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2016-17 ACC Post-Mortem

June 12, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

The ACC began the season with grand expectations surrounding it, and ended the season with the national champion. In between, however, is where the stories really were about the conference and those expectations.

From the outset, many wondered if the ACC could at least match the 2010-11 Big East and put 11 of its teams into the NCAA Tournament. The thought was the conference had enough good teams to do it. As the season went on and ACC teams got some good non-conference wins, this continued. In fact, as of January, almost every ACC team had a legitimate chance to reach the NCAA Tournament by virtue of having a non-conference resume just good enough to get by and then having so many quality win opportunities in the ACC.

Ultimately, the ACC wound up with just ten teams in the NCAA Tournament, so the Big East’s record is safe – for now. A few teams that were on the bubble fizzled late and played their way out of the NCAA Tournament with key losses late in the season. And while the final game was favorable for the ACC, unlike a year ago most of the tournament was not so good as North Carolina was the only team to make it past the first weekend.

North Carolina emerged early in the season as a national title threat, and then won the regular season title by two games. As strong as this conference was overall, that qualifies as a convincing regular season title. The Tar Heels were something of an afterthought in much discussion of national title contenders before the season, but their impressive showing in Maui changed that for good. It also reinforced how important Joel Berry II was for this team, and there would be more reminders of that right to the very end.

Duke is always relevant in one way or another, and this year many felt the Blue Devils were right there on the short list of national title favorites before the season. But from the get-go, the Blue Devils had lots of adversity to deal with, especially in the form of injuries to key players. They never had a fully healthy squad, Grayson Allen got himself into trouble just as he appeared to be as valuable as any Blue Devil (and perhaps truly turning over a new leaf), and as if that wasn’t enough, head coach Mike Krzyzewski had to miss four weeks after back surgery. Duke appeared to have righted the ship fully when they won four games in four days to win the ACC Tournament, as many felt they looked primed to be the Duke team most thought they would be before the season. But there was no big run to be had, as they lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament – perhaps fittingly so since they were one of South Carolina’s victims.

Florida State was expected to be better, but not many expected what the Seminoles delivered all year long. They cracked the top ten in the polls, were in the mix for the top of the standings at different points, finished tied for second in the conference, and were a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They also flamed out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, another surprise with this team, but it was a very good year for Leonard Hamilton’s team.

Would Notre Dame take a step back this year after more significant personnel losses? Not at all. The Fighting Irish were right there in the race for the top all year and were part of the three-way tie for second. Bonzie Colson had a great case for Player of the Year as the only player in the conference to average a double-double.

Elsewhere, Virginia once again looked criminally under the radar for a while, but the Cavs’ difficulty scoring eventually caught up to them in the latter part of the season. Arch-rival Virginia Tech joined Wake Forest in rising up into NCAA Tournament contention. Jim Larranaga’s masterful work continued at Miami, where the Hurricanes surpassed many expectations to reach another NCAA Tournament. Syracuse had quality wins but some tough losses, as well as their usual easy non-conference schedule where they left upstate New York just three times and lost all three. The hard-luck kings of college basketball were the Clemson Tigers, who suffered numerous excruciating losses that kept them from NCAA Tournament contention. NC State had a miserable season, while Pittsburgh and Boston College weren’t much better. The saving grace for Boston College was low expectations, as well as the Eagles being a fun team to watch at times, but the results weren’t there.

When it was all said and done, there was one coaching change that took place, though there was speculation of more. NC State announced that Mark Gottfried would be fired before the season ended, and they replaced him with Kevin Keatts, who had a terrific three-year run at nearby UNCW.

The ACC didn’t quite match the hype in terms of NCAA Tournament teams. That’s the bottom line story. But if you followed the conference closely, you surely enjoyed the journey, because the conference provided no shortage of interesting stories. In that respect, this year will be a tough act to follow.

 

Final Standings

ACC
Overall
North Carolina
14-4
33-7
Florida State
12-6
26-9
Notre Dame
12-6
26-10
Louisville
12-6
25-9
Duke
11-7
28-9
Virginia
11-7
23-11
Virginia Tech
10-8
22-11
Syracuse
10-8
19-15
Miami
10-8
21-12
Wake Forest
9-9
19-14
Georgia Tech
8-10
21-16
Clemson
6-12
17-16
NC State
4-14
15-17
Pittsburgh
4-14
16-17
Boston College
2-16
9-23

Conference Tournament

There was plenty to watch for in the ACC Tournament, and it didn’t disappoint from a variety of angles. Even the first night had something noteworthy.

The first two games were both decided by double-digits as No. 12 Clemson ended No. 13 NC State’s season and Mark Gottfried’s tenure there by a 75-61 margin, then No. 10 Wake Forest ended No. 15 Boston College’s season with a 92-78 win. The last game of the day saw No. 14 Pittsburgh send No. 11 Georgia Tech to the NIT by edging out the Yellow Jackets 61-59.

On day two, only one lower seed won, and it was a matchup of teams that tied in the standings as No. 9 Miami opened up the day by sending No. 8 Syracuse to the NIT (though few suspected it at the time) with a 62-57 win. No. 5 Duke began its historic run by handling Clemson 79-72, then No. 7 Virginia Tech beat Wake Forest 77-70 and No. 6 Virginia scored the only double-digit win of the day in beating Pittsburgh 75-63.

The third day again saw just one game that might remotely go down as a surprise, and it was a matchup of adjacent seeds. After No. 1 North Carolina blew out Miami 78-53, providing the widest margin of victory in the tournament, Duke beat No. 4 Louisville 81-77. No. 2 Florida State handled Virginia Tech 74-68, then No. 3 Notre Dame closed out the day with a 71-58 win over Virginia.

The semifinals started with a dandy, as Duke and North Carolina met for the third time this season. Duke won 93-83, but the game was a little closer and just what you can expect between these arch rivals. Notre Dame then edged Florida State 77-73 in the nightcap to advance to another ACC championship game.

Notre Dame gave Duke all they could handle in the final, but Tournament MVP Luke Kennard and the Blue Devils were not going to be denied history. Their 75-69 win capped their historic run of four wins in four days, the first time that has happened in the 64 ACC Tournaments.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year: Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Rookie of the Year: Dennis Smith Jr., NC State
Coach of the Year: Josh Pastner, Georgia Tech
Defensive Player of the Year: Ben Lammers, Georgia Tech
Most Improved Player: John Collins, Wake Forest
Sixth Man of the Year: Seth Allen, Virginia Tech

All-ACC Team
John Collins, So. F, Wake Forest
Bonzie Colson, Jr. F, Notre Dame
Justin Jackson, Jr. F, North Carolina
Luke Kennard, So. G, Duke
Donovan Mitchell, So. G, Louisville

Season Highlights

  • North Carolina won the national championship a year after losing in a heart-breaker.
  • Duke became the first team in ACC history to win four games in four days and capture an ACC Tournament championship.
  • From December into January, Florida State played six straight ranked teams and went 5-1.
  • Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson was the only player in the conference to average a double-double.
  • Four players posted at least one triple-double on the season, with NC State freshman Dennis Smith Jr. posting two. Miami’s Bruce Brown and Virginia Tech’s Chris Clarke also posted one.

What we expected, and it happened: North Carolina was expected to challenge for the conference title, and did a little more than that. The Tar Heels had a lot of solid veterans returning, and with Justin Jackson harnessing more of his potential, Joel Berry II being a tough floor leader and Kennedy Meeks being in the best shape of his life, the Tar Heels had a lot going for them all along.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Duke was on just about everyone’s short list of national title contenders, but the Blue Devils had lots of ups and downs en route to flaming out in the second round as part of South Carolina’s magical run.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Georgia Tech was expected to be among the teams fighting to stay out of the cellar in Josh Pastner’s first season, but was in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid and made a run to the NIT championship game. Pastner even told the fan base that patience would be required, but the Yellow Jackets surprised everyone and nearly made the NCAA Tournament.

Team(s) on the rise: Georgia Tech. See above, with the added note that they return the likes of Ben Lammers and Josh Okogie and have a year under their belt with the current staff.

Team(s) on the decline: Florida State. Sure, the Seminoles had a great year, but reloading after watching Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac leave early is going to be exceedingly difficult. Terance Mann was solid as a support player, and in his prep career he was The Man in leading his team to titles, but whether or not he can do that again for this team next year remains to be seen.

 

2017-18 ACC Outlook

Discussion of favorites for next season should probably start with Louisville. The Cardinals will return the most of any team in the conference, while North Carolina and Duke each take big personnel hits. In fact, most of the conference’s teams take at least appreciable personnel hits, so while the Cardinals will be in a lot of preseason top 10 lists, they will also be favored almost by default.

Duke will certainly have the talent to challenge the Cardinals, especially after landing Trevon Duval late. The question will be veteran leadership given who they lose. North Carolina will have a good perimeter unit with Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson returning, and they also have strong intangibles, but they will be very thin up front with Tony Bradley leaving.

After that, it’s wide open, and don’t be surprised if Duke or North Carolina finishes below someone else who emerges. Notre Dame has yet to take a real slip, and shouldn’t next season, though Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem are not small losses to have to make up for. Florida State lost a lot with early defections like Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac, so they are primed to take a step back. Virginia should be good, but just how good is in question, and Syracuse is in a similar boat. Miami brings in more talent and has Bruce Brown back, but they also lose a stellar leader in Davon Reed. Georgia Tech is headed in the right direction and returns key players like Josh Okogie, Ben Lammers and Tadric Jackson. Virginia Tech is in a much better place now, but the Hokies have to make up for the losses of Zach LeDay and Seth Allen, the latter of who was the top reserve in the conference.

After those teams, we get to ones with more questions than answers. NC State has a new head coach in Kevin Keatts, and there is still some talent with Abdul-Malik Abu returning and Omar Yurtseven deciding to withdraw from the NBA Draft. Keatts turned around UNCW right away when inheriting a team with some experience, so a reversal of fortune in Raleigh wouldn’t be a big shocker. Clemson loses Jaron Blossomgame from what was perhaps the toughest-luck team in America. Wake Forest loses John Collins, and that’s a big hit, though the program is getting better and returns plenty of talent who helped him. Boston College has a lot of their nucleus back and needs to grow again, though losing A.J. Turner (transfer) doesn’t help. Pittsburgh looks to be headed for another rebuilding season.

In short, next year’s ACC looks like it may be more of a mystery overall than this past season, both in how the standings could shake out and in how strong it could be.

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