What We Learned From ACC Teams This Weekend

Jim Larranaga will return to the site of his Final Four-clinching win over UConn in 2006.
Jim Larranaga will return to the site of his Final Four-clinching win over UConn in 2006.

Wolfpack woes will leave us wondering “What if?”: NC State improved on its record from last season, from 24-13 to 24-11, as well as its conference mark, from 9-7 to 11-7. However, you won’t find many people considering 2013 a success for the Wolfpack.

After last year’s Sweet Sixteen run, NC State was seen as a favorite to win the ACC this season. This opinion was only bolstered when the Wolfpack defeated Duke 84-76 to improve to 3-0 in conference play on January 12. However, NC State followed that win with a 51-50 loss to Maryland.

That win over Duke proved to be the highlight of a tumultuous season. NC State did snap a losing streak against North Carolina with a 91-83 victory in Raleigh, but after leading 45-26 at halftime that game was much too close for the comfort of Wolfpack fans. After January, NC State’s only wins came against teams that finished in the bottom half of the conference.

Similarly, NC State’s 50-point second half against Temple will go unnoticed, as it was their miserable first half showing that prevented the Wolfpack from advancing to the round of 32. Temple led 38-22 at halftime, as NC State had just as many field goals as turnovers (10). The Wolfpack shot 70.4 percent in the second half, but the gap proved to be too large.

Ultimately, that inconsistency will be the greatest disappointment with the 2012-2013 Wolfpack. Without the wins against Duke or North Carolina, then it could have merely been a case of excessive optimism on the behalf of experts or fans in November. Perhaps, in that situation, the slight improvement in performance from last year (outside of the earlier NCAA Tournament exit) could be seen as a positive. But with the talent NC State demonstrated in those wins, the question will always be “What if they had played like that every game, for forty minutes?” With Richard Howell and Scott Wood graduating (and other players likely to leave for the NBA), we won’t get the chance to see it next year.

A lack of NCAA Tournament experience doesn’t hurt Miami: In ACC play, Miami was 4-2 in games decided by five or fewer points. Both of those losses came in March, in consecutive games against Duke and Georgia Tech.

Thus, when the Hurricanes were locked in a see-saw affair with Illinois Sunday in the round of 32, it was a question of whether the Miami team that found a way to win close games in January and February would return. Shane Larkin answered that question emphatically, draining a step-back three pointer with a minute remaining. Yes, people will remember the following Illini possession, which ended in a controversial out-of-bounds call. Without Larkin’s shot or two free throws by Rion Brown (who finished with 21 points), however, Illinois gets another chance to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

With Miami, the storyline entering the tournament was how a senior-heavy roster had zero NCAA Tournament history. Their experience carried them to an ACC regular season and tournament championship, but how would they react to the spotlight of the big dance? The most common reply from Miami players to this question throughout the weekend was to treat it like every other game. On Sunday, the Hurricanes did just that.

The spotlight will only grow larger next weekend, as Jim Larranaga will return to Washington, DC. It was in the nation’s capital that Larranaga’s George Mason team secured a trip to the Final Four in 2006 by defeating Wichita State and Connecticut. There may not be a “George Mason” in the regional, as all four of the top seeds in the East will meet at the Verizon Center, but Larranaga hope he can bring some of the magic from that postseason run in this return trip.

Kansas City is no place like home: Over their last five NCAA Tournament appearances, North Carolina has played its first-weekend contests in Greensboro (2012 and 2009), Charlotte (2011), Raleigh (2008), and Winston-Salem (2007). As a result, some college basketball fans probably found UNC’s lamentations regarding a potential meeting with Kansas in Kansas City to be little more than sour grapes.

Considering where this team was in late December and early January, North Carolina’s season has to be considered successful. However, it was their record against the best teams (2-8 against NCAA Tournament teams) that doomed them to an eighth seed and a trip to Missouri to face one of the best teams in the nation. There was the unfortunate matter of Williams’ history with Kansas, but it’s unlikely that a meeting with Louisville or a rematch with Indiana would have produced a North Carolina win. A win against Miami in the ACC Tournament or in either of their meetings against Duke would have significantly boosted North Carolina’s resume, and perhaps their confidence as a team.

As expected, the Tar Heels and Jayhawks met Sunday, with the equally expected result. Despite trailing 30-21 at halftime, Kansas dominated the second half to take a 70-58 win, the program’s third against North Carolina since Roy Williams returned to his alma mater. An intense defensive effort by the Tar Heels held Kansas to a 25 percent shooting clip in the first half, but UNC failed to capitalize and shot only 26 percent themselves in the period.

We can move on from Greensboro 2012: The 2012 NCAA Tournament games in Greensboro, North Carolina brought plenty of pain to Duke and North Carolina fans last season. Duke lost in the round of 64 to Lehigh, much to the delight of UNC fans in attendance after watching their Tar Heels defeat Vermont earlier in the day. However, the next round brought a win against Creighton for North Carolina, at the expense of Kendall Marshall’s wrist following a hard foul as the point guard drove to the basket.

Philadelphia’s action this weekend allowed fans a chance to put the events of Greensboro behind them. First, Duke successfully defeated a 15 seed, knocking off Albany 73-61 on Friday. This paired the Blue Devils with the Creighton team that had derailed North Carolina last year. Whether you can get UNC fans to admit or not, there was probably at least some hope among the contingency that the Bluejays would suffer another loss to an ACC team after Marshall’s fate last year.

The game itself was a bit of a grind, as 46 fouls were called and four players were disqualified (Doug McDermott and Grant Gibbs for Creighton, Mason Plumlee and Josh Hairston for Duke). Nonetheless, the Blue Devils pulled out a 66-50 win, holding the Bluejays to 30.2 percent shooting in the contest and 2-of-19 beyond the arc.

The hard-fought win is also encouraging because it could likely be a preview of what Duke will face on Friday. Their Sweet Sixteen matchup in Indianapolis will be against Michigan State, one of the best defensive teams in the nation. The Blue Devils struggled at times against physical teams (see: two losses to Maryland), but the toughness displayed against Creighton should be an asset against the Spartans.

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