job,” one coach told me when I mentioned the need for a better national perception.


-- INJURIES: A lot of injury concerns floating around. Those can be pivotal – injuries cost N.C. State a chance for an NCAA run last year and reduced Duke from a Final Four contender to a Sweet 16 team.

The most significant injury so far is the broken foot that will sideline UNC’s Theo Pinson for at least half the season. He was emerging as a significant player for the Tar Heels – not as a scorer, but as a ballhandler and a defender.

Duke’s lingering issue with Harry Giles and the recent news that Jayson Tatum had hurt his foot the day before were also premier news. Coach K opened his press conference with the news that Tatum’s injury was not serious, just a sprain that should sideline him for two weeks.

“It’s the best possible news,” a clearly relieved Krzyzewski said.

He also remains very positive about Harry Giles return in the near future. Matt Jones said that he doesn’t think it will take that much time to re-integrate a healthy Giles back into the rotation.

“We know Harry can play,” Jones said. “He’s still around with the team. He’s taking in everything we’re working on.”

Jones can testify to the limitations imposed by injury. He conceded that he played at “50 to 60 percent” last season after injuring his ankle at North Carolina.

Virginia Tech is undergoing problems with two of Buzz Williams most important players. Sophomore big man Kerry Blackshear has been sidelined with shin issues. Although reported that Blackshear might miss the entire season, veteran Seth Allen insisted it wasn’t that bad.

“It’s not a break or anything,” he said. “He’s not practicing yet, but he’s around shooting and stuff.”

Senior forward Zach LeDay was supposed to attend Operation Basketball, but he was a late scratch. We were first told that he was ill, but Williams confirmed that LeDay was injured in practice Tuesday. He adamantly refused to say more than that, so it’s not clear whether LeDay had the same kind of minor issue that sidelined Tatum or something more serious.

-- DENNIS SMITH: Driving back from Charlotte Wednesday night, Barry Jacobs and I were trying to remember if any school has ever before brought a freshman as one of its two representatives to Operation Basketball.

We couldn’t remember it happening before, although it’s possible that Boston College brought a freshman a couple of years ago, when Steve Donahue didn’t have any veterans.

But Smith was not a desperation choice. Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried made a very conscious decision to put the media spotlight on his freshman guard. It’s the same reason that he has widely – and deliberately – told anybody who would listen that Smith will be the best guard in college basketball – this season!

“I don’t worry about adding pressure to him – it fuels him,” Gottfried said. “He’s not the kind of kid to shy away from expectations.”

And the claim that Smith will be the best college guard in America?

“If there is a better one out there, I’d like to see him,” the Wolfpack coach said.

Smith said he enjoys Gottfried’s praise.

“I speaks to the trust my coach has in me,” the Fayetteville native said. “I’ve worked so hard that he has a lot of confidence in me.”

Smith is – like Giles – coming off a serious knee injury. But he returned to full speed earlier. Plus, he enrolled at State last January, giving him a headstart on his class.

“I was 100 percent in January, but the doctors didn’t clear me until March,” he said.

Gottfried told reporters that he kept telling Smith to take his recovery slowly, “then I’d see him on youtube doing 360-degree dunks.”

It was not surprising that Smith beat out Duke’s top freshmen (and FSU’s Jonathan Isaac) as the preseason rookie of the year. It is a bit surprising that he earned a first-team preseason spot.

- THE PITT TRANSITION: It’s amazing when a team changes coaches and doesn’t suffer any personnel losses, but it was especially surprising at Pitt, where former Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings replaced Jamie Dixon.

The Pitt roster featured senior forward Sheldon Jeter, who started his career at Vanderbilt under Stallings, but left after two years. It was an ugly departure with Stallings blocking his transfer for a time.

Yet, instead of being a cancer for the new coach, Jeter proved to be the link that sold a veteran team on the new guy.

“When it first happened, there were some bad feelings,” Jeter said. “But after sitting down and thinking about it, I realized I was in the wrong. It’s easier to get over something when you realize you were wrong.

“When he was named [at Pitt], at first I was shocked. Then I realized that it was the right thing to do to stay and if it was right for me, it had to be right for the rest of the team. So I just called them and reassured them that he was the right guy.”

Stallings inherits a deep, talented group of forwards – but few qualified guards or centers. His response has been to experiment with a lineup that features five forwards – senior Jamel Artis is currently playing the point.

- THE NOTRE DAME BIG MAN: One of the things I wanted to learn is how Mike Brey planned to deal with a roster that is very well endowed on the wing, but seemed to totally lack any size. Oh, the Irish do return veteran forward Bonzie Wells, but at 6-5, he’s the smallest power forward in the ACC.

So where is Brey, coming off back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, going to find a big man?

His answer: 6-10, 255-pound Lithuanian junior Martinas Geben.

He certainly has size, but Geben averaged 1.4 points and 0.9 rebounds in 48 total minutes last year. He’s going to replace center Zach Auguste and his 14.0 points and 10.7 rebounds a game?

“I call it the junior year with us – the lightbulb goes on,” Brey said. “Zach Auguste, V.J. Beachem, Jack Cooley – I can go back, guys who invest with us [emerge as juniors]. Martin played against Zack Auguste every day in practice. We’re not asking him to do this as an 18-year-old. He’s been in our program. And he’s got some veterans around him.”

Brey also likes what he’s seen from 6-9, 245-pound freshman John Mooney, a four-star prospect who brings 3-point range to the post position.

“If we played tonight, we’d start three seniors and two juniors,” he said. “Can that save you on some nights when you are out-athleted?”

-- THE 20 GAME ACC SCHEDULE: It says something about the power of the ACC coaches vs. the power of TV that when ESPN proposed expanding the conference schedule from 18 to 20 games (starting in 2019-20), the league’s 15 coaches voted 12-3 against the proposal.

And it passed anyway.

Notre Dame’s Mike Brey actually presented the expansion proposal.

“My basis for presenting it was, we were the first league in the Big East to go from 16 to 18,” he said. “And we had some people going ‘Oh my god, that’s too much … it’s going to hurt our bids.’ It did the opposite – it gave us even more chances to get good wins.”

Brey said that coaches will have to be smart about their non-league schedules. He understands that the ACC/Big Ten Challenge will continue, plus Notre Dame is committed to play Indiana, Butler or Purdue every year in the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis.

“Everybody wants us to play in an event, but I don’t know if I want to do that now,” Brey said. “An exempt event in Maui? I don’t know. That still has to be figured out.”

Although Brey presented the idea, he doesn’t take credit for it.

“This was coming no matter what,” he said. “With this new TV deal, they’ve got to have a lot of inventory.”

Duke’s Krzyzewski was also one of the few coaches to support the expanded schedule.

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