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ACC Race: Notre Dame In The Driver's Seat?

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Things are looking good for the Irish.

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David Teel is one of the most experienced and insightful writers covering ACC basketball.

He writes for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., and he usually covers Virginia sports. He was at Cameron Indoor Stadium Saturday for the Duke-Virginia game, along with a number of other Virginia beat writers and columnists that I respect – along with Teel, Jerry Ratcliffe of the Charlottesville Daily Progress and Doug Doughty of the Roanoke Times.

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These are guys from my generation and it’s always fun to get together with them and get their perspective on the league.

I was chatting with Barry Jacobs after the game and I made some comment about the impact of Duke’s win over the Cavaliers on the ACC regular season race and the seeding for the ACC Tournament.

Teel overhead me and injected an interesting comment.

His take is that after Saturday’s games, Notre Dame is now in the driver’s seat for the top seed in the ACC Tournament – thanks to the strange ACC schedule this season.

That thought had not occurred to me, but once I looked closer at the remaining games for the contenders, I could see his point.

Notre Dame defeated Louisville in South Bend Saturday to improve to 9-4 in the ACC – just a half game ahead of Duke and Louisville at 8-4 and tied with Virginia at 9-4. The Irish trail UNC (10-2 after beating Pitt at home Sunday) and Miami (9-3 after winning at FSU Sunday).

But look at what remains on the schedule for those contenders.

UNC has games at Virginia and at Duke, as well as a road game at rival N.C. State. The Tar Heels also have home tests from Duke and Miami, along with Syracuse. The Hurricanes, who have struggled on the road in the ACC, have games at UNC, at Virginia Tech and at Notre Dame, along with home games versus Louisville and Virginia, plus VPI. Virginia has games at Miami and at Clemson, along with home tests from UNC and Louisville (as well as N.C. State).

And Duke has a killer finish with games at UNC, Louisville and Pitt, along with home games against Florida State, Wake Forest and UNC.

All of those teams will lose games going forward.

Notre Dame could too, but the Irish have a lot less tests – at Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Florida State and home games with Miami and N.C. State.

That’s three games against the bottom four teams in the league and one game (admittedly on the road) against a mid-level team. The one top team left on the Notre Dame schedule will be in South Bend, against a Miami team that has struggled on the road.

Plus – and this is an important consideration – Notre Dame wins head-to-head tiebreakers with UNC and Duke. If they beat Miami at home on March 2, the Irish will likely have the tiebreaker against the ‘Canes. Only Virginia wins a head-to-head showdown with Notre Dame.

So, while Notre Dame is not anything close to a lock, I think I agree with Teel – the Irish are in a very strong position to claim the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament.

Not everybody agrees.

I also respect Ken Pomeroy and his site offers a slightly different projection. He projects every upcoming game as a matter of probabilities, but he also projects a team’s final record based on those probabilities.

If you look at his current projections (using his individual game probabilities to figure tiebreakers), you get this seeding for the ACC Tournament.

1. UNC 14-4

2. Virginia 13-5

3. Notre Dame 12-6

4. Miami 12-6

5. Duke 12-6

* Louisville 12-6

A very complicated four-team tiebreaker, complicated even further by the presence of Louisville, which will not be in the tournament, but its games do count for tiebreaker purposes. Assuming Notre Dame beats Miami in South Bend (just a 58 percent chance, according to Pomeroy) and Miami beats Louisville at home (61 percent chance), both the Irish and the ‘Canes would be 3-1 against the other three teams in the tie; Duke and Louisville would be 1-3. Notre Dame wins the tiebreaker by virtue of a 1-0 record vs. UNC (Miami is either 0-2 or 1-1).

6. Clemson 11-7

7. Syracuse 10-8

8, Pitt 9-9

9. Florida State 9-9

Pitt won the one matchup in Tallahassee, so an easy tiebreaker.

10. Virginia Tech 7-11

11. Georgia Tech 6-12

12. N.C. State 5-13

13. Wake Forest 3-15

14. Boston College 1-17

Not sure the wins and losses add up (since Pomeroy’s calculating win percentages, there is some overlap), but it’s still an interesting exercise.

There are still a few thousand – maybe million – permutations that could play out, but right now, I would think the odds favor Notre Dame and North Carolina as far as earning the top seed. I still like Virginia with the eye test as the best team, but that two-game gap in the standings will be harder for them to overcome than for Notre Dame.

But winning the top seed is not that important. Earning a top four seed is – and right now, Duke is right on the cusp. The Devils need to get past one of the four-loss teams – Virginia or Notre Dame – or past three-loss Miami.

For what it’s worth, tiebreakers only determine seeding in the ACC Tournament. If two (or more) teams tie for the best record in the ACC, they will be considered ACC regular season co-champions – no matter the head-to-head results. Of course, the official ACC Champion is, as it has always been, the tournament champion.

INDIVIDUAL HONORS

The ACC team race is not the only thing shaping up as the season nears its climax.

There is a fierce battle for individual honors. Here’s how I see the individual races shaping up (based on my conversations with voting colleagues:

ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR

I think it’s a two-player race between Cat Barber of N.C. State and Anthony Brogdon of Virginia.

Barber’s case is remarkably similar to that of Erick Green, who won ACC player of the year honors from the media in 2013, despite playing for a Virginia Tech team that finished 4-14 (13-19 overall). He averaged 25.0 points – to lead the nation in scoring – and 3.8 assists as the Hokies’ point guard. Barber is currently averaging 24.1 points (after a career high 38 points in a win over Wake Forest Saturday) and 4.6 assists.

And unlike Virginia Tech in 2013, N.C. State won’t finish dead last, although the Pack (3-9 ACC and 13-12 overall at the moment) is a longshot to make even the NIT.

Back in 2013, the ACC coaches actually picked Shane Larkin of Miami – the best player on the best team – as their ACC player of the year over Green.

That kind of sentiment would seem to favor Brogdon, who is the ACC’s best defender and a strong all-around player. It’s not clear that Virginia is the ACC’s best team, but the Cavs are at least close to the best and Brogdon is clearly their best player.

UNC’s Brice Johnson and Duke’s Grayson Allen are outside candidates at the moment. Johnson’s support would seem to have slipped a bit during UNC’s recent slump, but a strong finish could put him back in the race (and never forget the heavy UNC bias in the media). Allen’s case was hurt when Duke slumped in January, although he could rally with a strong finish.

ALL-ACC

The four aforementioned players – Barber, Brogdon, Johnson and Allen – appear to be frontrunners at the moment. I’d suggest that Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson is on pace to land the other first-team slot.

But don’t discount Sheldon McClellan of Miami, Michael Gbinije of Syracuse, Anthony Gill of Virginia, Jaron Blossomgame of Clemson, Damion Lee of Louisville, Zack August of Notre Dame or the freshmen studs – Brandon Ingram of Duke and Malik Beasley and Dwayne Bacon of FSU.

Those names will probably end up filling the All-ACC second and third teams in some order, but any of them could sneak onto the first team or drop out entirely. There are a few more guys who might slip into the third team – Zach LeDay of Virginia Tech, London Perrantes of Virginia, Michael Young of Pittsburgh, Devin Thomas of Wake Forest or Tonye Jekiri of Miami.

The most interesting player to watch will be Marcus Paige of UNC. He’s been touted as a superstar since the second half of his sophomore season, when he did have a breakout performance. But he wasn’t close to that level as a junior and he hasn’t approached All-ACC status as a senior (shooting under 40 percent from the field and under 30 percent from 3-point range in ACC play until the last week). There’s still time for him to finish strong and if he gives the voters any chance to vote for him, they will.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

A great race between Duke’s Ingram and FSU’s Beasley.

I’m assuming that FSU will push Beasley and not let Bacon split the vote. Of the two, Beasley has been marginally better, scoring a point a game more and shooting much better from the floor, the 3-point line and the free throw line.

The comparison between Beasley and Ingram is much closer.

The two are close to dead even in scoring (although Ingram is averaging a point a game more in ACC play). Beasley is shooting a slightly higher percentage from the floor, while Ingram is slightly better from 3-point range. Beasley has a big edge from the free throw line.

It is worth noting that Beasley and Bacon are on pace to become the top scoring freshman duo in ACC history.

I’m prejudiced, but I like the breath of Ingram’s game. He’s averaging almost eight rebounds a game in ACC play, while Beasley is just over five rebounds a game. Ingram has almost twice as many assists a game as Beasley. Ingram is third in the ACC in blocked shots – Beasley has two for the season. Ingram also has more steals, but it’s closer.

Will that be enough to sway the voters?

I don’t know, but I think it should.

Both will be on the all-freshman team, along with Bacon. After that, I like some combination of the Syracuse duo of Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon, Duke’s Luke Kennard, Wake guard Bryant Crawford, N.C. State wing Maverick Rowan or maybe Donovan Mitchell of Louisville.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

I can’t imagine anybody other than Brogdon earning Defensive Player of the Year honors.

I think he demonstrated his defensive abilities Saturday against Duke, when he alternately stifled Allen and Ingram. Both struggled when he was on them … both flourished when he was on the other guy.

I thought he was the ACC’s best defender last year, but Virginia nominated Darion Atkins and the ACC’s voting system didn’t allow write-ins. The coaches, not bound by that procedure, did make Brogdon their Defensive Player of the Year.

I’m sure he will be again.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Tough call at this point.

I’d love to see Coach K get credit for what he’s done with this young, crippled team. But as he noted Saturday, we tend to judge Duke by the standards of his program and not to look at the challenges of his individual Duke teams.

Unless he kicks Duke to an incredible finish to win the regular season title, I don’t see Krzyzewski getting more than a handful of votes – if that.

I think if Mike Brey brings Notre Dame home as the No. 1 seed, he’ll be a strong candidate. Jim Larranaga at Miami and Brad Brownell at Clemson could be in the mix if their teams finish strong.

One long-shot – Buzz Williams has re-energized the Virginia Tech program. With another upset or two, he could get strong support for picking the Hokies off the deck in his second season. Over the years, the voters have leaned over backwards to honor coaches who lift their teams from terrible to mediocre – more often than they’ve honored coaches who have converted mediocre teams to good teams or turned good teams into great teams.

` HAPPY BIRTHDAY COACH K

Duke edged Virginia Saturday as Coach K celebrated his 69th birthday.

Pretty nice birthday present.

That got me thinking – how has Duke done on Krzyzewski’s birthday over the years?

Obviously, Duke doesn’t play on Feb. 13 every year.

I count 13 Feb. 13 games in his 36 seasons at Duke. The Blue Devils are 9-4 on his birthday:

  • 1982 – L Wake Forest
  • 1985 – W Stetson
  • 1988 – W at Maryland
  • 1991 – W Davidson
  • 1993 – L at Wake Forest
  • 1994 – L at Wake Forest
  • 1999 – W Wake Forest
  • 2003 – L at Wake Forest (2 OT)
  • 2008 – W Maryland
  • 2010 – W Maryland
  • 2011 – W at Miami
  • 2013 – W UNC
  • 2016 – W Virginia

Interesting that Coach K is 1-4 on his birthday against Wake Forest … and 8-0 against everybody else.

Lesson: Don’t schedule Wake Forest on Feb. 13!