Monday, March 14, 2011

The Perfect Game: ACC Champs

It happened.

With ten minutes left in the second half, the Carolina buzz began.

It's hard to determine exactly why the Tar Heel fans were so different from their Duke counterparts in Greensboro. While the latter seemed to watch games in a state of anxiety, their relieved outbursts coming mostly after the team's success, the Carolina faithful took a more active role. Maybe it was a matter of necessity; for the third straight game, Carolina found themselves down by double digits late in the second half. Or maybe they just understood their own power. Against Miami and Clemson, the growing hum at the very start of the tidal wave seemed to spark some dormant energy in the players. It was like the fans created the comeback, rather than reacting to it.

But their groundswell didn't emerge from a vacuum; they needed something, a seed of hope to build on. It didn't have to be a stunning reversal; a small token would do, a brief flare of life. So when Harrison Barnes scored five points in 40 seconds, cutting Duke's lead to single digits for the first time since the 11:18 mark of the first half, the roar began. The formula began to play out. The clock went under 6:00, the Carolina five shouted themselves awake, and the stadium came to the verge of eruption. It was like watching a single organism, all parts working in unison, employing every function of its evolved form in the task of survival.

And then Nolan Smith beat Kendall Marshall for the umpteenth time, found his way into the lane, and threw a beautiful across-the-body pass to Seth Curry on the wing. When the shot fell, so did the shoulders of the tireless powder blue supporters. For the first time in three days, the fans lost their heart. The players lost their legs.

Slowly, but steadily, you could hear the mounting chant: "Let's...go...Duke!"


You couldn't have scripted a better game. In a winner-take-all rubber match between the two best teams in the ACC, the Devils played their best game of the season since Kyrie went down. The puffed chests of Carolina nation, swelled to absurd degrees after the win in the Dean Dome, have been emphatically deflated. For another year, there can be no debate about the best team in the ACC.

In a season marked by unbalanced play from Duke, the contributions came from all sides. Miles Plumlee scored 9 points on 4-4 shooting, grabbed 7 boards, and took an absolutely critical charge when Carolina's threat began in the second half. Andre Dawkins started the game on fire, hitting three from deep to spring Duke to its early lead. Ryan Kelly played a beautifully consistent game, hitting on 4 of 7 and nailing the three that iced the game for good. Mason Plumlee cleaned up on the glass and contained the prolific Zeller-Henson combo. Kyle Singler bottled up Harrison Barnes, a guy coming off a 40-point performance against Clemson. Josh Hairston celebrated to an extreme and impressive degree for a guy who played for less than a minute. DukeBluePlanet had a great tweet after the game about the non-seniors:

"Dre, Mason, Miles, Seth, Ryan: 18-26 FG, 7-11 3pt in this game."

And Nolan Smith was Nolan Smith. 20 points, 10 assists. My favorite Dukie of all time ended his ACC career as a champion. His incredible defense on Kendall Marshall cut the head off the Carolina beast, reducing the Heels to a stagnant version of their explosive offense.

It was nothing less than a perfect game. And I guarantee you this: the Carolina players and all their fans are spending Monday morning wishing one of those incredible comebacks against Miami and Clemson hadn't panned out. Now they'll go and lose sometime before the Final Four, and no matter what happens in April, the lingering image for their summer will be of Nolan Smith and the Dukies celebrating in Greensboro.

The verdict is in, and I'm afraid it must be said:

That accomplished, it wouldn't be sporting if we didn't tip our cap. Winning that game against Clemson would not have been half as satisfying, and that owes everything to Carolina's great year and the tragedy at the Dean Dome. And even though I firmly believe Duke is the better team, and we won despite not getting a single call in the second half and playing a semi-road game, I know the conditions were not ideal for Carolina. They dug their own hole, but two energy-sapping comebacks don't exactly leave a team in ideal shape to withstand a force like Duke. Looking back, it's hard to imagine the thread of this game unspooling differently, though none of us felt that way at the time. And today, though the result may seem inevitable, it's no less triumphant. It feels really, really good to be a Duke fan.

Let's take a quick look at the Four Factors:

The Heels just couldn't shoot. Everything that fell in the Dean Dome clanged in Greensboro, and Duke's slightly-below-average offensive efficiency (110.3 yesterday, 114.9 on the year) was boosted by an excellent 57.8% effective field goal rating. Shooting has been the Achilles heel of the Tar...Heels...all year, and they'd only survived the first two rounds of the ACC because they got very, very hot at the end of the game. Play with fire long enough, though, and you'll get burned.

If we're going to complain about anything, it's the second-chance points. UNC had 20 to Duke's 12, a product of the significant offensive rebound rate you see in the chart. Mason Plumlee had a weak stretch in the second half where Henson and others out-fought him for rebounds and had easy put-backs. That kind of lapse can be bloody murder in a close NCAA game, and it was our one area of glaring weakness.

The foul disparity is interesting, too, but I think it's mostly the product of highly aggressive defense by Duke (spearheaded by Nolan's brilliance on Marshall) and the incredibly poor refereeing throughout. When confronted by the bleating sheep who say Duke gets every call, we have yet another contradicting example. But with Karl Hess on the floor, you had to know it was coming. The climax of the whole thing came when Kyle Singler got slapped on the arm on a put-back and the refs turned away. I hate to say it, but the entire ACC Tournament was marked by a staggering incompetence in the official ranks. Bad refereeing usually affects both teams in a more-or-less equal way, but there's always the danger of a statistical anomaly that hurts one side to a disproportionate degree. We saw that yesterday.

Didn't matter, though. Nothing was going to slow the Dukies. It was our year.


Let's talk brackets!

Despite Joe Lunardi's blather about how Duke should be a #2 seed (see you next year, Joe!), we got the deserved 1-spot in the west. At first glance, I started salivating at our draw. I'd been hoping for SDSU as the 2-seed, but I assumed we'd get Notre Dame. When that came up, I envisioned a clear path. Then I thought about it some more, and wait a second...

Texas as a 4-seed?

That is absolutely friggin' brutal. Not only are they the best 4-seed, by a sight...they're probably better than all the 3-seeds too. I'd certainly put them above BYU and UConn (the former totally screwed, the latter a great pick to drop early after a grueling Big East run), and you could make the argument that they're more dangerous than Syracuse and Louisville too.

Then I realized that our region plays in San Diego, giving the Aztecs a possible home game in the Elite 8, and suddenly it seemed like maybe we had one of the toughest paths possible. Luke Winn echoed that idea in his post-bracket analysis (like everything else he writes, it's fantastic), calling the West "the most difficult region."

Then I looked at the KenPom profile of Texas and really started sweating. As we've known for some time, they have the #1 defense in the country. They rebound very well, they can shoot threes, and they can score in the paint. The only true negative is that their coach is Rick Barnes. In true Barnes fashion, they've had a tough end to the year, dropping 4 of their last 7 (Colorado away, Nebraska away, Kansas State home, Kansas semi-away). But we shouldn't forget that two weeks ago people were talking about them as a 1. And now they're a 4??? Ugh.

On paper, Texas and San Diego State are tough, tough match-ups. This could be the second straight year that we have to face a hostile crowd in the Elite 8. If either or both teams get knocked off early, we might have a nice path to the Final 4. If not, we better be ready for the grind.

I'll be filling out and posting my bracket region by region as the week goes along, but here are some quick thoughts about everything else:

*There's no way Ohio State gets out of the east. No way in hell. They're the classic overrated Big 10 team who plays too many close games and will get burned by their lack of firepower.

*Speaking of the East, Syracuse must be the happiest team in America. Their zone could absolutely kill UNC, a 2-seed with shooting problems, and their big men can bang with Ohio State all day long. It's easy to see the Orange in the Final Four. Knowing Boeheim, though, they'll probably lose focus and fall to Xavier in the second round.

*As I mentioned above, UConn will be going out early. I don't know who's going to beat them, but it's bound to happen. It reminds me of the great tournament run Syracuse made in Gerry McNamara's senior season; they won four straight games in dramatic fashion, took the title, and had nothing in the tank for the first round. Texas A&M blew them out. UConn relies heavily on Kemba Walker, and if his legs aren't there come Thursday, it's sayonara time. I'm thinking real hard about picking Bucknell.

*FSU over Notre Dame??? Anyone??? Tough perimeter defense? Singleton's back? Tempting? No?

*Every white person in America over the age of 45 is going to pick Princeton over Kentucky.

*Two 6-seeds from the Big East, St. John's and Cincinnati, have nice paths to the Elite 8.

*Penn State has all the makings of the annoying Big 10 team who beats SDSU in a miserable second-round game by a 54-51 type score.

*I know Butler doesn't have a ton of talent this season, but if Brad Stevens doesn't at least give Pitt a scare in round 2, I'll be real surprised.

*It's pretty absurd that Virginia Tech and Colorado didn't make it. Here's the committee chair trying to explain why VCU and UAB made it in. I'm no Seth Greenberg fan, but I feel for him today. This was the year they actually deserved to make the field. They beat Duke, and they won a huge game against FSU to make the ACC semifinals. That should have been enough. UAB and VCU play in the early games Tuesday and Wednesday, and you know the committee is just praying that one of them wins. If not, they'll look even more stupid.

*That being said, people need to get used to the committee messing up. They've been messing up since I was a kid, and they'll continue to mess up for as long as they exist. That's the nature of the process. And the hard truth is this: no teams with the potential to win a national title are left out. I don't think that justifies their exclusion, and I know that just being in the tourney is worth quite a bit to these schools, but I do think it's worth mentioning. Virginia Tech and Colorado each lost games they should have won, and they put themselves in the position where a committee could screw them. If their seasons had been more successful, they wouldn't be on the brink. That's the way it goes.

*A few weeks ago in my sports writing class, my teacher and one of the other students predicted that Dick Vitale would be ranting and raving about someone's exclusion on Selection Sunday, but that he wouldn't say which team should have been left off. To his credit, this year he pinpointed UAB and VCU as undeserving:

What a beautiful man. And he wasn't alone in his criticism. Everybody and anybody who commands camera time took issue, some more harshly than others. Jay Bilas had the money quote: "Sometimes, I wonder if the committee knows the ball is round."

*I hate to say it, but the dastardly move of putting semi-important games on Tuesday and Wednesday is going to work on me. Whereas I'd usually been content to ignore whatever 16-seed play-in game happened before the main action, now we've got Clemson and USC playing possible upset games. This was done expressly to get people watching, and at least in my case it's going to be effective. Crap.


That'll do for today. I'm so, so psyched about yesterday's win. Nothing could be better. We're officially in the midst of the best time of year. I can't wait for Thursday.

Last, but definitely not least, I'd like to thank everyone who read and commented on yesterday's post about the state of sports writing. I was sort of hesitant to let that one go, but now I'm glad I did.

I'll leave you with a girlfriend story. We were watching the post-game interviews on the coach, and they announced the all-tournament team. I pointed out that Nolan and Kyle both made the five. She looked a little puzzled.

"When do they get to play together?" she asked.

It is utterly unfair for me to post that story, since she's still learning about sports and it's only logical to expect a "team" to compete together at some point, but I think she knew by my reaction that it was going to happen anyway. See you tomorrow.


  1. I might make that heaven/hell graphic my computer background. Ahh, 3peat, you are so sweet!

  2. Very impressed with Miles yesterday. He was assertive without forcing anything on offense, and actually moved his feet to go after rebounds.

    Please don't lose to Texas, I fucking hate Rick Barnes.

  3. In defense of my poor sports knowledge, the all-star team plays together so I thought of this as a basketball version of the all-star team. Deductive reasoning FTW.

  4. I think that Nolan playing after getting hurt and Kyrie working out had an effect on this team. I would never really have used "tough" as an adjective for this team before that game, but now I can.

    Kyle Singler toughed out a rough stretch to bounce back and have a much better ACC tourney and game against UNC. The Plumlees said "Fuck you, Zeller and Henson" and played hard and smart. Kelly rebounded, much like Kyle, for a big game on both ends. Dre contributed big shots and better defense than I thought him capable. Curry and Nolan were...amazing.

  5. Duke is peaking at the right time of the year and the pieces are starting to come together similarly to last year. I like their chances. If they continue to play through the NCAA tourney like they did through the ACC Tourney I expect to see the nets come down.

    Texas as a 4 seed is rough. They are probably the most dangerous team Duke will have to face in that region. That said Duke is the best team in their region with Texas coming in at 2. Hell Texas is probably better than any of the 2 seeds, but you're right, Rick Barnes will find a way to lose.

    I cannot bring myself to believe in SDSU. They've played nobody and lost twice to the only other team in their league receiving any attention at all and pulled out the win only after BYU suffered from Zippergate. They essentially got beat by the 1 decent player in the mountain west as long as he had a rebounder that let him get in 50 shots a game. No rebounder no 50 shots. I picked them over Temple reluctantly for my bracket but an exit before the sweet 16 would not surprise me. The sweet 16 is their ceiling.

    I don't buy the UCONN will have tired legs argument. They have almost a week to get their legs back after the grinder. They are just a risky team because they rely almost completely on the play of Walker. I expect Duke will meet them and crush them with a Nolan Smith/Kemba Walker matchup that will help sort the POTY awards situation. That said, I could see UCONN losing to Cincy or Missouri.

    Virginia Tech was snubbed. They should have gotten in but didn't and that made it all the more funny, especially given the display of douche baggery they displayed in the ACC tourney. Anyone else think Seth Greenburg looks like Fester from the Adams Family? The only thing that could make this comedy sandwich any better is if VT loses in the first round of the NIT. Duke Beat Carolina like a red headed step child. I didn't die laughing, but I am still sore in the ribs area this morning.


  6. Agreed with everyone. Nasty, it was just an unreal game for Miles. The best he's played all year, no doubt. I think the big difference for both Plumlees lately is that they're learning to play within themselves, understand their roles, and be consistent. It's a gradual process; Miles still had 2 dumb fouls early. But they're improving. It's a matter of mastering their brains.

    Ty, agreed on Singler but I still wish he could hit threes. He had a few excellent chances to ice the game yesterday that didn't go down, and his % was piss poor for the ACCT. We'll need that part of his game, but I think it'll be tough; he's been cold from 3 for a long while.

    GB, once past Texas I don't see us going down before the Final 4. Even against SDSU, who, like you said, are overrated. As to UConn, I really believe they'll have trouble finding the rhythm after that 5-day stretch. It might not be a "tired legs" situation per se (though it does them no favors that they're playing Thursday rather than Friday), but it'll just be a different feel. I could be wrong, but I think these guys are going down early.

    Nasty, agreed. He's a snake oil salesman. One of my least favorite college coaches; typical example of a guy who can do everything a basketball program needs except coach basketball. I'm already nervous for that potential game, because it would be a bitter, bitter loss. Same for Bruce Pearl in round 2.


  7. Great post, your graphics crack me up. I am super nervous about our region, especially Texas as a 4-seed, but I think we still may see a cameo from Kyrie at some point - or, at least that is what I keep telling myself. Also, I agree about the Plumlees; it is weird that they have been somewhat useful lately. And if anyone is interested, I live-blogged yesterday's game:

  8. I think that with Kyle, the issue is similar to what someone else posted about earlier this year. On defense, he misses Lance Thomas, who could guard many of the guys that Kyle has this year. Not that Kyle doesn't do a good job (he does a great job), but it taxes his legs. Inside the arc, he can use more arm and core mechanics to release his jumper and nail mid-range and pull up jumpers...on the perimeter, when he needs his legs, they aren't there because they have been chasing Barnes and the like. So cudos to whoever realized this a few weeks ago. We should've seen the sign in the Elite 8 last year when he guarded Dunn, who was too small and Thomas was needed elsewhere.

  9. Love the write up- and the graphic. I agree- the all around team effort was amazing yesterday. And that shot of Nolan and Coach K was heart wrenching.

    But no mention of kyrie? What does everyone think of his chances returning in the tournament? It sounds like he's revving for it.


  10. I don't know, it sounds to me like he definitely *wants* to play. The real question is if the Duke medical staff and Coach K will let him play. Somehow I don't see this happening since he has only been allowed to do 5 on 0 basketball so far. Even if he does come back I really don't see him dominating tournament games right off of an injury. Maybe he could contribute but I would be (pleasantly) surprised if he was the driving force behind a Duke tournament run.

  11. Ty is spot on. The burden Kyle has had to shoulder this year w/o Lance has really worn him down in games (I don't believe he's suffering from end of season burnout like J-J used to). My 13-yr old explained it to me ("you can't bend your knees to even shoot a FT correctly by the 4th quarter if you've been battling someone all game long"). Even with the PlumTrees stepping up, he still had to take on Princess Harry alone this game, and you could see it in the legs.

    He'll have a couple Harriets in the tourney, but also games where the bigs are handling things and he'll go for 20-plus. The cool thing is when he has to be lock down defender (9 points) and rebounder (7-10), we re-grew our options this weekend (Mason and Miles starters? Who'd a thunk!?), and the points will come from elsewhere.

    Speaking of PlumBeasts, did anyone notice some of that driveway telepathy starting to kick in, but now against quality opponents?

    As to D'agger Beast 'Dre, something happened Friday, peaked on Saturday (greatest crap technical in that young man's career - thank you, a$$hat Refs!) and carried over to Sunday. His defensive intensity was superb, and execution was above average for a "young sophomore" (K's words). He's back. He's not going anywhere. And if we're very lucky, we'll be welling up on his Senior Day.

    Finally - last year was all about facing whoever was put in front of them. Don't care about no TX, don't care about nobody else. Take 'em as they come and enjoy the ride.

  12. My friends and I were in complete disbelief watching the game. I kept expecting the UNC comeback to occur, but it never materialized and that made me a little sad. I really would've liked UNC to come back, their fans in full throe, and then have Duke crush them to pieces. But this game worked for me.

    With regards to Kyrie I don't think he'll come back. It's definitely not worth it. His career is much more important than the NCAA's.

  13. I'm of the mind that Kyrie shouldn't play. For so so many reasons, but the first and foremost being his health. I'm relying on K to be the big man in having to deny a kid his only chance to play in the big dance. I know that as an 18 (maybe 19) year old boy, even one who is likely destined for stardom in the pros, this moment seems like such a huge event that he's missing. It wouldn't at all surprise me that if he heard phrases like "well it probably would be fine for him to play some time" from the medical staff, he'd be jumping at the bit. I expect coach K to be the one to sit Kyrie down and do the right thing for the boy's career (even though I can only imagine how hard of a talk that must be). Luckily, I have full confidence that K has the ability to make that important distinction for his players. He has no chip on his shoulder, nothing to prove. In less than nine months (maybe much much less, basketball gods willing) he'll be the SINGLE MOST WINNINGEST COACH in men's basketball history.

    Bottom line: unless the doctors say this exact phrase "there is 0% chance that anything, mundane or crazy, that could happen in a basketball game could affect his injury" I hope Kyrie stays on the sideline, draped in his badass Duke emblazoned zip out, and continue to cheer like a madman.

  14. Crazy bracket. All three of the other big seeds could completely flop before meeting up with duke. But all of them have a great chance of matching up well against us.

    Rick Barnes is like the anti-Tom Izzo. You give Izzo 5 fifth graders and put him in the big dance and I still think he's got a better shot than a large number of the field. You give Rick Barnes the LA Lakers and put him in the tourny and he'll still find a way to shoot himself in the foot.

    An unbelievably tired (I'm thinking more mentally than even physically) UCONN team whose left leg is named Kemba and right leg is named Walker? Anyone can beat them. The downside? They can be ANYONE.

    And SDSU.

    Not to mention Tennessee early on.

    Rough stuff.

  15. Good stuff from everyone.

    Dan, excellent post, especially the end. It's easy to get frantic about the draw (and maybe a little fun), but at the end of the day we've got a team I like against anyone. I'll worry about each game as it happens. And I really, really, really want Andre to come back. Boy's even been driving to the hole lately!

    Marc, the comeback possibility terrified me. I was on my pins and needles until Seth's 3. That sealed it for me, and Ryan's was more icing on the cake. I'm personally glad they didn't come back, actually. Not worth the stress.

    Anon 1, I agree and disagree. Everything you say makes sense, but if someone is healthy, shouldn't they play? I don't think you can ever have the complete certainty you're talking about, that NOTHING could possibly happen. It's about whether he's prepared. I totally understand the angle that he's risking much, but if he's capable of playing, we have to remember that the dude is on scholarship. Should Nolan sit out the tournament because he's got a good draft status now?

    Anon 2, it really is the mystery bracket, isn't it? I have no idea what the hell is going to happen. Everybody we fear might be gone by the time our turn comes. It could be the easiest waltz to the Final 4 in a while, or it could be just one grueling game after another.

    GOD I AM SO EXCITED FOR IT TO START!!!!!! I seriously get a little rush of excitement when I think of it. Making some picks now.