By Sam Killenberg
The perennial superpowers of the ACC have been humbled.
On Monday, Duke barely avoided losing on its home floor to Virginia. The Devils led by 11 with less than four minutes to go but needed a serendipitous Cameron bounce on a Rasheed Sulaimon three pointer with 19 seconds left to claim a victory. The escape came at the end of a 10-day stretch that featured road losses to Notre Dame and Clemson. In both games, Duke squandered a big second-half lead to lose.
Meanwhile, UNC will have the entire week off to brood on their third straight loss, a 57-45 defeat at the hands of undefeated Syracuse. The Heels tied their lowest point total since the era of Dean Smith’s four corners offense, a scheme specifically designed to not score points. The Heels are off to their worst conference start in recent memory, including the 2010 season when they turned in a 5-11 ACC mark.
What has gone wrong? Duke was the number four team in the country in the preseason AP poll, and has since fallen to its lowest ranking since 1990 at 23rd. The Heels are wildly inconsistent, with big upset wins and unthinkable losses. Let’s dissect each team’s issues and where they’re headed in conference play.
Duke: Can Coach K solve the defensive issues?
Defense is the most glaring and obvious issue behind Duke’s struggles, and the list of defensive woes is long. The Blue Devils’ most potent lineup is small, with Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon in the backcourt and Rodney Hood, Amile Jefferson and Jabari Parker at forward. However, neither Cook nor Sulaimon has been able to contain opposing guards. You would have to go deep down the Devils bench to find the best defensive guard: freshman Matt Jones, who also shoots 29% from the field.
Once there is dribble penetration, Duke’s undersized front line (Jefferson, the largest, is a lean 6’9”) has done woefully poorly in helping out on defense. Jefferson is a beast on the boards, but Parker and Hood’s nonexistent box-outs are consistently exposed. Maybe the most glaring issue for the Devils is that playing long defensive possessions isn’t conducive to the run-and-gun style of play forecasted in the preseason.
Fortunately for the porous Devils, they have Coach K at the helm. Krzyzewski has too much talent at his disposal to turn in a subpar season, and he has proved he has some tricks up his sleeve. The 66-year old veteran, who has consistently has used a 7-man lineup, inserted five bench players three minutes into the Virginia game and continued to use platoon substitutions throughout the game. The tinkering paid off for Sulaimon, who turned out his best game of the season off the bench.
The answer for the Devils may be more tinkering. The offensive stagnates when Duke can’t get into transition. A zone defense may be in order, though this seems unlikely as Coach K brought hard-nosed man defense to relevance in the 1980s and has stuck with it since. This Duke team has all the makings of a championship contender; they just need to put things together.
UNC: Can the Heels find their offense?
Since getting starting guard Leslie McDonald back from suspension, the Heels have dropped four of seven, including the last three in a row. The 0-3 ACC mark has dropped UNC to dead last in the expanded conference. Of late, Roy Williams’ squad looks nothing like the team that knocked off Michigan State, Kentucky, and Louisville to start the season, and the problems start on offense.
Right now, the Heels’ only consistent option on offense is point guard Marcus Paige. The sophomore is averaging 17 points per game, but when he is playing poorly, the rest of his teammates haven’t stepped up. Carolina needs a clear second option on offense, and one has yet to emerge.
Could it be James Michael McAdoo? The junior has yet to turn out a season of greatness like so many McDonalds All-American forwards have in Roy Williams’ system. McAdoo is the Heels’ most talented player, but has yet to play like it.
What about Brice Johnson? The center was a beast in the early games, but his production has waned recently. If he can make another step towards consistency it would make the Heels and instant contender.
Then there are Leslie McDonald, Nate Britt and J.P. Tokoto, the guards that join Paige in the backcourt rotation. Each offers a different skillset—McDonald is a three-point shooter, Britt a traditional pass-first point guard, and Tokoto an explosive slasher. Each complements Paige differently. If they can each step up their game, it will take pressure of Paige and get him more open looks.
UNC has been wildly inconsistent all season, and it’s because the supporting cast hasn’t stepped up to help Paige carry the offensive load. If one player can step up, it gives the Heels a better chance of making a late push to a six or seven seed in the NCAA tourney. If everyone helps carry the load, then they will be one of the most dangerous teams in the land come March.
REVISED ACC STANDINGS PREDICTION
5. North Carolina
6. Florida State
9. Notre Dame
10. North Carolina State
11. Wake Forest
12. Georgia Tech
13. Boston College
15. Virginia Tech