Jamie Dixon was at Pittsburgh International Airport, waiting to fly to Raleigh-Durham for his team’s ACC debut. “We’re a work in progress, as is everybody,” Dixon said of his Pitt Panthers as they prepared to face N.C. State.
Maybe so, but already two teams stand at the forefront of the ACC, with 29 wins and a single loss between them – Syracuse and Pitt. Both won their league openers, the Orange surviving a vigorous home challenge from Miami and the Panthers rallying from a 15-point deficit in the first half to win going away at Raleigh. Then Pitt and Syracuse won again.
That early mastery wasn’t unexpected. Add Notre Dame, and all three ACC newcomers were picked among the league’s top six in the media’s preseason estimation.
The Fighting Irish made the biggest introductory splash, knocking Duke out of the AP top 10 for the first time in 122 weeks. The last comparably low ranking for the Blue Devils (16th) came late in the 2007 season, which they concluded with four consecutive losses and eight defeats in the last dozen games as they fell from the polls entirely.
If anything, the surprising early circumstance in the ACC was the sputtering that afflicted customary powers Duke and North Carolina. What’s more, supposedly formidable Virginia has been unimpressive and Boston College, an insider favorite for a stellar season, has lost nearly three times as many times as it’s won.
N.C. State got manhandled by Pitt one day, then went to Notre Dame and beat the Irish three days later. Florida State showed promise, then scored 17 first-half points in a home loss to UVa. Clemson has double-digit wins and a doozie of a defense, but has a dangerous habit of making foolish plays at inopportune moments.
Speaking with Pitt’s Dixon, this state of affairs prompted an ACC traditionalist to lament the possibility a “new guy” might immediately establish league supremacy.
“New guy?” asked Dixon.
“You know, you or Syracuse. Maybe Notre Dame.”
“I hope the ACC office and the officials don’t say, ‘Oh, the new guys!’” Dixon declared with a chuckle before going airborne.
If anything, it’s the old guys who are having trouble.
Duke, boasting enhanced athleticism and promising more aggressiveness and overall versatility, earned designation as the ACC’s preseason favorite. Given their lack of bulk in the post, the Blue Devils would need to consistently apply defensive pressure to limit opponents’ looks inside. Keep a rival guard from seeing the post and feeds for interior scores are minimized.
But the sort of cloying, denial defense required to make that happen, and the savvy to double-down when needed -- often staples of Mike Krzyzewski teams -- have waxed and waned, leaving Duke vulnerable.
North Carolina has been comparably wobbly, its performances similarly uneven, but for different reasons.
For one thing, the current Tar Heel squad is not a vintage collection of talents in the Roy Williams mold. The roster lacks anyone who could have started, say, on the school’s 2009 national championship squad. A mature P.J. Hairston might have challenged for a starting berth back then, but he made sure his college career never blossomed, so we’ll never really know.
Williams has lamented his present team’s lack of toughness, discipline and focus. That was evident in last Sunday’s loss at Wake Forest, when the Heels had a 3:1 edge on the offense boards yet realized only a seven-point advantage on second-chance points.
Sounding much like coach Mark Gottfried after N.C. State lost to Pitt, Williams said, “we weren’t tough enough, physical enough, strong enough, explosive enough, whatever” to take advantage of opportunities.
Asked if his team had demonstrated the improved intensity he sought, Williams said flatly, “No. God Almighty, not at all. Not at all.”
Williams counted seven unforced turnovers, four in the first half. Carolina’s 17 turnovers (versus 13 assists) were a team high since the season opener against overmatched Oakland. The Heels shot .387 from the floor, missing 13 of 15 threes, resulting in the rash of offensive rebounds.
On a positive note, UNC made 7 of 11 free throws at Winston-Salem in a battle between squads vying to set modern program records for inexactitude at the line.
Through 14 games North Carolina has now converted 62.4 percent of its free throws. The school’s record low for a season in the ACC era is 62.9 percent in 1953-54, the league’s first year.
Among 15 conference members, UNC’s accuracy eclipses only Wake. At 61.6 percent through 14 games, the Demon Deacons threaten to establish a new program low since the 54.0 percent of 1952.
“We work on free throws,” said Wake coach Jeff Bzdelik, who was actually seen smiling in victory. “We’ve just got to keep shooting them.”
The Deacons attempted three times as many free throws as the Heels (and made a miserable 57.6 percent). Marcus Paige fouled out for UNC, the seventh disqualification of the season for his team compared to just 5 in 36 games last year. The ’14 Heels average 20.4 personal fouls per outing; the ’13 unit averaged 14.9.
Variations in personnel and experience are doubtless reflected in that increase. But the game has changed as well, or at least the interpretation of rules governing acts such as bumping cutters and hand-checking drivers. That’s reportedly resulted in more fouls being called overall in college ball, producing more opportunities to get to the line.
If a higher percent of your possessions produce free throw attempts, you’d better capitalize.
Meanwhile, despite its free throw woes, Wake has quietly improved, with 11 victories in 14 starts. That compares with winning its 11th game in its 23rd try last season en route to the third losing record in three years under Bzdelik.
Unfortunately, despite evidence that ugly skein may end, Wake fans are not rallying around the banner.
Joel Coliseum had at least 2,000 empty seats for the school’s most avid rivalry game. Many other seats went to Carolina fans, who raised a loud, persistent chant late in the second half to challenge the coordinated cries of the home fans.
The problem, of course, is that Wake supporters remain ambivalent about the success of their emotionally distant coach, much as ACC fans have mixed feelings about the success of the Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse.
They want their favorites to do well, but have not made peace with the new order being established by the "new guys".