King's Court: Has Tobacco Road Basketball Ever Been This Bad?

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King's Court: Has Tobacco Road Basketball Ever Been This Bad?
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With an 0-3 record in ACC play, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said his team’s practices this week will resemble an extensive trip to the dentist.

“You’re not just going to get your teeth cleaned,” Williams said. “You’re going to get some work done on every tooth.”

The Tar Heels aren’t the only team on Tobacco Road in need of cosmetic repair.

Wake Forest is 2-2 and North Carolina State is 1-3 in conference play after the Deacons' 70-69 win over the Wolf Pack on Wednesday. Duke—a Top 10 team less than a month ago—is 2-2 with losses against unranked Clemson and Notre Dame.

The programs’ collective struggles were magnified Saturday, when the Tar Heels, Blue Devils, Demon Deacons and Wolfpack all suffered losses within hours of one another.

Each defeat came by double digits.

“I’ve been trying to research whether that’s ever happened,” said Al Featherston, a sportswriter who has covered college sports in North Carolina for decades. “I don’t remember the last time things were this bad.

“It’s definitely a feeling people around here aren’t used to.”

ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale agreed.

“The way they’ve been struggling is definitely unique and different,” Vitale told Bleacher Report. “In my 35 years at ESPN, I don’t remember all four of them being in a scenario like this all at once.”

Wake Forest’s problems aren’t all that surprising. Coach Jeff Bzdelik entered the season on the hot seat after going just 11-39 in ACC play in his first three seasons. In fact, some fans were so incensed that Bzdelik wasn’t fired after last season that they bought a billboard ad calling for the job of the athletic director (Ron Wellman) who elected to keep him.

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Mark Gottfried won 24 games in each of his first two seasons at North Carolina State, where he inherited a roster stacked with talented players recruited by underachieving coach Sidney Lowe. Now that most of them have moved on, the Wolfpack—who lost four starters from last season—are struggling with consistency. Four days after winning at Notre Dame, NC State lost at home to Virginia by 31 points.

Gottfried noted that the Tobacco Road schools are “playing a bunch of young guys.” He pointed out that some of the ACC’s hottest teams are led by seniors such as Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson at Pittsburgh, and Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell at Virginia.

“When your best players are seniors or fifth-year seniors, it changes your team,” Gottfried said. “Your team has a maturity that others don’t.”

Bouts of inconsistency are nothing new at Wake Forest and North Carolina State. But hardly ever do you see this type of inconsistency at North Carolina and Duke—especially in the same season.

The past 17 ACC conference tournament title games have featured either the Tar Heels or Blue Devils. But if things keep trending downward, there’s a chance that both schools could be unranked when they meet in Chapel Hill on Feb. 12.

That hasn’t happened since 1955, Featherston said. Featherston also mentioned the 1995-96 season, when Duke finished 18-13 and lost to Eastern Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament while North Carolina ended the season ranked No. 25 after falling to Texas Tech in the second round.

“Both teams were pretty ordinary that year,” Featherston said. “North Carolina was starting to build something with a freshman class that included Antawn Jamison. And Coach K was coming off of back surgery at Duke.

“Other than that, it’s just hard to find a year where you didn’t have Duke or North Carolina being really good.

“(The state of) North Carolina is proud of its strong basketball tradition, but this has not been a good year—so far. Those are the best two words I can think of right now: so far.”

Indeed, as maddening as things have been, Duke and North Carolina are holding out hope.

Duke is still ranked No. 23 by AP and touts a first-team All-American candidate in Jabari Parker, who is averaging 18.8 points on the season but just 10.5 points in his last four games.

“I still think Duke will be a good basketball team,” Vitale said. “Are they great? No. But on any given night they’re good enough to beat any team in America.”

Mike Krzyzewski is doing everything he can to help the Blue Devils rediscover their early-season form. The Hall of Fame coach is also experimenting with his bench. Every scholarship player other than Josh Hairston and Semi Ojeleye logged double-digit minutes in Sunday’s 69-65 victory over Virginia.

Krzyzewski also said he’s done a poor job of coaching following the death of his 71-year-old brother, Bill, in Chicago on Dec. 26.

Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

“I got knocked back right after Christmas,” Krzyzewski said. “And I’ve been knocked back for a couple of weeks. It’s on me, not my team. So what we’ve been doing (lately), to me, doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. What we will be doing (in the future), that will be on all of us.

“You don’t get a lifetime membership in the NCAA tournament. You have to pay your dues every year.”

Williams knows that all too well.

One season after winning the NCAA title in 2009, the Tar Heels finished 5-11 in ACC play and had to settle for the NIT.

North Carolina has been one of college basketball’s most confusing teams thus far—“a total mystique,” Vitale said—with victories over Michigan State, Kentucky and Louisville, and losses to Belmont, UAB, Texas, Miami and Wake Forest.

“We are shook a little bit,” Williams said, “but there’s no way to hide from it, so we talk about it. You say, ‘Hey, we haven’t done as well as we wanted to do. But it’s no time to panic. The only thing panicking will do is make it worse.’”

It’s certainly tough to imagine that being the case for North Carolina. Along with their inconsistent play on the court, the Tar Heels’ season has been marred by off-court issues surrounding top player P.J. Hairston, who was dismissed from the team last month because of alleged off-court violations.

Another distraction surfaced last week when a CNN report quoted a study conducted by a UNC professor who alleged that between eight and 10 percent of the school’s football and basketball players read below a third-grade level. The professor said she worked with one former basketball player who couldn’t read or write.

Williams said he doesn’t believe the claim, but in an interview with Bleacher Report last month, he admitted the various forms of turmoil surrounding his program have resulted in one of his most difficult years as a coach.

Still, with two months remaining before the NCAA tournament, Williams is hopeful things will change for the better in Chapel Hill—and the rest of the state, too.

“Whether this is a bad year or a bad month or a bad week or two bad games, who knows,” Williams said. “But Duke and North Carolina have been pretty doggone good over the years and have stood the test of time.

“Let’s not bury us yet.”

 

This Week's Grades 

A: Arkansas-Kentucky—With 60 fouls and 81 free-throw attempts, there were times when it felt as if Tuesday’s Razorbacks-Wildcats tilt in Fayetteville would never end. But anyone who toughed it out until the buzzer was treated to one of the most exciting finishes of the season, as Arkansas high-flyer Michael Qualls soared above the rim to rebound and dunk a missed three-pointer by Rashad Madden with 0.2 seconds remaining in overtime. The winning basket came just seconds after Kentucky’s James Young had tied it with a three-pointer with 10 ticks remaining in the extra period. And the game never would’ve gone to overtime if not for a three by Wildcats guard Andrew Harrison with 1.2 seconds left in regulation.

B: Naadir Tharpe, Kansas—Once viewed as a weakness, the point guard position is becoming a strength for the Jayhawks thanks to Tharpe, a junior who scored a career-high 23 points in Monday’s win at Iowa State. He also had 17 points in a big road win at Oklahoma on Jan. 8. Tharpe shot a combined 12-of-16 from the field and 5-of-7 from three-point range in the two victories and is now averaging nine points and 5.3 assists on the season.

C: Big East, Creighton—Villanova has its best team in years and Creighton boasts the best player in the country in Doug McDermott. Otherwise, there’s not too much to get excited about in the Big East. Butler, America’s favorite mid-major for so many years, is 0-5 in conference play while St. John’s is 0-4, which is inexcusable considering the Red Storm tout the conference’s best talent. Georgetown (11-4), which was already in a transition year, is banged up. And Marquette (10-7) can’t seem to get rolling one season after winning the Big East title. The sleeper team is Xavier, which is 13-4 overall and 3-1 in league play.

D: Oregon—Dana Altman has done an amazing job overall during his time in Eugene, but I’m shocked at how poorly the Ducks have played in recent weeks. Dropping three games in a row is bad enough, but allowing two of the defeats to occur at home (to unranked Cal and Stanford, no less) is downright ridiculous for a team that advanced to the Elite Eight last spring before opening this season with 13 straight wins. Oregon’s almost nonexistent defensive effort has been even worse. Altman’s squad has allowed an average of 92.7 points in its three losses.

F: Steve Lavin—The St. John’s coach is a likable guy, but I’m beginning to think it’s time for him to return to the TV booth. No team in college basketball has underachieved more this season than Lavin’s Red Storm following Tuesday’s loss at DePaul. DePaul! With elite scorers such as D’Angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson, talented interior players like Chris Obekpa and Orlando Sanchez, and one of the nation’s top freshmen in point guard Rysheed Jordan, it’s simply baffling that this team can’t even beat the dregs of a mediocre conference. A bunch of good players are going to waste.

 

Starting Five: Underrated Arenas 

Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Charles Koch Arena, Wichita State—Gregg Marshall, Cleanthony Early and Fred VanVleet aren’t doing it all by themselves. Ten thousand-plus Shockers fans pack the house almost every game and provide one of the most intimidating environments in the country.

Mackey Arena, Purdue—I’ve never understood why the Boilermakers don’t receive more love for the imposing atmosphere that exists in West Lafayette. A large chunk of primo seats are reserved for students close to the court, which always makes things tougher on an opponent.

Hilton Coliseum, Iowa State—The Cyclones’ barn may have overtaken Gallagher-Iba Arena as the second-best venue in the Big 12 behind Allen Fieldhouse. Although they didn’t show it in Monday’s loss to Kansas, Iowa State almost always generates some “Hilton Magic” by feeding off a fanbase that has made an art form out of jeering opponents and officials.

Carrier Dome, SyracuseAthlon Sports did a nice job of polling some of the country’s top sportswriters about the nation’s best arenas. I was surprised the Carrier Dome didn’t crack the top 10. I was there in 2010 when 34,616 fans packed the house for a victory over Villanova and almost every one of them was wearing orange. Very intimidating. 

Kohl Center, WisconsinThe Badgers are 191-18 in their home arena under Bo Ryan. That’s an amazing feat in a conference that is among the country’s deepest and most-balanced from year to year.

  

A Dozen Words on My Top 12 Teams 

  1. Arizona—Sean Miller’s squad may be the best defensive team in the country.
  2. Syracuse—Best teams find ways to win games when they don’t play well.
  3. Michigan State—This is Tom Izzo’s most-talented team in more than a decade.
  4. Florida—The Gators survived a tough road test at Arkansas without Casey Prather.
  5. Kansas—Andrew Wiggins is finally hitting his stride, and so are the Jayhawks.
  6. Wichita State—Gregg Marshall’s Shockers could run the table in a rather weak MVC.
  7. Wisconsin—The Badgers finally lost a game, but that shouldn’t squelch any enthusiasm.
  8. Kentucky—I saw positive signs and toughness in Tuesday’s overtime loss at Arkansas.
  9. San Diego State—Length and experience make Steve Fisher’s squad one of the country’s best.
  10. Oklahoma State—Losing Michael Cobbins hurts tremendously, but the Cowboys are still pretty salty.
  11. Iowa—If the Hawkeyes win the Big Ten, it won’t be an upset.
  12. Villanova—Will the Big East challenge one of Jay Wright’s best-ever teams?

 

Thoughts From Press Row

Behanan doing well

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

I spoke briefly Tuesday evening with former NBA star John Lucas, who runs a treatment program in Houston for athletes and coaches to help them conquer various issues, including substance abuse.

Lucas’ latest project is former Louisville standout Chane Behanan, who was kicked off the team last month for multiple violations of team rules. Lucas said Behanan has been in Houston for about two weeks and should be finished with the program by the end of the month.

“He’s been great,” Lucas said. “The one thing I’ll tell you is that this kid isn’t some punk. He’s not a thug or a bad person. He’s a good kid that just needed to admit he had a problem. He’d never been able to do that before because he was in denial. But he’s taking all the right steps now to getting his life back on track.”

 

Reasons for hope at Iowa State

I was shocked at how poorly Iowa State played in Monday’s 77-70 loss to Kansas at Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones showed absolutely zero patience on offense and took terrible shots way too early during numerous possessions. They also went just 22-of-34 from the foul stripe, with eight of the clanks coming from leading scorer DeAndre Kane.

“Yet we still had a chance to win the game,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said.

Indeed, if there is anything encouraging for Cyclones fans to take from Monday’s loss, that’s it. As poorly as it played—Iowa State went just 4-of-25 from three-point range—Iowa State only lost by seven points to one of the most talented teams in the nation. Just one more three-pointer or a few more foul shots through the net, and momentum—and, possibly, the outcome—could’ve been completely different.

“The best shooters in the world have nights like this,” Hoiberg said. “We’re a rhythm team. When we get in that rhythm we’re tough to stop. We just never really found it tonight. We couldn’t get anything going.”

Instead, after forcing a 36-36 tie on a three-pointer by Kane at the buzzer, the Cyclones opened the second half by missing 11 of their first 12 shots. Veterans Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang combined for 26 points but went a collective 9-of-35 from the field.

“You rely on your top scorers,” Hoiberg said. “When guys have off nights it’s going to affect the way you play. It’s going to affect the way you score the ball. I’d go to battle with those guys every game. I wouldn’t take any player in the league over the guys I’ve got.”

 

Billy’s Boogie

Texas A&M’s road win at Tennessee was a huge momentum boost for a program in desperate need of a lift. It was less than a month ago when third-year coach Billy Kennedy dismissed one of his most talented players (guard J’Mychal Reese) for violating athletic department rules and policies. Things then snowballed on New Year’s Eve, when Texas A&M lost at home to North Texas by 20 points.

I exchanged texts with Kennedy after the game.

“We’ll get it turned around,” he wrote. “It’s just going to take a little more time than I hoped.”

Apparently Kennedy needed only two weeks, as Texas A&M is now high on momentum after crushing Arkansas 69-53 in its conference opener before beating Tennessee 57-56 on a three-pointer by Antwan Space with four seconds remaining in Knoxville. The Aggies trailed by 14 points at intermission and never led until Space’s heroic shot.

The victory led to a wild locker-room celebration that included some dancing by assistant coach Glynn Cyprien and the normally stoic Kennedy.

“That wasn’t me,” Kennedy said of the video footage of him letting loose. “That was an imposter. We’ve got a good group. The culture is in place now.”

 

California Bears are golden

I must admit, I was a bit surprised to see Cal open Pac-12 play on a three-game winning streak that included road victories at Stanford and Oregon. Apparently, I was in the minority.

“I wasn’t shocked at all,” said one current Pac-12 head coach, who asked not to be identified. “You have to remember who is on the sideline. Mike Montgomery is still the best coach in the league. You give him even marginal talent, and he’s going to win with it.”

Cal, which is 12-4 overall, lost leading scorer Allen Crabbe from last season, but it returned its next four scoring leaders in Justin Cobbs, Richard Solomon, David Kravish and Tyrone Wallace. Each of those players is averaging between 11.8 and 15.1 points.

 

Wake-up call at Missouri

More than a few Missouri fans were upset when the Tigers dropped a home game to SEC bottom-feeder Georgia last week. The loss was Missouri’s first in almost two years in Columbia, where coach Frank Haith is 40-2.

“I think we kind of needed it, to be honest with you,” Haith told me Tuesday evening. “We had a coolness about us, an air about us. We were going through the motions. I think losing that game will help us in the long run.”

Missouri bounced back with a road win at Auburn and is now preparing to play three games in six days beginning Thursday at Vanderbilt.

Haith said his team isn’t as gifted offensively as the 2011-12 group that went 30-5. And last year’s squad was more talented with NBA point guard Phil Pressey and Laurence Bowers, a 6’8” forward who could stretch the defense with his outside shot.

“We’re not as explosive, but we’re better defensively,” Haith said. “Now we need to become a good rebounding team and get back to playing transition basketball.”

Missouri returns just two players (Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross) who made significant contributions to last year’s squad. Brown (18.2), Ross (14.2) and Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson (18.9) combine to average 51.3 points, which is more than two-thirds of Missouri’s offense.

 

Rapid Fire

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Give him a raise: Josh Pastner, Memphis

One-week furlough: Shaka Smart, VCU

Still got it: Larry Brown, SMU

Back to the drawing board: Anthony Grant, Alabama

Making strides: Mississippi State, DePaul, Northwestern

Trailing off: South Florida, Auburn, Fresno State

Scary but inconsistent: Florida State

Too much love: Pac-12

Not enough love: American Athletic Conference

Freshman no one is talking about but should be: Marcus Foster, Kansas State

Senior no one is talking about but should be: Xavier Thames, San Diego State

 

Pit Stops

D.d. Peckers' Wing Shack, Charlotte—I literally eat wings at least three days a week. Sometimes more. My sportswriter friends and I spend hours arguing about which dive bars make the best bird, and we debate the merits of deep fried wings vs. baked wings vs. charred wings and argue about whether honey should ever be allowed in wing sauce.

Hell, I evened traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., last summer for the National Buffalo Wing Festival.

Am I obsessed? Ab-so-frickin’-lutely.

But I also know my stuff, which is why you should trust me when I say that d.d. Peckers' in Charlotte, N.C., makes some of the best wings in America. I hesitate to list them No. 1, because while I’ve been to hundreds of wing haunts, I haven’t been to thousands. But just know d.d. Peckers has catapulted to the top spot in my Wings Power Rankings. That’s saying something.

Located in a strip mall just off Park Road, d.d. Peckers' doesn’t have much to offer in terms of ambiance, which is another reason I love it. It’s just a dimly lit, blue-collar bar with some TVs, cold bottled beer, delicious shoe-string onion rings and some incredible wings.

I stopped by Peckers' three times during a 36-hour trip to Charlotte last spring and sampled eight of its more than 26 flavors of wings. The hot gold wings (don’t ask what’s in the sauce; I have no idea) were my favorite, but only slightly ahead of the lemon pepper wings, which were tossed in a hot skillet that had been doused with lemon juice. The hot teriyaki and hot ranch wings were great as well, and so were the cajun and regular buffalo wings. Joining me on my trip were former head coaches Al Skinner (Boston College) and Darrin Horn (Western Kentucky and South Carolina). They were partial to the barbecue wings.

No matter what flavor you choose, you’ll love the size of the drummies and flappers (they’re not tiny) and the contrast between the crispness of the skin and the tenderness of the meat. I could go on and on, but I won’t, because this is making me really hungry for some d.d. Peckers' wings, and I don’t have any trips planned to Charlotte.

 

Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. 

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