The basketball league famous for creating hoops heroes along Tobacco Road held a January showdown Saturday between its only remaining undefeated teams in conference play.
But there was not a school from North Carolina, Virginia or Maryland in the arena. No representative from Florida or Georgia, either, in this era of rampant realignment.
Instead, the battle for first place in the ACC went down in Syracuse, N.Y. — a 623-mile drive from Coach K’s office on the Duke campus in Durham, N.C. It featured No. 2 Syracuse and No. 20 Pittsburgh, a pair of newbies from the Big East who have grabbed the ACC basketball standings by the throat in their first month as league members.
Combined with last year’s conference title by Miami, another former Big East member, it represents the latest example of the New World Order unfolding in the ACC. The only question is whether the former Big East schools will supplant Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State as the Big Beasts in the ACC for the short term or the long term.
History suggests it would be foolish to permanently dismiss the power trio from the state of North Carolina that has combined to win 10 of the last 40 NCAA men’s basketball titles, along with seven runner-up finishes.
Include all ACC teams and some conference member has reached 19 of the last 40 NCAA title games, with championship banners hoisted at Duke (2010, 2001, 1992, 1991), North Carolina (2009, 2005, 1993, 1982), N.C. State (1982, 1974) and Maryland (2002). Georgia Tech also reached the 2004 title game.
But none of those schools has measured up this season when matched against Syracuse or Pitt. The Orange beat the Panthers, 59-54, in Saturday’s showdown at the Carrier Dome but Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is not willing to declare his team the bully of his new block.
“For a team that hasn’t lost, we’ve been in some tough spots,” Boeheim said, citing a 17-point deficit in a non-conference matchup against Villanova as the toughest to date. “We’ve been down in the second half a number of times this year. And when we’ve been in that situation, a number of guys have made plays down the stretch. But we’ve got a lot of work we need to do to get better. There’s no doubt about that.”
There’s also no denying the Orange have ruled the ACC, thus far, behind the scoring of C.J. Fair (16.8 points per game) and Trevor Cooney (13.6), the rebounding of Jerami Grant (6.5 average) and the rapid development of freshman point guard Tyler Ennis (5.5 assists per game; 4.1 ratio assists-to-turnovers). Boeheim cites one other factor.
“We’ve played a lot of our so-called easier road games and have a lot of tough games coming up,” Boeheim said, noting future road trips to Wake Forest (Jan. 29), Pitt (Feb. 12), Duke (Feb. 22), Maryland (Feb. 24), Virginia (March 1) and Florida State (March 9). “You’re going to get beat up in a league like this, no matter who you are, unless you have a great team. And there’s no great teams any more.”
But in the ACC, a league traditionally dominated by the Tobacco Road schools, Syracuse and Pitt come closest. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, a former TCU player, called it “too early” to draw any long-lasting conclusions about the early emergence of the Big East expatriates in the ACC race. Syracuse (18-0, 5-0 in ACC) holds a one-game lead over Pitt (16-2, 4-1) in the standings but Clemson (13-4, 4-1) and Virginia (13-5, 4-1) also are contenders in a season marked, thus far, by early struggles from Duke (13-5, 3-2), North Carolina (11-6, 1-3) and N.C. State (11-7, 1-4).
“Pittsburgh has built a great program,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said after the Panthers’ 81-74 victory in Atlanta, a program first in matchups between the schools. “They play with great toughness. They share the ball well. They know exactly who they are and they rarely take a bad shot.”
The same attributes apply to Syracuse, which ranks 180th in scoring (72.0 avg.) but stands among the national leaders in scoring defense, allowing 58.4 points per game. That defense-first mindset carried the Orange to the Final Four last season as a Big East member. It could bring Syracuse to the 2014 Final Four in Arlington as an ACC newcomer.
The Crimson, No. 37 in the updated RPI rankings, began defense of its Ivy League title with last week’s 61-45 victory over Dartmouth and features six players averaging at least eight points per game, led by guard Wesley Saunders (15.7). As a No. 14 seed, Harvard upset third-seeded New Mexico, 68-62, in last year’s NCAA Tournament and should be back in the field in March.
Spotlight: Antoine Mason, Niagara, G
Niagara guard Antoine Mason leads the NCAA in scoring (27.6 average) and ranks high among college players in NBA bloodlines, too. His father, Anthony, spent 13 seasons in the NBA, most notably as a power forward with the New York Knicks (1991-96) on multiple playoff teams.
The younger Mason (6-foot-3) lacks his father’s height (6-7) but hopes to follow his career path. Anthony Mason averaged 28 points per game as a senior at Tennessee State before being selected by the Portland Trail Blazers in the third round of the 1988 NBA Draft. A fourth-year junior, Antoine Mason hopes to use his track record as a prolific small-college scorer as a springboard to the NBA as well.
The only question is whether this will be his final season at Niagara (5-14) or whether he will return as a senior to try and improve an erratic jump shot. For the season, Mason is shooting roughly 30 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. But he hits better than 50 percent from everywhere else and is a terrific penetrator who is equally adept at attacking the basket off a left-handed or right-handed dribble.
Niagara coach Chris Casey described Mason as an “efficient scorer” who has displayed good shot selection while topping the 30-point mark in nine games this season. Mason is asked to carry his team’s offense to the point he is a near shoo-in to win the NCAA scoring title although the Purple Eagles are a longshot to play in the postseason. And he gets daily tips from his dad, who has taken a hands-on approach in grooming Antoine for the next level.
Asked about his son’s NBA chances in an interview with Bleacher Report, Anthony Mason said: “It doesn’t matter what school you got to. If you can play, you can play … I know what it takes to make it. The odds are 20,000 to 1. Let’s keep it honest. He’s the No. 1 scorer in the country. Somebody’s watching.”