Friedlander: Handing out midseason awards for ACC hoops
Raise your hand if you picked Clemson to be leading the ACC basketball standings at the midway point in the league schedule.
Now put it down.
You’re either lying or you wear a pair of orange overalls and know what IPTAY stands for.
It goes without saying that the first half of the ACC season hasn’t exactly followed the expected script. The Tigers are on top, the favorites are scrambling to get out of the pack, Louisville has yet to win a conference game and the coach that’s on his way out isn’t the one that started the year on the hot seat.
It’s been an eventful season so far. But there’s still a month left to go before they start handing out the trophies. Before looking ahead, let’s take a quick glance back and celebrate what’s already happened by handing out some virtual midseason awards.
Player of the Year
Armando Bacot was the preseason pick for the award after finishing a controversial 2nd to Wake Forest’s Alondes Williams last year. So far, he’s done everything in his power to justify the selection and bring home the prize in 2023.
He leads the league in rebounding at 11.4 per game and ranks 2nd in scoring at 17.9 while shooting 58%. The 6-11 senior passed Tyler Hansbrough to become the Tar Heels’ all-time leading rebounder during a recent game against NC State and is on pace to become only the 2nd UNC player in the past 50 years to average a career double-double.
And he’s done it while playing through a series of nagging injuries.
Even more convincing than his numbers is the tangible importance Bacot has for his team. The Tar Heels are 0-2 – at Virginia Tech on Dec. 4 and Virginia on Jan. 10 – in games in which he’s either missed or was forced to the sideline after just 1 minute.
Rookie of the Year
The top 4 in the preseason rookie voting all play for Duke, so it figures that a Blue Devil would be the frontrunner for the honor at the midway point in the conference schedule.
It’s just not Dereck Lively II, Dariq Whitehead, Tyrese Proctor or Mark Mitchell.
Instead, the breakout star has been Kyle Filipowski. The 5-star big man is Duke’s top scorer and rebounder at 15.8 points and 9.4 boards per game. His 10 double-doubles in his first 21 games are the most nationally among freshmen.
He was named the ACC’s Player of the Week for the first 4 weeks of the season and has been honored 6 times in all, tying the school record set last year by Paolo Banchero – the NBA’s top overall draft pick.
Coach of the Year
There’s been a long-running debate over how this award should be selected. Should it be the coach of the league’s best team? Or the coach whose team most exceeded its preseason expectations?
This year, at least so far, Clemson’s Brad Brownell has come up with the perfect answer.
Not only have his Tigers far outkicked their coverage from their 11th-place projection in the ACC’s preseason poll, they were also sitting alone atop the league standings after 10 games with a 9-1 record. It’s their best start in conference play.
Brownell has gone from the hot seat to the top of the heap at the midway point by developing homegrown players such as PJ Hall and Tyson Hunter, transitioning shooting guard Chase Hunter into the team’s primary ballhandler and judiciously using the transfer portal with the addition of Brevin Galloway.
Sixth Man of the Year
DJ Burns is by far NC State’s best big man. He’s an old-school back-to-the-basket low post presence with an incredibly soft touch for someone his size and an innate ability to find the open man when he’s double-teamed.
But there’s a reason coach Kevin Keatts likes to bring him off the bench, which he’s done in 12 of the Wolfpack’s 22 games thus far. The energy level both in the stands and on the floor at PNC Arena rises exponentially every time the 6-9, 275-pound transfer checks into the game.
He’s averaging 11.4 points and 4.8 rebounds with 33 assists and a .552 shooting percentage and is coming off a career-high 31-point, performance against Wake Forest on Saturday.
Defensive Player of the Year
It’s customary for this award to go to the player who leads the league in blocked shots or steals. As important as those stats might be, no numbers can accurately measure the impact UNC’s Leaky Black has on a game because of his work on defense.
The 5th-year senior is 1 of 15 players nationally – and the only 1 from the ACC – to be named to the watch list for the Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year watch list.
Most Improved Player
A case can be made for Virginia Tech’s Sean Pedulla and Wake Forest’s Cam Hildreth. But while Hunter Tyson’s statistical improvement hasn’t been quite as dramatic, the Clemson forward gets the nod because of the role he has played in his team’s surprise success.
The 6-8 graduate student has transformed himself from a solid rotational player into an ACC Player of the Year candidate on a team leading the league at the halfway point. His 16 ppg average is a full 6 points better than it was a year ago and his 9.8 rebounding average is double what it was in 2021-22 while he’s increased his percentages from 3-point range, the free throw line and overall.
The biggest surprise through the first half of the conference schedule has been the performance of the 3 teams whose coaches started the season with the hottest seats.
Clemson’s Brownell, NC State’s Keatts and Pitt’s Jeff Capel have all put themselves in position to save their jobs by getting their teams off to better-than-expected starts.
The Tigers’ 10-1 start in the ACC represents their best record in program history after 11 league games. They’ve already bettered their total number of conference wins from last season when they went 8-12.
Keatts’ Wolfpack has already surpassed their entire win total from 2021-22, when they won only 11 times to go with a school-record 21 losses. The Panthers, meanwhile, need only 3 more victories to ensure their 1st winning season in 5 seasons under Capel.
While Louisville has yet to win an ACC game and may not all season in coach Kenny Payne’s rookie season, the biggest disappointment so far has been Notre Dame. The Irish got off to a promising start by blowing out Michigan State to clinch the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for their conference. But things went downhill quickly from there.
Despite a roster stocked with 6 graduate students, including 5 who returned from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, Notre Dame is just 2-9 in the league and 10-12 overall, a performance that may have prompted coach Mike Brey’s decision to announce his retirement at the end of the season.
The ACC might not be as top-heavy as usual and its brand names are currently looking up at a football school, which is why outsiders are downplaying the league again.
But don’t sell the conference short. There’s an incredible amount of balance to go around outside of the bottom 3 teams, which means there’s plenty of potential for movement in the standings during the 2nd half of the schedule.
If you’re expecting Clemson to fade back into the middle of the pack, you’re going to be disappointed. The Tigers might not win the regular season or their first ACC Tournament championship, but they’re not going away.
That having been said, the cream always eventually rises to the top. So don’t be surprised if preseason favorite UNC and fellow frontrunners Virginia and Duke find a way to work back up toward the top of the standings by the time all is said and done and the final awards are handed out.