ACC tourney Day Two Morning Review
Wednesday March 9th was a beautiful day all up and down the east coast. Northeastern cities that are usually braving frigid temperatures at this time of year were warm and sunny. Syracuse University’s quad was filled with hundreds of students for the first time since mid-September. Children rode their bikes outside and played catch. However, those who know how to best spend a beautiful day like myself engaged in a far superior activity. I, along with countless other die-hard college basketball fans spent my time with my face glued to my laptop, sweating out (from both nerves and my first exposure to warm weather in months) a streamed version of the Syracuse-Pitt men’s basketball game that marked the commencement of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament’s second round. The game was action packed and had the feel that authentic Big East games used to, including a nail-biting finish to act as the icing on the cake. Hustle was on display to the fullest extent for both teams, as was some deadly three-point shooting from the Pitt Panthers. Although it may have seemed extremely unlikely at first, the Duke-North Carolina State game that followed Cuse’-Pitt was just as exciting, if not more exciting, for most of the game. An added bonus to the game was the absolute dual and show that two of the ACC’s best, Cat Barber and Brandon Ingram, put on throughout the game. I know what you’re thinking now. You’re either rejoicing with me over the fantastic decision that you made to stay inside and watch some basketball, or you are hating yourself for enjoying some sunlight and warmth. Don’t worry, if you made the horrible mistake of enjoying mother nature instead of enjoying some beautiful college basketball, I got you covered. Here’s my recap of the day:
First Game: Syracuse Vs. Pitt
Wow. What a game. These rivals and former Big East foes gave us our money’s worth. Although the game concluded with Syracuse’s third lost to Pitt this season and a very angry Sam Gozinsky, I can’t say there was a single point in the game that I wasn’t entertained at. The only way that I can really describe this game is that it featured a constant ebb and flow. Early on in the first half, Syracuse kept approaching borderline-commanding leads, only to have Pitt fight back just enough to keep themselves in the game. Pitt fought back well enough to take the lead by halftime. Pitt’s storming back came courtesy of some sloppy offensive play from Syracuse in the form of turnovers and Pitt rained some threes in to close out the first half. Pitt’s offensive attack was led mostly by Cameron Johnson, a redshirt freshman guard. Johnson poured in 24 points and hit four 3’s, while shooting 50% from the field. Johnson, a player that averages 5.0 PPG, played out of his mind. His energy off the bench allowed Pitt’s starters to get more than enough rest. His hot shooting kept Pitt’s momentum going throughout the whole game. It seemed as if every time that Pitt was about to go on a huge run, Johnson would drain a big shot, setting the run in motion. Additionally, every time it seemed that Syracuse was about to get some momentum, Johnson would knock down a shot, knocking down the Orangemen momentum simultaneously.
Syracuse, led by point guard Michael Gbnije’s 24 points, were able to come back from a 12-point second half deficit by (shockingly) changing things up defensively. Typically, ‘Cuse defense is content to sit back in the half-court set and let the defense try to beat their famous zone. However, Boeheim decided to have the team begin pressing the Panthers off of the inbound in the second half. It worked out well, as the Orange were able to create turnovers that allowed them to slide back into competition. And cut Pitt’s lead to one point with seconds left.
I know that its not the popular thing to do, but I am going to criticize Jim Boeheim’s coaching in this game. I get it, Cooney had been awful as of late. However, he started off yesterday’s game 3-5, and when one of your star (I normally wouldn’t call Cooney a star, but relative to the talent level of this year’s squad, he is a star) players is hitting shots, LEAVE HIM IN!!!!! All week, Boeheim had been answering questions about Cooney’s recent struggles and what coaching adjustments he intended to make. Every time, he would just respond by saying that Cooney is the best option that the Orange have at the 2, he is a proven player, and his shots just aren’t falling right now. All of that is extremely true and makes sense. So if a player is your best option at a key position, has proven himself in the past, and is clearly just in a funk that has made him play well below what we all know he is capable of, why sit him out for so long? 27 points against UNC on January 9th, 25 against Wake Forest on January 16th, and 22 against Notre Dame on January 28th, just to name a few big games that #10 has had. So, when Cooney launched the potential game winning three in a play that was most likely not written for him, with defenders around him, and Syracuse’s postseason hopes on the line, and it rimmed out, fans shouldn’t have been so quick to blame Cooney. Boeheim sat Cooney for a stretch of upwards of 11 consecutive minutes yesterday, an oddity for a fifth-year senior averaging nearly 37 points per game. Keep in mind that hindsight is 20/20, so while we all would have much rather had Gbnije take that shot, how could we possibly expect Cooney to be in rhythm at that point? Also, keep in mind that Cooney’s “thing” is 3’s, so he isn’t exactly the worst person in the world to have taking that shot. I would choose him over any other Orange player except Gbnije and maybe Malachai Richardson.
At the end of the day, I tip my hat to Pitt for a fantastic game. A truly valiant effort to keep fighting back and a great deal of resilience were shown by the Panthers throughout the day. Cooney’s shot is symbolic of what will most likely happen to Syracuse’s postseason bid. Just missed. ‘
Second Game: Duke Vs. NC State
Ok, I’m not going to lie. I really expected this game to be a blowout. I hate Duke. Everyone hates Duke. But in games like this, you always expect them to pull out the W. They did pull out the W in the end, but the Wolfpack showed some serious fight. The game had 18 ties and 21 lead changes. This was in part due to the red-hot offenses that were on show Wednesday. Every one of Duke’s starters, other than Matt Jones, scored at least 17 points. Duke shot 52.4% from the field, and NC State hit 55.4% of their attempts. However, the reason that I expected Duke to pull out the big win is because they have it all. The talent, the coach, the pedigree. NC State’s offense, as well as they played against Duke, can be extremely one-dimensional at times. Cat Barber is the definition of a dynamic scorer, as evidenced by his 29 point scoring outburst, but that is something that is public knowledge. If any coach is to know how to shut down an offense like NC State’s, I would expect it to be Coach K. The reason that Coach K couldn’t shut the offense down is that other players on NC State showed up. NC State’s sophomore forward Abdul-Malik Abu poured in 19 points in 38 minutes of action. Duke’s offense was extremely well balanced, as both Brandon Ingram and Luke Kennard lit up the scoreboard for a total of 22 points each. Grayson Allen contributed 19 points and Marhsall Plumlee scored 17 to lead the Blue Devils’ offensive attack.
This was the third meeting between the teams this season, and it followed a similar arc as the other two meetings. In both games, Duke trailed in the second half, but was able to pull out the W. Perhaps this time, their inspiration stemmed from Marshall Plumlee’s unwitting toughness. During the game, Cat Barber’s elbow struck Plumlee in the nose, breaking it. Plumlee played through the game as blood dripped down his face. That is the kind of X-factor that Duke players bring to the court. Enthusiasm like that is what sets the good apart from the great. Although Duke may not be great by Duke standards this season (they had dropped 3 of their last 5 heading into the game and have bounced in and out of the AP top 25), they still have unmatched passion. Grayson Allen, despite the dirty plays that he makes sometimes, is an extremely passionate player. Plumlee is an emotional leader for his team and is willing to fight through pain to help his team any way that he can.
Ok, enough praise for the Blue Devils. There is also reason for concern for the Cameron Crazies. Cat Barber is an awesome player and NC State can get hot in a hurry on the offensive end, but they’re not a tournament team. Not even close. NC State’s record this year is 16-17. What? A supposed national powerhouse almost lost to a 16-17 team three times this season. This isn’t an isolated incident either. Duke has had some very rough losses this season including at home to Syracuse by one point and at Clemson by 5. Neither of those teams are (likely) tourney-bound. Both of those games were very close. It appears that Duke may have some issues closing out against inferior teams. Yes, I know, you are going to point to the very game that I am reviewing against NC State when they won by 3. But let’s keep in mind, that is far from an accomplishment.
That being said, I still think Duke could be about to embark on a deep tourney run. They are almost there. Duke has all of the components to create a dominant team. They just need to start playing like it.
Photo from: pintrest.com