The ACC’s big four this basketball season are indisputable: Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Duke have been the league’s class to date. A more nuanced task is parsing the quartet.
Is undefeated and second-ranked Syracuse truly the Fab Four’s Paul? Are Pitt and U.Va. the equivalent of John and George? Could Duke really be, Sunday’s gruesome Grammys appearance notwithstanding, Ringo?
We’re about to find out as the ACC embarks on a fascinating week featuring three games among the top group.
Duke and Pitt tip off the commotion with a Big Monday clash at the Petersen Events Center, where the Panthers are 12-0 and feed off a rowdy student section seated strategically close to the court. Sound familiar, Blue Devils faithful?
Pitt’s only setbacks are to Cincinnati and Syracuse by a combined six points. The Panthers (18-2, 6-1) have All-ACC caliber guards in Lamar Patterson and James Robinson and lead the conference in shooting percentage, rebounding margin and assist/turnover ratio. In short, Jamie Dixon has a complete team.
Duke’s staggered start included ACC losses at Notre Dame and Clemson, but the Devils (16-4, 5-2) have since won four straight. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood are as good as advertised, and if role players such as Rasheed Sulaimon and Amil Jefferson continue to play well, Duke will be a handful.
The top-four collisions continue Saturday night when the Devils visit Syracuse in a game that ESPN may, emphasis on may, hype as a meeting between the winningest Division I coaches of all time. Mike Krzyzewski (973 career victories) and Jim Boeheim (939) hold that distinction and are close friends as well. Moreover, Boeheim has been Krzyzewski’s top assistant on the U.S. national team that has won the last two Olympic gold medals and will aim for three two years hence in Rio.
Boeheim’s Orange (19-0, 6-0) owns notable non-conference victories over Baylor, Indiana and Villanova, boasts headliners C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis and defends with its usual tenacity.
In a classic “trap” game, Syracuse plays at Wake Forest on Wednesday. The Demon Deacons (14-6, 4-3) are 12-0 at home, where their victims include Richmond, North Carolina, N.C. State and Notre Dame.
Is Joel Coliseum where perfect records go to die? Well, last season Miami was 13-0 in ACC play and ranked second nationally before losing 80-65 there.
Were the Deacons to stage a repeat, might we have to start considering their NCAA tournament chances? For what it’s worth, Wake was 65th on the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index released last week.
The ACC’s big week concludes Super Bowl Sunday, when Virginia and Pitt tip at 12:30 p.m., long before you need endure any Broncos-Seahawks pregame chatter. The Cavaliers (15-5, 6-1) are off to their best conference start in 31 years, and the Panthers will challenge their defense like few opponents have this season.
With excellent defenders in Justin Anderson, Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon and Akil Mitchell, Virginia has successfully checked high-scoring opponents such as Duke’s Parker and Hood, and North Carolina State’s T.J. Warren. How the Cavaliers deploy against the 6-foot-5 Patterson is the matchup to watch.
Sunday is Virginia’s second road test of the week, following Tuesday’s visit to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish (11-9, 2-5) are struggling, but did upset Duke at home.
Sunday also continues an ACC basketball-Super Bowl connection that dates to the early 1970s. Basketball mavens of my vintage recall epics between N.C. State and Maryland on Super Bowl Sunday 1973 and ’74.
David Thompson, Tommy Burleson and Monte Towe versus Tom McMillen, John Lucas and Len Elmore. Not to mention renowned coaches Norman Sloan and Lefty Driesell.
Miami Dolphins will beg to differ, but the N.C. State-Maryland games were far more entertaining than the Dolphins’ Super Bowl conquests of Washington (’73) and Minnesota (’74). Indeed, they rank among the best regular-season contests in ACC basketball history, between, by the way, two of the best teams.
In 1973 at Maryland’s Cole Field House, the third-ranked Wolfpack edged the second-ranked Terps 87-85 as Thompson scored 37 points, including the game-winning shot, the closest call of N.C. State’s 27-0 season — the Wolfpack was ineligible for postseason.
A year later at Reynolds Coliseum, Thompson was even better as the No. 4 Wolfpack defeated the No. 3 Terps 80-74. He scored a career-high 41 points on 14-of-20 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds for the eventual national champions.
In each of those seasons, by the way, N.C. State foiled Maryland in the ACC tournament final, winning 76-74 and 103-100 in overtime.
Similar theatrics this week? We should be so lucky.
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