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Ratcliffe: ACC hoops better than what the pundits are saying

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Posted: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 12:15 am

Forgive ACC coaches if they’re starting to bristle when they hear national commentators talk about how the league is down.

We’ve arrived at the halfway point of the conference portion of the schedule and there are four ACC teams in the AP Top 25. Some observers expected more when the season began but no one expected North Carolina to experience such a bumpy ride.

Still, Boston College, Florida State and Maryland haven’t played to expectations, nor has Notre Dame. The Terps lost their starting point guard and the Irish lost one of their best players to academic issues. Yet, the revised ACC has supplied plenty of thrills for its fans.

Early on, traditional ACC fans must have scratched their heads when they scanned the Top 25 and saw mostly former Big East members Syracuse and Pittsburgh ranked higher than the old guard. Duke and Virginia have come on strong to uphold tradition and if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t count out the Tar Heels, who are showing signs of life with a recharged offense.

Yet, the national commentators seem to pick the league apart at every opportunity.

N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried took exception to those comments this week, defending the ACC. While there seems to be some separation by the top four: Syracuse, Duke, Virginia, and Pitt, Gottfried argues there’s not the great divide that some believe.

“I think our league is much better than perceived right now,” Gottfried said. “For example, Miami has played Syracuse twice and I think we all have great respect for Syracuse. And Miami has been right there with an opportunity to win twice.”

Syracuse is 22-0 and unanimously ranked No. 1 in the land. Yet, the Orange barely escaped the first meeting with Jim Larranaga’s Hurricanes, 49-44, then won 64-52 in a game that was closer than the score indicated in the rematch. Miami is 11-10 overall and tied for 14th place in the ACC standings with Boston College at 2-6 (prior to Tuesday night’s games).

“I listen to national commentators and I was one [Gottfried was a basketball analyst for ESPN prior to taking the N.C. State job], and so I’m sensitive to this,” Gottfried said. “Well, Northwestern beats Wisconsin and we hear how great the Big Ten is. Something like that happens in our league and it’s because the ACC is down [according to commentators]. I realize four teams have pushed out to the front [of the ACC] but there’s not a lot of room for them to relax.”

Ask any of those coaches currently perched at the top, Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Tony Bennett and Jamie Dixon, how much sleep they get before an ACC game. Gottfried was right.

Take anyone for granted in this league and watch out. Show up without your ‘A’ game and good luck.

Larranaga, whose Miami program is rebuilding after winning the ACC last season, said Monday that the past weekend showed the quality of the conference with the instant classic Syracuse shootout win over Duke, and Virginia grinding its way past Pitt.

“We are in one heck of a basketball league,” Larranaga said. “I watched Duke at Syracuse and was riveted to the screen to the great excitement and talent in that game. Then Sunday, watching Virginia win at Pittsburgh, with the game going down to the wire.”

The contrast in those two games from fast-paced, high-scoring in the Syracuse showdown, to neither team reaching 50 points in the grinder at Pitt, showed there are lots of ways to win in the ACC.

Oh, and by the way, memo to commentators: there’s not a lot of teams around the country exactly lining up to play games against the ACC’s upper half.

Projections earlier this season that the ACC, with new additions Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame, would get 10 or 11 NCAA Tournament bids was a bit premature. Even had every team remained healthy and academically sound, that wasn’t going to happen. Still, the ACC isn’t as down as some might lead you to believe.

One of the beautiful things about this league is some of the different styles of coaching going on and some of the defensive play and more deliberate tempos being displayed. Sure, your team might average 75 or 80 points per game. Send them up against Virginia, Pitt, Syracuse, Duke, Miami and see what happens.

Coaches aren’t going to allow you to do what you do best unless your talent is supremely better than theirs. Even then, it will be a struggle. Coaches are going to make you play “left-handed,” in that they are going to study your team and break it down and figure out ways to take away your strengths.

“You have to credit the tremendous coaching that’s being done [in the ACC],” Larranaga said. “You’ve got Duke’s pressure man-to-man. You’ve got Syracuse’s challenging zones making it tough to find a good shot. You’ve got Virginia’s defense, the pack, where they pack in the man-to-man down low and double the post, which is a little different than Duke does their man-to-man.

“Virginia and Pitt are mirror images of each other, almost identical and so hard to score on,” Larranaga continued. “Carolina lilkes to average 90 [points per game], Boston College likes to spread you out. Duke shoots a lot of 3’s. Look at how Roy Williams changed last year, starting out big and ended up playing small ball. All this makes preparation so difficult. We tell our team almost every game, ‘This team is different than the last one you played.’”

Florida State has been inconsistent and Leonard Hamilton knows why. Five sophomores and a freshman getting much of the playing time is so different than when the Seminoles won the league a couple of years ago with six seniors.

Clemson has won three ACC road games already, something new for the Tigers in their four years under Brad Brownell.

Carolina’s motion offense seems to be getting better. After scoring in the low 50s in their earlier ACC games, the Tar Heels have been hitting the 70s of late, which means they are getting Roy Williams’ message about tempo.

Boston College certainly has the talent, which makes it puzzling why the Eagles haven’t put up better numbers.

Maryland, which suffered from early injuries, is starting to come on a bit.

Larranaga’s team was depleted of experience after losing so many seniors and having Shane Larkin head to the NBA early, but the old coach has come up with a zone defense that has made playing his Miami team a painful experience.

Halfway through the ACC season, the league isn’t what some projected, but it ain’t bad. See you in March.

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