With every game that’s played, we learn more about the reality of the new season.
We start every year with certain expectations – expectations that usually contain a good deal of truth, but also a strong leavening of misperception.
Of course, it’s still too early to think we know everything. Ken Pomeroy warns that his statistical system only reached full efficiency in late January. Early season results can throw us off – anybody remember just three years ago, when Virginia endured a pretty mediocre November/December only to turn it on to dominate the 2014 ACC regular season race?
It can go the other way – and often does; often because of injuries.
Remember six years ago? It was almost exactly this date in 2010 when the greatest Duke team that anybody had ever seen suddenly lost its motor when freshman point guard Kyrie Irving hurt his toe and went to the sidelines. The Devils remained a strong team, winning the ACC title and reached the Sweet 16, but the greatness that might have been was lost forever.
Perhaps this season will be the reverse of 2010-11. Duke’s projected super team has not been realized, thanks to a succession of preseason injuries. But if this team gets healthy soon enough to play the bulk of the season with a full roster, there’s every chance that by March, we’ll see the super team we lost in 2011.
It’s funny – injuries have been the dominant force in the ACC this season.
It’s not just Duke (and I’m sure my readers know the Devils’ tale of woe). The team’s strongest ACC challenger – North Carolina – has been without junior Theo Pinson, the team’s best perimeter defender and one of its best ballhandlers (he’s kind of a poor man’s Matt Jones). And UNC will play at least one and probably two games without its best player, junior guard Joel Berry, who just suffered an ankle injury.
Then there’s Virginia Tech.
The Hokies finished last year strong (winning seven of nine ACC games) and came into this season with high hopes. So far, VPI has played well (except for a late collapse against Texas A&M). But how much better would the Hokies be with sophomore Kerry Blackshear in the middle? He’s been out all season with a foot injury with no return in sight.
And how about N.C. State?
Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried has had to deal with eligibility issues surrounding celebrated Turkish center Omer Yurtseven (who won’t play until Dec. 15) and freshman power forward Ted Kapita (who missed four early games). But adding to those problems, State has been without sophomore forward Maverick Rowan, the team’s second-leading returning scorer, since he suffered a concussion in the team’s opener.
It’s easy to make fun of the Pack’s early struggles, but Gottfried no more has the team that will compete in the ACC than Coach K does.
And you can say the same about Clemson, another early season disappointment. The Tigers played their first six games without injured point guard Sheldon Mitchell. And coach Brad Brownell is still waiting to add transfer power forward Elijah Thomas, who is expected to be a starter up front.
Obviously, those five teams will look very different in January (and, more importantly, in March) than they do now. There may be (in fact, almost certainly will be) more injuries along the way, but we can only deal with those when they occur.
Still, the first month of the season has told us a lot we didn’t know. May I point out some positive surprises?
-- Notre Dame and Bonzie Colson.
The Irish were projected as a middle-of-the-pack ACC team after losing center Zack Auguste and point guard Demetrious Jackson off an Elite Eight team. Coach Mike Brey lacks any size in the middle and the only real point guard on the roster is freshman backup T.J. Gibbs.
Yet, somehow, Notre Dame is the ACC’s last unbeaten team. Okay, that is likely to change Saturday when they face No. 1 Villanova in Newark, but that 9-0 start is impressive.
A lot of it is due to Colson, who aside from being a thorn in Duke’s side the last two years, was nothing more than a serviceable player (11 points and 7 rebounds a game last season. The undersized power forward has elevated his game this year with six double-doubles in his first nine games. He’s averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds to push the Irish into the Top 25.
-- Georgia Tech freshman Josh Okogie and junior Ben Lammers.
The Jackets, as expected, aren’t very good in new coach Josh Pastner’s first season, but these two players – one newcomer and one holdover – have brightened what promises to be a dismal season in Atlanta.
The 6-4 Okogie, a three-star recruit from Snellville, Ga., is playing more and better than several five-star prospects in the early going. His 38-point effort against Tulane was an anomaly, but he’s hit for double figures in six of seven games for the Jackets. His 17.0 points a game are second only to N.C. State’s Dennis Smith for ACC freshmen.
Still, Lammers has been the team’s best player. He leads the ACC in rebounding and leads the nation in blocked shots (almost five a game). He’s hitting 60 percent from the floor.
-- Luke Kennard and Amile Jefferson
Like Colson and Lammers, Kennard has elevated his game. He was a good player a year ago … he’s an ACC Player of the Year candidate through the first month of his sophomore season. At 20.4 ppg after Tuesday night, he’s second in the ACC in scoring.
His scoring numbers are likely to decline as Duke adds more weapons (Tatum and Giles, especially, but also a healthy Grayson Allen), but that doesn’t mean that Kennard has not emerged as one of the ACC’s top players.
Jefferson has picked up where he left off after being hurt a year ago. His play this year demonstrates what the Devils missed in 2015-16. With a healthy Jefferson, averaging a double-double (as he has for his last 19 games) and anchoring the interior defense, and Duke would have been a strong NCAA contender.
But then Duke wouldn’t have Jefferson this year – and he’s one of the primary reasons that the Devils are such a strong contender in 2016-17.
THE JURY IS STILL OUT
Before the season, the Orange were the most hotly debated team in the ACC. There were those who thought that Jim Boeheim had a Final Four-quality team – including Boeheim himself, who told writers that he expected his best team since his 2003 national champs. Others looked at his roster – a mishmash of middle-level returners and transfers – and saw a team that would be lucky to finish in the middle of the ACC pack.
Well, so far, the skeptics have been right. Boeheim’s team breezed through four patsies (all at home) to open the season, but as soon as the competition toughened – even a little – the Orange fizzled. Three losses in four games have left Boeheim scrambling.
It looks from afar like the big problem has been sophomore Tyler Lydon’s inability to elevate his game. After last season, the tall combo forward looked like a potential superstar. Instead, his game has regressed (he shot 47.9 percent a year ago … he’s at 38.5 this year).
Nebraska transfer Andrew White has been about as good as expected (16.6 ppg), but heralded newcomers John Gillon and Paschal Chukwu have been less effective.
-- Pitt’s all-forward lineup
New coach Kevin Stallings started the season with senior forward James Artis starting at the point in a lineup that featured five players of forward-size a game. Well, to be fair, 6-6 Chris Jones is listed as a guard/forward and 6-8 Cameron Johnson is often listed as a guard.
The results have been mixed. Artis didn’t turn out to be much of a point guard, but he’s fourth in the ACC in scoring, while senior forward Michael Young leads the league. As a team, the Panthers are 14th in the ACC in turnover margin and 14th in total defense.
This is a team that had to go double overtime to beat Eastern Michigan in its opener. The Panthers scored an impressive road victory at Maryland in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge … then three days later, lost at home to cross-town rival Duquesne.
Pitt proved against Maryland that the Panthers can play at the level needed to be an NCAA team. But Stallings’ team needs to play at that level more consistently to avoid the NIT.
-- Wake Forest
A year ago, just before Christmas, it looked like Danny Manning’s program at Wake Forest had arrived. The Deacs were 8-2 with victories over Indiana, UCLA and Arkansas. On Dec. 22, the Deacs led No. 6 Xavier most of the way before a late collapse cost the team a signature win.
It was mostly downhill from there. Although Wake added an impressive win over overrated LSU, the Deacs promptly collapsed in ACC play – losing 11 straight league games at one point. It would have been 16 straight to close the season, except for a homecourt victory over helpless Boston College.
Fast forward to December, 2016.
Wake again looks very good – better than the team projected to finish 13th in the media’s preseason ACC poll. The Deacs are 7-2 after beating Charlotte Tuesday night and will almost certainly be 8-2 – for the second straight year – when they meet Xavier before Christmas.
Now, the Deacs don’t have to upset No. 13 Xavier in Cincinnati to make up for last year. What Manning’s team has to do is continue its November/December play into the ACC season.
The Deacs have two outstanding sophomores – big man John Collins and guard Bryant Crawford. Each has flaws – Collins is averaging a double-double (18.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg), but his minutes are severely limited by his constant foul trouble. Crawford is an explosive athlete, but he struggles with his decision making at the point.
It will be interesting to see how Manning addresses both issues and how he develops this team. It’s not an ACC contender by any stretch, but it could be a lot better than the preseason forecasts. But after six straight ACC finishes for 9th or worse, the Deacs will have to prove it before earning any credit.
Obviously, we’ll learn a lot more about the ACC as more games are played, although the next few weeks – exam time and the holidays – don’t offer a lot of good tests. Personally, I’ll be most interested in:
Dec. 10 – Villanova vs. Notre Dame in Newark. This one will be a good measure to see just how good Mike Brey’s Irish really are.
Dec. 10 – Penn State vs. Pitt in Newark. As Duke saw, Penn State is not ready to play with the big boys – but a Pitt team that can lose at home to Duquesne needs this one badly.
Dec. 11 – Florida at Florida State. And as Duke saw, Florida IS ready to play with the big boys. A good test for a talented FSU team that hasn’t had many tests so far.
Dec. 15 – Appalachian State at N.C. State. The game itself is meaningless, but it’s the first game for Yurtseven. Gottfried ought to have his real team for the first time.
Dec. 17 – Georgetown at Syracuse. The revival of the old Big East rivalry offers Syracuse another chance to prove that the South Carolina/Wisconsin/UConn tail spin is over.
Dec. 17 – Purdue vs. Notre Dame in Indianapolis. Probably a fairer test for the Irish than No. 1 Villanova. No. 18 Purdue is one of the biggest teams in the country down low … Notre Dame one of the smallest.
Dec. 17 – Kentucky vs. North Carolina in Las Vegas. Not clear if or how much injured UNC star Joel Berry will play. Still, a good test against a top team – and if the Heels lose, Roy Williams won’t be able to blame the hostile environment.
Dec. 18 – Clemson at Alabama. The Tigers will have Mitchell and Thomas in the lineup. A road win at Alabama would be a good starting place to build an NCAA resume.
Dec. 19 – Tennessee State at Duke. Again, the game is garbage, but there’s a very good chance this will be our first chance to see Harry Giles in action.
Dec. 21 – Kentucky at Louisville. Great rivalry and a great chance to see how good Louisville really is … or isn’t.
Dec. 21 -- Clemson at South Carolina. The Gamecocks have been surprisingly strong (8-0 at the moment with a road win at Michigan and a neutral court win vs. Syracuse). A win in Columbia would put the Tigers in the NCAA conversation.
The ACC season starts Dec. 28 after Christmas and there will be plenty of great games to watch (Virginia at Louisville and Wake at FSU on the 28th; Duke at VPI, Notre Dame at Pitt, N.C. State at Miami … and a non-conference meeting between Indiana and Louisville on New Year’s Eve).
By the New Year, we ought to have a much better idea of how the ACC really shapes up in 2016-17.
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