ACC Basketball notebook: Virginia's Vegas victories, league stars dominate early storylines
On a week when the University of Virginia campus mourned the tragic death of 3 of its students, D’Sean Perry, Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler, in a shooting that wounded 2 others, the Virginia men’s basketball team put together a collective exercise in cohesion and courage.
“If you’re going to grieve, grieve together,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett told his team before embarking on a trip to Las Vegas for last weekend’s Continental Tire Main Event, where the Cavaliers would face 2 ranked opponents as part of a 4-team field with Baylor, UCLA and Illinois.
The Hoos did more than grieve together. They won the tournament, upsetting then-No. 5 Baylor 86-79 on Friday night and then winning a thrilling, back-and-forth championship game with then-No. 19 Illinois in Sunday’s championship.
A season ago, Virginia wouldn’t have weathered any storms, let alone an unspeakable tragedy. Bennett’s group lacked the program’s characteristic toughness and edge, and it struggled to an NIT bid as a result. There’s no toughness problem this season. The Cavaliers look the part of a program that returned all 5 starters and, in Ohio transfer Ben Vander Plas, added an impact transfer who helps them space the floor offensively.
Reece Beekman, among the nation’s premier defenders in 2021-22, showed the country this past weekend he’s ready to be a force on both ends of the floor. He captured MVP honors at the Main Event, chasing Illini All-American Terrance Shannon Jr. around the floor all night and helping to hold him to just 9 points, while also contributing significantly on offense, leading the Hoos with 17 points. In fact, with Virginia trailing by 2 points late, the Cavaliers went to Beekman on a beautiful set play to get within 1, and he scored again a possession later to help Virginia take the lead.
Virginia doing more than playing beautiful defense.
Look at this fake double screen action to free up Reece Beekman to get to the bucket and line. – N pic.twitter.com/aB4f5QOS70
— Florida Basketball Hour (@FloridaBBHour) November 20, 2022
It’s early in the season yet, but right now, Virginia ranks 26th in Bart Torvik’s offensive efficiency rankings, and only a season removed from Bennett’s worst defense in a decade, the Cavaliers are back among the top 20 in defensive efficiency. Not only is Virginia improved on the court, it now is playing with a purpose, for something larger than itself. Togetherness has helped Virginia win 5 of the past 10 ACC championships. Togetherness and purpose? That could be even more special.
Clemson received a potentially season-changing (and for Brad Brownell, job-saving?) lift last week when star forward PJ Hall returned well ahead of schedule after offseason knee surgery. Brownell rightly limited his big man’s minutes this past week, but 18-20 minutes of Hall makes Clemson a legitimate NCAA Tournament threat, as opposed to the also-ran the Tigers are without him. The Tigers will have their full assortment available in a resume game Black Friday against No. 25 Iowa.
Duke also saw 2 future NBA players make debuts, with Dereck Lively II seeing his 1st action and Dariq Whitehead, another top-5 recruit from the 2022 signing class, play his first 2 games as a Blue Devil over the past week. Lively and Whitehead have played sparingly, but there are flashes of the star power to come, like this Whitehead dunk in Duke’s win Monday night Bellarmine.
📺 ACCN pic.twitter.com/XzXMcyalOD
— Duke Men’s Basketball (@DukeMBB) November 22, 2022
Duke, ranked No. 8, will be challenged at the PK 85 Phil Knight Legacy event this week, with games against the likes of Florida and 6th-ranked Gonzaga likely on tap. But as coach Jon Scheyer’s team becomes healthy, it’s fun to think about the extremely high ceiling it has.
And Stars shine…
A year ago, Duke was the ACC’s lone ranked team and Paolo Banchero the league’s biggest star and perhaps, it’s only player who was a household name. As my Saturday Road colleague Brett Friedlander astutely pointed out in Saturday Road’s “ACC Basketball: Burning Questions Roundtable,” things couldn’t be any different this season. The league is packed with star power, and thus far, they are showing out. Take a look at some of these numbers posted by ACC superstars during the past week:
Armando Bacot, C, UNC- 19 points, a career-high 23 rebounds in No. 1 North Carolina’s win Sunday against a previously unbeaten James Madison
Reece Beekman, G, Virginia- 27 points, 13 assists, 4 steals in victories over Baylor and Illinois, winning Beekman MVP honors at the Continental Tire Main Event in Las Vegas over the weekend
Terquavion Smith, G, NC State- 15 points, 6 assists and 6 steals in NC State’s 107-74 win against Florida International last week
Justyn Mutts, F, Virginia Tech- 10 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists in Virginia Tech’s 61-59 Charleston Classic semifinal victory over Penn State last Friday
Isaiah Wong, G, Miami- 18 points, 3 assists, 3 steals in Miami’s 74-64 win Saturday against Providence at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament
Kyle Filipowksi, C, Duke – 17 points, 14 rebounds, a block in the 69-64 Champions Classic loss Nov. 15 to reigning national champion Kansas.
That’s some serious star power, and it didn’t even account for Louisville’s El Ellis (29 points twice last week), or Wake Forest guard Tyree Appleby, who averaged 21 points, 6 assists, and 5.5 rebounds in 2 games at the Jamaica Classic last week.
Feast your eyes on these games this week
Feast Week is a wonderful time of the year and in last week’s notebook, we previewed it.
While a handful of these events were last weekend, including the Jamaica Classic and Charleston Classic, many others are underway or will begin on Thanksgiving. Here are a few games involving ACC squads you don’t want to miss during Feast Week (all times Eastern):
NC State vs. Kansas (Wednesday, Noon) – The opening game of the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis will tell us plenty about how improved NC State truly is this season.
Georgia Tech vs. Marquette (Wednesday, 6 p.m.) – The Yellow Jackets are off to a solid 3-1 start, but a win in the 3rd-place game at the Rocket City Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off would go a long way to settling nerves about Josh Pastner’s team this season in Atlanta.
NC State vs. Dayton/Wisconsin (Thursday, TBA)- NC State’s guaranteed 2nd game at the Battle 4 Atlantis will either be a showdown with Big Ten power Wisconsin or Anthony Grant’s really good Dayton team, which is favored to win the Atlantic 10. Beat either and NC State will have at least 1 high-quality resume win to take home from the Bahamas.
Notre Dame vs. Saint Bonaventure (Friday, 4 p.m.) – The Gotham Classic, at UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y., will feature 2 teams that spent much of last season together on the NCAA Tournament bubble. This will be the 1st genuine test for Mike Brey’s Notre Dame team.
Duke vs. Florida/Xavier (Friday, TBA) – In the PK 85 Phil Knight Legacy event in Portland, Ore., the Blue Devils will be tested by either Xavier and it’s powerful tandem of Colby Jones and Jack Nunge or the Gators, led by All-American candidate Colin Castleton in the middle. Either game will be a quality test for Duke’s young, talented frontcourt.
North Carolina vs. Iowa State/Villanova (Friday, TBA) – At the PK 85 Phil Knight Invitational, also in Portland, the Tar Heels will face their 1st Power 6 test of the season when they meet the winner of Villanova/Iowa State. Kyle Neptune’s first Villanova team has a backcourt that can match the Tar Heels, and a future lottery pick in Cameron Whitmore who might be the most talented player on the floor.
Iowa vs. Clemson (Friday, 6 p.m.) – Brad Brownell’s team lost a heartbreaker to South Carolina 2 weeks ago but can erase that sour memory at the Emerald Coast Classic down in Niceville, Florida, by beating an Iowa team that can score but struggles to defend.
Florida State vs. Ole Miss/Stanford (Friday, TBA)- The Seminoles, slowly inching back to health after a series of injuries and suspensions resulted in a disastrous 0-3 start, will have a home crowd and the chance at a quality win when they face 1 of 2 NCAA Tournament hopefuls in Ole Miss or Stanford at Disney World at the ESPN Events Invitational. Any lingering FSU hopes of getting into the at-large discussion this season depend on a big turnaround, which could start in Orlando, Fla., this weekend.
Miami at Central Florida (Sunday, 5 p.m.) – Jim Larrañaga’s team lost to Maryland in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off event last week, but the Canes get another quick resume game when they visit a solid UCF team in Orlando this weekend. The Knights are 4-1, and knocked off Florida State this month, a win that should get the Canes’ full attention.
Duke vs. Gonzaga/Purdue/West Virginia? UNC vs. UConn/Alabama/Michigan State? — The PK 85 Tournament championship games are going to be must-see television. Duke and Florida played a classic championship game at the PK 80, the last time a PK event was held, with Duke rallying from a 20-point deficit to capture the championship. If it is Blue Devils and Gonzaga, the crowd will be a factor, as the Bulldogs travel well and don’t have far to go for this event. As for the Tar Heels, any of the matchups above would simulate Sweet 16/Round of 32-type action, and show that the Tar Heels have quickly adjusted from last season’s surprising 8 seed to to this season’s hunted blueblood.
Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving to all.