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The (Tobacco) Road To The Final Four: The UNC-UK Showdown

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The 2016-17 college basketball season is starting to heat up. Beginning this week, we’ll keep tabs on what’s happening on the hardwood across the ACC landscape.


Although the college football postseason kicks off today with five bowl matchups (it’s going to be a flannel pajamas kind of day for me, complete with fuzzy Ernie slippers), it’s time for me to dig deep into the 2016-17 college basketball season.

Each Saturday morning, I’m going to venture out to ACC land and see how your favorite schools are faring on the hardwood. Let’s call it “The (Tobacco) Road To The Final Four,” in which I’ll dive into the latest storylines, news and notes that have ACC fans buzzing heading into the weekend.

While I am first and foremost a college football scribe, I have been a surveyor of ACC hoops since the 1989-90 Georgia Tech season, which saw Bobby Cremins lead his Yellow Jackets to a 28-7 mark and the NCAA Final Four. Of course, that was the season that saw UNLV win the national title with a 103-73 victory over Duke, as the Runnin’ Rebels set the NCAA Tournament record for largest margin of victory in a championship game. It was also the year that saw Loyola Marymount star forward Hank Gathers collapse and pass away due to a heart condition. These were my first distinct memories of the great sport of college hoops.

SIDE NOTE: There’s a chance that a Bobby Cremins reference will make this space each and every week. He is my favorite coach of all time. Along with Wayne Fontes. And Ozzie Guillen. And all of the NHL’s Sutters.

With that said, let’s open up the notebook…

Another season, another tilt between North Carolina and Kentucky. The two bluebloods will meet on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in what should be yet another high-scoring affair. The seventh-ranked Tar Heels (10-1) and sixth-ranked Wildcats (9-1) highlight the day’s slate, with UK head coach John Calipari trying to move to 6-2 against UNC since being in Lexington. He’ll have the extra advantage of not playing in Chapel Hill, too, where both losses occurred.

These teams met in the 2011 Elite Eight, as well as the next season at Rupp Arena and in UK’s undefeated 2014-15 regular season. Those were all Wildcat victories. This time around, UNC is ranked No. 11 nationally in scoring at 88.0 points per game, while the Wildcats are third in scoring at 94.4 points per contest. Meanwhile, UNC is No. 1 nationally in rebounding margin (plus-14.8 per game). That stat could be one of the biggest factors in this clash. UK’s frontcourt could eventually be one of the nation’s best by the time the tournament rolls around, but UNC is already there with freshman Tony Bradley and veterans Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.

Despite losing Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige to the NBA as well as Theo Pinson to injury, Roy Williams has a dynamite team this season, with wins over Wisconsin, Davidson and Chattanooga. The lone loss was a 76-67 setback at Indiana. The Tar Heels can beat you both inside and outside, and they can play at various tempos. Meanwhile, UK prominently plays four freshmen compared to UNC starting four upperclassmen. Both squads are going to want to push the tempo, with both Calipari and Williams trying various methods to slow down the opposition. Whichever team plays the best perimeter defense and/or half-court offense may come out on top.

One last note: Tar Heels point guard Joel Berry II leads the team in assists and is second in scoring, but he has missed the last two games with a sprained left ankle. Will he be able to suit up for the clash against the Wildcats? He is expected to play, barring something unforeseen, and that’s big for a team that won both games that he missed but struggled against Tennessee. Berry is averaging 14.8 points, 4.7 assists and 3.8 rebounds this season.

This should be one of the best games of the year, and things don’t get any easier for UK after Saturday. Louisville awaits on Dec. 21, so the ‘Cats will get to know how good the ACC really is in these two contests. Can UK become an elite—or at least excellent—defensive team? That’s the biggest question for a team whose best wins this season are against Valparaiso and a battered Michigan State squad.

…Dust the dirt off of Duke’s shoulders, because Coach K’s squad is a national title contender once again. After Luke Kennard put on a clinic at Madison Square Garden in the team’s win over Florida in the Jimmy V Classic, the Blue Devils (10-1) dismantled UNLV by 49 points last Saturday in Las Vegas behind 34 points from Grayson Allen. It was a performance against the Runnin’ Rebels that revealed just how good this team can be when everything is on point, especially when its national player of the year contender has such a big game. Double-double machine Amile Jefferson had 10 points and 12 rebounds, while freshman forward Jayson Tatum added 13 points and five boards. We knew the Blue Devils would be good, but I thought it would take a little bit more time for the squad to look so cohesive. Duke has a two-point loss to Kansas in November on its resume, but that could be a good thing. I always argue that being humbled a few times over the course of a hoops season is the best thing for potential No. 1 seeds. Plus, keep in mind that Tatum, Marques Bolden and Harry Giles were battling injuries when the Blue Devils hooked up with the Jayhawks.

…How good can Florida State be this season? The Seminoles have just one setback, taking a 10-1 mark into the weekend, boasting wins over Illinois, Minnesota, Florida and the MAAC’s Iona. Leonard Hamilton’s squad features future NBA players Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac to go along with good size and a deep bench. So if the rigors of the conference slate affect a few players, the ‘Noles have very capable guys to step in and not miss a beat. Defensively, it’s not a typical Hamilton squad. However, I would expect the team to improve in that area as we move into the new year. FSU ultimately may not lead the league in defensive field goal percentage, but 7-4 sophomore center Christ Koumadje is a difference-maker in the paint in close contests because of his ability to alter shots. We will see just how good this team can be from Jan. 10-21, when a four-game stretch of Duke, at UNC, Notre Dame and Louisville will really test the ‘Noles.

…Virginia Tech may not have a ton of size, but the Hokies are efficient and fun to watch. Buzz Williams’ squad only has one player logging significant minutes that is at least 6-7—freshman forward Khadim Sy is 6-10—but VT spaces itself out well, which causes havoc for opposing defenses. The Hokies are spreading the ball out to their shooters, and they are connecting on 38.8 percent of their three-point attempts. VT is 8-1, with its lone loss by three points to Texas A&M, after entering the year picked to finish low in the ACC. Regular season conference play for the Hokies begins on New Year’s Eve against Duke at Cassell Coliseum. We will certainly find out a lot more about VT in that one. The Senegal native Sy is averaging 5.9 points and 4 rebounds per game while shooting 64 percent from the floor, and he was a solid contributor (8 points and 4 boards) in the Hokies’ win over Michigan two weeks ago. His production may be needed even more now that Kerry Blackshear may not be available for the rest of the season. Blackshear still has no timetable to return to the team, and his loss would be big for a team that has overachieved thus far in 2016-17. The 6-10, 260-pounder appeared in all 35 games for the Hokies last season, averaging 6.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. But he has been dealing with a shin issue since preseason, so he has yet to play for a team that has wins over Michigan and Ole Miss. Despite their success early in the year, the Hokies will likely need Blackshear to have any chance to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.

…Expect Brad Brownell and Clemson to have the services of freshman Elijah Thomas on Sunday against Alabama. The transfer forward from Texas A&M had to sit out for a calendar year, but he is now ready to help out a Tigers team that is off to a 7-2 start, with the lone losses coming to Xavier and Oklahoma. The Tigers have won five consecutive games, but the services of the transfer swingman will only help as they enter conference play. Thomas is a former four-star forward recruit who averaged about 10 minutes per game in his short stint with the Aggies, putting up 3.8 points and 2.5 rebounds per contest. Injuries never allowed him to get quite comfortable with A&M, though.

…One player who has enjoyed a strong start to the season is Mike Young, who is on an 8-2 Pitt team that like Virginia Tech was picked in the preseason to be an ACC bottom-feeder. The 6-9 senior has scored 20 or more points in seven games already, including a 29-point, nine-rebound effort last Saturday in a win over Penn State in Newark. Can Young continue his hot play once we get into the rigors of league play? On the season, he is averaging 23 points and eight rebounds per game while shooting a career-best 44 percent from downtown.

…Don’t look now, but Wake Forest sophomore John Collins could be on his way to an all-ACC season. Danny Manning’s Demon Deacons have a beast interior performer, as the 6-10 big man from West Palm Beach, FL, is averaging 18 points and 10.7 rebounds while shooting 64.7 percent from the field. It’s a Wake team that isn’t expected to really break out until 2017-18, but the Deacons will be a tough out most games in league play because of Collins.

Don’t forget to watch:

  • No. 21 Notre Dame vs. No. 15 Purdue (in Indianapolis) at 2 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN2: The Fighting Irish held an 11-point lead in the first half and a six-point advantage midway through the second half of their loss to No. 1 Villanova last Saturday. But Josh Hart dropped 37 points on Mike Brey’s squad to keep ‘Nova unbeaten. ND shot well against the Wildcats, and the Irish are nearly automatic at the free-throw line at 86.4 percent. It’s a team that shares the basketball, shoots well and does not turn it over. That formula will win a lot of games. Expect Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan to have a great contest, but it’s essential that he stays out of foul trouble. The Irish win a close one over their in-state rivals from the Big Ten.
  • Georgetown at Syracuse (in Carrier Dome) at Noon ET, Saturday, ESPN: The Hoyas and Orange have played one common opponent this season. Georgetown lost to Wisconsin by 16 points on a neutral court, while the Orange lost by 17 on the road. While the Hoyas own a win over Oregon in the Maui Invitational, they also have a defeat to Arkansas State on their resume. It’s a big non-conference game for both squads. Georgetown is 6-4, while the Orange are 6-3. In last year’s meeting between the two teams, the Hoyas claimed a 79-72 win.

MORE: My Path To A Heisman Trophy Vote

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