ACC week six: from the ground up

Simone Westbrook scored a career-high 30 points against Davidson Sunday. Photo courtesy of Clemson Athletics.
Simone Westbrook scored a career-high 30 points against Davidson Sunday. Photo courtesy of Clemson Athletics.

Week six for the ACC was basically copying lines in detention. The world beaters kept beating the world; the competent winners competently won.

Plenty of ink has been justifiably spent on the teams holding sway atop the conference, but it’s helpful every so often to cast an eye towards the bottom of the standings. The young season, just ahead of conference play, still has plenty of potential turns to take. While it’s unlikely the elite will falter too badly, there’s enough raw talent and promise hanging around to vigorously reshuffle the bottom two thirds or so of the conference. This week is dedicated to the teams who, to varying degrees, could still hope for better.

First off, a quick run through the upper echelon: Louisville and NC State, each of which are 11-0. Virginia Tech is 10-0 and Florida State, 10-1. Notre Dame sits at 9-1 while Boston College and Miami are each 9-2. Syracuse and Georgia Tech are both 8-2.

The rest of the conference is all over the map.

Duke hasn’t played a game since Dec. 6, as snow forced a cancellation of their tilt against ranked South Carolina the following Sunday. (In hindsight, this might have been a stroke of luck for a Blue Devils squad still struggling for purchase and identity.) Sitting at 11th in the ACC with a 6-3 record is not a standard to which coach Joanne P. McCallie is accustomed. This team, after all, played deep into March just last year, and have been consistently good-to-great throughout most of McCallie’s tenure. There is no lack of talent on the roster, despite the loss of key components to graduation and injury.

Three players are scoring in double figures this year: Haley Gorecki (16.6), Leaonna Odom (15.9), and Mikayla Boykin (11.0). Miela Goodchild is just shy at 9.8. The team’s .450/.355/.615 shooting splits aren’t great, but they’re not terrible either. Getting buckets is not the problem; getting them efficiently is.  So far, Duke has 113 assists against 181 turnovers this year, which ranks 281st nationally. Gorecki, the de facto floor general since Kyra Lambert’s preseason injury, has only 31 dimes on the year to her 27 turnovers. (To be fair, her 27 steals have mitigated this more than a little.) Unfortunately, she’s the only ball handler playing significant minutes on the plus side of the margin.

Odom is at 20-43, Goodchild 19-31, and no one else is fairing any better. The Blue Devils are also struggling mightily on the glass. No player is averaging double-digit rebounds, and they’re less than five boards a game better than their opposition on the year. That may not improve much, but there’s time enough yet to clean up the ball control. With the sheer scoring talent on hand, ameliorating that single issue with cleaner passing and better focus could still dramatically alter Duke’s fortunes this year.

Clemson were just starting to look decent before taking a 80-90 loss to Davidson Sunday to drop them to 7-4. As detailed last week, the Tigers have some very talented pieces on their roster, and two of them played fantastic games despite the loss. Kobi Thornton cranked out 13 points and eight rebounds, and Simone Westbrook had a career-high, staggering 30-5-5-5 (steals.) Clemson will continue to be largely a boom-or-bust proposition, but the booms could outweigh the busts enough to kick down some unexpected doors.

North Carolina, at 7-4, are showing signs of life. After three straight – and frankly, brutal – losses, the Tar Heels beat in-state siblings UNC’s Wilmington and Greensboro by a combined 165-117 in their last two games. Stephanie Watts has mostly returned to form after an injury that kept her out last year. The redshirt junior is averaging 16.8 points, 2.9 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game, to go with a team-high 12 total blocks. (Yes, a 5’11” guard is leading her team in swatting shots.) Janelle Bailey is putting up 16.7 points and 9.3 rebounds, and senior Paris Kea is clocking 14.2 ppg, 3.1 apg, and 2.3 rpg. Not to be underrated is the brilliance of new JUCO transfer Shayla Bennett, who has become the primary trigger for the offense while clocking 11.5 points and 4.5 assists. Taylor Koenen is carrying on her production from last season with 8.8 points, 2.5 dimes and 7.6 boards. The team is well-balanced and running as is Sylvia Hatchell’s wont, but they’re struggling to fully cohere as yet. Like Duke, they’re still coughing up the rock too much, though their 176-171 ratio is at least on the plus side. The Tar Heels are running the break, they just need to execute better while they’re at it. They’ve got a quick first step, but they’re still a step away.

Wake Forest is sitting at 6-4 despite currently being on a three-game win streak. As with most of the other struggling ACC teams, the Demon Deacons have firepower they haven’t quite been able to take full advantage of. The talented scoring quartet of Elisa Pena (16.3 ppg), Ivana Raca (13.7), Alex Sharp (12.0), and Ona Udoh (11.5) have been adept , but coach Jen Hoover’s squad haven’t found a sustained rhythm they can work, and the cutting and passing simply has not been crisp despite the elegance of Hoover’s system. The Deacs are out-rebounding opponents by nearly 10 boards a game, and they are clearly playing hard and with a purpose. But they haven’t been able to translate that into substance. With .429/.309/.745 shooting splits and 137 assists to 200 turnovers, Wake have not achieved the offensive efficacy needed to maximize their talent. There are bright spots to be seen, though. Their scoring defense metric is 96th nationally. That doesn’t sound impressive in a vacuum, but it puts them in a tight rankings cluster that includes fellow ACC teams Georgia Tech, Miami, Boston College, and NC State – all of whom are having very good seasons. If the Deacs can tighten up some of their more erratic tendencies and still maintain that clip, they have a shot at redefining themselves during conference play.

The Pitt Panthers are hovering at 6-5. While Aysia Bugg, Cassidy Walsh, and Danielle Garven are putting up a combined 34 points a game, they’re not doing so very efficiently. Leading rebounder Cara Judkins is only pulling down 6.5 boards a game. Their +1.3 scoring margin ranks 180th in the country, and their 14.2 apg average ranks 124th. Pitt does have a strength in depth, however. Say this for coach Lance White: his squad cares about all aspects of the game, and there is no slacking from anyone in any facet. Every player (they run eight-to-ten deep depending on the game) who’s gotten significant rotation minutes thus far has contributed a well-rounded if not particularly explosive array of assists, points, and rebounds. No one on the roster is going to drop jaws. This is a team full of grinders who all play as complete a game as possible night in and night out. They may lack elite talent, but a team full of base-model Swiss Army Knives can still cut, get things open, and carve out some wins.

Virginia is 4-6, and is the only squad under .500 in the conference. In fairness to the Hoos, the schedule hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk (thee games already against ranked teams), but it’s still been a disappointing season so far. Versatile junior Jocelyn Willoughby has been a standout, racking up 12.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game on .318/.541 (note: 54.1% 3FG!!!)/.800 shooting splits. Along with Khyasia Caldwell’s .444, those are some dazzling percentages from beyond the arc. This team is out-shooting opponents both downtown and at the stripe and holds a +3.8 margin on the glass, but they’re in the red in every other statistical category. They will continue to struggle, but the Cavs could catch a hot hand in a few big games and at least put a scare into some teams.

One of these teams could catapult into the serious ACC conversation. Or three of them. Or none. The potential is there, and waiting to see if it will be fulfilled or not is what makes the game so fun.