The ACC regular season race is all but over, but there is still plenty to play for in February.
Obviously, the chief concern for the majority of the ACC is to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Even those teams almost certain of getting a bid – such as Duke – are still trying to polish their NCAA resumes and earn the best seed possible.
Along with the best seed is the best location to start a team’s NCAA path.
There’s an interesting logjam in the ACC for teams hoping to start their journey in Charlotte. That’s the prime location for Virginia, Duke, North Carolina and Clemson.
The trouble is that only two of those teams can be there – if the NCAA follows its seeding guidelines (and I should point out that they don’t always to that). Still, it’s extremely unlikely that any pod will contain two ACC teams.
That means four teams are fighting for two spots in Charlotte.
Right now, Virginia and Duke would be in the Queen City, while UNC and Clemson would have to play at different sites.
I did check for Virginia and Charlotte is closer to Charlottesville (272 miles) than the next closest site in Pittsburgh (317 miles). That’s no guarantee – the committee doesn’t always follow its guidelines – but the highest seeded teams are supposed to be placed closest to home.
There is one possible exception. The overall No. 1 seed in the tournament – a prize Virginia could still earn (so could Duke, although the Devils are an extremely longshot there) – can pick its site.
Is there any reason to think Virginia would not want to play in Charlotte?
But I should point out that the chances of Duke and UNC sharing Charlotte are slim – not impossible, but right now, the Heels are fourth in line to get a Charlotte pod (behind Virginia, Duke and Clemson).
ACC TEAMS BATTLE INJURIES
What an ugly word. It’s not something that usually plays into preseason expectations, but the health of a team is at least as important as the talent and experience on the roster. A depth-less team without injuries is on equal footing with a deep team plagued by injuries.
Duke fans saw a potentially great team decimated by injuries a year ago. Indeed, the Blue Devils have been plagued by injuries for much of the last decade – the run starts in 2011 (Kyrie Irving) and continued in 2012 (Ryan Kelly late), 2013 (Ryan Kelly at midseason), 2016 (Amile Jefferson early) and 2017 (almost everybody).
Injuries seem to be sweeping the ACC this season.
Notre Dame has gone from a sure NCAA Tournament team to a likely outsider after losing preseason ACC Player of the Year Bonzie Colson – plus All-ACC quality point guard Matt Ferrell and talented freshman D.J. Harvey.
Georgia Tech saw a promising season (an expected run at the NCAA Tournament) decimated by a horrific November-December performance when star wing Josh Okogie was sidelined with a broken hand (and a suspension) and star center Ben Lammers was hobbled by a bad ankle.
Miami’s season was blighted by a preseason knee injury to uber-freshman Lonnie Walker, Just when Walker appeared to be rounding into superstar form, the ‘Canes lost their most productive player – Bruce Brown – for the rest of the regular season with a foot injury.
Clemson appeared to be on the verge of their best season in this century when senior forward Donte Grantham was lost for the season. So far, the Tigers have survived without him, but this team is not deep enough to replace the veteran forward.
Virginia Tech has had to go the entire season without Ty Outlaw, the team’s best 3-point shooter. Florida State had to start league play without center Chris Koumadje (he’s back now). Boston College lost grad transfer Deonte Hawkins – who was looking like the team’s leader and best all-around player – before ACC play even started.
And any chance that Pittsburgh could be competitive was lost when the Panthers lost veteran Ryan Luther for the season.
Beyond that, North Carolina’s backup point guard Seventh Woods has been out for most of the season, transfer Cameron Johnson was sidelined early in the season and UNC is now dealing with an injury that knocked senior Theo Pinson out of Tuesday night’s game at Clemson – it doesn’t look like a long-term injury, but losing Pinson two minutes into the game may have cost the Heels that close loss.
That’s more than half the league, trying to deal with significant injuries.
Mike Krzyzewski’s team has not been immune to injuries this year, but the Blue Devils have been lucky overall – no starter has missed a game (although there have been a few in-game injuries). Backup big men Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolder have missed several games and are not fully healthy at the moment.
But compared to what the rest of the league is going through, Duke’s injury issues have been minor.
That’s a very good thing – this Duke team has less depth than almost any Duke team in recent memory and would have a hard time replacing any of its five starters.
Duke’s defense hit rock-bottom in the loss at N.C. State, when Duke allowed the Pack to shoot almost 55 percent from the floor and average 1.28 points per possession. N.C. State hit just five 3-pointers but at least two of them were in key situations with the game on the line.
That wasn’t a new phenomenon. Texas, Florida, Boston College, Florida State and even hapless Portland State shredded Duke’s defense.
When BC hit 15 of 26 3-pointers and averaged 1.20 points per possession, Coach K blamed the busy early-season schedule that prevented his young team from practicing. But 21 days later – with just one game in that span – Duke’s defense was again awful in a victory over Florida State (giving up 15 of 32 3-pointers and 1.15 points per possession). The N.C. State game followed that one.
Duke’ defensive rating in KenPom dropped out of the top 100. I picked up a copy of the ACC stats immediately after the N.C. State loss and Duke was near the bottom in nearly everything that mattered. The number that jumped out at me was Duke’s 3-point field goal percentage defense – in conference play, Duke was an ACC-worst 48.6 percent allowed.
Of course, that was a small sample size, but of the first three opponents, only BC is among the ACC’s better 3-point teams. FSU is right in the middle of the pack, while N.C. State is near the bottom.
Three years ago, Duke started the season with a similar defensive collapse.
The Blue Devils lost back-to-back games against N.C. State and Miami, allowing 1.24 and 1.22 points per possession, respectively.
Coach K responded by shifting his team to zone (it was the first time in his 35 years at Duke that he made zone his primary defense). The results were immediate – the first time out after the two losses, Duke went to Louisville and limited the Cards to 0.87 points per possession.
No easy fixes this time.
Coach K has been using both zone and man-to-man all season. There have been times when one has been effective, but there have been times when both have been shredded.
The only answer this season has been hard work in practice – helped by a bit of favorable scheduling. Four of the next five games after N.C. State were against Pittsburgh and Wake Forest – the two weakest teams in the ACC. In between, Duke got a solid Miami team on the road.
During that period, K used both man-to-man and zone defenses extensively. And the evidence is that Duke has gotten better at the defensive end.
Okay, shutting down Pitt and Wake doesn’t mean much, but the Devils also limited an explosive Miami offense to 0.95 points per possession. More recently, Duke has done a good job defensively against Virginia and Notre Dame.
Since the N.C. State game, Duke has played seven ACC games and has limited opponents to 38.0 shooting percent from the floor and 29.4 percent from the 3-point line. The Devils have moved up from 104 to a current ranking at 53 in KenPom’s defensive rankings.
The 2015 team also improved defensively. And while everybody credits the switch to zone, the fact is that the ’15 Devils played primarily man-to-man in their march to the national title. K merely used the zone to buy his young team time to learn the man-to-man.
As Duke continues to play both zone and man-to-man, there is no doubt in my mind that his ultimate goal is to play man-to-man defense – and play it well enough that the 2018 Duke team can match the accomplishments of the 2015 team.
They are not there yet, but in the last month, Duke’s defensive performance has improved significantly. If that improvement continues through February, the Blue Devils will be truly formidable in postseason play.
Just a note about defensive metrics:
When I was a young sports writer, most people measured defensive prowess by points allowed. In the 1980s, Princeton was proclaimed the nation’s best defensive team year after year because the Tigers led the nation in least points allowed almost every year.
I always thought that Princeton’s success was more about tempo than defense. Those Princeton teams were good on defense, but not as good as they were thought to be – their points allowed “titles” were more due to their slow pace of play than their defense.
Duke plays a fairly fast tempo this season (32nd nationally and the fastest in the ACC). The Blue Devils are going to give up points – even when the defense is clicking.
A slow tempo – slowest in the nation – has helped Virginia lead the ACC and the nation in what the NCAA calls “Scoring defense”. The Cavs are giving up 52 points a game – four less than second-place Cincinnati.
What’s remarkable about the Cavs is that they have combined their slow pace of play – the slowest in all of Division 1, according to KenPom – with an amazing efficient defense – the most efficient in all of Division I (again, according to KenPom).
That’s what makes it so hard to argue against the suggestions that this is the best NCAA defense of this generation.
HOME AND AWAY
I’ve been tracking the home/road records in ACC play this season.
The conference started league play with the home teams winning at a historically high rate. The home/road balance has reverted to the norm in the last two weeks. After the five ACC games Wednesday night, home teams were 47-24 – 66.2 percent.
That’s still a bit above the ACC’s 64-year average (63.3), but it’s a bit lower than last year’s number (68.9).
The majority of ACC teams are following an old pattern – mostly winning at home and playing close to .500 on the road. For instance, Duke is 4-1 at home and 3-2 on the road. Clemson, tied with Duke for second place at the moment, is 5-0 at home and 2-3 on the road.
But there are three teams in the middle of the pack that show surprising home/road splits. North Carolina, which has been the ACC’s second-best road team this century, is a healthy 4-1 at home and a dismal 1-4 on the road (barely beating crippled Notre Dame in South Bend). Syracuse is 3-1 at home and 1-4 on the road (winning at hapless Pitt).
FSU exactly matches UNC’s splits – 4-1 at home and 1-4 on the road (although the Seminoles’ road win – at Virginia Tech – is much more impressive that UNC’s lone win away from Chapel Hill).
There is still time for any other those teams to restore their road records, but a more than halfway through the ACC season, several NCAA-bound teams seem to be overly depending on homecourt success.
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