Brownlow’s GIFs: Zion-less Duke goes to Syracuse, NC State seeks revenge and UNC hosts hot Seminoles
Obviously, the biggest story in the ACC - and even the country - this week is Zion Williamson’s knee. Plenty of people had opinions about whether he should or shouldn’t play and what his injury was, how long he’d be out, etc.
Real Twitter doctors, though, did chime in and this seemed to be the consensus:
He’ll miss the Syracuse game, so we’ll press on towards the ACC games that we will see. And can we talk about what a weird year it’s actually been?
If that trend continues, it could put two Triangle teams in jeopardy as North Carolina hosts red-hot Florida State and NC State hosts Wake Forest, a team that already beat them once this year. It could be good news for Zion-less Duke, though, which is looking for some revenge of its own in Syracuse.
Elsewhere in the league, Virginia travels to suddenly-hapless Louisville, BC goes to Clemson, Virginia Tech to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech to Miami.
To the GIFs!
NO. 3 VIRGINIA (23-2, 11-2) AT NO. 18 LOUISVILLE (18-9, 9-5)
Time: 12 p.m. TV: ACCNE
There are some things that I revel in being right about. I do not revel in being right that Duke’s comeback win over Louisville might have broken the Cardinals. The first fissure, I suppose, appeared when they lost the late lead to Florida State. They put some duct tape on it and went about their business, getting a 20-plus-point lead with 9 minutes to go against Duke before the duct tape basically burst and the small fissure became a gaping hole. They held it shut against Clemson with two fingers as they tried to give that game away too, but now it appears to be broken and maybe beyond repair based on the 20-point loss at Syracuse.
You know a bad team to play when you’re broken? Virginia. And while Louisville is at home, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It got so bad against Clemson that their own fans were applauding when they finally broke the press. I assumed they’d play better at Syracuse and maybe even win since they got to get away from the Yum! Center; besides, Louisville has played better on the road all year. But they didn’t. Instead they’ve now had their three worst offensive efficiencies in the last four games, culminating with a season-worst 73.6 at Syracuse. Louisville shot just 14 of 54 from the field. Syracuse was fine offensively, making 11 3-pointers, but not out of this world or anything. Louisville’s offense was just that bad.
If there’s anything to nitpick with Virginia, it’s that the Cavaliers have been a little ... rugged on offense over the last week, posting two of their eight-lowest offensive efficiencies of the season in that stretch. The Cavaliers have made at least 10 3-pointers in three of the last four games, which certainly helps, but their turnover percentage has been too high at ties, checking in at at least 22% in four of their last six games, including 22.1% at Virginia Tech after they’d gone two straight games without the issue cropping up. Virginia is going to have to make sure it doesn’t turn it over and do just enough to break Louisville’s spirit, which doesn’t seem to take a ton of work as of late, sadly.
Louisville Win: Louisville’s last few weeks:
Virginia, 66-56. Could Louisville suddenly put it all back together and win? Sure! Would it make any sense? Nope! So I can’t predict it.
BOSTON COLLEGE (13-12, 4-9) AT CLEMSON (15-11, 5-8)
Time: 12 p.m. TV: RSN
Hey, good news Boston College! You’ve been playing pretty well and in spite of losing at NC State, you did take the Wolfpack to overtime! Maybe you’ll close out the ACC slate strong! *checks schedule* Oh. Oh dear. When a trip to Clemson might be the third-toughest game you’ve got left out of five ... yikes. For Clemson, its NCAA Tournament hopes already seem dim with the loss at Miami and nothing to back it up since, but you can basically kill the hopes completely if they lose this game. Clemson has beaten the three worst teams in the league it has faced so far - Georgia Tech twice, Pitt and Wake - all by double digits. Boston College would fit into that group from a Ken Pom perspective and a record perspective, but the Eagles do seem to have found a spark as of late. And all season, their only ACC road loss by more than 11 points was at Duke (where they led at half).
Boston College Win:
Boston College Loss:
Clemson, 75-67. Look, for the most part, Clemson loses to teams it should and beats the teams it should.
GEORGIA TECH (12-15, 4-10) AT MIAMI (11-14, 3-10)
Time: 2 p.m. TV: RSN
Miami’s had almost a week off now since disappointing me and everyone by following up what SHOULD have been a 3-game winning streak (the loss at UNC notwithstanding) with a loss at Boston College. The Eagles aren’t exactly a lockdown defensive team, although they have their moments, and yet Chris Lykes was 3 of 15 shooting. He had a lot of size on him with BC’s Ky Bowman checking him, but still. Sad. Judging by the way Georgia Tech played on Wednesday, though, it could be a scoring duel between Lykes and Jose Alvarado, who had a career-high 29 points. Yes, someone unironically said “Georgia Tech” and “scoring duel” in the same sentence. Georgia Tech had its highest offensive efficiency in a game this year since January 5 (vs. Wake Forest) and the Yellow Jackets have now posted turnover percentages of less than 20% in back-to-back games for the first time since December. (That ... is an unflattering statistic.) Georgia Tech is also a better defensive team than Miami just saw in its last game. But Georgia Tech is also plenty prone to extended scoring droughts with or without help. We shall see.
Georgia Tech Win:
Georgia Tech Loss:
Miami, 72-65. I can’t really trust either team, but.
NO. 16 FLORIDA STATE (21-5, 9-4) AT NO. 8 NORTH CAROLINA (21-5, 11-2)
Time: 3:45 p.m. TV: CBS
Guys, a Florida State team that has losses to Pitt and Boston College on its resume now has an eight-game ACC winning streak, the longest in its program’s history. The Seminoles have not beaten sludge to get here, either - four of the eight wins have come against Ken Pom top-50 teams and all but two of the wins have been by double digits. The Seminoles are. For. Real.
Logically, one would have to think that after getting a big win, there’s an emotional letdown for teams. Even after a big loss. But under Roy Williams, the exact opposite has been the case.
So yes, Florida State is good. But historically speaking, it’s likely North Carolina will be ready. And it’s not like home court has been a huge advantage anyway in the ACC, or for North Carolina. It will be an interesting matchup for the Tar Heels because the Seminoles just have so much length. Their “effective height” - a Ken Pom stat - is ninth-best nationally. FSU has held three straight opponents to less than 41% from inside the arc. North Carolina is 7-5 when it shoots under 50% from 2 and 14-0 when it shoots better than that. Teams have generally had to make 3-pointers to score against the Seminoles and while UNC is capable of doing that, the Tar Heels can’t just settle for it.
Rebounding will be another big key, on both ends, and that’s where that length comes in with Florida State. They’re okay on the offensive glass but really good on the defensive boards and obviously North Carolina relies heavily on getting on the offensive glass. Both of these teams can be a little turnover-prone at times, so that probably cancels each other out. And then there’s the foul line. The Tar Heels haven’t really needed to get there to win games, although they’ve had a pretty low free-throw rate this season considering their normal numbers in terms of getting to the line. Florida State has struggled with fouling. But on the flip side, Florida State has the second-best free-throw rate in ACC play and scores 20.8% of its points from the foul line.
North Carolina is 6-5 when its opponent has a free-throw rate of 33 or better and very weirdly, FSU is actually undefeated when it’s below 33 in free-throw rate and 11-5 when it’s above that. Their marker is also more what the opponent does; three of their five losses have also been the three worst free-throw rates that they’ve given up.
It’ll be a fascinating game of one red-hot team against another really good one.
NAMES TO KNOW
Mfiondu Kabengele. In typical Lenny Ham fashion, of course, FSU’s best player is not even a starter - look, the man likes to keep an active rotation. But the 6-10, 250-pound center is a name that if Tobacco Road folks didn’t already know, they will soon. He leads FSU in scoring and has the fourth-best ACC only ORtg (individual offensive efficiency rating). He is also drawing fouls at the third-highest rate in the league, plus being one of the ACC’s best rebounders on the offensive and defensive glass and blocking a ton of shots as well. He can also get out and shoot 3-pointers as a stretch-5, making him even scarier; he was just 5 of 16 in league play a year ago from beyond the arc and is 12 of 26 (46.2%) in 2019, also shooting 58.3% from the floor and 77% from the foul line.
Corey meant five there, but it’s fine. He’s right. They didn’t have a Kabengele. They do now. And after North Carolina got a break without seeing Zion Williamson, it means they won’t have faced an opponent with a big man of this caliber arguably since ... Steven Enoch from Louisville? Or the undersized Kerry Blackshear from Virginia Tech? Kabengele is going to be a tough cover for the Tar Heels, and they’re going to need to try to go at him and get him in foul trouble - he’s picked up three or more in three of FSU’s ACC losses and has picked up three just once since.
Cam Johnson. Don’t look now, but North Carolina’s senior wing is the most efficient player in ACC play. That’s right - in league games only, his ORtg of 135.4 is No. 1. His work as a shooter has been well-documented, but his turnover rate is one of the lowest in the league, his assist rate has climbed into the top 25 and his steal rate is now 18th-best. He had never had a 20-point game without hitting a 3-pointer, either - until the Duke game when he hit a career-high 11 2-point shots. In the last five games alone, Johnson has 23 rebounds, 15 assists to four turnovers and nine steals. When he’s hot hitting from beyond the arc, North Carolina generally has struggled - he’s 6 of 25 from 3 in UNC’s five losses and 61 of 119 (51.2%) in wins. That is just stupidly good. To beat a team like Florida State, opponents have usually had to make 3-pointers since their interior is difficult to score in and around. Johnson will likely need to regain his shooting stroke in the Smith Center as he is just 9 of 32 (28.1%) in ACC play from 3 compared to 26 of 46 (56.5%) on the road.
Florida State Win:
Florida State Loss:
North Carolina Win:
North Carolina Loss:
North Carolina, 90-83. Fun game though.
NO. 20 VIRGINIA TECH (20-6, 9-5) AT NOTRE DAME (13-13, 3-10)
Time: 4 p.m. TV: ESPN
The Hokies are almost exactly where they were expected to be after losing Justin Robinson for awhile, and maybe even just a touch better - 3-3 with wins at NC State, Pitt and Georgia Tech and losses to Louisville, Clemson and Virginia. All three losses have come by single digits, so in that way, maybe they’ve even been better than we thought they’d be without him. Things don’t get much easier down the stretch, though - the Hokies host Duke, go to Florida State and then host Miami after this game at Notre Dame.
Which brings me to ... Notre Dame.
Are you KIDDING ME, NOTRE DAME? YOU CAN’T BEAT WAKE FOREST? AT YOUR OWN GYM?!?!?!?!
I trusted you. And you betrayed me. It was Mike Brey’s worst Ken Pom loss since 2004, when his Irish lost to No. 273 Central Michigan at home by 1 point. (Wake is 175.) So, you know what? You guys aren’t allowed to be good now. You’ve decided you want to be bad. Don’t do anything dumb like play well against a Virginia Tech team that really has to have this game. You have FORFEITED YOUR RIGHT TO FRISKINESS.
Virginia Tech Win:
Virginia Tech Loss:
Notre Dame Win: Doesn’t matter still don’t like you right now
Notre Dame Loss:
Virginia Tech, 69-61. Can’t happen without adventure, but.
NO. 1 DUKE (23-3, 11-2) AT SYRACUSE (18-8, 9-4)
Time: 6 p.m. TV: ESPN
First, we have to get the most important thing out of the way. College GameDay was scheduled to attend and Syracuse was (and likely still will) set an on-campus attendance record for this game. But GameDay will now originate from Bristol instead because of a horrible and tragic accident. Just after the Louisville-Syracuse game on Wednesday night, head coach Jim Boeheim swerved to avoid a disabled vehicle on a dark and icy highway and struck a pedestrian trying to flee to safety after the wreck, killing him. The stories and reports since indicate Boeheim did everything right after calling 911 to get help, perhaps even going above and beyond by using the flashlight app on his phone to try to warn passing motorists about the car since it had no lights on in the dark. It’s difficult to imagine how any of us would feel or react under these circumstances; even though it does not seem to be Boeheim’s fault, it had to be extremely traumatic and heartbreaking. Boeheim was not with his team on Thursday for practice, and basketball has to be very difficult to concentrate on at the moment.
That aside, then, they are still playing the game. But it has to be acknowledged before we go into a breakdown of the x’s and o’s, since of course it will be a factor and hearts will be heavy, particularly Boeheim’s.
Syracuse has been a very strange team this year in league play. When things go well for the Orange, they go very well! And when they don’t? Well ...
Like, here’s Syracuse last four games: 18-point loss at home to Florida State, 11-point win at home over BC, 15-point loss at NC State, and then ... 20-point win over Louisville at home. Huh?
We all know that Syracuse already has a win over Duke this year, and this one came in overtime at Cameron Indoor Stadium in a game where Cam Reddish was scrubbed just before tip with the flu and Tre Jones went down not long after. So I guess it doesn’t count? I’M KIDDING! Because here’s the thing: in spite of all of that, Syracuse had to make a ton of really tough shots and clutch plays to win. They have guys on that roster that can make tough shots and get buckets when called upon, but they never make it look easy and it wasn’t in that game. It won’t be in this one, either, as Duke is surely eager to get revenge on the Orange AND will have revamped things since losing Zion Williamson moments into the UNC game. They’ll be more ready to make up for his absence on both ends of the court.
Duke, though, is going to have to re-work its offense to find a way to get it into the paint and score there. After losing Jones and not having Reddish against Syracuse the first time, Duke attempted a season-high 43 3-pointers (compared to 37 2-pointers) and made just nine of them. And Jones and Reddish being out didn’t entirely explain Duke retrieving just 26.9% of its missed shots, its fourth-lowest percentage this year. To miss that many and retrieve that few is not a good recipe for Duke.
For Syracuse? It’s making 3-pointers. North Carolina was the only team to beat Duke this season without getting hot from beyond the arc. Syracuse made 11 3-pointers against the Blue Devils; only one team has made more against them this season (Army). And the Orange made 44% of their attempts, the second-highest percentage allowed by Duke as well. It helped offset the fact that Syracuse was 43.6% inside the arc. But the Orange rely on the 3-pointer most of the time anyway. Syracuse is 11-1 this season when it shoots at least 33.3% from beyond the arc and 7-0 when it makes at least 10 3-pointers, a feat it has accomplished six times in ACC play. In fact, Syracuse has won just two ACC games WITHOUT hitting 10 or more 3s.
NAMES TO KNOW
Tre Jones. Last time against Syracuse, Jones had been the active defensive engine behind Duke’s pressure defense and had four steals in just six minutes, adding two assists and two points. But when he collided with Frank Howard and injured his shoulder, he would miss the remainder of the game and one could make a case that his sudden absence shook up his team almost as much as Zion Williamson’s did on Wednesday night, if not a tad more because Jones was in a lot more pain out on the court and was down for awhile. After he left, Syracuse started getting more of what it wanted offensively. Opposing point guard Frank Howard, always up and down for the Orange, scored all 16 of his points in the second half and overtime on 7 of 13 shooting, adding five assists and six rebounds. It made a difference, obviously, as Duke searched for rhythm on offense and intensity on defense.
Jones hasn’t been the most consistent threat for Duke offensively but he hasn’t really needed to be; in his first four games back from injury, he was a blanket on opposing point guards, holding four straight to 12 points or less with the best shooting performance being 30%, including holding two of the better scoring point guards - Shamorie Ponds and Ky Bowman - to a combined 21 points on 9 of 32 shooting. While he did harass Coby White into a nine-point performance on 3 of 14 shooting (and six turnovers), he has also allowed two of the last four point guards Duke has seen to score 16 as Ty Jerome and Markell Johnson combined for 32 points on 12 of 26 shooting. Defense is never a 1-man game, but still. Jones is someone opposing defenses are ignoring off the ball, increasingly. As good as he can be defensively, he has to be able to help make opponents pay for that somehow. Without Zion, Duke has to get all the offensive production that it can.
Tyus Battle. It was the junior combo guard who led Syracuse to the win in Cameron, pouring in 32 points on 12 of 28 shooting to go with four rebounds, four assists and three turnovers. He played all 45 minutes. The shot-taker has not always been the most efficient player, but the context of what he’s asked to do for that offense is important. When Frank Howard disappears, as he’s wont to do, Battle’s the one who has to take the reins. But it can detract from his scoring. He at one point scored double figures in 13 straight games but he’s done it in just two of the last five, including an ACC-low six in the win at Pitt. It’s tough to imagine Syracuse beating a really good opponent when Battle doesn’t make shots, but that’s what happened against Louisville as he took over point guard duties and dished out seven assists, all on 3-pointers. He shot just 4 of 14 from the floor, though. If Howard continues to struggle, it’ll likely be Jones guarding Battle. But Duke will also need to go at him on the other end of the court, too. Syracuse is 3-3 in ACC play when Battle picks up three or more fouls and he’s picked up at least three in all but one of their ACC losses, including four at NC State which resulted in him playing an ACC-low 32 minutes. Getting Battle out of the game via fouls or defense is going to be a main goal for Duke in this one.
Duke, 82-71. They’ll figure something out.
WAKE FOREST (10-15, 3-10) AT NC STATE (19-8, 7-7)
Time: 6 p.m. TV: ESPNU
Last time these two teams got together, some really dumb things happened and NC State lost. And by dumb things, I mean NC State trailed by 22 points in the second half. To THIS Wake Forest team. The Wolfpack lost by just 4 points, but I mean, that can’t happen. It was a team win in almost every sense of the word for the Deacs - they had just 10 assists on 23 made field goals (not awful, but not crazy), but of the eight who played at least 14 minutes, all of them scored at least four points. Three Deacs hit double figures and none of them scored more than 16. Every Wake player had at least one rebound and five had at least one assist and at least one steal. It was NC State’s first full game without Markell Johnson, but, again. Can’t happen.
Of course, I say all of that and Wake is coming off of its first ACC road win in almost a calendar year, this time at Notre Dame. And look ... Danny Manning has won 23 ACC games during his tenure at Wake, and five of those have come against NC State, including one of Manning’s five road wins. Kevin Keatts was supposed to be different and NC State did sweep a better Wake team a year ago. But that loss in Winston-Salem this year was still a thing that happened, so nothing is a given.
It’s frankly tough to know which version of either of these teams will show up, but there are two key stats to watch here: offensive rebounding and free throws. Wake’s second-highest free-throw rate in ACC play came in the first meeting with NC State while NC State’s 12.3 was its fourth-lowest this year. NC State is 0-5 when it has a free-throw rate of less than 18, regardless of what its opponents do. Wake is scoring 21.2% of its points in league play from the line and is dead last in shooting both 3-pointers and 2-pointers. NC State has to keep them off the line.
The only other thing Wake does well is get offensive rebounds; the Deacs actually lead the league in ACC games in this stat, collecting 36.1% of their misses. Wake rebounded 36.4% of its misses against NC State, right at its league average. But NC State can’t let Wake get a ton of extra looks. The No. 2 team in OR% in league play? NC State. But they’re 14th in ACC-only defensive rebounding. They’ll have to keep getting after it on the o-boards without giving up too many to Wake on the other end.
NAMES TO KNOW
Brandon Childress. The junior guard and son of Randolph had just 10 points the last time these two teams got together, and he’s certainly had his ups and downs this year, including posting ORtgs that I did not even think were possible (a 3!!! vs. UNC and a 9 vs. Clemson). That 3 vs. UNC was the result of a season-low 20 minutes that resulted in Childress going 0 of 12 shooting with one assist and six turnovers. But he followed that up with a 205 (absurdly high) at Notre Dame, pouring in 20 points to go with seven rebounds, eight assists, no turnovers and three steals. Childress has not made a 3-pointer against NC State since 2017 and has made just two against them in his career. He doesn’t necessarily fit the typical profile of “struggling opposing player who will break out of his slump vs. NC State”, but the thing is, for Wake to have a chance he has to play well. He has not followed up one good game with another since January. Can he do it now?
Markell Johnson. Without Johnson for the first full game last time, NC State lost at Wake Forest. Johnson has now been back for eight games and while he’s had flashes, he hasn’t really been the Johnson that he was before his injury. Every time it’s seemed like he’s getting it going again, it just hasn’t materialized. He does have 27 assists to 12 turnovers in the last four games compared to 10 assists to 13 turnovers in his first four games back from injury, so that’s a positive. And his presence on the court alone has helped facilitate Braxton Beverly breaking out of a shooting slump, taking Beverly back off the ball. But one thing NC State could use more of from him and in general is his ability to drive and score and/or draw fouls. At Duke, it seemed like he was getting back to that, taking a season-high 11 2-point shots (and making five), adding 3 of 3 free throws (his second-most attempts since his return). He’s a capable 3-point shooter when he’s feeling it, but he hasn’t been feeling it and he’s settling too much, taking 20 more 3-pointers than 2-pointers in ACC play in spite of shooting 30.8% from 3 and 56.2% from 2. Last year, he took 20 more 2-pointers than 3-pointers. He needs to get back to that.
Wake Forest Win:
Wake Forest Loss:
NC State Win:
NC State Loss: Credit to @Who_KyleWatts on Twitter for this:
NC State, 85-76. It’s never easy, is it?
Last week: 12-2 (12-2 ACC) Overall: 83-32 (74-25 ACC)