2013 has been a watershed year for the ACC. First the Florida State Seminoles football program raided the SEC and wrestled their manifest destiny of an eighth consecutive national championship from their grip. Then, ACC country benefitted from the Big East’s dismantlement.
The Big East was significantly deeper, but the ACC’s high tides lifted just as many boats and won more national championships. The league hit a few bumps in the road in the last decade, but has rediscovered its stride thanks to the reverberations from the Big East’s implosion.
Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame arrived as the debris from the Big East and Louisville will make impact next season. Jim Boeheim’s ego left the largest crater in the ACC. Boeheim’s self-confidence is renowned in college hoops circles and has outlived the Big East. Before Virginia’s ACC regular season title heist, Boeheim’s ego grew so large it was slated to battle Godzilla over Manhattan. Pittsburgh and Syracuse looked like they were going to pillage the ACC, take their championship and move on March Madness draped in the skins of their victims.
On Jan. 18, a Big East wrestling match broke out when Pitt and Syracuse met for first in the ACC. Syracuse won, but it was portrayed as a display of Big East synergy. That seems like another lifetime ago.
Pittsburgh has been gingerly moving around in a tournament bubble since ACC play kicked into high gear.
At the risk of breaching the sanctity of separation between church and basketball, Ash Wednesday’s arrival marked the beginning of Lent. Boeheim doesn’t broadcast his religious affiliations so for the purpose of this column, we’ll just surmise that he’s a prophet of the zone defense.
Nevertheless, Lent isn’t a strictly a Christian experience. The 40 days and 40 nights of abstention from daily luxuries or habits is really a test of discipline. Some cats turn into teetotalers, Coke heads abstain from caffeine and soda.
Boeheim’s Lent penance is simple. He needs to give up talking about the Big East and focus on finding their footing in the ACC Tournament. Rather than being preoccupied with the past, Boeheim’s attention should be more focused on the present. Presently, the Orange have lost four of their last five games and were three buckets away from being losers of their last seven.
Before a Feb. 24 matchup against Maryland, Boeheim took umbrage with Maryland not having a Saturday game scheduled two days before the Orange while Syracuse was reeling from a loss to Duke and went back to an old crutch.
“We know how tough these next few games are. Maryland’s off today, which is quite strange,”Boeheim said deadpanned. “I guess they do those things down here. I don’t know. We didn’t used to do that in the other league."
Sure the Big East was more physical, but the ACC’s style of play which embraces deploying sharpshooters around its arc and Syracuse hasn’t been able to adjust. Duke, which is one of the nation’s most prolific jump shooting teams has given Syracuse issues and has the blueprint for beating the zone. Offensively, Syracuse is 277th in three-point field goal point percentage while Trevor Cooney, who has connected on 53 percent of the Orange’s treys slumps.
Since ACC play began, Syracuse's zone defense is getting slashed from behind the arc and ranks 13th out of 15 teams in three-point field goal defense.
Since ACC play began, Syracuse's has defended the paint, but their zone is getting slashed from behind the arc and ranks 13th out of 15 teams in three-point field goal defense. The Big East’s best three-point shooting team last year was Georgetown. This season, their 37.8 three-point shooting percentage would be fifth in the ACC.
"It just seems like overall maybe the 3-point shooting we've seen this year is a little better," Boeheim told Syracuse.com this week in a more subdued tone than the exuberant comic coaching an undefeated team three weeks earlier. "And we have to take some responsibility that our defense isn't as good as it needed to be in some of those situations."
Not only did the ACC accomplish their subversive goal of humbling the Big East’s best, but they also ground them into submission during the meaty portion of their conference schedule.
Admittedly, as an ACC fan I used to tell Big East groupies to keep our team's names out their mouths. The old Big East accumulated enough cultural cache to be remembered through the ages, but their stans need to start pluckng the crow out from between their molars.
CLIMBING THE LADDER – Power Ranking the nation’s Top-5 Conferences
1. ACC: Syracuse is obviously stuck in a runaway van rolling downhill towards a cliff. North Carolina’s in the midst of a 12-game winning streak, Virginia is perched alongside Ralph Sampson's '81 Cavaliers and Duke found its mojo. As many as seven teams could make the tournament including longshot NC State, Clemson and Pttsburgh.
2. Big Ten: The collapse of Michigan State and Ohio State in the second half of the season has dropped the Big Ten to second after a great start to the regular season. They’ve beaten each other up, but so has the ACC. Besides, it’s inexplicable for Michigan State to drop a gimme against Illinois. You also have to ask yourself if Nebraska would be fourth in the ACC. I don’t think so.
3. Big 12: Unlike the Big Ten and the ACC, Kansas is the clear first-class team in their conference while everyone else is flying coach, driving or taking the treacherous Oregon Trail through the conference schedule. However, Oklahoma State could be a scary lower seed, Iowa State can start a brush fire offensively and seven teams could be in the tournament on the night of Selection Sunday.
4. American Athletic Conference: The Rest of the Big East best conference has the reigning national champion. It’ll only last one season because Louisville will be leaving for the ACC this summer, but watching Cincinnati go toe to toe with Louisville for 48 minutes and the duels between UConn and Memphis have left us mesmerized. That doesn’t even include SMU’s meteoric rise or the fact that six teams have been ranked in the Top 25.
5. Pac - 12: There’s a growing chasm between Arizona and the second-best team in the conference, which is probably UCLA. Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon and Utah, which is ending the season on a tear, are all clumped together into a Pac-12 soup, but that sort of depth is worth respecting.
GAME RECOGNIZE GAME
No. 4 Duke at No. 14 UNC
If Jabari Parker’s evolving game hadn’t been so consistent all season long we may be campaigning for Marcus Paige as the ACC’s Player of the Year. Sure he’s got an unfavorable procrastinator streak in him, but it’s been enough to wake UNC up from their coma.
After sleep walking against Wake Forest, the Blue Devils should be wide awake for their regular season finale in Chapel Hill.
No. 25 Kentucky at No. 1 Florida
Kentucky and Florida were once seen as equals in the SEC. Now, they’re circus mirror versions of one another and on extreme opposite ends of the Top 25. It’s an SEC twist on the tortoise and the hare. Kentucky’s pitfalls of instant freshman gratification has been losing the battle to the patient roster of upperclassmen Billy Donovan has developed at Florida.
Julius Randle was surrounded in the post against Patric Young, William Yeguette, Casey Prather and Dorian Finney-Smith during their first meeting against Florida’s stifling rim protection service.
No. 19 UConn at No. 11 Louisville
Besides the potential ramifications on Louisville’s American Athletic Conference title, the matchup of Shabazz Napier and Russ Smith will be one of the best guard clashes of 2014. Louisiville needs a win to earn at least a share of the AAC title if Cincy beats Memphis and Rutgers.
IN THE BONUS
It’s easy to revile the NCAA and its treatment of revenue-producing amateur student-athletes, but last week, Mark Cuban proposed a solution for college athletes sick of being undercompensated.
Cuban attempted to shill for the NBA’s Developmental League as a viable alternative to college hoops.
However, SMU’s Larry Brown, the definition of a developmental coach killed any chance of himself ever returning to The Association as a D-League coach or the Mavs head coach by panning Cuban’s statement.
"I admire him and I think he's one of the bright guys we have in our profession, but that was the worst thing I heard," Brown said during an appearance on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas.
The NCAA has more than its fair share of blemishes that need repair, but the D-League is a terrible alternative. An average D-League salary isn’t enough to live comfortably on and only equates to the monetary value of three 10-day NBA contracts.
If this were ABC’s Shark Tank, where Cuban is the Simon Cowell of wealthy entrepreneurs, his own idea would get fed to the fishes.
Ask Pierre Jackson about how D-League players are at the mercy of front office manipulation. After two years at Baylor following a JUCO stint. The 5-10 guard ripped up the D-League’s scoring records and scuffed up a few rims. However, because his rights were owned by the New Orleans Pelicans, who couldn’t swap him in a trade to a team for anything of value at the deadline, they decided not to call up the D-League’s leading scorer from Idaho despite a serious injury to point guard Jrue Holiday’s right tibia. Hours before the deadline, Jackson signed with a Turkish club for six-figures with an option to return if he was dealt by the Pelicans.
The entire goal of this hoops endeavor is to make cheddar and until the D-League starts paying its players better wages, that’s not happening.
The NBA’s 19-year-old age limit is a hindrance, but how many careers has it actually curtailed? Like Jackson, Aquille Carr could have used a year or three at Seton Hall under his belt to develop as a point guard. Instead, the Delaware 87ers did what a college hoops team wouldn’t have done with a talent like his by dropping him like a ton of bricks into the D-League waiver system where he went unclaimed. He’ll re-enter the NBA Draft this summer, but he’s back where he started.
Now he’s declaring for the NBA Draft as an explosive 5-6 dynamic athlete who averaged 10 points a game in under 14 minutes a night, but simultaneously boasted 2-2.1 assist to turnover ratio. The D-League is an experimental place where coaches test philosophies, extreme offensive schemes, and innovative roster rotations and where the NBA tests rules.
Elite prep prospects should probably opt for overseas if they want an immediate financial pay-off, but for the rest, the NCAA is still their best route at this point in time.