A New and Unique Region of Hell: Notes on the ACC basketball season

Since I stopped covering local college basketball for the Indy I’ve begun each late autumn telling myself I was done with college basketball. The NCAA is outmoded and corrupt; the whole big-money contraption puts outrageous pressure on kids, who don’t get any of the money and are made to take the fall when the systems around them fail; the NCAA is hopelessly outmoded and corrupt; we’re enabling rageaholic coaches like Frank Martin and Larry Eustachy (and so many other ones who don’t make the news because their exorbitant rage is normalized by the environment); college sports are provincial to a dangerous and stupid degree; the NCAA is hopelessly outmoded and grotesquely corrupt. And then every year I wind up getting interested. Well, I live in Durham, North Carolina, the son of a UNC professor and the husband of a woman with three degrees from Duke. Even LeBron James just said, in so many words, that the Duke-Carolina rivalry is one of the very greatest in sports, and I’m a sports person. I will never be done with college basketball.

It has already been quite a year in the ACC — quite a year just right here in the Triangle’s share of it, actually. Duke was the national preseason No. 1 by many estimations but found itself struggling with injuries to players and Mike Krzyzewski alike, plus the Grayson Allen suspension. After the Blue Devils coughed up a late lead in late January, at home, to N.C. State, and lost, they were 3-4 in conference play and looking like their season might be in jeopardy with Jeff Capel running the team in Krzyzewski’s absence.

It was UNC that looked like the team to beat in November, trouncing everyone in the Maui Invitational and making it seem like the loss of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige from last year’s national championship runner-up team was no big deal. Joel Berry and especially Justin Jackson were picking up the perimeter scoring slack, and the Tar Heels have always had enough interior depth and strategic focus to keep doing damage in the paint. A close, exciting, high-scoring loss to Kentucky in December whetted appetites for a potential national championship rematch in April.

Meanwhile, North Carolina State, with its sensational freshman Dennis Smith, was blowing so hot and cold — lost to Boston College, drubbed at Chapel Hill by fifty points; crushed Virginia Tech, then rallied to beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium — that it was impossible know whether they were a conference dark horse or also-ran.

By the third week in February,  Duke had its coach and its players back, won seven straight games — including a victory over UNC in Durham —  and had regained a place in the national top ten and a share of second place in the ACC. Krzyzewski was back in control, although I was surprised to learn that neither Allen nor post player Amile Jefferson is healthy enough to practice; they only go during games. Many of Duke’s results during the winning streak have been wobbly, especially at home, where they needed most of the game to pull away from Pittsburgh; survived a final, potential game-winning possession by Clemson; and but for a missed layup in the final minute might have lost another lead, and the game, to the very entertaining and offensively dangerous Wake Forest Demon Deacons, who play an uptempo, NBA-like game under Danny Manning. Duke’s defense isn’t very good, and this team in some ways resembles the 2011-12 team I covered, of which its power forward Ryan Kelly said: “Our defense is predicated on our offense.” Younger college players, especially elite scorers, tend to be pretty bad at defending, mainly because it isn’t as fun as scoring, and this team is doing just enough to get by right now. They have exorbitant talent, best in the conference if not the country; Jason Tatum has extravagantly bloomed, of course, but count me as a big fan of the somewhat overlooked Frank Jackson, the true point guard I’d like to see fully emerge by tournament time. They’ll probably get better defensively, but enough in the next few weeks to win the national championship they were projected for in November?

And will North Carolina return to the dominant unit they looked like that same month? The Tar Heels’ conference season began with a toe-stub loss at Georgia Tech. They have had unconvincing wins against Clemson, Wake Forest, Syracuse, Boston College, and Pittsburgh, and a bad defeat at Miami. They’re currently at the top of the ACC, but they have games remaining against each of the schools just below them: Louisville tomorrow, Duke to end the regular season in less than two weeks; these two games sandwich rematches with Virginia and Pittsburgh on the road, both of which they could easily lose. (More on Virginia below.) Like Duke, they aren’t a reliable defensive squad, more by Roy Williams’s offensively-minded design than by poor execution. They don’t have a truly elite player, although Justin Jackson sometimes looks like one. And they can be stymied by zone defenses and three-point-shooting offenses. Give them credit for hanging tough enough to fend off all the lesser challengers who’ve thrown their best punches, but they’ll have to return to the place where those challenges never really mount against them in order to return to the Final Four.

There’s a great line by my music hero Scott Miller: “Most great artists define a new and unique region of hell.” (I can’t resist the rest: “Led Zeppelin hell is 30 minutes of echoey jamming broken up by two minutes of lyrics about hobbits. Posies hell is seven minutes of sludgy, unparseable drop-string minor chords with scenery-chewing regret over personal excesses, in harmony.”) Apply this to the great ACC programs — even the longstanding good ones — and you see the hell. Duke is the circled-so-tight wagon train that they burn up all the food in their own campfire; UNC is the sententious establishment that sometimes forgets to show up to the day’s legislative session, only to find it occupied by insurgents; N.C. State is the savant kid brother who at age fourteen can solve complex math equations but is also still wetting the bed.

Something like this, anyway — those comparisons took me fifteen seconds. The point I’m trying to make is that this year it seems like every team is more susceptible than ever to finding itself in its unique region of hell, and North Carolina State’s hell has already claimed its leader in the fire: Mark Gottfried is, controversially, out as head coach at the end of the season. And look up the road at Virginia. Tony Bennett has built a superior program in eight years as head coach, but the Cavaliers suddenly find themselves emaciated and plummeting. They’ve lost four straight games and five of their last six, and they simply can’t score anymore. Their point total in the last three losses is the program’s lowest combined three-game total since 1951. They play at North Carolina State on Saturday, and if they lose that game they’ll almost certainly fall out of the top 25. I imagine it’s been quite a while since they were last unranked.

Okay: why? Why do we never know who will beat whom on any given night anymore? Why do these teams look great one minute, terrible the next? Can we really believe Krzyzewski when he says, after what seems like every close win over a second-division conference opponent, “They’re really good”? Or is he just trying to justify squeaker wins by playing up the opponent? I think he’s right. Perhaps not that they’re “really good,” but that “they,” whoever they are, have the resources to compete right with you. For a long time, the elite teams — Duke, UNC, and the others that would rotate in and out of First Class every few years — could count on at least a game or two on the conference schedule every season as virtually automatic wins. The talent gap was just so wide that there was no way you could lose to that bottom-dwelling team. That is no longer true. When UNC barely beat Pitt, the Panthers had the worst record in the conference. Boston College is currently last at 2-13, but fewer than five of their losses have been ugly blowouts and they have an electrifying guard named Ky Bowman who almost single-handedly beat UNC. Ten of the other eleven teams in the conference are in Ken Pomeroy’s top 50, and the one that isn’t, Georgia Tech, is a respectable 7-7 in conference and has beaten three teams currently ranked in the national top 25 poll.

You can see the narrowing talent gap in the way the supposedly lesser teams attack the higher ones. Pittsburgh and Clemson were not cowed by Duke or North Carolina. When Clemson’s last shot attempt was foiled at Duke, the kid whose attempt never got out of his hands hurled his mouth guard to the hardwood in frustration after the buzzer sounded — as if he knew that Clemson was right on Duke’s (and UNC’s) competitive level if only they could catch just one break, be just a tiny a little bit better on the day they happen to play them. Pitt had two excellent upperclassmen who nearly beat the Devils in Cameron with little more than a two-man game, and had they had one other solid player they very well might have. The depth of ability and playability is almost total in the ACC now. The coaching is almost uniformly excellent. The home fans are loud. I haven’t even yet mentioned Florida State, which has quietly been excellent all season under its quietly excellent coach, Leonard Hamilton; or Notre Dame, with its dangerous upperclassmen who can score and another really good coach, Mike Brey; or Louisville, which is in fact the conference’s highest-ranked team in the national polls and whose coach is a legend. Syracuse, Jim Boeheim’s wheezing old rust belt zone factory, can still beat almost anyone — anyone can beat almost anyone, and as a consequence it’s now so easy for nearly any team to be frustrated by any close loss, to throw its mouth guard down symbolically. It used to be that Clemson barely losing to Duke at Cameron was an honorable result for the Tigers, but in the ACC this year there are almost no moral victories; your coach has to get fired to earn one of those (see N.C. State’s recent close loss to Notre Dame).

There are no bad teams anymore. Notwithstanding Scott Miller, hell is other people, and they can all burn you now. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about our establishments recently, it’s that they are far from impervious, and that even the the most plutocratic power somehow has in it, or is fueled by, or perhaps vulnerable to (and are these in some way the same thing?), the underclass. Perhaps the underclass isn’t all that low. It certainly isn’t in the ACC.

Despite my geographical coordinates and family affiliations, it’s mostly Virginia that has been on my mind lately. I really like Tony Bennett and admire his commitment to team structure, defensive design and execution, and the even keel (although I suspect he may have Cameron Frye Syndrome). Watching his team’s offensive seizure over the last few games has been painful. They just don’t have the scorers, and it seems that they suddenly don’t have them (and it’s also this suddenness with which the national establishment has been eroded that is shocking). The Cavaliers go up and down the court as though searching not for the players who can shoot but for the players they no longer have: Brogdon, Anderson, Harris, Scott — even a guy like Mike Tobey. In recent years, their sheer defensive discipline and dogged play might win them games like these, but that’s no longer the case. And Miami came into last night’s game with an identical record to Virginia’s, both in the conference and overall.

Still, I thought Virginia would beat Miami last night, and for most of the game it looked like they would, but here’s another assumption that no longer holds: Virginia’s airtight leads. They’ve come from ahead to lose, as the saying goes, numerous times this year, and Miami was the latest team to do it — in Charlottesville, no less. The game was a reminder that the Hurricanes have an excellent coach, too, Jim Larranaga, who has been around far longer than Bennett has. With his old-Bronx, indefatigable wiliness, he was certainly not going to let his team go down easily, and they didn’t. The score was tied with a few seconds left, but Virginia finally caught the break they needed, the one Clemson didn’t get at Duke: as the regulation clock hit zero, Miami’s Davon Reed launched a ridiculous three-pointer after appearing to lose the ball off his own foot and have it ricochet right back to him; he grabbed it and flung it at the hoop — and it went in off the backboard. The Hurricanes jumped around and celebrated, but replay review showed that Reed had released the ball perhaps 0.2 seconds after the clock expired. The game went into overtime, where Virginia should have had the edge: home court if nothing else. But they shot 2-9  from the field, 0-2 from the foul line, and scored only five points in the extra five minutes — it didn’t help, of course, that the Cavaliers shot only 13-20 from the foul line for the game, which they might have won in regulation with a better showing — and Miami won.

After the game, Tony Bennett was his usual compliant, polite, and even agreeable self on the podium, although his face was as pinched with anxiety as ever. His answers to questions were generally dry, as is his wont — compare him to Kryzyewski’s often long, nugget-filled musings, or to Ramblin’ Roy, who will occasionally forget his institutional bromides and get emotional — and he credited the Hurricanes for taking away even such limited scoring opportunities as the Cavaliers had worked so hard to carve out for themselves. There was nothing out of the ordinary to note in Bennett’s remarks except how they ended. He was in the middle of answering a question when suddenly he was interrupted. It’s hard to tell in the video, but the interrupter may have been Jim Larranaga himself, who had entered the press room and was waiting for his turn at the podium, right at the end of the table. Bennett was now apprised of Larranaga’s presence. The common courtesy you’d expect in this situation wasn’t observed — another vanishing national tradition. Bennett, too accommodating for his own (and perhaps his program’s) good, simply aborted his answer and said: “I guess when you win, you can do what you want, right?” He got up from the microphone and left, awkwardly passing Larranaga on his way out of the room.

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