College Sports

From comebacks to controversies, here’s the best of the ACC season

Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon fends off Louisville’s Damion Lee during the game in Charlottesville on Saturday,.
Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon fends off Louisville’s Damion Lee during the game in Charlottesville on Saturday,. AP

We were right about two things, it turned out.

North Carolina really did finish first in the ACC. And Boston College did, in fact, finish in last. Just as we thought would happen when media members covering the league convened in Charlotte in October to think about what might happen between then and now.

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A lot of other stuff, though, nobody saw coming. Like Virginia Tech’s rise to respectability. And Louisville’s story arc, which included surprising success followed by a self-imposed postseason ban. And Virginia’s sluggish start before recovering and finishing in second – just where it was picked.

We might not have anticipated Cat Barber’s sustained brilliance and Brice Johnson’s consistent excellence. And we knew Malcolm Brogdon would be good – but this good? And that Boston College would be bad – but so bad that it just might be the worst team in ACC history?

This might not be remembered among the ACC’s best seasons. (Though who knows – there’s still about a month of college basketball left to go.) There don’t appear to be any dominant teams. The national player of the year is probably somewhere else, perhaps in Michigan or Oklahoma.

But it has been a good season and, as usual, a fun season. One of unpredictability and plenty of parity, one that provided a number of surprises while also confirming – at the top and bottom of the league, at least – what we thought we knew back in the fall.

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And now the regular season is over. And so here are some accolades and awards and some thoughts on the best of the past nine weeks:

ACC Player of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia.

This is close. You can make a great argument for Brice Johnson, the North Carolina senior forward who provided the best individual performance in the ACC this season with his 39 points and 23 rebounds in a victory at Florida State.

And Johnson, who’s averaging 16.8 points and 10.3 rebounds, has been consistent. He has 19 double-doubles. But here’s why, to me, the choice is Brogdon: Johnson can’t do it alone. He can’t create by himself (putbacks off of offensive rebounds notwithstanding) and needs his teammates to set him up.

Brogdon, meanwhile, is one of the best creators in the ACC. He’s also perhaps the most difficult defensive matchup on the perimeter. He’s fourth in the ACC in scoring, averaging 18.4 points per game, and his numbers would be more impressive if he played in a faster-paced offense.

All-ACC first team: Brogdon; Johnson; Grayson Allen, Duke; Cat Barber, N.C. State; Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson

My first team selections – and I don’t vote, by the way, for the All-ACC teams that are determined by media members – are the same as the real All-ACC first-team that came out on Sunday. So, great minds. The top four choices were easy. Allen, Barber, Brogdon and Johnson were all locks. Blossomgame makes sense for the final spot.

All-ACC second team: Anthony Gill, Virginia; Brandon Ingram, Duke; Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame; Damion Lee, Louisville; Sheldon McClellan, Miami.

And Ingram immediately becomes the frontrunner for ACC Player of the Year honors for the 2016-17 season. Oh, wait. Actually, among the ACC’s top 10 players this season – if you judge them by the selections here –only one – Blossomgame – will likely be around next season. Assuming Ingram goes pro. Which seems a foregone conclusion.

Freshman of the year: Ingram

There’s no other choice other than Ingram, who won the real award on Sunday. Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley both averaged more than 15 points per game and both looked like they might challenge Ingram for this award. And they both had strong seasons. Ingram has been consistently better, though, and his development over the course of his freshman season has been something to behold.

Coach of the Year: Nobody.

Runner-up: Let’s do like the Pulitzer Prize folks, who don’t give out an award in certain categories in years where there’s not a completely deserving candidate. It’s not that there haven’t been some strong coaching performances this year.

Buzz Williams is probably most deserving for turning Virginia Tech into a mediocre team instead of an awful one. Still, the Hokies weren’t very good early on. Miami’s Jim Larranaga, the recipient of the real award, did a fine job with a team that should have been good, and is.

Nobody really jumps out here this year.

Best individual performance: Johnson for his 39 points and 23 rebounds during UNC’s 106-90 victory at Florida State on Jan. 4. Only twice in UNC’s long basketball history had another player finished a game with as many points and rebounds – and it was Billy Cunningham both times.

Best comeback: How about Virginia rallying from a seven-point deficit with 22 seconds to play for a 72-71 victory at Wake Forest on Jan. 26? That seems like it should win the award for “best comeback,” so we’ll go with it.

Best game: Only five ACC games went into overtime this season. One of those was Pittsburgh’s 101-96 double-overtime victory against Wake Forest on Feb. 16. With respect to Pitt-Wake Forest, that doesn’t rise above Duke’s 63-62 victory against Virginia on Feb. 13. A classic with a controversial ending.

Best controversy: The one that UNC coach Roy Williams created by not using a timeout on the final possession of a 74-73 home loss against Duke. That decision entered the lore of the rivalry, and likely is to be remembered for a while.

Best response to adversity: Louisville went 5-4 during its final nine games after self-imposing a postseason ban for that strippers-for-recruits ordeal. And while 5-4 might not sound great, it’s pretty good considering the opposition and that the Cardinals all of a sudden had nothing to really play for. They’ll be missed at the ACC tournament in Washington, D.C.

Best insult a coach directed my way: Roy Williams told me I was in a “bad business” and suggested – in a humorous way, I think – that my career choice might lead to my demise. Mark Gottfried in a postgame press conference said the local writer – that’d be me – who questioned Cat Barber’s first-team All-ACC worthiness must be “off his rocker.” We’ll go with “off his rocker” for its timeless utility.

Best story that wouldn’t go away: It’s a tie! The will-Amile-Jefferson-return story and is-UNC-tough-enough take the honors.

Best trend: The one that involves the scoring of more points. Let’s keep the analysis brief. Last season four ACC teams averaged at least 70 points per game. This season, the only ones that didn’t were Clemson, which averages 69.1 points per game and still could break the 70-point average, and Boston College, perhaps the worst offensive team in ACC history. It appears the rules changes worked.

Best bad thing about the season: Boston College going winless in conference play. No, the Eagles can’t be happy about it. But the rest of us can, because if you’re going to be awful then, by golly, commit to it. The Eagles became the ACC’s first 0-18 team. We are all witnesses.

Best moment I witnessed: Marcus Paige’s senior night speech after North Carolina’s 75-70 victory against Syracuse last week. Paige’s speech, which brought a good number of people in the Smith Center to tears, was representative of the cooler, more human, more authentic side of college sports. Big-time college athletics get a bad rap – and deservedly so – for the money and commercialization involved nowadays. And so moments of purity should be lauded and appreciated.