Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports
Defining our destinies by a single game
Well this certainly has been an interesting week in the ACC thus far. Duke went down in embarrassing fashion, and Carolina has climbed back up the standings after an 0-2 start with some pretty solid play. Certainly we can draw absolute conclusions on the state of Duke and North Carolina basketball based on only the games from last night, right? Time for:.... Rush!! To!! Judgment!!
THE DUKE TAILSPIN
RUSH TO JUDGMENT: Without Ryan Kelly, Duke's lack of depth and experience in the front court is clearly going to be the downfall of this team. Last night's performance showed that any team with good guard play and solid and skilled size up front is going to be able to have its way with the Blue Devils. Mason Plumlee has come back down to earth and shown that he's probably not capable of beating a solid front court all by himself. That's not player of the year material!
No team that gets beat down like that has any shot whatsoever of running through the tournament and winning a natty. Miami is a good team, but they were just recently ranked. They lost to something called a Florida Gulf Coast University at full strength. Can you imagine what they are going to do to Duke when Reggie Johnson is back to full strength and playing like he did before he got hurt?
Duke has been exposed, and it's only going to get worse from here.
PUMP THE BRAKES: Duke had a bad game. It happens. I know people were going off the rails in 2010 when Georgetown laid a whipping on Duke and I'm sure 'Heels fans did the same last year when Florida St. won by 30+. Duke went on to win in 2010, and no one was talking about that FSU game come March when the 'Heels were one of the favorites to win the whole damn thing before Kendall Marshall was injured. I don't deny that weaknesses were magnified, and Miami's proved itself to be a real challenger to the conference crown. I'm just not ready to junk Duke's chances as a title contender after one game considering what Duke did in non-conference play.
Here is what I have learned as a Duke fan: since JJ Redick has left, Duke loses a game like this every year. Unfortunately, it has usually been in the tournament. But when Duke fans get a shitshow like this one out of the way during the season, so long as the losses don't accumulate (and except for 2007, they haven't), that hackneyed term "Next Play" that Coach K likes to use really resonates. Now, unlike Georgetown, this is a conference game, so there was something more on the line. But generally, so long as the Blue Devils beat UNC (preferably twice), show well in the ACC tourney and snare a 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, I feel Duke has had a successful regular season that can set it up for a tournament run, and losses like the one to Miami last night fade away quickly. So should Duke fans be dismayed by the loss? Sure. Should they panic and freak out? Ummmm.... no. But that's what this column is for I guess.
As for Mason, yes, he had a bad game last night. But the guy was single handedly manning the post for Duke against one of the better front courts in the nation. Duke is missing Ryan Kelly as everyone expected, and maybe a little more than expected. But if you take a quick look at the box score, Duke's guards really spit the bit last night as well in a way that I feel comfortable calling an anomaly. Duke's guards have consistently played better against better teams this year. Take your whipping and don't let it happen again.
At the end of the day, Duke has lost 2 road games to the other 2 of the the top 3 teams in the ACC this year. I don't think Duke will run the table, but a 2 game deficit 5 games into an 18 game conference slate, when your 2 toughest road games (see what I did there, Will?) are out of the way is hardly insurmountable.
CAROLINA IS BACK, BABY!
RUSH TO JUDGMENT: After a 2 game slide to start the year, visions of the 2010 Tarheels were popping into everyone's head. But wait! Three straight wins, including a road win against an FSU team that slaughtered a much better North Carolina team in Tallahassee last year, have gotten the Tarheels solidly back in the conference race. In fact, other than Miami, you could say the 'Heels are playing the best basketball in the conference. I mean, it was a double digit conference win! P.J. Hairston!! J.P. Tokoto!! The 'Heels are finally coming together after that solid win over Georgia Tech and are ready to role into Raleigh on Saturday to separate themselves from the pack (and the 'Pack) and potentially compete for the regular season crown.
That sixteen point win against Georgia Tech culminates the run that will get the Tarheels back in the ACC race!
PUMP THE BRAKES: Not so fast. I am not going to denigrate the win in Tallahassee. That's a tough place to play for anyone in the last several years and was an important win to get. But I'm also not going to look past the fact that Florida St. is simply not as good this year as their 20 point embarrassment in Charlottesville will attest. Here's the deal, Tarheels: win on Saturday and heads will turn. Otherwise, Carolina looks to be solidly the fourth best team in the conference, depending on how you feel about the schizo Virginia club and Maryland, whose only quality win is beating NC State, who hasn't found a road venue it can play decent basketball in yet. So forgive me for not getting giddy that the 'Heels beat a winless in conference Georgia Tech team that Duke slept walked through, still winning by the same margin of victory.
The Tarheels main problem is out of their control, though. Their ACC schedule is brutal (to the extent such a thing is possible this year). The 'Heels managed to pull four of the worst teams (Clemson, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake) once, and everyone else twice. That's an absolute labyrinth of road games against mediocre teams that will play up against those guys in the Carolina jerseys, even if the Heels only really have 1 or 2 future NBA players wearing them this year -- oh yeah -- also 5 games against Duke, Miami and N.C. State lie in wait as well. There is too much "hope" seen in these last three games when 3-2 was the absolute minimum of where Carolina needed to be at this point with the schedule they have coming up. This is a tourney team, and, yes, they are currently tied with Duke and a half game behind North Carolina St.. But forgive me, especially after watching them lose to a really bad Texas team in person, if I wait to draw any real conclusions until after Saturday in the RBC.
That's it for this installment. Remember, friends, if you can't make rash judgments, what can you make?