Reevaluating the ACC Pecking Order -

Reevaluating the ACC Pecking Order

by Duke Hoop

Posted: 8/16/2012 2:34:33 PM

There is a great scene in the movie Zoolander where Will Ferrell’s character, Mugatu, has reached his breaking point. His evil plan has been foiled unknowingly by the half witted Derek Zoolander, played by Ben Stiller. While Zoolander is getting all the credit for a job well done Mugatu lashes out. “Who cares about Derek Zoolander anyway? The man has only one look for Christ’s sake!  Blue Steel, Ferrari, Le Tigre….They’re the same face! Doesn’t anyone notice this? I FEEL LIKE I’M TAKING CRAZY PILLS!”  While I try not to get too wrapped up in pre-season rankings, this summer I have found myself feeling like I’m taking crazy pills when it comes to the perceptions of the three ACC basketball teams in the Triangle.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Duke, UNC and NC State will all be good and am very glad that the Wolfpack are contenders again under Mark Gottfried. But the talk of the ACC being a three-horse race with NC State the favorite, Carolina second, and Duke a close third is ludicrous. In my opinion, there is a distinct separation between the three. I see Duke as the ACC favorite and outside national title contender, NC State as an up and coming team that can beat anyone on any given night but lacks the experience and depth to be elite, and UNC as a rebuilding team with a few quality pieces.

This post is not intended to be an in-depth season preview of the three teams. There is plenty of time for that in October. What I intend to do here is to look at a few of the common narratives being purported by college basketball analysts who rank teams and create brackets in the summer and counter some of their arguments with a little bit of analysis and research.

Early Impressions Carry a lot of Weight

When One Shining Moment plays on a late Monday night in early April only one team’s fan base is still thinking about the year that just ended. Everyone else is already looking at next year and there is pressure on mainstream sports websites to put an early top 25 together for the next year as soon as possible to create some easy page hits.

These rankings focus on a few key things to differentiate teams but the main focus is how a team ended up, who they are losing, and what freshmen are coming in to replace them. Readers demand top twenty-five lists the day after the national championship game and these lists are hastily created. Yes, the writers make some slight adjustments throughout the summer based on the late signing period and the NBA draft but for the most part the initial opinions carry the most weight. Writers are exhausted from a long season and looking forward to their summer vacation and rest before the new season starts.

This is where the current 2012-2013 ACC pecking order got established.

Not even the most optimistic Duke fan could have been happy with the way last season ended. The loss to FSU in the ACC semi-finals and subsequent embarrassing loss to Lehigh are what resonates in most college basketball fans’ and analysts’ minds. Not only that but April also saw two highly ranked recruits, Shabazz Muhammed and Tony Parker, choose UCLA over Duke. Austin Rivers and Mason Plumlee also declared for the NBA Draft. Shane Ryan of and wrote a piece on Duke’s horrible month ( and while Shane is a great sports writer whose views on Duke basketball I really respect I thought the piece was overly fatalistic and a bit short-sighted.

It is unfortunate the way the year ended for Duke because the season that preceded it was actually really good. Duke went toe to toe with a juggernaut UNC team for the ACC regular season title. If not for a very fluky home loss to FSU where FSU made not one but two buzzer beating three-pointers and Duke had an Austin Rivers’ three disallowed after replays clearly showed it should have counted Duke, would have ended up with the number 1 seed in the ACC tournament. And while it is unfair to use Ryan Kelly’s foot injury as an excuse given UNC’s extremely bad luck with injuries, I do think having the versatile big man in the lineup would have prevented the ACC semi-final loss to FSU and the first round loss to Lehigh.

Griping and what-ifs aside, Duke really wasn’t that bad last year. In fact they were very good. They got and deserved a two seed in the NCAA tournament. They weren’t on Kentucky, let alone UNC, Kansas or Ohio State’s level but they were good. Certainly better than NC State.

Oh, but NC State made a nice little run in the NCAA tournament. Making it to the second weekend was exciting for NC State fans and they could have made the Final Four if not for a close loss to Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. Mark Gottfried certainly had the Wolfpack playing their best basketball at the end of the season. But let’s not overlook the fact that NC State was a bubble team after finishing 9-7 in the ACC and really didn’t have any signature wins last season. This team underachieved during the season and was so mediocre that their reaction to just getting IN the field of 68 created this classic YouTube clip that makes me smile even five months later (

Austin Rivers getting mobbed after game winner vs UNCAs a lifelong Duke supporter I don’t typically compliment UNC but the way they battled through injuries last year and refused to make excuses is to be commended. Losing two potential starters before the season in Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland is bad enough but then to lose two NBA lottery picks in the last month of the season was just too much to overcome. I strongly believe that, if healthy, UNC would have been by far the best team in the country and a juggernaut on par with their championship teams in 2005 and 2009. Alas, it was not to be but the way they battled to be within a possession or two of the Final Four left a good impression among college basketball writers. 

So you can probably see where I am going with this. At the end of the season UNC and NCSU finished up their season on high notes, being perceived as better than they truly were during the season and Duke ended up their season conforming to the Duke narrative of being an un-athletic, overrated, jump shooting team. The truth for all three teams was somewhere in the middle.

At the end of last season, Duke was losing two starters to the NBA and only had one freshman coming in. UNC and NC State retained potential lottery picks in James Michael McAdoo and CJ Leslie respectively while bringing in consensus top ten if not top five recruiting classes. Considering these situations, it is easy to see how an analyst hastily preparing a top 25 list when all he really wants to do is detox from basketball during the summer can rank Duke third among their tobacco road brethren.

However, there are a few overlooked aspects to these teams which really put conventional wisdom to shame.

The Fallacy of the Recruiting Rankings

A quick look at recruiting rankings on at the end of the season ( shows UNC at 5, NC State at 7 and Duke unranked. NC State was also the favorite to land Amile Jefferson while Duke was seen on the outside looking in for Tony Parker and Shabazz Muhammad. I won’t sit here and argue that UNC and NC State do not deserve their rankings.  What I will argue is that using the recruiting rankings as a guide to the incoming talent does not account for the fact that Duke had two highly ranked recruits sitting on their bench this past year as redshirt freshmen and those players should be included in with the other incoming freshman to form a more complete picture of incoming talent. Since those rankings, Duke came in late and landed Jefferson making their incoming freshman class on par with the Tar Heels and Wolfpack. Including red-shirt freshmen Marshall Plumlee and Alex Murphy (who seriously impressed this summer in International play) each team’s freshman class are as follows:

Team Freshmen McDonald’s AA 5 star 4 star Average Rank



















As you can see, if you include the two redshirt freshmen in the rankings Duke actually has the best recruiting class out of the three, not to mention the fact that two of Duke’s freshman have already had a year of Duke strength and conditioning, training and time to adjust to college life.

Disclaimer: I know certain years are stronger than others so comparing 2011 rankings for Murphy and Plumlee with 2012 rankings for everyone else may not be fair but for the purpose of this article I treated them as equal as to get my point across. Also for this I only used one ranking source, (

Unlike Duke, UNC does rebuild

There is a pretty corny saying when it comes to the elite NCAA basketball and football teams that see lots of underclassmen leave early to go to the NBA draft. “We don’t rebuild, we reload” is that saying and while for some programs (Kentucky of late, and Duke traditionally) that may be somewhat true, history shows that the same does not apply to UNC. Over the last fifteen years or so Duke, UNC, and Kentucky have each had multiple elite teams where after the season three or more impact players leave for the NBA draft. The chart below shows before and after mass exodus information:


Team Impact players lost Next year’s record Result
Duke 1999


29-5 Sweet 16
Duke 2002


26-7 Sweet 16
UNC 2005


23-8 NCAA second round
UNC 2009


16-15 NIT
Kentucky 2010


29-9 Final Four
Kentucky 2011


38-2 NCAA Champs
Kentucky 2012


? ?
UNC 2012


? ?


As you can see, it takes UNC a little bit longer to develop their young players and get them to come together and excel. The mass exodus is fairly rare in college basketball. Duke and Kentucky each won over twenty-six games and made it to at least the second weekend of the NCAA tournament after their juggernaut teams. UNC has failed to win twenty-four games in each of the following seasons with a seriously disappointing NIT year in 2010.

I don’t see UNC being bad this year by any means. This should be a down year relatively in college basketball with no elite teams and UNC has a lot of nice pieces. I can’t however see them being among the NCAA contenders like I do NCSU and Duke.  The problem I have with them is that they have a lot of athletic wings but are very inexperienced at point guard and center.  They only have one player taller than 6-9 and that is freshman forward Joel James. After losing Stilman White and Kendall Marshall they will most likely be starting freshman Marcus Paige at point guard. Their core of Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, PJ Hairston, Reggie Bullock, and James Michael McAdoo is really nice but how many athletic combo guards and small forwards can you play at one time before teams start to game plan around that? Strickland, McDonald, Hairston and Bullock are UNC’s version of Le Tigre, Ferrari, and Blue Steel. They’re all the same “look”.  I don’t see a whole lot of variety in their lineup. Furthermore, there is no way to know just how well Strickland and McDonald will recover from their injuries.

UNC is benefitting from a lot of name recognition in the preseason polls but I think this year will be a rebuilding team as opposed to one that just reloads. With the academic scandal circus that is surely going to surround the team this year and the fact that the players will actually have to go to legit classes and get passing grades this year, I see a team that fails to live up the preseason hype.

NC State’s depth

At first glance it appears that state retained its core while adding to it a top ten recruiting class. A closer look though shows a team that had very little depth last year which has lost more than people realize. NC State only had 7 players average over 12 minutes a game last year and three of those players left. Deshaun Painter transferred and Alex Johnson and CJ Williams graduated. The eligibility of incoming freshman Rodney Purvis is currently being looked into by the NCAA. The Wolfpack have become the chic pick this summer thanks to CJ Leslie’s tremendous March and subsequent decision to stay but I just don’t see this team being on par with Duke.

Duke got better

I’ve already mentioned that despite a horrible March, Duke was actually pretty good last year. This year they should be even better. Keep in mind that in this era of college basketball where marginal players leave early for the NBA draft, Duke has the luxury of starting three seniors. And these three seniors aren’t slouches. One of the reason mid major teams have been so successful recently is that while the Goliaths of the sport are experiencing huge roster turnover, the mid majors get to develop players for four years and have them play together. Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, and Seth Curry are all really good. All three have a chance to be first team all ACC. All three will be better than they were last year. NC State and UNC simply can’t match Duke in experience and leadership.

The other two starters are up in the air but from what I have seen at the NC Pro-Am, Quinn Cook has fully recovered from the knee injury which limited him last year and has the play making ability to really make his teammates better. Tyler Thornton is nice but Cook seems to be the starter to me. The other starter would have been Andre Dawkins by default but with him taking a year off I see Alex Murphy starting at small forward. Duke really lacked a versatile swing player last year ala Kyle Singler and Mike Dunleavy but they have that this year. Murphy was the best player on the Finnish National team this summer and because of the position he plays there is a slot in the starting lineup open for him. This Duke team will have sick depth as well with Thornton, Josh Hairston, Marshall Plumlee, Amile Jefferson, and Rasheed Sulaimon. Throw in Dawkins and incoming transfer Rodney Hood to compete during practice and you have the makings of a national title contender in what will be a down year nationally.

Yes I know Duke lost Miles Plumlee and Austin Rivers and that Andre Dawkins will sit out a year. However, the four additions, plus the fact that everyone else on the team will get better makes me believe Duke should be better than they were last year. I won’t be as naïve to say Rivers leaving will be addition by subtraction but as good as Rivers was, his departure should allow for some of the other players to develop and as Curry alluded to earlier this summer, team chemistry should be a bit better.

To sum up my thoughts on Duke: This is a team that was a two seed last year that should be better than that this year due to an obscene amount of experience, depth, and leadership to go along with the best starting five in the ACC.

Final Thoughts

I really can’t wait for basketball season this year. This should be one of the most fun seasons ever for fans of college basketball in the Triangle. All three local ACC teams have a lot of good things going for them. Right now most of the media believe that NC State will finish first followed by UNC and then Duke but that is short sighted and a knee jerk reaction to the way last season ended. My advice to anyone who likes money would be to find the closest NC State fan and make a friendly wager on the season.  NC State will be very exciting to watch this year but I need to see more consistency from them before I project them ahead of Duke in the ACC standings. Their freshman class will be very good but no better than the Duke freshmen. CJ Leslie is likely to be preseason ACC player of the year but that award is wide open and I could see any of the Duke seniors or James Michael McAdoo from UNC winning it.

Speaking of UNC, Roy Williams does a great job of putting together an elite team every four years but this is not one of them. A great young core of players will ultimately be undone by a lack of balance and inexperienced point guard play.

To me it is pretty clear that Duke is the ACC favorite and should be among the favorites to win it all in a down year nationally. NC State will be an exciting upstart who finishes second in the ACC and plays its way to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament again while UNC struggles early before getting things together. They should finish third in the ACC tournament and be a team no one really wants to play in March before ultimately being outcoached in March by a mid major with a good game plan.

But why male models?

Are you serious? I just…. I just told you that a moment ago.

By Scott Youngblood


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