ACC: Season Grade: B-
The year started promising for the newly expanding Atlantic Coast Conference. In the 2013-2014 season the league welcomed former Big East members Syracuse and Pittsburgh in hopes of putting the ACC back on the map of elite power conferences with legitimate title contenders. The preseason poll featured Duke, Syracuse and North Carolina all in the top twelve in the nation, with Virginia as a surprise team at number 24. The season looked promising, but early losses by North Carolina, Virginia and a struggling Duke squad trying to find it’s defensive put Syracuse on the front line as they started the season 25-0. No one can say they expected Virginia to end up winning the regular season and conference tournament championships. This Virginia squad was totally centered around defense, and with their wide range of scorers and depth on the bench, the Cavaliers looked very strong as they claimed a number one seed entering March Madness. The 2014 ACC season was full of upsets, surprises, and winning streaks.
The Orange of Syracuse started off the season hot, winning the Maui invitational with tough wins against major conference opponents Cal, Minnesota, and in the championship, at the time ranked number 18 in the nation, the Baylor Bears. They continued their undefeated run behind the veteran presence of preseason all-ACC team member C.J. Fair. But Fair soon learned he wasn’t going to be needed every night. Junior Jermani Grant, sophomore Trevor Cooney, and most importantly the freshman point guard Tyler Ennis all played key roles in just about every one of their first 25 games as the Orange began the season 25-0 before hosting lowly Boston College. Coming off a recent #1 ranking in the AP and USA Today Polls the Eagles traveled to the Carrier Dome to what was expected to be a blowout in the team’s road to a perfect test. Things went downhill from there as the team fell in 5 of their last eight games of the season. The main problem for the Orange was putting teams away. Of their last 10 games, eight went down to the last minute. Ever since the loss to Boston College they weren’t the same, and to the team’s defense, they faced injury problems as well with Jerami Grant missing several games as well as starting sophomore forward Dejuan Coleman needing knee surgery early into the season.
On March 1st the Orangemen stepped foot on the University of Virginia campus for what was sure to be a game for the ages as the regular season ACC title nearly completely rested upon the winner of this game. The Cavaliers dominated the game from start to finish, turning the usually great Syracuse guards over and not letting their guard down the entire night. The Cavaliers captures their first ACC title in 33 years on their home court behind the performances of Malcolm Brogdon on the scoreboard, Akil Mitchell in the paint, and Joe Harris who played a game high 33 minutes and controlled the flow of the game both defensively and offensively. After being down one entering the break, UVA came out firing on all cylinders. “It seemed like every time they brought the ball up there was another three going down at the end of the possession,” said Boeheim after the game. Behind 3 point bombs from Justin Anderson and London Perrantes in the second half, the Orange had no response as they shot just 36% from the field on the night. The Virginia Cavaliers, riding high on their first one seed in 30 years, had few problems outing Coastal Carolina and then a tough Memphis squad in the first two rounds of the tournament before they were matched up with the Michigan State Spartans who were also getting hot at the right time of the year. The Spartans downed the Cavaliers in one of the best games of March as the Spartans came back and eventually forward Adrien Payne and guard Gary Harris were too much for Joe Harris to handle. Coach Bennet didn’t view the season as a loss though, they had done something that hadn’t happened at UVA since the 1980’s and revolutionized as well as resurrected a former basketball dynasty that hopes to continue for years to come.
When the year came to a close, there stood one player who, among all the great scorers and future lottery picks in the ACC this season, rose above the rest. Duke’s freshman star Jabari Parker seemed to be a man amongst boys on the court in several games as he slashed to the hoop and took over in the paint. He was much talked about prior to entering the season Parker beat out T.J. Warren of NC State, Joe Harris of Virginia, K.J. McDaniels of Clemson, and Marcus Paige of North Carolina for the ACC player of the year award. Parker is a projected top 5 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, yet he is currently still considering staying in school to redeem himself after the Blue Devils were upset in round of 64 by the lowly 14 seeded Mercer Bears. This Duke team was feared entering the NCAA tournament as they had come off a strong performance in the conference tournament, eventually falling to the red hot Virginia Cavaliers in the championship. The Dukies high powered offense was lead by the guards on defense that forced the second most turnovers a game the ACC, and top 20 in the nation in that category.. At the end of the day, when Coach K’s team comes back to Cameron Indoor without at least a Sweet 16 bid, the season is deemed a failure, and that’s just how we have come to view these powerhouse programs.
Was the season a success for the ACC? A failure? It’s hard to tell. Though the conference received five bids in the NCAA Tournament with Duke, UNC, Syracuse, Virginia, and NC State hearing their names called on selection Sunday. If you view a successful season as seeing the teams do well in the season’s most important postseason, then the ACC had a tough year. The Syracuse Orange fell to upset specialists Dayton in just the second round as all of New York was in a state of disbelief, but they seemed to become used to the upsets at the end of the year. The Tar Heels upset 6 seed Providence College in the first round, but was defeated in their next game versus a strong Iowa State team, their instate rivals didn’t fair well either as NC State fell to a streaking Tennessee squad, led by new Coach Cuonzo Martin, and as mentioned earlier the Blue Devils were upset by Atlantic Sun Conference tournament champion Mercer the biggest upset of the opening weekend of the tournament. Virginia was the one outlier as they advanced to the Sweet 16, though they fell to a team in Michigan State that most people believed was given a seed much worse than they deserved. With the new conference set in stone, this conference will need to do some solid rebuilding in the offseason, but there’s no reason that they teams like Virginia Tech, with the new hiring of Buzz Williams can’t turn it around and pull out a run like UVA had this season. There’s always surprises in the ACC, but Virginia at the top of the leaderboard was shocking to nearly everyone who had been watching these teams since the start of the year.
By Brendan Crowley