The majority of teams in the conference chose approach #1 this season. Maryland is the best example of this, sandwiching matchups with Gonzaga, Wisconsin, and Florida between patches of less challenging games. This will give Gary Williams time to shake out his new players, see how they fare against tough opponents, and then make adjustments before the conference competition begins.
The Terps had a very similar schedule last season, with three tough games in early December. They lost all three of them, and could do so again this year, but those contests helped Williams and his team learn a lot about aspects of their play that needed improving without severely damaging their confidence.
Roy Williams will also see his Tar Heels tested early with games vs. Illinois and Kentucky and an early January visit from #1 Connecticut. These outings should be a good way for Williams to gauge where his team is and, if things don't go well, get the players attention. Coach K has also lined up formidable opponents scattered throughout the cupcakes. The Blue Devils play Michigan State and Texas in December in what could be two of the best early season games in the nation.
Florida State will also be tested by games against Florida and possibly Pittsburgh (in a tournament), as will Georgia Tech when they face Ohio State, Tennessee, and possibly Connecticut (NIT semi-final).
Wake Forest has a fairly easy early schedule after the Memphis game, but will play both Texas and Cincinnati in the midst of ACC competition. We'll see if that unusual degree of late-season difficulty comes back to bite Skip Prosser's Demon Deacons.
Oliver Purnell at Clemson put one of the tougher out-of-conference lineups together. The Tigers travel to South Carolina, Georgia, and Cincinnati while hosting Purdue and Boston College. This is not a killer schedule, but one that could be problematic for Clemson. The benefits of scheduling difficult opponents are mostly negated if your team loses most of those games. The Tigers could find themselves in that situation, and entering the conference portion of the season with a record barely over .500 would probably ensure an early end to any postseason aspirations they may have.
The Twinkie award this year, usually reserved for Clemson or NC State, goes to Virginia. It's obvious that Pete Gillen chose approach #2 when putting together the Cavaliers' schedule. The toughest opponent they will face before January is Providence, a team with an outstanding player in Ryan Gomes but still one projected no higher than the middle of the Big East. Other matchups against Minnesota, Virginia Tech, and Iowa State should also be checked off in the win column for Virginia.
This approach can backfire, however, if a team loses a couple of those "automatic" wins. Just ask Larry Shyatt how if felt when Clemson lost to Wofford a few years ago, or ask Matt Doherty what the losses to Hampton and Davidson did to North Carolina's season two years ago. I don't think it's a coincidence that neither coach is still employed at those schools.
I don't see any team that took approach #3, which means any school on the NCAA Tournament bubble in March will need the RPI of their ACC opponents to be fairly high or face relegation to the NIT.
Question for the Jury
What are some out-of-conference games you would like to see ACC schools schedule. Duke, for example, is reported to be negotiating with Kentucky. Let me know at email@example.com
Response to my last question, regarding Pete Gillen's handling of the Majestic Mapp situation, was evenly split, reinforcing my view that Gillen was in a no-win situation here.
Wake Forest opened their season last Thursday night with a solid 85-76 win over Memphis in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden. How about Taron Downey! Only eight days after an emergency appendectomy, he came off the bench to score a career-high 20 points. The Deacons needed his accuracy (7 of 11) since the rest of the team shot only a combined 35% from the floor.
Downey also grabbed 5 rebounds and dished out 5 assists and set a great example for his team with his toughness and determination to play. There won't be a repeat performance, however, since a person has only one appendix and they usually don't grow back.
Coach Prosser had to be concerned about the foul trouble his big men encountered. Eric Williams was effective, but could only play 20 minutes. Vytas Danelius was not as effective and fouled out after only 23 minutes. Danelius has been limited with tendonitis in his knees, a situation that bears close scrutiny in the coming weeks.
Freshman sensation Chris Paul had a decent first game on the big stage. He only made 1 of 7 shots and had 1 assist, but he only had 1 turnover in 37 minutes. Not a bad starting point for a first year point guard.
The ACC had an outstanding early-signing period, placing six teams in the Top 25 of the Insiders' national recruiting rankings. Those schools were North Carolina at #4, Duke #6, NC State #13, Georgia Tech #17, Florida State #20, and Clemson #25. Looking ahead, Boston College and Virginia Tech rated honorable mention. The most encouraging thing here for conference fans is the success of teams rated in the middle or lower end of the current pecking order, promising to make the league even tougher from top to bottom down the road.
Has everyone seen the picture of Duke freshman Luol Deng in the ESPN The Magazine's college basketball preview issue? Deng is named Dick Vitale's top Diaper Dandy (freshman for those who don't speak Viatlese) and is pictured laying in a stroller, arms and legs dangling nearly to the ground. Personally, I hope he gets the hard time for this he richly deserves from opposing fans.
While we're at it, can we slow down the Deng hype machine for crying out loud? I have no reason to think he will be anything but an excellent player, and his story is a very good one. I would just like to wait until he ACTUALLY PLAYS A GAME to anoint him the next superstar, okay?
Joe Lunardi, ESPN's resident (notice I did not say expert) Bracketologist has come out with his first cut at the NCAA brackets for next March. I'll give him credit for having enough nerve to do this before anyone has actually played, and he says his record is fairly accurate. In case you are interested, he has five ACC teams making the big dance, Duke (#1 seed), North Carolina (#2 seed), Wake Forest (#4 seed), NC State (#6 seed), and Maryland, (#8 seed).
Georgia Tech becomes the second ACC team to officially open its season when they host Louisiana-Lafayette on Tuesday night at 7 PM. ESPN will be broadcasting the game with announcers Mark Jones and Brad Daugherty. Should the Yellow Jackets win, they will face the winner of Hofstra-Marist game on Thursday night.
That's what I think. Let me know what you think on the message board or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the primary measures of a school's recruiting success is how many McDonald's All-Americans it signs. Next time, I'll review how many Mickey D AA's each school has landed and look as some of the greater success and the bigger busts.
Until then, court is adjourned!