Archive | November 2011

ACC/Big Ten Challenge: Day 2 Previews

Virginia Tech could help the ACC save face tonight in Minnesota.

I went 5-1 in my picks yesterday, and I probably overestimated Georgia Tech against an experienced Northwestern squad. More on what yesterday’s games mean in a later post, but the ACC is now down 4-2 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and it looks like it will lose for a third straight year. And it could be the most lopsided loss yet – the ACC has lost 6-5 the last two seasons, and a tie is the best it can hope for this year, but 7-5 or 8-4 looks more likely. I still think it will be 7-5 based on my picks for tonight:

Indiana at N.C. State, 7:15 PM, ESPN2. This is an intriguing matchup of two historical powers trying to fight their way back to relevancy. Indiana had a nice win over Butler that head coach Tom Crean desperately needed, but the 6-0 Hoosiers really haven’t played anyone else. N.C. State has tested itself already with a close loss to Vanderbilt and a win over Texas. UNC-Asheville and Princeton are arguably better than anyone else on Indiana’s schedule as well. C.J. Leslie has been efficient, averaging 16.7 points on just 9.0 shots per game and adding 2.3 steals and 2.3 blocks. Indiana native Scott Wood has hit 8-of-14 three’s since his return from injury and N.C. State is undefeated with him in the lineup. The Wolfpack is really humming along nicely, and while their defense could be tested (Indiana has cracked 90 points in three games), their offense should be more than enough.

Prediction: N.C. State 88, Indiana 80

Penn State at Boston College, 7:15 PM, ESPNU. Penn State (5-2) hasn’t been that bad and really, that’s all it seems to take to beat Boston College these days. The Eagles should actually be happy with their weekend in the 76 Classic in Anaheim. They got an overtime win over UC-Riverside and hung with No. 23 St. Louis (ranked for the first time since 1994), losing 62-51. They were promptly blown out by New Mexico and now have three double-digit losses to go with two wins over low mid-majors. Penn State has lost only to Kentucky and St. Joseph’s. Star freshman Patrick Heckmann’s stat lines continue to be puzzling, however: in his last four games, he has 11 points, one point, 32 points and six points. He averages 25.5 points in BC wins and 6.0 points in losses. There’s just no way Boston College comes close in this one, although I still think the Eagles will improve as the year goes along. And really, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Prediction: Penn State 70, Boston College 56

Florida State at Michigan State, 7:30 PM, ESPN. Michigan State (4-2) hung tough in losses to North Carolina and Duke this year, but hasn’t exactly lit up the scoreboard, cracking 75 points just once this season. The offense has struggled all year but the defense has been good and getting better, a bad sign for an inconsistent Florida State offense. Forward Bernard James had a puzzling weekend, shooting just 8-of-27 from the floor in three games. Florida State’s defense should keep Michigan State’s offense in check, but the Spartans almost always seem to do what’s necessary to win, no matter how ugly it is. The Seminoles overtime loss to UConn last weekend was somewhat encouraging, and the ACC would love to believe that the Seminoles are capable of winning a big-time road game like this, but we’ll all believe it when we see it.

Prediction: Michigan State 71, Florida State 66

Virginia Tech at Minnesota, 9:15 PM, ESPN2. Minnesota (6-1) just lost forward Trevor Mbakwe for the season with a torn ACL and center Ralph Sampson III is dealing with an ankle injury. With those frontcourt injuries, Minnesota loses the edge it would have had in this matchup. The Virginia Tech backcourt of Erick Green (14.8 ppg, 52.2% shooting) and Dorenzo Hudson (14.3 ppg, 43.3% shooting) should dominate. This is a huge opportunity for both the ACC and Virginia Tech, as the Hokies need to get this one for its NCAA Tournament at-large hopes. They have already performed well with a close loss to Syracuse in New York followed by a win over Oklahoma State, but can’t lose a game like this one.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 77, Minnesota 68

Wake Forest at Nebraska, 9:15 PM, ESPNU. Wake Forest is actually better this year than last year, but getting crushed by Arizona State isn’t a good omen for the Demon Deacons. Still, Wake Forest is fifth in the league in points per possession (0.93), fourth in loss of ball (15.6%) and first in loss of ball by opponents (21%). Travis McKie was neutralized by Arizona State but has averaged 19.2 points on 49.3% shooting and C.J. Harris has been even better, averaging 19.5 points on 51.4 percent. Nebraska (4-1) is a defensive-minded team, and they’ll likely focus on shutting down Harris and McKie, particularly since no one else on Wake Forest has stepped up to help carry the load.

Prediction: Nebraska 68, Wake Forest 59

No. 9 Wisconsin at No. 5 North Carolina, 9:30PM, ESPN. Harrison Barnes looks like he’s a go for the Tar Heels, which is obviously good news. Some are saying that Carolina’s loss to UNLV has provided a blueprint on how to beat the Tar Heels. Carolina has its share of concerns, including perimeter defense, and the Tar Heels will face one of the best point guards in the country in Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor. Kendall Marshall was not in the game late for Carolina against UNLV, and that could be a result of his struggles on defense. Dexter Strickland will probably spend most of the night guarding Taylor, but it’s a team effort to stop dribble penetration, particularly when it leads to kick-outs to open three-point shooters. Wisconsin will want to slow things down and as long as Carolina can defend the perimeter, it should be fine. Carolina’s bigs will also have to stay out of foul trouble and take smart shots.

Prediction: North Carolina 82, Wisconsin 77


ACC: Becoming the Big Ten?

The ACC: Honoring the days of the peach basket.

*Note: Possessions in this article have been tallied via the Dean Smith method in the book Multiple Offense and Defense.*

Even before North Carolina head coach Roy Williams bemoaned former Wisconsin head coach Dick Bennett’s boring style, Big Ten basketball has been known plodding, low-scoring games. ACC dominated the early years of the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and it was no coincidence because the ACC was where exciting basketball was played.

Now, it seems the ACC has joined the Big Ten in pace of play. Seven ACC teams average fewer than 80 possessions a game this year. Of the five teams averaging more than 80, one is a bad Maryland team that is 11th in the league in points per possession (0.82).

Duke leads the league in points per possession (a little over 1.0) while North Carolina is second with 0.97 and leads the league in possessions (91).

The Tar Heels are also a good case study for how the league is slowing down: they averaged 87.4 possessions last season – second-fewest in the Roy Williams era – and just 85.4 in league play.

While the slower strategy can be more effective – Virginia is averaging 68.5 possessions, fewest in the league, but score 0.91 per possession – few casual fans would stumble upon a UVA game and stay there. Clemson has averaged 75 possessions, but just 65 points, while Boston College is averaging 58.5 points in 76.7 possessions.

N.C. State is the most entertaining team not named Carolina or Duke so far. The Wolfpack is third behind Carolina and Florida State in possessions (82.8) and third in points per possession (0.95). N.C. State has been effective surprisingly early in its faster-paced offense, as its 15.9% loss of ball is fourth in the league. The Wolfpack’s defense hasn’t been great, but they are always fun to watch.

Florida State, which was supposed to be the ACC’s third good team, can be excruciating to watch, particularly on offense. The Seminoles had shown improvement until last weekend, when they set eyeballs on fire nationwide by missing their first 16 shots against Harvard and failing to score until nearly ten minutes into the game.

Harvard is a good team, but to score 14 points in 35 possessions (0.4 per) in the first half is unspeakably bad against anyone. Harvard was actually worse in the first half, scoring 14 points on 40 possessions (0.35) against the Noles’ stingy defense. But Harvard still won, 46-41.

FSU’s great defense is going to go to waste if it can’t score. The ‘Noles had a good showing against UConn, averaging 0.88 points per possession in an overtime loss to the reigning national champs, but the 0.6 against Harvard and 0.73 against UMass are bad. Watching FSU’s elite athletes turn it over left and right (their loss of ball – 21.1% – is worst in the league) or take mind-blowingly silly shots is beyond frustrating.

With ACC teams struggling yet again in the non-conference, it’s time for league to become at least watchable. It’s not a coincidence that the only ACC games on ESPN are usually Carolina or Duke games.

And as every game is one of the ESPN networks this week in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the league at least has a chance to get some “other” teams more exposure. Tonight’s games – with the exception of Duke-Ohio State – aren’t exactly must-see TV, but could at least get the ACC some good wins:

Northwestern at Georgia Tech, 7:15 PM, ESPNU. Northwestern won the Charleston Classic in ho-hum fashion, but the Yellow Jackets struggled in the same event, losing to St. Joseph’s and LSU. But after being suspended for Georgia Tech’s first three games, it appears Glen Rice, Jr. is back on board – in three games, he is averaging 17.7 points on 66.7% shooting in just over 28 minutes. He had 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting in a 72-44 win over Siena last week. He alone should be enough firepower for the defensive-minded Yellow Jackets (allowing 0.76 points per possession) to win.

Prediction: Georgia Tech 78, Northwestern 75

Illinois at Maryland, 7:30 PM, ESPN. Maryland struggled to put away Florida Gulf Coast on Friday, so yes, things are really that bad in College Park. Illinois is hardly dominant this year with a 70-61 win over Richmond and a 63-59 win over Illinois State, but the 6-0 Illini are certainly good enough to thump this Maryland team. It’s too bad the Terrapins don’t have Alex Len or Pe’Shon Howard for this one, because they need both.

Prediction: Illinois 76, Maryland 59

No. 15 Michigan at Virginia, 7:00 PM, ESPN2. This game could be the most interesting matchup on the day. Virginia’s pack line defense is difficult to play against, but so is Michigan’s motion/backdoor cutting offense. The Cavaliers haven’t allowed a team to score more than 57 points (or more than 0.79 per possession) this year. Call it a hunch, but I think Virginia will win this one.

Prediction: Virginia 66, Michigan 65

Miami at Purdue, 9:00 PM, ESPN2. The Hurricanes have been great on defense, allowing just 0.76 points per possession, but are coming off of a disappointing overtime loss at Ole Miss. While 6-1 Purdue is hardly overwhelming with a two-point home win over High Point this year, is certainly better than Ole Miss and it’s a tougher venue. So while Miami can win this game, I don’t think it will.

Prediction: Purdue 77, Miami 71

Clemson at Iowa, 9:15 PM, ESPNU. Clemson has my early vote for most disappointing ACC team so far, losing at home to College of Charleston and Coastal Carolina. But the Tigers have the good fortune of facing an Iowa team that is 4-2 with double-digit losses to Creighton and Campbell. Clemson is tough-minded under Brad Brownell, and the Tigers will need every ounce of that resilience to forget what happened last week.

Prediction: Clemson 72, Iowa 61 

No. 6 Duke at No. 3 Ohio State, 9:30 PM, ESPN. Duke was very impressive in Maui as it won three tough games, including two against ranked teams. But in Duke’s four wins over “BCS” conference teams, the Blue Devils have hit 39-of-85 three-pointers (nearly 46%) to just 52-of-110 2-pointers (47%). It will be tough to get clean looks from two or three against a very good Ohio State defense. This will be Duke’s toughest non-conference road environment in quite some time. Duke will hang in there, but they have no one to match up with National Player of the Year candidate Jared Sullinger inside and Ohio State’s veteran perimeter players should give talented freshman Austin Rivers fits on both ends.

Prediction: Ohio State 83, Duke 76

More picks coming for tomorrow’s games a bit later – but for the Challenge, my pick is a tie, 6-6.

ACC Basketball: Not Terrible?

The ACC's new slogan: Not as bad as you think.

The ACC is the last major conference without a loss this year (22-0). The season is barely a week old, but last year at this point, the ACC was 19-5 with awful losses to Stetson, VCU (both by Wake Forest) and Kennesaw State (Georgia Tech). This year, the league is beating who it should, which is more than some conferences can say.

The average team ranking in each conference, average ranking of opponent in wins and losses by each conference is below (rankings courtesy of Ken Pomeroy):

  • ACC (22-0):       Avg. ranking: 58.8; Avg. opponent rank (wins): 193.6; Avg. opp. rank (losses): N/A
  • Big 10 (20-2):    Avg. ranking: 40.4; Avg. opponent rank (wins): 239.8; Avg. opp. rank (losses): 3.5
  • Big East (30-3): Avg. ranking: 57.3; Avg. opponent rank (wins): 241.9, Avg. opp. rank (losses): 61.3
  • Big 12 (17-2):     Avg. ranking: 59.5, Avg. opponent rank (wins): 244.9; Avg. opp. rank (losses): 62.5
  • SEC (19-5):        Avg. ranking: 70.4; Avg. opponent rank (wins): 214;  Avg. opp. rank (losses): 110.2
  • Pac 12 (18-6):    Avg. ranking: 83.5, Avg. opponent rank (wins): 208.8; Avg. opp. rank (losses): 102.3

The ACC has a difficult trek back to the dominance it once had over the rest of college basketball. The perception of it won’t change overnight, or even in one season. But here are some teams that have a chance to get some big wins for the ACC in the next 10 days:

  1. Maryland. The Terrapins are playing in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic, which starts tomorrow, and face an athletic No. 16 Alabama squad in the first round. Maryland had a hard time with UNC-Wilmington, but the Terrapins will get better as the year goes along under new head coach Mark Turgeon.
  2. Virginia Tech. The Hokies advanced to the semifinals of the Preseason NIT, where they face No. 5 Syracuse in Madison Square Garden on November 23rd. Virginia Tech is banged up and lacks a true go-to scorer, but that balance has been beneficial so far in a 3-0 start. An upset seems unlikely, but head coach Seth Greenberg’s teams have done it before.
  3. Florida State. The first two rounds of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas shouldn’t be challenging for the No. 25 Seminoles. But they could face No. 4 Connecticut in the title game on November 26th. The Seminoles are good enough defensively to win, but UConn is also excellent on defense. Florida State still has a chance to steal one if it’s a low-scoring affair.
  4. Duke. The Maui Invitational field is loaded, and the No. 6 Blue Devils could conceivably beat two ranked teams. Duke will face either No. 10 Memphis or No. 17 Michigan in the semis and then No. 12 Kansas (should they advance) in the championship game on November 24th.
  5. N.C. State. The Wolfpack will play in the Legends Classic in the Meadowlands starting with No. 18 Vanderbilt on November 19th. Should N.C. State win, it would likely face Texas on November 21st; he Longhorns are unranked but still a name program. Wins like those would add to the already-positive momentum that Mark Gottfried has generated by signing a top-five recruiting class.

ACC teams have had some inexplicable losses in recent years that have hurt the league’s reputation almost as much as failing to win big games has. Florida State lost at Auburn last year while Virginia lost at home to Seattle. Miami lost to UCF and Rutgers. Boston College lost to Harvard (for the third straight year) and Yale, both at home. (Wake Forest’s plethora of awful losses aren’t really worth mentioning.) We’ll call this the “Don’t Embarrass Us, Please” group:

  1. Virginia. The Cavaliers have managed to find one of the least competitive holiday tournament: The Paradise Jam in St. Thomas. Virginia with a healthy Mike Scott needs to beat TCU in the first round on November 19th and should beat Norfolk State or Drexel in the next round. No. 21 Marquette would be its likely opponent in the championship game, but the ACC needs wins in those first two.
  2. Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets will go to the Charleston Classic (starting November 17th) and face St. Joseph’s followed by VCU or Seton Hall. Georgia Tech is 2-0 under new head coach Brian Gregory, but there are plenty of teams in the Charleston field that would potentially be terrible losses (St. Joseph’s, Western Kentucky or even Seton Hall and LSU).
  3. Clemson. The Tigers host College of Charleston on November 19th and Coastal Carolina on November 22nd. Neither team is a “cupcake” (Charleston is 133rd, Coastal 163rd per Ken Pom), but particularly considering both games are in Littlejohn Coliseum, these are must-wins.
  4. Miami. The Hurricanes travel to Ole Miss on November 25th. Ole Miss (2-0) is not a bad team, but Miami has a lot of talent and could make the NCAA Tournament under new head coach Jim Larranaga. With non-conference games at Purdue, at West Virginia and Memphis looming, the Ole Miss game is a must.
  5. North Carolina. The No. 1 Tar Heels will play in the Las Vegas Invitational (November 25-26) in a surprisingly weak field. Carolina can’t lose to South Carolina (lost to Elon yesterday), Southern Cal (lost at home to Nebraska) or even UNLV, arguably the second-best team in the field.

Wake Forest should be better this year, but a November 19th home matchup against improved North Carolina Central is scary. The Deacons travel to Orlando for the Old Spice Classic over Thanksgiving and will play Dayton on November 24th followed by Arizona State or Fairfield, the latter of which has embarrassing loss potential.

Boston College nearly lost to New Hampshire at home and could lose at Holy Cross or to UMass. The Eagles will play in the ESPN 76 Classic in Anaheim and could lose to first-round foe St. Louis on November 24th. BC has to feel pretty good if it can win two of those three games. The rest of the field in Anaheim isn’t great, but neither is Boston College.

Considering there are four new head coaches and three in Year 2, the perception was that the league would be terrible, and it still might be. But maybe the coaching carousel has stopped spinning long enough for some of the “other” programs (not Carolina and Duke) to finally develop consistency.

Cam Newton’s Winning Smile is Gone

An exasperated Cam Newton fields questions from the media.

CHARLOTTE, NC — Not since Magic Johnson has there been an athlete more associated with his smile than Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

Going into the draft, one publication said of Newton: “Very disingenuous – has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup.” Maybe it seemed fake because through all the eligibility questions surrounding him last year at Auburn, he put up numbers worthy of his Heisman trophy and never lost that smile. It was almost maddening.

As he continued winning from pee wee football through capturing the national championship last sesaon at Auburn, Newton’s infectious smile had become synonymnous with his breathtaking running and throwing prowess. But with the Panthers falling to 2-7 after an awful 30-3 loss at home to Tennessee on Sunday, that grin was replaced with a pained grimace.

The Panthers played well against some of the league’s top teams, even in defeat, and lost six games by an average of 6.5 points before Sunday. Commentators raved about Newton, who averaged 427 yards in his first two starts – both losses.

He posted his lowest QB rating of his young career (61.7) as the Panthers fell 30-3. He completed 23-of-40 passes for 212 yards, but averaged a season-low 5.3 yards per attempt and had an interception.

The Panthers’ 27-point margin of defeat is just 12 points shy of the total margin of their first six losses combined. And for the first time, Newton;s finger prints were all over this mess.

Newton had always scoffed at the notion of the Panthers “moral victories”. But Sunday, he knew his poor play contributed to this demoralizing defeat. Every furrow of his brow and pursing of his lips seemed a thinly-veiled attempt to hide his anguish.

“This is embarrassing, man,” he said afterwards, spitting the words out angrily to get their bitter taste out of his mouth. “When you go each week and you try to do as much as you can to achieve those goals that you have for yourself, and then when it doesn’t happen, it leaves you scratching your head.” He paused, almost as if he actually wanted to scratch his head. But he didn’t.

He was uneasy and restless as he rocked back and forth while clutching the podium. He sighed, looked down at his hands and even looked up at the ceiling as he searched for answers. He found none.

“I sound like a broken record,” Newton said. “I’m getting tired of just having the same speech every week of just execution, but something’s got to give. I can’t just keep lingering on with the negatives because life goes on, this game goes on. I’ve got a ton of faith in this team, a ton of faith in these coaches and I’ve just got to continously get better.”

Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer asked Newton if a team he played for had ever gone without a touchdown, and before he could finish the question, Newton said, “Never.” He nodded his head emphatically with each syllable as he added, “Ever, ever.” He fell silent and his eyes steeled as if determined to never let the indignity of failing to reach the end zone ever happen again.

He’s a rookie, and he’s allowed to have games like this. When evaluating quarterbacks, no one will dismiss him because his team isn’t winning. But when he stands in front of the media, you can almost see the losing, the sense of failure, eroding away at his insides like acid.

But it is okay for him to have a bad game. More importantly than the outside world or the media knowing that, Newton needs to know it. He needs to understand that wins don’t come easily in the NFL and unfortunately, his team will lose more often than it wins, especially for the next few years.

No athlete could possibly have more competitive fire in him than wide receiver Steve Smith. He’s been through everything imaginable, including a two-win season last year, and he’s still with us. Smith has even tried to calm Newton a time or two after a loss.

But Newton’s interpretation of something Smith said in the locker room before the game about the legacy a player leaves was poignant.  “Tomorrow’s not promised. The next game is not promised. If this was my last game…” he trailed off, making a face as if disgusted that this could be the last memory he would leave behind. …I don’t even know what to say.”

“There’s a level of play that you have, some standards that you set for yourself and as an individual, if you don’t play to those standards, what do you do? Do you think it’s okay to do that?” His tone was almost accusing, as if every media member should feel guilty for excusing his bad game.

Fans love his intensity and his hatred of losing, as do his teammates. It’s easy to see why his teammates rally behind him at every level. Newton has tormented opposing defenses for most of his rookie season. Now, he needs to learn to stop tormenting himself.

North Carolina, on a boat!

Kendall Marshall Tweeted this picture of the team touring the USS Carl Vinson on Wednesday.

(All you have to do is Google “On a Boat” and you’ll get the reference, if you don’t already. Warning: the video/audio is NSFW.)

A lot of hype leading up to Carolina’s season-opener against Michigan State has surrounded the odd circumstances of the game. (USA Today wrote a comprehensive guide to the game, available here.) It’s in San Diego on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson, the aircraft carrier that buried Osama bin Laden at sea. It’s Veteran’s Day; soldiers and President Obama will be there in person. Supermodel and Carolina fan Brooklyn Decker will attend and play a game of H.O.R.S.E. at halftime.

Despite all that, Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall said yesterday that the only celebrity in attendance who could make him nervous is Anchorman star Will Ferrell. Tar Heel Fan posted the brilliant Top Gun Quote Guide to the Carrier Classic, and in that vein, let’s take a look at this weekend through the movie Anchorman, avoiding the easy go-to quote: “Stay classy, San Diego.”

Brian Fantana: They’ve done studies, you know. Sixty percent of the time, it works every time.

With wind potentially being an issue (Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo says it might blow some of his team’s errant shots in the basket), look for the bigs on each team to take the higher-percentage shots. After Kendall Marshall entered the lineup, John Henson took on a bigger role in the offense, and his scoring went up as a result (from 10.4 points to 12.8). His field goal percentage went down (from 53.5 to 47.7) and his free-throw percentage went up (from 36.2%!! to 58.9). But he was inconsistent on offense, at times getting the ball stripped and taking bad shots. Tyler Zeller was the mainstay, scoring 10 or more points in 32 of Carolina’s 37 games and shooting nearly 55 percent.

Michigan State forward Draymond Green averaged 12.6 points in 2011 and was one of 10 D-I players to lead his team in both rebounding (8.6 per game) and assists (4.1). The senior added a three-point shot to his game last year and made around 37 percent. But Green has seen his share of foul trouble and while Michigan State has some talented players behind him, there’s no one with his experience and savvy. Henson and Zeller made some very good post players into non-factors last year, but the they will need to score as well.

Frank Vitchard: [public news anchor cuts off Frank’s arm] Ah! I did not see that one coming!

The Tar Heels might feel that way if guard Brandon Wood, a graduate student transfer from Valparaiso, goes off. Carolina should see it coming though as Wood dropped 30 points in Chapel Hill, three years ago nearly to the day. He made 12-of-19 shots (6-of-10 three-pointers) and drove to the basket at will. The Tar Heels beat Valpo by 11, but it was the first harbinger of the bad season to come in 2010. It’s unclear how Wood will fit into the Spartans’ offense, and Dexter Strickland is much more capable of defending a player like that now, but Wood is an x-factor for the Spartans offensively.

As for potential Tar Heel surprises, there aren’t many. It might be a tad shocking if a Carolina team that shot 32.8% from the 3-point line last year starts hitting a ton of 3’s in windy conditions. Michigan State will try to limit the Tar Heels to those kinds of shots and if they go in, so be it. Only John Henson raining 3’s could be a real shock to Michigan State, not to mention the rest of the college basketball world.

Ron Burgundy: Veronica and I are trying this new fad called uh, jogging. I believe it’s jogging or yogging. it might be a soft ‘j’. I’m not sure but apparently you just run for an extended period of time. It’s supposed to be wild.

Carolina is known for its running game, and Michigan State is not going to want to let the Tar Heels get going in transition. But lay-ups and dunks are higher-percentage shots (Captain Obvious here), so Carolina will try to force tempo. In 2011, Carolina was near the top of every defensive category (per Ken Pomeroy) except for steal percentage, and it’s hard to start fast breaks without steals or turnovers. The Tar Heels were 7th in the ACC last year in both steals per game and turnover margin. It’s going to be hard to score inside on Carolina, but the Tar Heels have to get more turnovers to make things easier on themselves offensively.

Ron Burgundy: I’m proud of you fellas. You all kept your head on a swivel, and that’s what you gotta do when you find yourself in a vicious cock fight.

Roy Williams touched on this during Tuesday’s press conference when he said that the Tar Heels will have to learn to face adversity and rise above it. And while the elements present some adversity on Friday, the real trouble comes when Carolina gets on a plane right after the game and flies overnight to Asheville for a 4:00 game on Sunday. UNC-Asheville is coming off of an NCAA Tournament season a year ago and returns four of five starters. The Bulldogs are already making contingency plans in the event of a win over the Tar Heels.

A quick turn-around after an emotional game on Friday makes Sunday’s game seem like a trap. But if the Tar Heels are elite, they have to win games like this. “I hope … some success will give them a little confidence in being able to handle the different scenarios, different situations, different arenas, not having your home crowd to make you play better or faster defensively,” Williams said. “But we have a pretty good team, and so I think we should challenge them. If it was like 2006 or 2010, I would have been scared stiff. We’ll see how we respond.”

A New-Look Duke Team

Austin Rivers fields questions from the media.

The Duke players held media availability earlier this week, and they were obviously asked a lot about head coach Mike Krzyzewski ultimately breaking the all-time wins record, likely against Michigan State on November 15th. But Austin Rivers, Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Miles Plumlee had some interesting things to say about how this team is coming together. It’s odd to think about Duke without Nolan Smith or Kyle Singler, and while this young team might have a few early stumbles, it should right itself quickly in a pretty bad ACC and could be peaking at the right time.

Duke opens the season with Belmont tonight at home, and Belmont is legit (the Bruins, 30-5 last year, were the trendy 13-over-4 upset pick in last year’s NCAA Tournament – they lost to Wisconsin). Belmont rolled through the Atlantic Sun last year but didn’t beat any “name” teams, losing twice at Tennessee (by nine and by one) and once at Vanderbilt (a 9-point loss). But going into Cameron Indoor is not the same as going to Tennessee or Vanderbilt, and though Belmont is a solid team, I don’t see them being much closer than 10-12 points.

Seth Curry transferred to Duke from Liberty, a Big South team, so said he knows that there are some good teams on the mid-major level. Curry’s big brother Stephen Curry has been giving him some advice about his new role as Duke’s primary ball-handler this year (“He has a lot of time on his hands with the lockout, so we talk a lot,” the younger Curry said).

Neither Curry nor freshman sensation Austin Rivers are pure point guards, but it will be interesting to see how that dynamic develops. “In walking situations, I’ll bring it up pretty much every time, just getting us into our offense,” Curry said. “That’s what I’ve been doing in practice. On a miss or a turnover, (whoever is) closer to the ball can just push it up the floor so we can get it up as quick as possible. (Rivers) likes to attack in transition and get to the hole, so that’s good for him to push the ball while the defense isn’t set.”

Opposing fans have already labeled Rivers as cocky and arrogant, in part because of some of Twitter comments over the last year, but he doesn’t come across that way. He was self-deprecating when evaluating his defense: “The first game (against Bellarmine), I played like a freshman and we don’t have time for that – I don’t have time for that – just because of our schedule. … That first game really told me what I needed to do. I came back in the second game focusing on pressuring my guy. That’s one thing I think I improved on is my defense.”

He talked more than once about how others perceive him, so it’s clear he’s conscious of that. And he seems very gung-ho about all things Duke, especially defense: “I actually like to play defense. Whether people really saw it or not in AAU and high school, it’s just because probably you didn’t really have to back then. … That’s how you win games. Coach K knows just about everything about winning and that’s one of the things he believes in, so I believe in it. … When you have assistant coaches like (Steve Wojciechowski) who was Defensive National Player of the Year, you’re going to play defense. If not, you’re not going to play.”

The Blue Devils have five scholarship players 6-8 or taller and seem ready to use them. Miles Plumlee, who seems ready for a big year, sees the change already: “Even in practice, there’s much more of an effort to get it down low. It feels great to be a part of the offense and it’s not always for us to score. We’re kicking it back out and getting a lot of great three’s in practice. It’s much balanced on offense this year than it has been in recent years.”

Other notes:

-Ryan Kelly said his beard is Zoubek-approved. He also said he grew it initially out of “laziness”, but added that the three women in his life – his mom, his girlfriend and his sister – all liked the look, so it stayed.

Ryan Kelly (and his beard).

-Andre Dawkins gave an interesting answer when asked if he’d rather be preseason No. 1 or under the radar (by Duke standards): “I kind of like being preseason No. 1. I think it’s good with the amount of young guys we have on our team, but from our standpoint, our expectations are the same year in and year out. Our end goal is to win a national championship so regardless of what other people think we can do, we’re going to work extremely hard every day to win a national championship.”

N.C. State vs. Flagler

C.J. Leslie

C.J. ("Calvin") Leslie talks to the media after the Flagler win.

There aren’t too many concrete take-aways from a 102-61 beatdown of a team called Flagler, but N.C. State certainly looked good, particularly on offense. Scott Wood – who had 26 points (and made 6-of-8 3’s) – said you shouldn’t expect 102 points every night, though: “We probably shot over 55% from the field. Most nights, it’s probably not going to be that high. We were joking on the court because – I think Semi-Pro is that the movie where it’s corn dogs for everybody.”

(It was indeed “corn dogs, for all these people!” (to be exact) from Will Ferrell’s Semi-Pro. I’ve never seen that movie, but the best quote I could find from it was: “It’s just like the Titanic but it’s full of bears!”)

Mark Gottfried’s up-tempo offense seemed to work well most of the time. There were a few turnovers (14) but the Wolfpack shot nearly 57%,  had 24 assists on 37 field goals and ended up with 31 fast break points. C.J. Williams, coming off a broken hand, played a solid all-around game as did graduate student Alex Johnson and Belgian frosh Thomas de Thaey. Freshman Tyler Harris and junior DeShawn Painter scored 20 of the Wolfpack’s 55 bench points, and Gottfried complimented both of them after the game. “Offensively, (Harris) let the game come to him. He didn’t get in a hurry and try to shoot real quick; he had a little poise. One thing you tell all those guys if you’re not a guy that’s in those top 5-6 guys, take your two minutes and turn two into four, turn four into six, turn six into eight. He helped himself tonight. DeShawn Painter helped himself with solid minutes. That’s what you like to see from guys like that.”

That’s the key for this team. NC State has a talented core but its bench is certainly unproven. If Harris and Painter, who combined for 20 points in 26 minutes on 9-of-11 shooting, can provide reliable support, that would be huge.

Lorenzo Brown looked pretty good in his first game as the Wolfpack’s full-time starting point guard. He had eight assists (with six turnovers) and looked in control more often than not, even at a faster tempo. He and Scott Wood had a nice groove together as well  as Brown assisted on three of Wood’s six three-pointers. C.J. Leslie (just doesn’t feel right to call him Calvin, does it?) had some up and down moments but finished with 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting (and 6-of-8 from the foul line, which is encouraging after last year’s 54.2%). The dynamic between Leslie and Gottfried is already fascinating, but it appears for now that he is on board, per Gottfried: “He wants to be good, bottom line. I think that he’s very eager and willing to make changes and play harder and play better and be more responsible. That’s kind of this whole concept with him. I thought tonight he gave great energy. But it’s every player, it’s not just him. We single him out a lot, but we all as a group have to make sure we’re going to play extremely hard every night, whether it’s him – it doesn’t matter who it is – or they won’t play. That’s something he’s learning.”

Here’s what Leslie had to say:

The Wolfpack opens things up with UNC-Asheville Friday night, and it will be a tougher test than many teams will open with but certainly not too much for them to handle. They are much more talented than UNC-Asheville but Sidney Lowe teams have let lesser opponents hang around. This is not a Sidney Lowe team and it’s Mark Gottfried’s first real game as a head coach since January 2009, so it will be interesting to see how the Wolfpack looks against a legit team. I think they’ll win fairly convincingly, and they’ll win even more convincingly on Sunday when they host Morehead State (sans Kenneth Faried).

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