Now that we've reached the halfway mark of the ACC's extended 18-game season, let's take stock of what's happening.
The league has three teams at or near the top ten and a couple of others that have been hovering around the top 25 mark. However, it doesn't seem like there's a legitimate No. 1 seed to be found in the league to date, but that could change in the second half of the season as the schedule is backloaded with terrific games that will highlight the league's best teams.
1. Haves and have-nots. The ACC usually breaks down into three tiers, with an elite group, a few cellar-dwellers and a middle class struggling to get to the NCAA tournament.
At the halfway point in 2012-13, though, things are a bit different. You're either in the top six (a group most likely bound for the NCAA tournament) or in the bottom six (a group most likely bound for nowhere, or the WNIT at best). Right now, Duke, Maryland, UNC, Florida State, Virginia and Miami are in that top six, with a bit of separation from the top four and the next two. Wake Forest, Boston College, N.C. State, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Georgia Tech round out the bottom. Of this group, only Wake and N.C. State have a realistic shot at postseason play.
Some of the scheduling has played out a bit weirdly so that teams like Duke haven't played a single top six team prior to the Miami game on Jan. 31 but have played Clemson twice. N.C. State and Georgia Tech, on the other hand, have had a schedule jam-packed with top six teams.
2. Most disappointing team: N.C. State. This is a veteran group that did lose a couple of key players but also got some players back from injury, a top-notch JuCo center in Markeisha Gatling, several experienced players and good depth. While not the quickest team in the league, the Wolfpack can put up points inside and out -- yet they started the ACC season 0-7 after experiencing a number of disappointing nonconference losses.
The pattern was similar: a sluggish start, a spirited comeback and an inability to put teams away. They had UNC and FSU on the ropes and went toe-to-toe with Duke and simply collapsed down the stretch of those games. Part of their problem is an inability to generate easy points off turnovers, but it's mostly that they are not a very focused team at either end for long stretches of time. The Pack still have a chance to make a run thanks to their lighter schedule, but they have a lot of work to do.
3. Most pleasant surprise: Florida State. After watching the ‘Noles struggle with chemistry issues and a lack of pure point guard play, it's been a lot of fun to see this group play such entertaining and unorthodox basketball. It all starts with their two-headed point guard attack of Morgan Toles and Yashira "Cheetah" Delgado, who have done a great job of pushing tempo and getting the ball to FSU's athletes in transition. Center Chelsea Davis has been a revelation as a post scorer, providing excellent balance for shooters Alexa Deluzio and Leo Rodriguez. Natasha Howard has been an ideal glue player, as she gets rebounds, runs the floor, defends and scores when she needs to. The bench is thin (only forward Chasity Clayton and Delgado see real minutes), but this is a team that can score in a hurry.
4. Hot seat update: Things continue to be scorching for Kellie Harper at N.C. State, though no rumblings have been heard from the top as she still has half a season to prove herself. She has one year left on her contract, at $247,000 a year, and that's not chump change, especially since there aren't going to be a lot of boosters willing to foot that bill. Nonetheless, if she doesn't turn things around and make the NCAA tournament (pretty much the make-or-break measure), she will be fired, because the only real other alternative at this point is to extend her contract so she's not a lame duck for recruits. That would be a disaster, considering how poor a recruiter she's proven to be.
This program is very important to new AD Debbie Yow for obvious reasons, and she's trying to fund renovations to Reynolds Coliseum. Yow has proven to have an itchy trigger finger when coaches hired by someone else haven't met her expectations, so Harper shouldn’t start redoing her kitchen.
In Clemson, Itoro Coleman's season has been a disaster, though her team has at least won a couple of ACC games. I'm not sure the Tigers will win ten games this season, however, and there aren't a bunch of great recruits on the horizon this time around. Having her top two players bolt the program is not a good sign for her future either, though she does have two more years left on her contract.
I'm not sure Clemson would be willing to shell out a bunch of money to pay her off and hire a new coach, especially when one considers that they hired her on the cheap as a first-time head coach.
5. Five games that will decide things: Duke @ UNC (2/3); Maryland @ Duke (2/11); UNC @ FSU (2/17); FSU @ Duke (2/22); Maryland @ FSU (2/28). These represent five pick 'em games, each of which will have a huge impact on the final standings. If Duke wins all three of the games, it will be tough to catch the Blue Devils in the standings. Maryland winning in Cameron, on the other hand, would give the Terps a big leg up. FSU desperately needs a signature win against a top-three team to make its case as a high seed.
6. Midway all-ACC team: Alyssa Thomas, Maryland (the best all-around player in the league and a legit first-team All-American); Chelsea Gray, Duke (the top guard in the ACC and the best passer in America); Elizabeth Williams, Duke (a tremendous force at both ends who is just starting to edge into shape after recovering from injuries); Tianna Hawkins, Maryland (the most efficient and relentless low-post scorer in America); and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, UNC (the most clutch player in the ACC).
7. Midway all-Rookie team: Xylina McDaniel, UNC (a relentless force in the block); Nicole Boudreau, Boston College (a sweet-shooting guard who can also rebound); Alexis Jones, Duke (a shifty combo guard who is growing ever more confident); Brittany Jackson, Georgia Tech (a rare consistent source of scoring for the unstable Jackets); Uju Ugoka, Virginia Tech (a legitimate low-post scorer and rebounder).
8. Midway Coach of the Year: Brenda Frese, Maryland. This is a team that had a point guard transfer in the offseason (a year after another point guard transferred), then had its starting point guard get hurt before the first game. For good measure, the team also lost a backup center for the year and a key starting forward for most of the season (Tierney Pfirman).
With just six players receiving real minutes, the Terps are somehow playing better than ever, and that's a tribute to Brenda Frese's incredible ability to motivate and instill confidence in her young players. Lightly-recruited Chloe Pavlech is the current starting point guard, and she's doing a fine job of running the team. Maryland has also really circled the wagons and one can sense the incredible chemistry on this team.
9. Most-improved team: Kelsey Wolfe, Virginia (went from 3 ppg and 2 rpg to 12 ppg, 4 rpg and 2 apg); Leonor Rodgriguez, FSU (went from 5 ppg, 3 rpg to 16 ppg, 4 rpg, 3 apg and 44% from three); Suriya McGuire, Miami (went from 3 ppg to 7 ppg); DeArica Hamby, Wake Forest (went from 4 ppg and 4 rpg to 11 ppg, 7 rpg, 1 bpg); and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, UNC (went from 8.5 ppg, 4 rpg, and 3 apg to 14 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.5 apg, 3 spg).
10. Game of the season (so far): Miami 79, Wake Forest 78. This one featured a late-game duel between Miami's Suriya McGuire and Wake's Lakevia Boykin. Boykin hit a shot with seconds left to put the Deacs ahead, but McGuire dribbled through two defenders and around a third to lay up a reverse just out of reach of a fourth defender for the game-winning points. McGuire was on the short end of the second-most exciting game: UNC's buzzer-beating win over Miami thanks to Danielle Butts. That was a sweet shot, but the endgame itself was actually quite sloppy and nowhere near as entertaining and clean as the Miami-Wake game.
11. Midway Player of the Year: Alyssa Thomas, Maryland. No one in the ACC is being asked to do more than Thomas, who handles ballhandling, passing, rebounding and scoring duties and has done it with aplomb. As long as Maryland has Thomas and Hawkins around, the Terps have a puncher's chance against anyone.
12. Midway Rookie of the Year: Xylina McDaniel, UNC. No rookie means more to her club than McDaniel, something that can be measured in the way UNC struggled on the boards when she was injured.
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- The ACC recipe for success, team by team