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As the Big Ten, Pac-10, SEC and Pac-10 again have expanded their conferences, the ACC has sat back and watched.  The most important thing for the ACC at this point is that none of their current programs have been taken away by the other quickly growing conferences. 

While the ACC was the league that caused all of the tremors of expansion earlier this decade they will be the last conference to grow this time.  Initially I said that I expected that the final result of expansion would be four 16-team mega conferences.  As I’ve gone through this exercise, my thinking has changed.  The reason is that similar to what I said about the Pac-10 expansion, I don’t see four legitimate candidates available for the ACC at this point.  If the league moves more quickly, or if the Big Ten only grabs one of the Big East schools, I could see four legitimate candidates (Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia).  But I firmly believe that the Big Ten will grab two of those schools (Pittsburgh and Syracuse) and take that option away from the ACC.

So that leaves Connecticut and West Virginia.  The case for both schools is complicated. 

First, let’s look at Connecticut.  Traditionally the Huskies have had an excellent men’s basketball program, but they are currently under a great deal of scrutiny by the NCAA.  And according to SI’s Seth Davis, that is just the beginning of UConn’s issues.  Their candidacy with the ACC is certainly helped by the inclusion of the premier women’s basketball program in the nation.  Their addition would also solidify a rival for Boston College in the Northeast and bring some access to the New York City market.  Their academics (#66 ranking by the U.S. News and World Report) don’t match up with the ACC elite, but are still solidly in the range of the other schools.

The biggest challenge for West Virginia to overcome will be their academics.  They are ranked as a Tier 3 school by the U.S. News and World Report.  That means they are not good enough to be ranked among the top 133 colleges and universities in the country.  That fact will not sit well with the ACC whose lowest current ranking school is Florida St. at #102.  Otherwise they have a strong football program with a passionate fan base and a very solid basketball program.  In fact, they have a lot of depth in their athletics program as they currently stand at #15 in the Learfield Directors’ Cup standings.

Will the ACC be willing to overlook Connecticut’s NCAA violations and West Virginia’s less than ideal academic ratings?  I say yes.  I believe that the pressure to expand will be great because there is nothing saying that the Big Ten and SEC have to stop at 16 teams.  You could just as easily see them jumping up to 20.  So the ACC will react and add the Huskies and Mountaineers believing that their only way to ultimately survive is to strengthen their own ranks.

What are your thoughts?  Would Connecticut’s NCAA issues keep them from being invited to join the ACC?  Does West Virginia’s academic ranking make them a no-go?

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Easy to miss among all of the expansion hubbub during the Big Ten meetings was a not so subtle jab at the ACC, and probably other conferences as well.  When questioned about why the early processes of expansion are taking so long Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany had this to say:

“A lot of these things that we’ve studied have been, in my view, improperly studied [by other leagues].  Didn’t understand the logistics, didn’t understand the culture, didn’t understand the academic fit, didn’t really understand whether they were doing a merger or whether they were doing an expansion. Expansion is very difficult, and we’re learning how to do it better, I think.”

With so much at stake the Big Ten is trying to do their due diligence and to ensure that when they make their final decisions the execution goes smoothly.  Clearly they’ve learned from the way the ACC botched their expansion earlier this decade by letting the information get out too soon, not being prepared to deal with the ramifications, inviting and then uninviting a program and then having a school jammed down their throat that they had absolutely no desire for.  Although in all fairness to Virginia Tech, they’ve carried the ACC banner much better than any of the 11 other members have in football.

In addition to navigating the choppy seas of politics, the Big Ten also has to be sure that they can drive revenue to the Big Ten Network.  They are going to do everything they possibly can to keep it all under wraps until they are ready to make an announcement.  That is why Delany keeps throwing all of the smoke screens up.  And when that announcement is made, I expect it to be an announcement of a done deal.

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It is now inevitable that there will be a major football-based expansion of the current power broker conferences in the NCAA, likely leading to four mega conferences.  I’ve been saying this was a natural progression since the recent ACC expansion and referenced a “massive” expansion in my post about Rutgers leaving the Big East for the Big Ten.

The Big Ten seems to be ready to make the first move, but I agree with Michael Felder at In The Bleachers who says that the ACC, SEC and Pac 10 would be wise to make their moves first.  The Big East and Big 12 should be trying to sure up their conferences by considering creative expansion as well.  The Big East has tried to take a step in that direction by hiring Paul Tagliabue.  I don’t think that is going to help.

So it appears that the conference alignment for my beloved Syracuse Orange is going to change dramatically.  If the Big Ten expands by more than one program the Orange will be heavily considered for an invitation.  Brian Bennett of ESPN’s Big East Football blog posted his Big East expansion worry-o-meter today.  He lists Syracuse as the third most likely school to get an invitation from the Big Ten behind Rutgers and Pittsburgh. 

There would certainly be positives in joining the Big Ten.  The league currently pays out $22 million to each of its members per year.  The Big Ten Network offers a lot of potential for additional revenue, especially if expansion hits major television markets.  The Big Ten should also provide an opportunity to re-ignite the football rivalry with Penn State and start new rivalries with other Midwest high profile programs.

If the Orange are not invited to join the Big Ten it is likely that they will be one of only a handful of football playing schools left in the Big East.  They should be a nice target for an ACC expansion.  Syracuse was initially invited to join the ACC in the first phase of the early 2000s expansion but was then uninvited.  Nice work John Swofford.  This time the invite would be for real. 

A major positive of joining the ACC would be the conference’s focus on basketball.  While this means there won’t be as much revenue in the mix, it does play to the strength of the sports programs at the school.  How electric would the Carrier Dome be for a late February match up against Duke or UNC?  Immediately Syracuse would take its deserved place among the blue bloods of the sport.  Another plus of ACC membership would be lacrosse.  The ACC would inarguably be the best lacrosse conference in the country.

So where would I like to see Syracuse end up?  It’s taken me a while to figure this out and that is why this post has been delayed.  I’d like to see them join the ACC.  It’s hard to pass up the money the Big Ten would bring but the ACC would be the more natural fit to me.  I like the conference’s emphasis on basketball and I think the football program would have a better chance for success.  I also think that it would be likely that UConn would be invited to join the ACC as well.  That would bring a good rival into the conference with the Orange.

On a personal note, joining the ACC would enable me to see the Orange much more often as living in Raleigh I could go to games at N.C. State, North Carolina and Duke.

So share with me Orange fans, what conference would you like to see Syracuse join?

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I’ve asked a good friend and one of the most knowledgeable sports fans I know to share his vast knowledge and project the 2010 ACC Tournament.  His stellar contribution is below:

Tournament to leave the ACC feeling blue

By Mike “The Dean” Everett

The ACC heads into its 57th tournament with most experts saying that it’s a down year for the conference. A big part of the reason for that is the complete, utter implosion of North Carolina.

The Tar Heels, after all, have been carrying the ACC banner – and the league in general – in NCAA play over the past five years, going 20-3 with three Final Four bids and two national titles. Over the same stretch, the rest of the league was only 20-22 with no teams making it even as far as the Elite Eight.

This year, UNC won’t even sniff the NCAA Tournament, and while Duke is in great position to claim yet another No. 1 NCAA seed, the Blue Devils are no locks to make it out of the first weekend, much less get past the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004.

The strange part about the league’s current condition is that North Carolina has arguably the ACC’s two best nonconference wins, a victory over Big Ten co-champ Ohio State, with Evan Turner in the lineup, in New York and the home shellacking of Michigan State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

So will the Tar Heels rise up at the end of the season to make a miraculous run through the ACC Tournament and restore the natural order with a dramatic return to the NCAAs? Of course not, they stink. They could, however, beat Georgia Tech if the Paul Hewitt factor is strong enough.

Will that happen? Let’s find out with the absolutely unofficial and unreliable ACC Tournament predictions.

All games at the Greensboro Coliseum.

THURSDAY, MARCH 11

No. 8 Boston College (15-15, 6-10 ACC) vs. No. 9 Virginia (14-15, 5-11)
Noon

There’s not another tournament match-up that encapsulates the ACC’s down year better than this one. Virginia lost at home to Big Ten cellar dweller Penn State. B.C. was an even bigger embarrassment in out of conference play. It’s one thing to lose to a decent Rhode Island team at home, but Maine and Harvard (for the second year in a row?) – that’s pathetic. And four teams finished below the Eagles in the ACC standings? No wonder everyone thinks the league stinks.

As for this game, Virginia stumbles into Greensboro on a nine-game losing streak and with its best player suspended for the season because of classroom problems. Boston College is coming off a season-ending loss at N.C. State, but beat Virginia at home 68-55 in the game before that. 

Another sign of the ACC’s poor season: Boston College shot only 43.5 percent from the field in ACC play, and that was good enough for second best in the league. Virginia was near the bottom at 40 percent. Joe Trapani, Reggie Jackson and Al Skinner’s flex offense will be enough to beat Virginia in a game few will be taking a long lunch to see.

No. 5 Wake Forest (19-9, 9-7 ACC) vs. No. 12 Miami (18-12, 4-12 ACC)
2 p.m. or 20 minutes after first game of session ends, whichever comes later.

Wake Forest snapped its four-game losing streak by holding off Clemson 70-65 on Sunday night, but that doesn’t mean the Demon Deacons have solved their problems. The team hit only two 3-pointers against the Tigers as freshmen C.J. Harris and Ari Stewart, continued to struggle. Al-Farouq Aminu bounced back from an awful two-game stretch (7 points total) to record his league-leading 20th double-double of the season, and the Demon Deacons used a big effort on the boards to knock off the Tigers.

Wake likely will need more of the same against the 2-3 zone that Miami prefers to play. Look for the Hurricanes to pack the paint, swarm Aminu and play off Ishmael Smith, daring the lighting fast point guard to beat them with the outside shot. If Harris and Stewart, Wake’s only legitimate 3-point threats, can’t recover their stroke, Wake could be in for a surprisingly tough game.

Miami, despite the 4-12 record, was competitive in most of its league games. One of the Hurricanes’ four victories came against Wake Forest, a 61-60 decision in Coral Gables. The Demon Deacons won the second matchup 62-53 in Winston-Salem.

Who will win this time? We’ll go with Wake in a close, low-scoring, ugly affair.

No. 7 Georgia Tech (19-11, 7-9 ) vs. No. 10 North Carolina  (16-15, 5-11)
7 p.m.

This is the matchup of the two teams that have done the least with their talent this season. It’s not surprise to see a Paul Hewitt-coached team fail to reach its potential. Heck, that’s probably his most consistent coaching attribute. But Carolina’s disastrous 2010 is shocking for a team coached by Roy Williams, the man who entered the season with the best winning percentage among active college coaches.

The problem with both teams starts with their backcourts. Martice Moore is the closest thing Georgia Tech has to a true point guard and while he was great in Georgia Tech’s 68-51 rout of UNC in Atlanta, his play and his playing time have been inconsistent. Freshman Mfon Udofia isn’t yet comfortable running an offense, and Iman Shumpert is a score first guard who can give you zero as easily as he can give you 30, as he did in Georgia Tech’s 73-71 win at UNC in their first meeting of the season.

UNC’s backcourt has crumbled under pressure and against good ACC competition. Larry Drew has had his moments – both good and awful. Marcus Ginyard never recovered after his early season injury. Neither of UNC’s freshman guards, Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald, have proved mature enough for this level.

The bright spot has been the play of freshman John Henson after he moved to the 4 to take the place of the injured Ed Davis. Henson’s length could give Georgia Tech stars Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors some trouble. Then again, when you add Zachary Peacock to the mix, the Yellow Jackets could push Henson around like a greased pig on a frozen pond.

Who wins? If the Yellow Jackets decide to start playing defense again, their superior outside shooting (Glen Rice Jr. and Brian Oliver vs. Will Graves and nobody else) gives them an edge. If Georgia Tech doesn’t guard, as was the case in the team’s two losses to close the season, it could be one and done for Hewitt.

The prediction here is that Tech will guard, force some turnovers and win by about 10 or so.

No. 6 Clemson (21-9, 9-7) vs. No. 11 N.C. State (17-14, 5-11)
9 p.m. or 20 minutes after first game of session ends, whichever comes later

If Clemson plays as flat as it did for much of the game at Wake Forest, the Tigers will head into the NCAA Tournament on a two-game losing streak. But don’t look for that to happen in this one.

N.C. State, despite the strong play of center Tracy Smith, is not nearly the rebounding force that Wake Forest is. Also, you can never know for sure if State’s guards will be great, terrible or somewhere in between.

In their only meeting this season, Clemson’s press pushed the Tigers to a big lead at the RBC Center in mid-January, but the Pack staged a furious comeback –led by backup point guard Julius Mays, of all people – that fell just short, 73-71.

This game could come down to coaching. Will Sidney Lowe have his guards ready to handle the press? Will he have his team collapse on Trevor Booker inside and pack the lane, denying Demontez Stitt penetration and forcing the Tigers to hit perimeter shots?

For Clemson, the question is whether the Tigers execute well enough in the halfcourt offense to set up the press. Andre Young was huge against N.C. State with his three-point shooting in Raleigh. Will someone step up to give Booker and Stitt the help they need to advance to the quarterfinals. The guess here is yes, which gives Clemson the victory.

QUARTERFINALS – Friday, March 12

 

No. 1 Duke (26-5, 13-3) vs. No. 8 Boston College
Noon

B.C. gave Duke a scare with a second-half comeback in a 66-63 home loss to the Blue Devils in their only meeting this season. Whether this game is close will depend on whether Duke’s big three – John Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith – are hitting their shots and whether Boston College can hang with Duke on the boards.

Despite being the No. 1 seed, Duke shot only 42 percent in league play, though that was good enough for a tie for fifth place. The Blue Devils, at 36 percent, were third best from behind the arc and led the league in rebounding and scoring margin.

Duke also was No. 1 in turnover margin, while Boston College was 11th due to a defense that was one of the two worst in the conference. Duke rolls into the semifinals as turnovers and the Blue Devils big three are too much.

No. 4 Virginia Tech (23-7, 10-6) vs. No. 5 Wake Forest
2 p.m. or 20 minutes after first game, whichever is later

Virginia Tech outhustled Wake Forest for an 87-83 victory on Feb. 16 in Blacksburg. The Hokies, the third worst rebounding team in league play, outrebounded the bigger Deacons, who were the third best off the glass.

 The rematch will be in Wake’s backyard, and it would be shocking to see Wake lose the backboard battle again. Malcolm Delaney, who averaged a league-best 22.7 points in ACC play, will be the best scorer on the floor, but Aminu – the league’s rebound leader at 10.3 per game – is capable of being the best player.

Wake was the best defensive team in the conference but couldn’t stop Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech was the best at forcing turnovers but caused only 11 in the only meeting with Wake Forest.

This has the potential to be a really entertaining game. With Ish Smith vs. Delaney and Aminu vs. Tech forward Jeff Allen, the two teams are pretty even. The key could be how much Virginia Tech gets out of Dorenzo Hudson, who sat out the victory at Georgia Tech in the season finale. If he can be effective on his injured foot, the Hokies move on. If not, Wake wins a squeaker.

The guess here is that Hudson will try to play but will not be the same player who averaged nearly 17 points per game in league play. Wake advances in a (very) mild upset.

No. 2 Maryland (23-7, 13-3) vs. No. 7 Georgia Tech
7 p.m.

This preview will be short and sweet. The most important factor in college basketball is guard play. Maryland has ACC Player of the Year Greivis Vasquez, senior sharpshooter Eric Hayes and the improving Sean Moseley. As noted above, Georgia Tech has talent but no consistency.

Georgia Tech should have the edge inside but freshman Jordan Williams will keep Maryland from getting killed in the paint. Maryland, easily the best shooting team in the conference, will make enough shots to beat Georgia Tech.

No. 3 Florida State (22-8, 10-6) vs. No. 6 Clemson
9 p.m. or 20 minutes after earlier game ends

Clemson swept Florida State in the regular season. The Tigers won the battle on the boards against one of the league’s best rebounding teams and held Florida State under 40 percent shooting in both games.

FSU won six of its last eight games, but the two losses were 77-67 at Clemson and 53-50 to the Tigers in Tallahassee. The Seminoles are good on the glass and on defense but lack a true go-to guy, as evidenced by the fact that no FSU players ranked among the top 20 scorers in league play.

This game should have more bricks than the N.C. State campus. That means the boards will be paramount. Seminoles center Salomon Alabi, forward Chris Singleton and point guard Derwin Kitchen rank among the top 20 rebounders in ACC play. Clemson struggled on the glass for much of the season, most recently in the team’s season-ending loss at Wake Forest.

This is a matchup of two teams that have never won an ACC Tournament, but have each advanced to the finals once over the past two years. Florida State made the run last season. The same thing won’t happen this year. Clemson beats the Seminoles again in a tight, physical game.

SEMIFINALS – Saturday, March 13

 

No. 1 Duke vs. No. 5 Wake Forest
1:30 p.m.

Duke beat Wake Forest 90-70 way back on Jan. 17 as the Plumlee brothers pounded Wake Forest’s big front line. This time, the Duke big man to watch for is Brian Zoubek. The one-time punch line is now hitting the glass and kicking, well, you know. The 7-footer with the Treebeard like facial hair has turned into Duke’s version of Dennis Rodman. Zoubek has been a monster on the offensive glass over the past month, and the Demon Deacons don’t block out well.

Wake has played the stingiest defense in the conference but Duke will get enough second and third shots to move on to yet another final.

No. 2 Maryland vs. No. 6 Clemson
4 p.m.

The Tigers handed Maryland one of its three ACC losses – a 62-53 victory at Clemson that was avenged, 88-79, Feb. 24 as the Terrapins stormed back from a nine-point halftime deficit.

Clemson owned the glass in the two meetings, but Maryland scorched the Tigers for 54 percent shooting in Game Two after shooting under 35 percent in the first game. Clemson will keep it close as Trevor Booker and Jerai Grant do some damage in the paint. But Maryland’s superior guard play will prove decisive.

CHAMPIONSHIP – Sunday, March 14

 

No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Maryland
1 p.m.

Did you expect anything else? These have clearly been the ACC’s two best teams in 2010, and they are the only two with a realistic shot of making NCAA Tournament noise.

Speaking of noise, Maryland got a huge boost from its home fans in last week’s 79-72 victory over Duke on March 3 – one of the best ACC games played this season. Duke clobbered Maryland 77-56 in Cameron in a January game that ACC Player of the Year Vasquez would rather forget.

What happens in the rubber match? Maryland is a better shooting team, but Duke defends the 3-point line better than anyone else in the conference. The Blue Devils also have the advantage up front.

This should be another great game as Maryland tries to win Coach Gary Williams his second ACC title. The first one came via a huge comeback to knock off Duke in 2004. Whether Maryland again tops its most hated rival to win the conference crown will depend on how well Vasquez plays.

Greivis and the Vasquez-ettes vs. Duke’s big three. Coach K in another big game against Gary Williams. Two bitter rivals playing for the right to be called champion.

Who will win that right? Can’t go against the Blue Devils on a neutral floor in North Carolina – especially not against a program that has seen more than its fair share of disappointments in the Tar Heel state.

Look for Coach K to cuss out the refs and for Williams to cuss out his assistant coaches. Look for Scheyer, Singler and Smith to all break the 20-point barrier. Look for Vasquez to flirt with 30 points and 30 shot attempts, with 10 assists and five turnovers for good measure. Watch Duke score the winning basket after an offensive rebound by the bigger, whiter Rodman (aka Zoubek). Watch Vasquez’s last second prayer of a shot go unanswered as Vasquez hits the ground, the refs swallow their whistles, and Gary Williams finally gets so mad he rips off his shirt like Hulk Hogan and chases the officials back to the locker room.

Duke wins, 83-82.

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The answer, of course, depends on your expectations.  If you expect the team to waltz right into the Final Four, well then yes, you should be very worried.  If you are willing to sit back and watch a young team grow, then you should enjoy this basketball season.

This team has an immense amount of talent.  Their challenge is that much of it is very young.  A lot was expected of Ed Davis coming into this season.  With his name being thrown around for the NBA draft and the loss of much of last year’s Championship team he was expected to assert himself as “the man.”  While he has some nice stats, 14.7 ppg and 9.9 rpg, he has not shown the level of aggression that will take his game to the next level.  A large part of that may be because he is still just a sophomore, or maybe that’s not his personality.  Through the course of this season we should find the answer. 

The long term answer at point guard appears to be Dexter Strickland.  He has the speed and drive similar to Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton.  However, he is just a freshman.  He has experienced, and will continue to suffer through, stretches of turnovers where he appears to be throwing the ball all over the place.  But to reach the potential that will elevate the team, he needs to work through those growing pains and the only way to do it is with playing time.

Living in the Triangle it is always interesting to hear the local fans on sports radio and see their posts on local articles.  I think that most Carolina fans expect to win the championship every year.  This is not one of those teams.  To achieve the best results, Carolina needs to get consistent play from the seniors, Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard, and increasingly improved play from the key, high potential youngsters, Davis, Strickland, Zeller, Henson and the Wear brothers.  As those players move closer to their ceiling, and if they can get Davis to stay another year, next year’s team will have a real shot at a Final Four with the addition of Harrison Barnes.

But, don’t skip ahead too far…this team should be really fun to watch as they mature during this season.  So if you are a Tar Heels fan, sit back and enjoy it, for what it is.

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