So that’s it.
Most every year is like this. You see the number of games dwindle. The occasional home-and-home series concludes, topped by a second meeting between Duke and North Carolina. Intellectually you know there’s not much time left, yet the end arrives with the unyielding suddenness of walking into a glass door.
Just like that, the college basketball regular season is over. Tournament play, the one-and-done cliff of single-elimination, beckons and all the world is awash in talk of bubbles and seeds, like a Champagne toast at a gardeners’ convention.
But before we rush on to the next thing, it’s worth taking a moment to recall and savor where we’ve just been.
We can’t say it’s been a vintage ACC season, not with Boston College winless in conference play, just the sixth team to suffer that ignominy in conference history and the first since 1987 and a Maryland squad with a high school coach at the helm in the wake of Len Bias’ death.
Not when Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was benched for nine games early in the season as a result of an NCAA probation, and Louisville benched itself at the end in anticipation of NCAA punishment. Not when, despite protestations to the contrary from its coaches, the North Carolina program remains shadowed by ongoing NCAA scrutiny and the irreducible stain of academic fraud.
Not when Notre Dame’s women, mimicking the ACC debut of Florida State football in the 1990s, again ran roughshod over the rest of the league. Because women’s basketball is not exactly high on the agenda of most media outlets and fans, Notre Dame’s remarkable dominance has gone largely unnoticed.
Muffet McGraw’s Fighting Irish were unbeaten during the 2016 ACC regular season. Since joining the ACC their three-year conference record was 53-1 entering this past weekend’s ACC tournament. No other ACC basketball program ever imposed such suffocating control over so long a span.
Stalling and scoring
On the men’s side four teams – Louisville, Miami, UNC and Virginia – had a shot at first place entering the final game of the regular season, upper echelon congestion unduplicated since 2007.
As for unremarked changes among the men, we’d go with de facto abandonment of the 3-second call. Fully implemented in 1944-45, the rule limits offensive players’ time in the paint, reducing congestion that facilitates rough play, supposedly a recent point of emphasis. Readers are challenged to recall the last time they saw a player penalized for camping in the lane.
One rule officially taken off the books was the five-second violation while closely guarded with the ball. The rule’s absence resulted in too much time occupied by dribblers seeking strategic advantage, a maneuver as exciting as watching someone tie a shoelace.
Perhaps surprisingly, countenancing the stall tactic didn’t hurt offenses, even with the shot clock reduced to 30 seconds. In fact, increased scoring may be the most important development this season. Compared with final 2015 ACC totals, scoring was up an average of five points per team without noticeably distorting the game. Only Notre Dame did not increase its scoring from last season.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that starting lineups rich in experience are apt to be rich in victories. Sure, Duke grabbed last year’s NCAA title while relying on a core of freshman starters, and Mike Krzyzewski continues to note the youth of today’s teams. But that is a basketball elitist’s worldview. Duke has recently relied on one-and-done freshmen more than any league program: Kyrie Irving in 2011, Austin Rivers in 2012, Jabari Parker in 2014, and Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones in 2015. This season’s best ACC freshman, Brandon Ingram, is also presumably an early departee.
That’s not the path taken by most ACC teams, certainly not this year’s most prosperous ones. The first-place contenders in 2016 each started at least two seniors. A majority of starters on each squad in that group except Louisville are upperclassmen.
The All-ACC first team celebrates seniors. Moreover, through March 4 seniors comprised half of the league’s top 20 scorers, its six leading rebounders, four official leaders in field goal accuracy, three of its five best foul shooters, and four of the top five in steals.
Veteran leadership wasn’t the only ACC constant in 2016. Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils were good enough to earn NCAA tournament inclusion for the 21st straight season, the most consecutive trips under any coach in history.
Duke gets to the NCAAs, and prospers there, while employing a small cadre of players, so don’t be fooled by its modest numbers with Amile Jefferson apparently sidelined for the season by a broken foot. Krzyzewski rarely goes more than six deep in tight circumstances, even with more options at his disposal. In Duke’s half-dozen NCAA contests last year, only against Wisconsin in the championship contest did the Duke coach give seven players extended floor time.
The meeting with the Badgers was among just three games in which Grayson Allen played 21 or more minutes as a freshman. This season Allen blossomed as an All-ACC performer and accounted for one of the most dramatic shots of 2016 in a one-point home win over Virginia.
The sophomore’s driving basket at the buzzer balanced the scales of basketball justice as far as Wake Forest folks are concerned. In late January the Cavaliers capped a rally to similarly secure a one-point win at Winston-Salem on a banked three by Darius Thompson as time expired. The victory, Virginia’s first in its opening four ACC road games, keyed a seven-game winning streak that thrust the Cavs back into the race for the top spot they occupied in both 2014 and 2015.
N.C. State, out of the NCAA tournament picture for the first time in five years, also won twice at home in dramatic last-gasp fashion – on a Cat Barber three against High Point in mid-December and a layup by Maverick Rowan against BC last week. Barber, a junior likely headed for the NBA this spring, became the 10th Wolfpack player to lead the ACC in scoring and the second in three years after T.J. Warren in 2014. Barber also paced the league in minutes played, reflecting an overall lack of depth that helped N.C. State join Florida State as the ACC’s major disappointments.
Virginia Tech finished at the other end of the spectrum of expectations, making a remarkable turnaround under Buzz Williams, at 43 the youngest coach in the league. Three coaches arrived in 2015 to take over struggling programs. Both Jim Christian at BC and Wake’s Danny Manning are still groping to find success. In contrast, Williams quickly elevated Virginia Tech – the last-place finisher at 2-16 last season – to the middle of the pack in 2016 along with Syracuse, Pitt and Clemson.
Less surprising, but no less impressive, was Miami’s rise to the ACC’s front rank. Picked to finish fifth, Jim Larranaga’s mature Hurricanes ranked among the top eight in the national polls as the regular season ended, along with UVa and preseason media favorite UNC. Those three clubs have the best shot at carrying the ACC banner deep into the NCAA afterlife, where the league hasn’t placed members in consecutive Final Fours since UNC and Duke won national championships in 2009 and 2010, respectively.