The (Tobacco) Road To The Final Four: No Team Is Safe In ACC

    Winning on the road in the ACC is no easy task. Duke and FSU have tough tasks on Saturday as conference play heats up.

    January 14, 2017

    Winning on the road in the ACC is no easy task. Duke and FSU have tough matchups on Saturday as conference play heats up.

    North Carolina has looked like a different team on the road thus far in ACC play. While plenty of basketball remains in the season, the Tar Heels have not looked the same when playing in an opposing gym. Roy Williams and Co. dropped a stinker in Atlanta to a Georgia Tech squad that lost by 53 points the following game at Duke. UNC also needed overtime to put away Clemson after trailing most of regulation and were in a dog fight against Wake Forest on Wednesday night before Justin Jackson hit a huge 3-pointer with 1:03 left. The Tar Heels nearly lost a 19-point lead in the second half. Can UNC more closely resemble the team that we saw in the Maui Invitational, where they were sound on both ends of the court?

    Meanwhile, the Tar Heels aren’t alone in their road woes…

    The same Blue Devils squad that throttled the Yellow Jackets in Durham is 0-2 on the road, dropping a contest to Florida State this past Tuesday night. Luke Kennard had 23 points, while Jayson Tatum had 21, but Harry Giles and Chase Jeter combined for just six points in the loss. Virginia Tech, which easily handled Duke at home, is also 0-2 outside of Blacksburg. And while Syracuse looks nothing like the team that surprised the college basketball world last year en route to the Final Four, back-to-back double-digit wins over Miami and Pitt were encouraging. However, Tyler Lydon had just two points against Virginia Tech this past week, dropping the Orange to 0-2 as a visiting team in league play. Meanwhile, NC State has also failed to win in three league efforts on the road. On Wednesday night, the Wolfpack dropped a 74-66 decision at Boston College, which went 0-18 in the ACC and lost its only conference tournament game last year. In the team’s previous game, the Wolfpack fell behind 26-4 in the opening minutes of a 51-point loss at North Carolina.

    Just two teams (Florida State and Notre Dame) in the ACC are unbeaten on the road, and don’t expect that to last much longer. That’s how tough the league is in 2016-17.

    Virginia head coach Tony Bennett (Credit: Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports)

    It’s still very early in conference play, but Virginia’s win at Louisville, FSU’s victory in Charlottesville and Notre Dame’s conquest at Pitt are the lone standout road victories for high-end ACC teams. It’s something worth monitoring as we get deeper into league play with college hoops taking over the spotlight from college football. There’s a tremendous amount of depth and balance in this league, so I would expect this trend to continue through the end of the regular season.

    Just consider that Louisville has wins over Kentucky, Indiana, Purdue, and Wichita State, but the Cardinals were 0-2 after their first two conference games. Wins over Georgia Tech and Pitt have evened Rick Pitino’s squad up, but this is a very unforgiving league right now. And that’s going to set college hoops fans up for a tremendous next couple of months of basketball.

    There are no easy outs in the ACC this season, and it will be no surprise at all if the league champ finishes with at least four losses, because the depth is just too good.

    …Leonard Hamilton has Florida State on a roll this season, but the Seminoles aren’t winning the way we are used to seeing them win under their head coach. As I wrote in this space last month, we were accustomed to seeing physical, aggressive defense leading to victories when FSU led the ACC in defensive field goal percentage in some of Hamilton’s earlier editions of ‘Noles basketball. That has not been the case this season, however. FSU moved to 16-1 after its impressive 88-72 win over Duke on Tuesday night, and the ‘Noles continued to be a scoring machine. Hamilton’s squad has reached the 88-point mark nine times in its first 17 games, and it now has consecutive wins over Virginia, Virginia Tech and Duke because of its incredible depth, which has resulted in Hamilton being able to have multiple scoring options. One of those options has been JUCO transfer PJ Savoy, who is one of the better shooters in the league. He is a real threat from three-point range, connecting on 44 percent of his downtown attempts, so his ability to stretch defenses really opens up the offense. This is a team that no one will want to play in March, as it has a chance to make a deep run in the tourney if it continues to excel as it has up to this point.

    …While NC State is going through a rough patch, Terry Henderson has been a difference-maker. The 6-5 Raleigh native is shooting 40 percent from three-point range on the season, and this is the best we have seen him play since when he was last fully healthy during the 2013-14 season at West Virginia. He is averaging 15.4 points per game for the ‘Pack, which should still be a dangerous outfit despite their poor play as of late. Any team with Dennis Smith Jr. remains a threat any time it takes the court. NC State hosts Georgia Tech on Sunday evening, and I asked Yellow Jackets head coach Josh Pastner what makes Smith special. “He’s a lottery pick,” Pastner said. “That’s what makes him special.”

    …Notre Dame, which is on a six-game win streak, has won its first four ACC games, including Thursday night’s game at Miami. The Irish are 4-0 in league play for the first time in program history (ACC or Big East), and the 15-2 start matches their best under Mike Brey. ND lost two close tilts in December against Villanova and Purdue, but have tightened things up out of the gate in league play.

    Saturday’s best games

    No. 7 Duke at No. 14 Louisville, Noon ET, ESPN: The Blue Devils and Cardinals are ACC and national title contenders, but the winner will have a chance to build some momentum as we head toward the middle of January. Pitino’s squad has arguably the best defense in the country, holding ten of their opponents to 62 points or less, but the Cardinals rely on two streaky shooters: Jaylen Johnson and Quentin Snyder. They will need to be at their best on Saturday, because the Cardinals’ offensive ineptitude was their downfall in losses to Virginia and Notre Dame. Offensive rebounds and points in transition are two areas to keep an eye on against the Blue Devils. Meanwhile, Mike Krzyzewski remains out for Duke, which boasts Grayson Allen, Kennard, Giles, Tatum and Marques Bolden, who are capable of putting up points in bunches. However, the Blue Devils surrendered 89 points to Virginia Tech and 88 to FSU, so defense is an issue in Durham, especially without Amile Jefferson. The Blue Devils’ senior power forward could miss this game or at least have his minutes limited because of a foot injury. This is a Duke team that remains in flux and could see itself fall further back in the ACC race if Jefferson misses more time. If Louisville falls behind early, it’s tough to envision a comeback scenario. But this is a Louisville team that beat Kentucky in the same gym last month, so look for Duke’s ailments on the road to continue in the best game of the day.

    No. 9 Florida State at No. 11 North Carolina, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN: In addition to wins over Duke and Virginia, the ‘Noles have victories over Florida and Minnesota, putting Hamilton in the early conversation for national coach of the year honors. But to be considered a legitimate threat to win the league, playing a very competitive 40 minutes in Chapel Hill—if unable to get a win—would go a long way toward earning that respect and remaining in the conference title race for a full season. The Seminoles, who are tied with Notre Dame at 4-0 in league play, will also want to guard against a losing streak if they put forth a subpar effort. As mentioned above, this is a squad that has depth and multiple scorers, including guard Dwayne Bacon, who is averaging 17.8 points per game and is a league player of the year contender. The ‘Noles won’t be afraid of the Tar Heels and will take it down to the wire because of their long-range shooting, but can they slay UNC on its home court? A win in Chapel Hill would send a resounding message to the rest of the league.

    MORE: College Hoops Weekend Primer – Best Games, Bets For Jan. 13-15


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