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Gregory Echenique Wants to Leave a Mark

As he himself put it, getting hit in the face is pretty much just part of life as Gregory Echenique.

Not too long ago, Duke’s Mason Plumlee looked like a lock for ACC Player of the Year. Fellow forward Ryan Kelly went out with an injury, opposing defenses concentrated on him more and Plumlee had some bad games. And he became an afterthought.

But make no mistake, Plumlee is still as good as he was back then, and still capable of being dominant. He knows his career is a bad game from him away from being over. He doesn’t want that to happen, and he showed some of that desperation against Albany.

Tonight, though, he’ll be facing off against a Creighton senior big man in Gregory Echenique who is similarly desperate. Even though he had one more year, he was inconsolable after being subbed out in last year’s NCAA Tournament loss to UNC with 1:13 to go.

Echenique, an Honorable Mention All-MVC selection this year, is a 6-foot-9 and 260-pound human wall of cement, banging against opponents down low over and over again until they submit to his will. Despite weighing 260, he has just 7% body fat and has dropped 40 pounds since he got to Creighton. He is thick rather than flabby, a delicate balance many big men can’t quite maintain.

Speaking to him, though, he doesn’t seem like a mindless bruiser at all. The Venezuela native still has traces of an accent, but he’s been in the states since he decided he was going to play basketball and his English is great. And he has mastered the art of describing what it is he does.

“I’m blessed that I’m built for that (physicality) and I weigh a little more than some, so that definitely helps me out,” Echenique said. “At the end of the day, I just hope that they’re more tired than I am and that usually ends up working for me.

“I like a little mental games too but no, I just try to just be smart, just use my body and try to let them know that I’m always there, not to get comfortable. I don’t want them to really get comfortable, so that’s what I try to do.”

Mental games, but not trash talk. The mental games are much more complicated than that, even in the post where it seems like almost anything goes. Echenique said he has gotten very good at the art of playing really rough, then relaxing for a bit, then going hard again. He doesn’t want to reveal a pattern, and it can frustrate opponents trying to get used to him.

Of course, there are consequences to that physical lifestyle. On Saturday, he had a few stitches on the side of his head and some on his eyelid as well. The eyelid was busted during the Cincinnati game by an errant elbow, and the head was from a teammate’s elbow. Echenique has seen his share of elbows, and he knows that’s part of the job.

So that’s just life as Greg Echenique, he was asked?

He grinned. “I guess so,” he said, shrugging. “Apparently, that’s what it’s turned out to be.”

“Echenique” almost sounds like a fragrance, and lord knows most of his opponents will likely smell like Echenique for days after they face him. Even though some manage to make marks on him, they’ll remember that they faced him. And as long as it’s the case, Echenique is happy.

“Yeah, I would take pride in that,” he said. “I hope I can do that again tomorrow. I like playing against bigger guys too, because it’s easier to find their bodies and easier to know where they’re at compared to when you play undersized people.  It’s just very exciting for me.”

Plumlee has struggled some with more physical, bruising opponents this year, like Clemson’s Devin Booker. And Plumlee has had his share of bruises this year – most commonly for him are scratches along his arms, some of which are still visible now. Teams will try to do whatever they can to stop him and don’t mind fouling him, as he hasn’t been especially consistent in the free-throw shooting department.

And he knows that there’s no possible way he can bang down low with Echenique for 40 minutes anyway, so he’s going to have to change some things up. “He’s a big, strong guy and we’ll have to get him on the move, keep movement,” Plumlee said. “You can’t just bang with a guy that’s – I don’t know how much he weighs, but you have to do different things.”

Echenique has gone up against elite big men before, and he certainly frustrated UNC’s Tyler Zeller a year ago. He was as physical as anyone was with Zeller throughout his career, and he only got whistled for two fouls. He hopes that the referees let he and Plumlee decide the game rather than calling it tightly, and he’s relishing the chance to bang with one of the nation’s best.

“I’m looking forward to it. I like stuff like that,” Echenqiue said. “Sometimes you’ve got to be careful because of the referees, so you’ve got to see how they’re dictating the game. Hopefully, they’ll let us play a little bit.

“Obviously I know that he’s a good player and they’re going to look for him. He’ll score some. I’ve just got to make sure that they’re not easy buckets, that he doesn’t get going and get his confidence up.”

 

 

Creighton Eager To Prove It Belongs

Creighton's Grant Gibbs fields questions from the media on Saturday about his now-infamous wink.

Creighton’s Grant Gibbs fields questions from the media on Saturday about his now-infamous wink.

In North Carolina, Creighton is probably most commonly associated with UNC point guard Kendall Marshall’s season-ending wrist injury that came late in the Tar Heels’ relatively easy second-round win over the Bluejays last year in Greensboro.

Ethan Wragge, who committed the hard foul, might be a more well-known name around Chapel Hill than Creighton star Doug McDermott. As you might imagine, there was some vitriol directed his way.

Naturally, Wragge was still asked about it yesterday during media availability. “I mean, I thought I was making a basketball play,” Wragge said. “We were behind and he kind of had an open lay-up. I was not going to give him a lay-up at that point in the game and let him extend their lead. It was tough how he fell on his wrist.”

The way you view that play – and even that UNC-Creighton game – depends largely on your perspective. In the Triangle, we obsess over all things ACC and more specifically, all things Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.

The play itself didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course. Senior guard Grant Gibbs hacked at UNC forward John Henson’s injured wrist during a dead ball, prompting a reaction from Henson that got him whistled for a technical foul. Gibbs then winked at Creighton’s bench, suggesting it had been on purpose.

Creighton senior forward Gregory Echenique is a physical force down low at 6-9 and 260 pounds (which seems low). And he sent a message to UNC’s Tyler Zeller early in last year’s game that he wasn’t messing around.

It was somewhat of a surprise to UNC and casual college basketball fans to see a Creighton team with such a great offense and a mediocre defense to suddenly look like the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. But under third-year head coach Greg McDermott, Creighton is trying to build an identity on not backing down from anyone, regardless of league. The Bluejays are actually 9-1 against BCS-conference teams in the last two seasons, the only loss to UNC.

So for Creighton, last year was a missed opportunity. But Gibbs said that the team learned a valuable lesson during last year’s UNC game, and it’s one they’ve used this year as they find themselves facing a similar opportunity.

“I think we realized that we had to get better defensively as a unit if we were going to get back to that opportunity and hopefully take advantage and to our credit, we have,” Gibbs said. “I think we’re a lot more sound defensively than we were last year. We’ve won some games this year because of our defense. Obviously, we’re going to hang our hat on what we can do offensively, but we had to bring our defense up to get back to this opportunity.”

Creighton has done that. The Bluejays are 71st in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, and it’s over 100 spots better than they were a year ago (178th). In McDermott’s first year as head coach, the Bluejays were 175th. So this is a pretty significant jump. And it’s Creighton’s best defensive efficiency ranking since 2008.

Last year, Creighton let UNC shoot nearly 51% from the floor and post an offensive efficiency of 119.0, one of UNC’s best of the season. Creighton has allowed 119 or higher five times this season (and is 2-3 in those games), but Duke has been at 119 or higher in offensive efficiency in 24 of 33 games. So, yeah.

And part of that improvement has come from an increased toughness. Even though Creighton didn’t beat UNC a year ago, it certainly made sure UNC didn’t forget who it had played. And that has nothing to do with the Wragge play. Gibbs was able to goad Henson into getting in his face, while Echenique played as physical a game against Zeller as anyone had all year.

“I don’t think it’s so much a focus that ‘hey, we’ve got to go out there and show that we’re tough’ or anything like that. I think that’s just kind of our style of play a little bit,” Gibbs said.

“That’s always what we try to do and obviously our plan was a little different because the team that North Carolina had that year was different than what Duke has, different style,” Echenique said. “But the toughness aspect, I think it always has to be there.”

Gibbs has not been practicing his wink: “I don’t practice that. It just happens,” he said dryly, with a sly smile. Everything he said seemed to have the hint of a wink to it, and a local beat writer said that Gibbs is essentially Eddie Haskell from Leave it to Beaver.

When Gibbs heard that, he responded simply, “Well, there you go.”

Gibbs probably has no idea who that is, but it’s a pretty apt description: mischievous, yet charming. Annoying. Pesky. Up to no good. After all, he was probably the biggest villain of that UNC game with his wrist-chop on Henson and wink afterwards. Yet somehow, Wragge is the one that ends up being vilified. Haskell stays out of trouble. Again.

Gibbs prides himself on being that guy for the Bluejays, though. “I’m not the most athletically gifted guy, so I’ve got to use my mind and do what I can to get an advantage. So I’ve been known for such acts through the years a little bit.”

When asked if he might try to stomp on Ryan Kelly’s injured foot, he responded as dryly as one might expect. “I don’t know,” he said, feigning thoughtfulness. “I haven’t thought about that a lot. We’ll see.”

After he, McDermott and Echenique got back to the locker room after speaking to the media in an interview room, Gibbs immediately started doing a Coach K impression for his teammates. (And darned if it wasn’t actually spot-on.)

Turns out, Coach K – who had been asked a number of questions about this site’s Cinderella Florida Gulf Coast – pulled the three aside on his way out of the interview room and let them know that he did respect them. He had just been asked an inordinate amount of questions about Florida Gulf Coast.

“He didn’t want us to think that they were underestimating us or anything,” Gibbs said. “I said we should’ve ran with it when we got in there and been like, ‘Coach K’s not giving us any credit. Did you hear his press conference?’ Nobody ran with me on that.”

Gibbs has a bit of Duke Guy in him – the savvy, scrappy white guy who likes to get under his opponent’s skin. His game is as much psychological as it is physical, and in fact Gibbs is overcoming some of his physical limitations (particularly after a number of injuries) to be as effective as he’s been.

So it’s not a huge shock that he grew up with some appreciation for Duke. “I think it was a respect thing more than anything, even growing up, how well-coached they were. I think there was a part of me that like guys like (J.J.) Redick…that people hated and them fueling off that. I definitely respect them,” he said.

And Creighton knows it has to establish that it is ready to play from the opening tip. The Bluejays actually got out to a good start against UNC a year ago and was down by just eight points at halftime. But UNC went on a 9-0 run early in the second half to go up by 19, and that was basically that. It was all it took to put the game essentially out of reach.

This year, when Duke goes on runs, it’s generally very bad news for its opponent. And Creighton knows it can’t let that happen. “We’re going to go out there and throw out the first punch,” Wragge said. “We don’t want to be caught on our heels, especially the way Duke plays. If they get out fast and get on a run, then we could be playing from behind and we don’t want to do that.”

Creighton has the fearless part down. Creighton is still working on the defense part, although Duke presents several unique challenges on that front. Now, Creighton is eager to prove it belongs among the nation’s best, regardless of conference. And they can’t let the Duke name influence how they play.

“We know that they’re very talented – great team, great program, but at the end of the day, we can’t really buy too much into it,” Echenique said. “We’ve just got to know that we’re just playing for the same thing they are and we deserve to be here just as much as they do, so we’ve just got to bring it.”

My All-ACC Ballot

FIRST TEAM

Erick Green, Virginia Tech

Mason Plumlee, Duke

Shane Larkin, Miami

Richard Howell, N.C. State

Joe Harris, Virginia

This was pretty straightforward, with respect to Seth Curry and Reggie Bullock, both of whom I thought deserved a spot. Ultimately, there wasn’t enough space. 

SECOND TEAM

Seth Curry, Duke

Reggie Bullock, North Carolina

Kenny Kadji, Miami

Akil Mitchell, Virginia

Lorenzo Brown, N.C. State

THIRD TEAM

P.J. Hairston, North Carolina

Devin Booker, Clemson

Ryan Anderson, Boston College

Quinn Cook, Duke

Michael Snaer, Florida State

Toughest omissions: Durand Scott (Miami), Dez Wells (Maryland), C.J. Harris (Wake Forest), C.J. Leslie (N.C. State), James Michael McAdoo (North Carolina), Alex Len (Maryland).

Full disclosure: I’m a big believer in tempo-free stats, and those omissions came from a combination of those and, you know, the eye test. I watched a lot of ACC games this year. Consistency also played a role, and defense. 

ALL-FRESHMAN TEAM

Olivier Hanlan, Boston College

T.J. Warren, N.C. State

Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke

Marcus Paige, North Carolina

Marcus Georges-Hunt, Georgia Tech

Toughest omissions: Devin Thomas (Wake Forest), Robert Carter Jr. (Georgia Tech), Joe Rahon (Boston College).

ALL-DEFENSE

Daniel Miller, Georgia Tech

Julian Gamble, Miami

Durand Scott, Miami

Michael Snaer, Florida State

Tyler Thornton, Duke

Toughest omissions: Reggie Bullock (North Carolina), Jontel Evans (Virginia), Akil Mitchell (Virginia), Rod Hall (Clemson). 

This was the most difficult category for me, and I don’t have a problem admitting that some of those picks might have been wrong.

INDIVIDUAL AWARDS

Freshman of the Year: T.J. Warren, N.C. State.

Consistency and efficiency won the day here, as Warren edged Hanlan of BC. Sulaimon has recently hit the freshman wall, as most freshmen tend to, but he was taken out of the starting lineup and has generally looked frustrated while the other two are closing strongly. Warren was very good most of the year and is starting to hit his stride as a starter, which is part of what put him over the top for me. 

Defensive Player of the Year: Julian Gamble, Miami.

I honestly had no idea what to do here, but Gamble has done a great job bothering opposing big men all year and has been very difficult to score against. And considering how much Miami’s defensive numbers have dropped since Gamble left the starting lineup/saw his minutes decrease in favor of Reggie Johnson only helped solidify that opinion. But I am very willing to admit I might have been wrong.

Coach of the Year: Jim Larranaga, Miami.

This seemed like a no-brainer until very recently, when it looked like Miami might not win the outright ACC regular-season title. Still, a weak ending to the season doesn’t take away from the body of work. And he has had this Miami team playing defense at a very high level, believing in each other and being unselfish. They’ve been very tough to beat most of this year, and he’s a big reason for that. Sure, they’re older, and experienced. But Frank Haith had older, tough-minded teams at Miami. They didn’t play like this. 

(Side note: Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Tony Bennett also did some nice things this season.)

Player of the Year: Erick Green, Virginia Tech.

A lot of my case was made for Green here, but I’ll add this: the ACC Player of the Year award is not the Most Valuable Player. If it were, I would have gone with Shane Larkin. Green averages nearly double the amount of points as Larkin, is more efficient and has a higher assist rate despite having MUCH worse teammates. Larkin’s a better defender, but not significantly.

I tend to err on the side of picking a POY from a winning ACC team, preferably a team that wins the league (or at least a top-five team). It takes a very strong effort from a guy on a last-place team (or close to last) to even merit consideration, much less win it. He has to be significantly ahead of the pack. And Green was that guy to me, based on a combination of statistics and my judgment from watching him.

He did all he could to make his teammates better (compared to another high-volume scorer from last year, about whom his coach said “I can’t coach him”). That, combined with no one else on the top-five teams jumping up to grab the award (at least in my estimation), led to my vote. Reasonable minds can disagree, of course.

NC State: Slow Starts, Tough Stretches and Clutch Scott Wood

It had been a back-and-forth game, and it was tied for the 11th time at the under-eight timeout. Not much had been going right for NC State – Leslie was called for a charge just before (his third) and Georgia Tech was seemingly getting to every loose ball.

And of course, the fans weren’t the only ones upset about the officiating. The players were visibly frustrated with calls they felt should have gone their way. “We’ve just got to play through those calls,” freshman Rodney Purvis said. “I don’t know what we do wrong to the referees. It’s been like this three games where they’ve just been on us hard. Either way, we’re going to fight through it regardless and do whatever we’ve got to do to win the game.”

Last year’s NC State team had plenty of stretches like that, when a series of questionable bad calls, bad breaks and general bad vibes dragged the team down and made it play unfocused. In just two ACC games, this year’s NC State team is developing the opposite reputation.

And after the 12th tie of the game, NC State went on a 17-5 run over the next 4:46 to essentially clinch the game. Scott Wood, a senior who – like his team – had a reputation of letting frustrating stretches dictate how he played, had 11 of his 20 points during that run.

Earlier in the game, Wood was miffed that referee Jamie Luckie didn’t call a foul on a three-point attempt, and even more annoyed when Luckie called him for an offensive foul on a subsequent possession. So he stared Luckie down when he hit a three-pointer a few minutes later, and that sequence seemed to ignite him.

“I think that one call kind of frustrated him after he got the charge. He just shook it off and found better ways to get open,” point guard Lorenzo Brown, who had four points and three assists during the 17-5 run, said of Wood. “It’s actually the screens. We run a play called ‘corner’ and the big guys set screens for Scott.”

Wood hit some big shots late against Boston College when his team really needed some points. He’s become somewhat of a go-to guy down the clutch, but he doesn’t necessarily see it that way. “I think it’s just taking what the defense is giving us,” Wood said. “They’re really trying to take away C.J. (Leslie) and Richard (Howell), so they’re trying to call some plays to get the guards kind of moving a little bit and get them coming off screens.”

Wood has also developed a bit of a reputation for dunking. Well, it’s debatable whether you could call some of his dunks real dunks. And he had another “semi-dunk” against Georgia Tech – but not if you ask him. This semi-dunk, according to Wood, was only because a Georgia Tech player hit him as he was going up.

“I was just going to rip the goal down and (a Georgia Tech player) hit the back of my leg,” Wood said. “Go watch on film.”

All right, Scott. We get it. You got hit, and it affected your explosiveness. But final verdict: dunk or no dunk?

“I would count it as a dunk. That’s a white man’s dunk,” Wood said. “Any white person in this room would count that as a dunk.”

Jan. 2 ACC Previews

No. 1 Duke (11-0) vs. Davidson (7-5), 7:00 PM, ESPN3 (Charlotte)

Wrong North Carolina team, but close enough.

What to watch: Duke’s three-point defense. Duke’s had some dicey moments in the past two games against Elon and Santa Clara, and all those moments have come courtesy of their opponents hitting three-pointers. Those teams combined to make 16-of-45 (35.6%) over the last two games after Duke held opponents to 29.7% in the first nine games. Davidson will have to hit three’s (a lot of them) to keep this game close, and the Wildcats are making 38.8% from beyond the arc this year.

Mason Plumlee. Not many teams have anyone that can guard the 6-10 big man, who’s playing as well as anyone in the country right now, but Davidson certainly doesn’t have more than one (6-10 Jake Cohen). Duke needs to feed Plumlee early and often and exploit that advantage. If there’s anything to nitpick with Plumlee’s game recently, it’s that he’s made just 21-of-37 free throws (56.8%) over the last four games, but he’s shooting so well from the field that it really hasn’t mattered much, and Davidson only has so many fouls to give anyway.

Random Davidson facts: Davidson earned the Wildcat nickname back in 1917 when just 22 football players traveled to Atlanta to play Auburn, a team that had outscored its first six opponents 141-6. Davidson was just 2-4, but somehow they won 21-7. Atlanta sportswriters dubbed them the Wildcats because of their “ferocity”. Davidson had a live wildcat until the late 1960s, and they used to feed it by putting live chickens in its cage. Can’t imagine why that wouldn’t fly today.

Prediction: Duke, 87-72. Davidson might keep it close for awhile – it’s pretty clear the Blue Devils are ready for ACC play at this point, and Bob McKillop is a good coach – but Duke should win this one relatively comfortably.

UT-Chattanooga (5-8) at Georgia Tech (9-2), 7:00 PM, ESPN3

Don’t be fooled: this mockingbird will eat your face off.

What to watch: Robert Carter, Jr. The freshmen was inconsistent to start the year and had just two double-digit scoring games in the first seven. But he’s averaging 13.8 points on 63% shooting in the last four games to go with 7.8 rebounds. Carter gives Georgia Tech yet another good post player, but he can shoot from three and his diverse skill set is something Georgia Tech doesn’t really have right now anywhere else on the floor. The Yellow Jackets need all the offense they can get.

Random UT-Chattanooga facts: Now, this is how you transition from an offensive Indian mascot to a real one. Chattanooga was known as the Moccasins, but in 1996, they had to change their name. They shortened it to “Mocs” and a mockingbird is their mascot. The mockingbird head is shaped like the state of Tennessee. Yeah, it’s kind of a lame mascot. But hey, at least it makes sense and preserves the history of the old one.

Prediction: Georgia Tech, 77-54. The Yellow Jackets are starting to click, and Chattanooga is awful.

Xavier (6-5) at Wake Forest (6-5), 7:00 PM, ESPN3

Um…..what? This is the Xavier Blue Blob.

What to watch: The Wake Forest defense. To say Xavier has been struggling offensively as of late would be putting it mildly, but the Musketeers have the talent to be able to turn it around. And Wake has had issues of its own defensively. Wake’s opponents are shooting 44% from the floor, and the Deacons have allowed 48% shooting in five losses.

The foul line. Wake’s free-throw rate, per Ken Pom, is second-best in the country. And it’s a good thing, too: the Deacons score over a quarter of their points from the foul line. But Xavier isn’t letting opponents get to the line much. Wake Forest has won just two games this year when it hasn’t made at least 20 free throws.

Random Xavier facts: Yes, Xavier has a Musketeer mascot named D’Artagnan (so creative). But the most famous mascot is the Blue Blob, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s beloved around campus despite having absolutely no meaning whatsoever.

And then Xavier head coach Chris Mack involved the Blue Blob in this very regrettable “Call Me Maybe” parody:

Prediction: Xavier, 65-59. Wake has struggled offensively against athletic opponents this year, and this game should be no different.

Florida State (8-4) at Auburn (5-7), 7:00 PM, Fox Sports South

Get some rest, Aubie. You deserve it.

What to watch: How far has Florida State’s defense come? Because Auburn’s offense is terrible. Florida State is so young that head coach Leonard Hamilton hasn’t been able to install all the defensive looks he usually uses. (This great piece by Michael Rogner from the Run The Floor blog takes a look at how gradually, Hamilton has trusted this team more and more defensively.) After holding just three of its first seven opponents to below 40% shooting, three of its last four opponents have shot below 40% (FSU has won four straight).

Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Auburn isn’t great defensively, but they force a decent amount of turnovers (23%) and Florida State will turn it over against teams that aren’t good at forcing them. FSU has averaged 13.3 turnovers during this four-game winning streak after averaging 17 turnovers in the first eight. FSU tends to turn it over in bunches when it does happen, and they can’t do that in a road game against an opponent that won’t go away.

Random Auburn facts: The War Eagle has been explained before, so we’ll look at Aubie the Tiger’s origins. He was only around as a cartoon on the cover of the game programs for nearly 20 years starting in 1959. In 1979, they made him a real costume based on the older game programs and it’s been winning mascot national titles ever since. Auburn may or may not have had a live tiger mascot for at least one game.

Prediction: Florida State, 73-62. It would be way too predictable for Florida State to inexplicably lose this game for the second time in the last three years, right?

La Salle (9-2) at Miami (8-3), 9:00 PM, RSN

I have come to discover the New World! (And I’ve brought communicable diseases!)

What to watch: Can Miami beat a decent team without one of its starters? Before the Diamond Head Classic over Christmas, Miami’s one loss – early, to Florida Gulf Coast – was explained away by the absence of guard Durand Scott. Then, just before the Christmas tournament began, center Reggie Johnson broke his thumb and he will miss six weeks. The Hurricanes promptly lost both games. They’re going to be without him for a good chunk of ACC play and may lose some games during that time. After losses to Arizona and Indiana State (the former a blowout), they can’t afford to drop a home game to La Salle at this point if they want to make the NCAA Tournament.

Random La Salle facts: The Explorers are so named because of a Philadelphia sportswriter’s mistake (yeah, yeah): he thought the university was named after french explorer Sieur de La Salle. It’s named after St. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle. Well, at least they have a cool mascot anyway. And you can’t think of explorers without thinking of conquering indigenous peoples, which is at least a little intimidating. Recently, though, they did try to make the explorer look like a superhero instead.

Prediction: Miami, 66-58. At some point, Miami’s going to have to win without some of its players in the lineup. Their other players are good enough to do it.

 

Last week: 10-4

Overall: 117-30

Jan. 1 ACC Previews

IUPUI (6-11) at Maryland (11-1), 3:00 PM, ESPN3

Uhhhh….someone help that woman?

What to watch: Charles Mitchell. Maryland’s freshman rebounding machine continues to develop, and he set new career highs in points (19) and rebounds (14) against Delaware State, in just 24 minutes. He hasn’t played more than 24 minutes all year, as he’s coming off the bench to spell senior James Padgett. But Mitchell’s productivity, particularly on the glass, has Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon considering a lineup change. Padgett has gone eight straight games without reachign double figures in scoring, and his season-high in rebounds is six.

Random IUPUI facts: In 1998, IUPUI changed its name from the “Metros” to the Jaguars. Jinx the Jaguar is “the perfect personification of IUPUI athletics – He is powerful, swift and confident.” I guess there’s not a mascot to symbolize mediocrity?

Prediction: Maryland, 77-54. The only thing that could slow the Terrapins in this one is boredom.

The Citadel (3-7) at Clemson (7-4), 4:00 PM, ESPN3

You have an awesome-looking live bulldog. Why do you need a costumed bulldog in a funny hat?

What to watch: Milton Jennings. Clemson’s talented junior forward has either struggled or not played in every winnable game Clemson has lost this year (arguably, the Tigers are just not as good as Arizona, and Jennings was great in that game). Typically, he has shown a tendency to show up more against name opponents, but he had 15 points in just 22 minutes. He needs to be engaged at all times for Clemson to have success in the league this year.

Random Citadel facts: The history of Citadel’s live bulldog mascot is storied, but we’ve covered it before. But who knew there was a costumed mascot, too? It’s hard to know, since even a Google Image search doesn’t yield many results. Seriously, Citadel. You don’t need Spike.

Prediction: Clemson, 66-44. The Citadel is terrible: two of its three wins are against non-Division I teams, and the Bulldogs have lost six straight.

Last week: 10-4

Overall: 115-30

Dec. 31 ACC Previews

Dartmouth (2-8) at Boston College (7-5), 3:00 PM, ESPN3

KEGGY! YES. YES.

What to watch: The BC defense. The Eagles have looked better in that department lately, holding three of their last six opponents to 40% shooting or less (after doing that just twice in the first six games). Dartmouth is downright abysmal offensively – they’re 326th in the Ken Pomeroy rankings, but that hasn’t always mattered to the BC defense.

Random Dartmouth facts: Dartmouth’s “Keggy the Keg” mascot is unofficial (obviously), but it is seriously one of the best ever. Here’s a video of Keggy’s storied – and somewhat complex – history, including this gem: “There’s no one inside Keggy. Keggy’s inside every one of us.” Indeed, my friend:

Prediction: Boston College, 68-55. This should be a relatively easy win for the Eagles, but nothing ever seems to be for them.

UNCG (2-8) at No. 23 NC State (10-2), 5:00 PM, ESPNU

What to watch: NC State’s three-point defense. UNCG scores most of its points from beyond the arc (32.1%), and NC State’s three-point defense this season has been a bit spotty at times. The Wolfpack should score at such a pace that it won’t matter, but now’s the time to start locking down defensively, particularly on the perimeter.

Random UNCG facts: UNCG is coached by former Tar Heel Wes Miller, and he learned from one of the best in Roy Williams. He also learned to do a pretty good impression of him. Although last I checked, I don’t think Roy Williams could do this.

As a Greensboro native myself, only I’m allowed to laugh at my hometown. And who wouldn’t want to come visit after watching this video?

Greensboro is also the home of the one and only BDaht.

Prediction: NC State, 101-79. The up-tempo pace of UNCG should make this a high-scoring affair.

 

Overall: 113-30

Last week: 10-4

Dec. 29-30 ACC Previews

Santa Clara (11-2) at No. 1 Duke (11-0), 12:00 PM, ESPN2

In the 1960s, Santa Clara had a short-lived live Bronco mascot.

What to watch: Santa Clara’s Mark Trasolini versus Ryan Kelly. He’s not the Broncos’ leading scorer, but the 6-9 senior forward is the most efficient scorer, averaging 16.3 points on 57% shooting. In Santa Clara’s two losses, he has shot just 3-of-10 from the floor. In the last three games, he has averaged 23.7 points on over 68% shooting, adding 4-of-6 three-pointers, 7.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. Duke’s Ryan Kelly has held some good opposing big men (and versatile big men at that) to low point totals this year, and Duke’s going to need his defense yet again against a sneaky-good Santa Clara squad.

Random Santa Clara facts: In the mid-1960s, Santa Clara had a live bronco (briefly) that was so strong, he could pull a section of folded bleachers unassisted. The handler discovered this after he tied him to the bleachers while he went to get a hot dog, only to come back when he heard the crowd roaring as the bronco was running across the field). At least they were empty?

Prediction: Duke, 95-73. Both of Santa Clara’s losses have come in overtime, but their best win was over St. Louis early this year. Still, the Broncos have had a relatively easy time of it since and have dominated some decent teams. But this is at Duke, and the Blue Devils are rolling.

Western Michigan (8-4) at No. 23/25 NC State (9-2), 12:00 PM, ESPNU

Wake up, buddy.

What to watch: The foul line. If there’s been an area to quibble with NC State offensively this year, it’s the free-throw shooting. The Wolfpack is one of the most efficient teams in the league offensively, and would probably hold the league’s top mark in that category if it could shoot free throws. NC State has hit the 70% mark from the line just three times this season and is shooting 64% on the year, good for 282nd nationally according to Ken Pomeroy. But their free-throw rate is top-50 nationally, and the offense is predicated on being aggressive and getting to the line. If State stops leaving points at the foul line, its offense – which is already scary good – will become even more so.

Random Western Michigan facts: WMU used to be known as the Hilltoppers, but that led to some understandable confusion with fellow Hilltopper schools. (Also, WMU expanded beyond the hills and their tops.) They adopted the Bronco in the late 1980s, and he looks….well….sleepy.

And if you needed to know anything about parking on WMU’s campus (and ridiculously short shorts), check out this 1982 video! (Side note: I think Buster Bronco finds this video HILARIOUS. No reason.)

Prediction: NC State, 87-63. Even if the Wolfpack shows up sluggish after the holiday break, Western Michigan isn’t the type of team that can take advantage of its weaknesses.

Delaware State (5-7) at Maryland (10-1), 12:30 PM, ESPN3

Too-Fly, indeed.

What to watch: Maryland’s turnovers. The Terrapins don’t force a lot of turnovers, and they don’t have to because their defense is good enough. But they can’t afford to keep turning it over, either. Maryland’s defense has the lowest loss of ball percentage in the league (12.7%), but their 0.746 PPP allowed is one of the best marks. Still, Maryland’s loss of ball on offense (18.82%) is only better than Wake Forest and Florida State so far this year. Maryland has shown a tendency to get sloppy at times this year. If they want to be an upper-echelon ACC team (and they’re more than capable of being just that), they won’t be able to get away with turning it over on nearly a fifth of their offensive possessions.

Random Delaware State facts: Delaware State has tweaked its mascot in recent years, and the current hornet iteration is known as “Too-Fly”. And he had a high standard of flyness to live up to:

Prediction: Maryland, 87-65. The Hornets did knock off in-state rival Delaware recently (side note: things have gone downhill from the Blue Hens since beating UVa). But half of their wins are against non-Division I opponents.

Florida State (7-4) vs. Tulsa (7-5), 2:00 PM, FSN (Sunrise, FL)

Tulsa’s old mascot, the Golden Hurricane, next to the new one: Captain Cane, a superhero that can “summon weather”. Sheesh.

What to watch: Has Michael Snaer flipped the switch? The senior guard sat out FSU’s win against Louisiana-Monroe due to “disciplinary reasons”, and whatever his head coach Leonard Hamilton did or said seems to have worked. He’s always been an elite defender, and it’s been obvious that he has struggled to take on his newfound role as an assertive scorer. But he has to do that for Florida State to win, and he did against Charlotte last week. He had 30 points on 8-of-19 shooting, his best shooting percentage since late November. In his last two games he has played in – Charlotte and Maine – he has taken 37 shots, a third of his season total. In FSU’s losses, he has shot nearly five fewer times on average than in FSU’s wins. And he’s going to have to keep it up as his young teammates come along.

Random Tulsa facts: The Golden Hurricane mascot used to be an actual hurricane. Now, it’s “Captain Cane”, who carries a a “hurricane-summoning sword” and wears “energy-sourcing thunder boots”. Well, okay then. The change was made when current UNC AD Bubba Cunningham was the AD at Tulsa.

Prediction: Florida State, 76-68. Without the loss to Mercer, maybe FSU wouldn’t seem like its struggling so much. The Seminoles would have then only lost to Minnesota and Florida since their season-opening loss to South Alabama. Sadly, Mercer ddi happen, and so did some struggles against Maine and Louisiana Monroe. Still, Tulsa hasn’t beaten anyone as good as FSU this year.

Holy Cross (7-5) at Boston College (6-5), 2:00 PM, ESPN3

NONE SHALL PASS!

What to watch: BC’s freshmen. Joe Rahon and Olivier Hanlan have combined to play nearly a third of BC’s available minutes this year (and attempt nearly a third of their shots), but neither have shot particularly well, especially lately. Obviously, both have to play but Hanlan is shooting just 16-of-51in the last four games and Rahon is shooting 7-of-31 in the last three. Both are going to continue to play a lot – and take a lot of shots – but at some point it would help the Eagles if they start, you know, making a few more.

Random Holy Cross facts: Why is Holy Cross known as the Crusaders? If you know anything about history, it’s fairly obvious. Let’s just watch some knight videos.

Now stand aside, worthy adversary. …. Runnin’ away, eh?

Also….NI! BRING HOLY CROSS PLAYERS A SHRUBBERY!

And then there’s this.

BC had just better make sure they choose, and choose wisely.

Prediction: Boston College, 61-55. When Boston College beat Providence last week, it was the highest-ranked Ken Pomeroy team (62nd) the Eagles had beaten since knocking off then-No. 24 FSU on February 8, 2012 (of course, BC won only nine games last season). So, progress?

No. 20/17 UNLV (11-1) at North Carolina (9-3), 2:00 PM, ESPN2

Candygram. (See below.)

What to watch: Carolina’s bigs versus UNLV. The Runnin’ Rebs will be shorthanded as forward Mike Moser should miss the game with a dislocated elbow (he’s listed as questionable), and he had 16 points and 18 rebounds in UNLV’s upset win over UNC last season. Freshman forward Anthony Bennett leads the nation’s rookies in scoring, averaging 19.5 points per game and 8.5 rebounds. They have plenty of other capable big men, including versatile Khem Birch, a Pitt transfer who can shoot three’s, and senior Quintrell Thomas. UNC’s rotating group of centers: Joel James, Desmond Hubert and Brice Johnson – haven’t been all that consistent or effective, and James Michael McAdoo has struggled against some big-time opponents. The Tar Heels will have their hands full with one of the best players in the nation in Bennett, not to mention his teammates.

Reggie Bullock. There weren’t many positives Carolina could take from its loss to Texas, but Carolina’s junior leader stepping up and attempting a season-high 17 shots should be one of them. He wasn’t great – he hit just six of those attempts – but he got to the line six times (also a season-high) and for the first time, he showed he’s willing to be the guy who steps up in big moments for Carolina. Just because he steps up doesn’t mean he’ll come through, or that Carolina will win. But someone has to be willing to do it consistently.

Random UNLV facts: UNLV adopted the Rebel nickname because they were “rebelling” against the flagship, Nevada-Reno. They adopted a shark mascot in honor of former head coach Jerry “The Shark” Tarkanian, but that has since gone away. But at least it gives us a chance to link these awesome videos!

The landshark eats someone.

Which also allows us to link this, one of the best SNL skits ever.

Prediction: UNLV, 77-72. The Tar Heels really need this win, but I haven’t seen anything from them so far to lead me to believe they’ll get it.

Virginia Tech (9-3) at BYU (9-4), 2:00 PM, ESPNU

“Cougar” not mean what it used to mean.

What to watch: Tempo. The Hokies want to go up-tempo, but can they really hang with a team like BYU? The Cougars are not a great team this year, but they’re good enough and still one of the fastest teams in the country. Virginia Tech has shown flashes of being good in transition, but the Hokies are dangerously thin and that sort of tempo might wear them down.

Anyone other than Erick Green. Seriously. Anyone. Here’s a stat comparison for you from the last three games:

A: 33-63 FG (52.4%), 4-15 3-pt (26.7%), 15-20 FT (75.0%), 85 points (28.3 ppg)

B: 36-114 FG (31.6%), 12-49 3-pt (24.5%), 22-38 FT (57.9%), 106 points (35.3 ppg)

“A” is Green. “B” is the rest of his teammates combined. Yeah. Cadarian Rains had a good game against Bradley, but was a combined 1-of-3 in the other two games sandwiching it. Robert Brown has made just four of his last 30 field-goal attempts and has ten points in the last four games. Jarrell Eddie has been up and down, but at least he’s hit double figures in three straight games. Freshman forward Marshall Wood broke his foot and while he wasn’t a huge contributor (5.8 points), he was averaging 18 minutes. The Hokies weren’t deep to begin with: Christian Beyer, a seldom-used reserve until recently, has seen 52 minutes in the last two games (he still has not made a field goal this year).

Random BYU facts: BYU is not going to change its Cougar mascot anytime soon, but it’s already being rejected as a high school mascot because of its offensive connotations. For those of you who don’t know what a cougar refers to, it’s…forget it, I’ll refer you to Urban Dictionary.

Prediction: BYU, 89-68. Just difficult to see the Hokies being able to win this one with as badly as their supporting cast has looked recently.

Fordham (3-9) at Georgia Tech (8-2), 7:00 PM, ESPN3

What to watch: Some semblance of an offense for Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech is one of the beat teams in the country defensively this year (statistically), but the offense is still coming around. As the From the Rumble Seat blog points out, Georgia Tech is starting to shoot better. But the Yellow Jackets being without Jason Morris (plantar fasciatis) and incorporating some new pieces hasn’t made it any easier, either. Georgia Tech doesn’t have a great win, but it doesn’t have a bad loss. Win these last two non-conference games, make some noise in the ACC and the Yellow Jackets could be looking at an NCAA Tournament bid. If they can get to even a decent level offensively, they could be tough to beat.

Random Fordham facts: The ram nickname came from an 1893 football game, when the students chanted “One dam, two dams, three dams, FORDHAM!” The Jesuit staff didn’t care for that kind of foul language, so they changed “dam” to “ram”. They’ve had live rams over the years, and in the late 1950’s, one of said rams lived in a “1,200-cubic-foot brick hut” built by Grace Kelly’s father. That same ram liked to enjoy “a lager or two” after games in his elaborate Ram Mansion.

Prediction: Georgia Tech, 84-55. Fordham is awful, but especially defensively. Georgia Tech should put up some points.

DECEMBER 30

Wofford (6-6) at Virginia (9-3), 1:00 PM, RSN

Still adorable.

What to watch: UVa’s big men. Virginia made just 38% of its two-pointers in the loss to Old Dominion, a season-low. A big reason for that is how much their starting frontcourt, Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins, struggled. Both have been much-improved this year, but Mitchell shot just 3-of-10 and had eight points (just his second time this season in single digits) and Atkins was 2-of-6 for four points, his fewest since November 12. Both of them combined shot worse from inside the arc than their teammates combined. Wofford is not a defensive juggernaut by any means, but the reason UVa had started to play so well this season was the improvement of Mitchell and Atkins. The Cavaliers will struggle to beat even decent teams like Wofford – and particularly in ACC play – if that doesn’t continue.

Random Wofford facts: We’ve covered the origin of the Terrier here before, and yes, it’s one of the cutest mascots around. So instead of that, here are Wofford students teaching rats to play basketball!

Prediction: UVa, 61-49. In an under-the-radar result, Wofford beat Xavier last Saturday. Virginia hasn’t looked very good as of late. But every time we want to count the Cavaliers out, they win a game they have to win, and this one qualifies.

Last week: 10-4
Overall: 106-28

Dec. 19 ACC Previews

Clemson (6-3) at Coastal Carolina (3-5), 7:00 PM, ESPN3

Chauncey the Chanticleer. His pride was his undoing in Canterbury Tales. Lesson seemingly not learned.

What to watch: Clemson’s offense. Coastal Carolina is not very good defensively, allowing nearly 44% shooting. But more importantly, the Tigers need to get going offensively. The Tigers actually started out the year doing pretty well in that department, but after averaging 74.5 points in their first two games, they averaged 59.3 in their next six (three losses). They seemingly got back on track against Florida A&M, scoring a season-high 80 points and shooting nearly 53 percent. Clemson is taking good care of the ball this season and playing pretty good defense – they just need to knock down a few shots.

Random Coastal Carolina facts: Does it seem odd that two South Carolina-based schools have a rooster for a mascot? It’s not a coincidence! Coastal Carolina is an affiliate of South Carolina, so it decided to pick a somewhat similar mascot: the Chanticleer, made famous in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Unfortunately, things don’t end so well for that rooster.

Prediction: Clemson, 73-58. It could be ugly – with Clemson, it too often is – but it should be a win.

Cornell (4-6) at No. 1 Duke (9-0), 7:00 PM, ESPNU

Just wait.

What to watch: Marshall Plumlee. It’s been widely reported that the redshirt freshman big man, whose older brother Mason is having a breakout season, could make his Duke debut tonight. He had a stress fracture in his foot that has sidelined him until now. It will be difficult for him to permanently crack the rotation at this point in the season barring an injury to someone already in the rotation. But he has a lot of talent, and Duke could really use some depth in the frontcourt.

Random Cornell facts: Cornell is known as the Big Red, but their unofficial mascot is the Big Red Bear. It’s been around since 1905. Cornell is a pretty intelligent school, and unlike some, it only took them until 1939 to realize having a live bear is not a good idea. Touchdown I was the craziest – he climbed the goalposts, ran amok in an Atlantic City taffy shop and knocked the Penn mascot out with his paw.

Prediction: Duke, 92-59. Cornell has been competitive against everyone except Wisconsin and Stony Brook. But the Big Red is awful on offense, and not much better defensively.

Morgan State (3-4) at Virginia (8-2), 7:00 PM, ESPN3

What to watch: A sneaky test for Virginia’s defense. The Bears aren’t a great team by any stretch, but they have some nice numbers this year. They rebound the ball offensively very well, get to the foul line a lot and make a lot of two-pointers. UVa has been getting better and better defensively all year, and that needs to continue for Virginia to go from being an okay ACC team to a very good one. (And by “very good”, I mean “has a legitimate chance to make the NCAA Tournament”).

Random Morgan State facts: Morgan State’s mascot is a bear. And it’s kind of insane.

How many bear mascots can do this?

Prediction: Virginia, 79-59. As UVa’s freshmen continue to get comfortable and their upperclassmen step up, the Cavaliers are getting better and better as the season goes.

No. 23/19 North Carolina (8-2) at Texas (6-4), 9:00 PM, ESPN2

Why even add a costumed Bevo when you have a real one?

What to watch: North Carolina’s offense. The Tar Heels have been stagnant at times offensively, and even though Texas has looked downright awful at times, their defense has been fairly consistent. They have the No. 1 effective field goal defense in the country per Ken Pomeroy, and they’re No. 3 in three-point defense (22.3% allowed) and fifth in two-point defense (37.6%). Carolina is shooting nearly 37% from the three-point line, but they’ve been a bit streaky. Against Butler, Carolina had three different droughts of three or more minutes where they scored two or fewer points. At Indiana – one of two true road games for Carolina this year – the Tar Heels were outscored by 23 points in 12:41 (a stretch that spanned both halves) and hit just two field goals in that span. Carolina shot 2-of-24 from the floor.

Forcing turnovers. North Carolina’s going to have to do this: Texas is turning it over on over a quarter of their possessions this year, and it’s a big reason the Longhorns have struggled so much. The Tar Heels have done a pretty good job of that this year, but when they haven’t – two games so far – the results were an Indiana loss and a close win over ECU. Forcing turnovers is also the one area where Texas hasn’t been dominant defensively as well. North Carolina can’t afford to give the ball away when Texas isn’t forcing a ton of turnovers as it is, especially since Texas’ defense seems to be making it difficult enough to score in the half-court already.

Random Texas facts: The live Longhorn mascot Bevo is bred to be docile, but he hasn’t always been. He once attacked an SMU cheerleader who tried to fend him off with his megaphone. In 1999, after Texas beat Nebraska, he was led across the field and did this:

Prediction: North Carolina, 63-54. Difficult to predict this one, especially since Texas head coach Rick Barnes always seems to find a way to beat North Carolina, even when the Tar Heels are arguably the better team. Last year, Carolina thumped Texas at home though. Neither team is remotely the same right now, but Carolina has looked like the better team thus far. Mostly because they haven’t lost to Chaminade.

 

Last week: 12-1

Overall: 93-22

Dec. 17 ACC Previews

Alabama State (1-8) at Georgia Tech (6-2), 7:00 PM, RSN

It’s like the Charlotte Hornet mated with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket.

What to watch: The Poole Brothers. Stacey Poole, Jr. sat out the fall semester after transferring from Kentucky, and his brother Solomon is a freshman who graduated high school in the fall and decided to enroll early. They’re the first set of brothers to play for Georgia Tech since the Barry brothers, and while it’s probably a stretch to say they’ll have that kind of impact, they’ll certainly see minutes. Stacey Poole, Jr. – a 6-4 sophomore – averaged just 2.8 minutes a game a freshman at Kentucky in 16 games and scored just four points on 1-of-9 shooting. Solomon Poole, meanwhile, was a late addition and will play point guard. As a freshman, his learning curve will likely be steeper. But he was a top-30 2013 recruiting prospect , so he could make a difference.

Random Alabama State facts: The Alabama State Hornet mascot looks kind of strange, but that’s fine. Still a cool mascot. Although, mascots think they’re funny when they’re trying to be. But they’re funniest when they’re sad.

And your obligatory HBCU band/dance team video, of course:

Prediction: Georgia Tech, 74-45. The only reason the Poole brothers could see minutes is because this one should be a relatively easy blowout. Alabama State’s only win this year is over Troy.

Louisiana Monroe (1-5) at Florida State (5-4), 7:00 PM, ESPN3

All right, I suppose a Warhawk sounds more vicious in theory.

What to watch: FSU’s defense. The Seminoles held Maine to 34% shooting, the second-lowest by an FSU opponent this year. FSU’s offense has showed signs that it could be pretty solid this year. But to see an FSU defense ranked 90th by Ken Pomeroy is startling. FSU won’t win a lot of games by outscoring teams, and they’ve lost to some bad teams by not defending well enough.

Random Louisiana Monroe facts: In the mascot power rankings, a Warhawk is near the top. Like a lot of schools, ULM had to retire its Indian mascot in 2006. The finalists to replace the old mascot? Warhawks, Bayou Gators and Bayou Hawks. I would hope Warhawks won by a unanimous vote. And it’s based on actual Louisiana history – LSU alum Major General Claire Lee Chennault led an Air Force unit in World War II that used the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.

Prediction: Florida State, 84-51. The Seminoles will be a bit short-handed – Ian Miller is out for a few more weeks, Terrence Shannon will likely miss this game and Robert Gilchrist is out too – but ULM is awful.

 

Last week: 12-1

Overall: 88-22

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