ACC Hoops Roundtable: RJ Davis running away with Player of the Year, Bubble chatter, hot seats and more
We aren’t quite to the halfway point, but with February almost upon us, now is as good a time as ever to roundtable some ACC hoops. Here’s a little two-man-weave between Saturday Road’s excellent Brett Friedlander and hoops writer Neil Blackmon.
1. The best team that isn’t North Carolina or Duke is …
Neil: Florida State. A month ago, I would say Clemson and argue it isn’t close. Now I don’t know what to make of the Tigers, who look Sweet 16 good some nights and NIT bound others. I will suggest the 3rd-best team is Florida State, with all due respect to Wake Forest, which has a better roster than the Seminoles. That’s the difference between Leonard Hamilton (438 wins, 1 BBWA National Coach of the Year award, 3 ACC Coach of the Year Awards, 1 ACC Championship) and Steve Forbes (63 wins, 0 NCAA appearances, at least Wake is fun again?).
When the Noles lost to Lipscomb in December, I texted former FSU great Terance Mann, “Is Ham done?” Mann’s reply? “He likes this team. Wait.” They defend beautifully, are switchable, turn teams over at a 21% rate, which is among the nation’s best, and their only ACC losses are to North Carolina (who they led by double digits in the second half) and to a desperate Brad Brownell Clemson team last weekend. Did I mention they bullied Wake Forest in their only meeting with those guys? I like their balance, coaching and improvement over the Demon Deacons, and Clemson is too erratic.
Brett: Wake Forest. I can’t disagree with you about the Noles. They’re playing the kind of defense that has become Coach Ham’s trademark, and Jamir Watkins has been everything he was hyped to be. But in my opinion, when all is said and done, the best team that isn’t UNC or Duke will eventually be Wake Forest. The Deacons were already a different team than they were during the first month of the season because of the addition of Efton Reid as a rim protector and low post presence on offense. But they changed their identity — and got even better in the process — recently when Damari Monsanto came back from his knee injury.
Monsanto is hitting shots (6-of-13 on 3-pointers) and his productivity is only going to increase as he gets into game shape and his minutes increase. His shooting ability isn’t the only way Wake will benefit from his presence on the perimeter. The attention defenses will have to pay to him will also create space and open up driving lanes for Hunter Sallis, Cam Hildreth and others.
Neil: I love the roster building Forbes has done via the portal at what, unfortunately, has become a tough place to recruit elite talent. There are more pros (NBA or Europe) on this Wake Forest team than any in recent memory. I think they’ll win enough games to get a NCAA Tournament invite. I think Monsanto is the kind of guy who can shoot you through the ACC Tournament too … great call on that young man.
Brett: Florida State and Clemson lost to UNC and Duke on Saturday. But both played at an extremely high level in those games. If the Noles and Tigers play like that against anyone else in the league, chances are they’re going to win. They’ve got it in them. But can they continue to show it consistently?
2. The ACC Player of the Year is…
Neil: RJ Davis edges out PJ Hall. Hall, who is a deserved Wooden Award semifinalist, is averaging 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks a game and practically willing Clemson to the NCAA Tournament. Most seasons, that would be enough. This isn’t most seasons. RJ Davis has been otherworldly for the Tar Heels. He became the first UNC player this century to score 20 or more in 8 consecutive games, and that was before he dropped 36 in a comeback win over Wake Forest. Armando Bacot was supposed to be this team’s All-American. Davis has been instead, and he’ll win ACC Player of the Year in a walk.
Brett: Davis. Barring and injury or his team falling off the side of a cliff, you can already start etching Davis’ name onto the trophy. He’s always been able to shoot. But now that he’s able to play off the ball most of the time with the arrival of pass-first point guard Elliot Cadeau, he’s shooting even better than ever. And there are more shots to be had without having to share them with Caleb Love. Davis has also raised his game in other areas as well, especially as a defender and a leader. There are other players having POY type seasons — Hall, as you mentioned, Duke’s Kyle Filipowski, Miami’s Norchad Omier and Syracuse’s Judah Mintz. But they’re all battling it out for runner-up honors.
Neil: Watching PJ Hall come up just short at Cameron Indoor over the weekend despite 19 and 11 and outplaying Flip was almost a metaphor for how he’ll just not have enough juice to be ACC POY.
Brett: Everyone other than RJ Davis is battling to be his runner-up.
3. The ACC gets ___ teams in the NCAA Tournament
Neil: I said 6 before the season and I will stick with it, even if I am doomed. The Tar Heels and Duke are locks and barring a Brownell collapse, Clemson should get in without too much worry because they won some tough nonconference games, including SEC wins over a surprisingly good South Carolina and a gem of a road win over Alabama. That leaves 3 spots. I think Virginia will get in because of Reece Beekman and that defense, and I think 2 of Miami, FSU, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest find their way to the field, even if it is the First Four.
Brett: 6. We’re in agreement on the number of bids and the top 3. But beyond UNC, Duke and Clemson, Wake Forest, Florida State and Miami pass the eye test for me. There’s still a lot of basketball to be played, though, and things can change quickly. Just ask NC State when went from looking like a lock at 5-1 in the ACC to deep on the wrong side of the bubble in less than a week. Beyond the 6 teams I mentioned, I think the teams with the best chance of playing their way into the field are Virginia, provided it learns how to win on the road, and Pitt now that it has a huge Quad 1 win at Cameron on its resume and has finished the toughest part of its schedule.
Neil: I know one thing, and may write a column about it — the “2 bid” talk is nonsense. The ACC is 15-8 against the rest of the Power 6 and the Mountain West. Clemson won at Alabama and manhandled South Carolina, 2 SEC teams firmly in the field. North Carolina routed Tennessee. Duke beat Baylor. Wake Forest beat fellow bubble team Florida, as did Virginia. “Facts are pesky,” as that old country lawyer Sam Ervin used to say.
Brett: I agree that the doom and gloom narrative is little more than clickbait. But the one thing ACC teams other than UNC and Duke cannot afford to do between now and Selection Sunday is to put a loss to Louisville on their resume. As Clemson showed us last year, bad losses hold more weight with the committee than good wins.
4. Is a coach that isn’t Kenny Payne on the hot seat?
Neil: I don’t think so, but it will be fascinating to see what happens with both Jeff Capel and Mike Young next year if the Panthers and Hokies miss the NCAA Tournament. Capel’s surprise run to the Round of 32 last season bought him time, but how much remains to be seen, given how disappointing this season has been for Pitt. Mike Young has local ties and that helps, but his teams are bubblicious at a place where Buzz Williams was competing on the second weekend. How many tournaments can Mike barley make or just miss before they go a different direction? It’s too soon for others, like Earl Grant at Boston College, to be in much trouble.
Brett: Kevin Keatts. NC State’s coach is setting himself up to be basketball’s version of football’s Dino Babers. Dino saved his job in 2022 by squeaking Syracuse into a bowl. But because he wasn’t able to build on the momentum and show improvement in 2023, he was fired before the end of the season. Keatts is in his 7th season with the Wolfpack. He got them into the NCAA Tournament for only the 2nd time last year. If he doesn’t get them back there this season, it could be the end of the line for him. Especially since his athletic director isn’t the one who hired him. Capel is in a similar situation, but given Pitt AD Heather Lykes’ history, last year’s tournament appearance might have bought him at least 1 more season no matter what happens this March.
Neil: I am intrigued by you mentioning Keatts. Dave Doeren loses 3 to 5 all the time and gets extensions. Is it just harder to be the hoops coach in Raleigh?
Brett: There are 2 reasons why it is: First is that neighboring rivals UNC and Duke aren’t winning nattys in football, but they are in hoops. Second is that there are a lot more empty seats at PNC for games against everyone other than the Tar Heels, Blue Devils and Deacons while State fans continue to sell out Carter-Finley for football.
5. Which team in the bottom half of the standings has the best chance at finishing in the top half?
Brett: Pitt. I know Clemson is statistically among the bottom 7. But at No. 33 in the NET entering the weekend, I don’t consider them to be a 2nd-division team. So my choice is the Panthers. Blake Hinson, the Diaz-Graham twins and Federiko Federiko squared is a nice core to build around. And Bub Carrington got off to a fast start. But it’s taken some times for everyone to get comfortable with their roles and find an identity as a team. With freshman Jaland Lowe starting to blossom and the toughest part of the schedule behind them, watch for the Panthers to run off a winning streak and get themselves back into postseason contention.
Neil: I think it is Pitt, too. I don’t think they did enough in the non-conference to get into the bubble conversation, but if they finished 9-9 in the league, things might get interesting because they have the win at Duke in their back pocket. Jeff Capel bet big on freshman guards, and sometimes it takes until February and March for that gamble to pay off.