Dexter Strickland, mid-contemplation, during a game last season

ACC conference play begins this weekend, for men and women. And none too soon, after a December marked by a succession of blowouts that were effectively over two minutes after tip-off. Or, as Eric Martin suggested in this report, the games were decided when they were scheduled.

Martin, along with Neil Morris, Adam Sobsey, Rob Harrington and yours truly, all took a few swats at this topic. (I told everyone I wouldn’t mention my thesis that the elimination of the shot clock would improve these games.)

In the end, UNC’s laughable schedule so far, which included 10 home games against the likes of Elon and Monmouth, has allowed it to bolt to a 14-2 record. Duke (12-2) allowed itself several challenging games on the road, and lost two of them—including Wednesday’s game against the Temple Owls in Philadelphia. N.C. State struggled past one alleged cream puff (with a very tart interior, it turned out)—the Camels of Campbell—but otherwise whipped the smaller fry and lost against the big teams on the schedule. A 11-4 record for them, then.

The three men’s teams have an aggregate record of 37-8. The losses have come against Temple, Ohio State, Kentucky, UNLV, Vanderbilt, Indiana, Stanford and Syracuse. That’s a good-looking Elite Eight right there, pity there are no ACC teams in it.

The flyest Devil throws signs during Dukes game versus Virginia on Monday.
  • Photo by Al Drago
  • The flyest Devil throws signs during Duke’s game versus Virginia on Monday.

On the women’s side, the feasting was even more one-sided for the terrible trio of squads led by Sylvia Hatchell, Joanne McCallie and Kelly Harper. They have a combined non-conference record of 29-7, and an aggregate victory margin of 234,985,901. But only Duke and UNC are undefeated thus far in conference play. Mike Potter tells us who’s up and who’s down.

Taking a cue from the London Guardian‘s weekly soccer roundup, our writers have set down their gleanings from a month of watching blowouts (and upset road losses on television at the Federal). We’ll try to make this a weekly feature. Earlier in the week, probably.

First, the men:

A few things we learned while watching Duke lose at Temple

1. Yes, at Temple. It was pointed out that the Wells Fargo Center isn’t technically the Owls’ home court, but the team’s logo was right there on the hardwood, the pep-rally PA guy was all Owls, and so was the crowd. Please. I happened to hear Mike DeCourcy talking about road losses on Thursday’s David Glenn show, and he pointed out that a couple of them in November/December don’t mean anything, really: every team in a good conference is about to play a winter’s worth of road games in tough venues. Pushing the panic button and saying that Duke doesn’t know how to win in a hostile gym is silly. Just you watch: they’ll manhandle Georgia Tech on Saturday. No the Yellow Jackets aren’t good, but that only helps remind us that Temple is. This was a classic “trap” game, coming as it did at the tail end of a mostly idle holiday stretch in which the Blue Devils played all of three games in the previous three weeks, and all of them were against creampuffs. (Go back further, and Washington was Duke’s only quality opponent between the blowout loss at Ohio State on Nov. 29 and Wednesday’s shortfall at Temple.)

2. It’s sort of fun to note that Duke and UNC have both lost their only two road games to date (they’re a combined 0-4), and that each lost to one national power (Ohio State, Kentucky) and one under-the-radar quality team from a good conference hosting the Tobacco Road visitor in a hometown gym that wasn’t the team’s own.

3. My editor, the redoubtable David Fellerath, asked me to respond to his prompt about the evolution of Quinn Cook. So: Cook got only 12 minutes of playing time Wednesday night after averaging 21 over the previous three games. Is he not ready for prime time? Perhaps, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Cook is listed at an even six feet tall (which means he’s probably less than that), and Temple’s three starting guards are all 6-foot-4. It may have simply been that Mike Krzyzewski—who was quick to praise Temple after the loss; the Owls played really well—wanted more size.

Short, skinny things. Seth Curry can sure shoot, though.

4. If that’s the case, it didn’t help much. Duke’s three starting guards, Seth Curry, Austin Rivers and Tyler Thornton, got burned repeatedly by their Temple counterparts, made 10 of the Blue Devils’ 16 turnovers (against just five combined assists), shot 33 percent—due in no small part to forcing shots—and committed nine fouls. Add Cook’s three fouls, and you see how much trouble the Duke backcourt had guarding Temple’s. Take a look at the box score from Duke’s Dec. 10 win over Washington, another team with talented, tall guards. Both Curry and Rivers fouled out of that game, and Thornton committed four fouls. (Cook played only four minutes, adding one foul.) Duke’s backcourt size is an issue. Only freshman-thin Rivers and defensively underdeveloped Andre Dawkins are over 6-foot-2. There’s nothing they can do about their height, of course, so the quality and tenacity of their defense is going to have to improve—and not just the guards: the help defense last night was poor, with Owls flying through the paint like it was their private barn all game long. Duke doesn’t really have that lockdown stopper on D this season. One appreciates the long, tough Kyle Singler all the more now that he’s gone.

5. I was reading Gene Wojciechowski’s forthcoming The Last Great Game, about the famous 1992 Duke-Kentucky regional final—y’know, the Laettner Shot—and learned that Laettner’s own teammates called him “The Asshole.” So it wasn’t just the rest of us.

6. Bonus, and deliciously off-topic: Yes, it is worth paying the extravagant sum of $21 for a bottle of rosé if it happens to be Lucien Crochet Sancerre Rosé 2010! Wow! It actually retails for an improvident $30 at Parker and Otis, but thru Sunday all rosés are 30 percent off. I already bought a bunch of them, so get there fast before I snap up the rest. Yes, it’s pink. So is your tongue. Drink it on Valentine’s Day. —Adam Sobsey

Watching N.C. State, we learned that a point guard other than Terrell Stoglin, Erick Green and anyone on Duke or North Carolina can win ACC Player of the Week.

During victories last week over Campbell and Western Carolina, N.C. State’s Lorenzo Brown averaged 19 points (including a career-high 24 against the Camels), 8 assists and 5.5 rebounds—he also shot 63 percent from the field and 88 percent from the free throw line. For this, Brown was tapped ACC Player of the Week.

However, this honor caps an impressive run in which the point guard shed the uncertainty over his role in head coach Mark Gottfried’s up-tempo offense to become the Wolfpack’s current leader in points, assists and steals. Since a miserable showing against North Carolina Central on Dec. 11 in which he notched a single point off 0-7 shooting, Zo has averaged 13.8 points and 8.4 assists over the five games since; he’s also shooting a blistering 61 percent during that stretch.

Mark Gottfried faces the crucible ahead.

Moreover, the sophomore’s growing on-court skill—now resplendent with an arsenal of pull-up jumpers, full-court fast breaks and around-the-back dishes—mirrors a burgeoning off-court confidence with teammates and the media, whether he’s expounding on opponents’ defenses or the therapeutic properties of Snickers bars. Conference play will be the true crucible, but for now, Brown has established himself as the surprising leader of the Pack. —Neil Morris

After a month of crushing nobodies, UNC is still a lousy free throw-shooting team.

UNC’s opposition provided little resistance during December, something Roy Williams himself acknowledged last weekend after the Tar Heels won their seventh consecutive home game—six of which were teams unaffiliated with a major conference.

But while Carolina huddled up within the confines of its power blue shelter, the Heels did address some of the flaws they’d exhibited in previous contests. Transition defense and rebounding both improved significantly, thanks largely to the efforts of Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes.

On the eve of ACC play, however, the team still faces a critical question whether poor free throw shooting will remain a season-long albatross. Carolina shot errantly from foul line last year, too, so there’s ample reason to believe these Tar Heels simply lack the ability to hit the mark consistently. They’ve converted just 64 percent and rank a woeful No. 278 nationally, with three starters languishing beneath 66 percent.

Harrison Barnes agonistes.

But Carolina also shot horribly from the three-point line last season and have made great progress in that area, so midseason improvement doesn’t appear unrealistic. The Heels also have hit free throws at a higher percentage against their most formidable opponents: Versus Kentucky, Wisconsin, Texas and UNLV (and excluding the aircraft carrier game against Michigan State), UNC shot a more respectable 72 percent.

Meanwhile, Williams praised the December home crowds for their dedication, and we know he’ll criticize the fan base as he sees fit. Foes such as Nicholls State and Elon certainly didn’t generate much tension in the stands, but a lot of holiday presents appeared to be getting actualized and enthusiasm abounded.

My pet theory is that the basketball program has enjoyed collateral affection this season due to football’s woes, dating back to the 2010 scandal and climaxing with Butch Davis’s termination last summer. While basketball’s December safe haven may have been only marginally beneficial to the team, perhaps it’s exactly what the Carolina constituency needed. —Rob Harrington

It’s time to learn for everyone to learn to pronounce “Chay Shegog,” and other gleanings from the pre-conference season of women’s basketball:

Dukes women look set to be force.

1. Duke’s sophomores are ready to lead. With the departure of Jasmine Thomas, Karima Christmas and Krystal Thomas to the WNBA, last year’s top recruiting class in the country had to take over. And it has definitely happened. Tricia Liston has become a scoring machine, Haley Peters is a mobile force on the front line, Chelsea Gray is the glue and Richa Jackson provides solid help off the bench. Chloe Wells is a very good floor leader, but needs to get an academic concern resolved quickly.

2. Chay Shegog has turned into a big-time center for UNC. The 6-5 senior had often been overshadowed by more experienced inside players in the past (Jessica Breland, Rashanda McCants), but her time has come. She’s averaging 17.3 points and 8.4 rebounds (up from 8.9 and 4.9 last season) and has given the team 37 minutes in a two-point win over Miami and 38 in a four-point must win over East Carolina.

3. Duke freshman center Elizabeth Williams is as good as advertised. The nation’s top recruit, the 6-3 center is the ACC’s best freshman. Yes, she has had a couple of rookie nights as the most talented player in a fine ensemble cast, but leads the Blue Devils in scoring (12.9) and rebounding (8.7).

4. A nice freshman class at N.C. State makes a world of difference in the depth department. And the Wolfpack will go into Thursday’s game at Miami with a 10-4 record including three wins over SEC opponents. State was 8-6 at the same point last season. Guards Krystal Barrett (7.2, 2.6) and Erica Donovan (6.6, 3.2) are the Wolfpack’s fifth and sixth best scorers, each averaging over 18 minutes.

5. Krista Gross can be a weapon for UNC. The 6-foot junior was a role-playing starter last season as seniors Jessica Breland, Cetera DeGraffenreid and Italee Lucas handled the leadership. But with a young team that has had a long injury list, Gross has taken more of a leadership role and played every position from shooting guard to center with full-on hustle. She’s averaging 10.1 points and 7.9 rebounds compared to 4.2 and 4.2 last season. —Mike Potter

On this weekend:

Duke @ Georgia Tech (noon Saturday; ESPNU)
Boston College @ UNC (2:30 p.m. Saturday; ESPN3)
Maryland @ NC State (6 p.m. Sunday; ESPNU)

Duke @ Wake Forest (6:30 p.m. Friday; RSN)
Maryland @ UNC (1 p.m. Sunday; RSN)
NC State @ Duke (2 p.m. Sunday;