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.

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