ACC’s learning curve handcuffing young teams

The combination of large freshman classes and the pandemic’s limitations has led to inconsistency for the state’s traditional powers

Duke guard DJ Steward is one of several freshmen trying to navigate life in the ACC while also being hindered by the restrictions of the pandemic. (Keith Srakocic / AP Photo)

On Monday morning, before their classes began, the Duke Blue Devils reported to the practice floor — to work on getting hit.

For the first time in 25 seasons, Duke is shooting fewer free throws than opponents. In more than four decades as head coach, Mike Krzyzewski is on the wrong end of a foul disparity for just the fourth time. In Duke’s three-game losing streak, the Blue Devils had been outscored by nine points a night at the free-throw line.

So Coach K brought his team in to practice driving to the basket and taking contact.

“We have not driven into resistance as strongly or as physically as we need to,” he explained. “We’re working on it.”

It seems like an odd thing to practice, but these are odd times for college basketball’s blue bloods.

In addition to Duke’s struggles, UNC opened ACC play with back-to-back losses and stood at 5-4, although the Tar Heels may have righted the ship with their recent streak of five wins in six games.

Outside of the league, Kentucky is a shocking 5-9, and even Kansas has struggled, splitting its first eight Big 12 conference games. Combined, the four perennial Final Four contenders were 30-24 over and 16-13 in their conferences entering Tuesday’s play.

Duke is off to its worst 10-game mark since 1982-83 when Krzyzewski’s third team went 11-17, and that team may shed some light on what’s happened so far this season.

The ’83 Blue Devils featured some of the biggest names in Duke history, including Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and Dave Henderson. The problem? All four future superstars were freshmen. The four players combined for 10.5 turnovers a game and committed 12.1 fouls a night.

It’s no coincidence that each of the blue bloods is working in a larger-than-usual class of freshman this season. Duke and Carolina each have six rookies on their roster, and most of them are playing significant minutes. Kentucky has seven freshmen and Kansas four, although the Jayhawks are leaning on their newcomers far less than the other teams and have a 10-5 mark to show for it.

“The more they learn to play off one another, the better we’ll be,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s just a familiarity lacking there. None of these guys were playing with each other last year. Everything we’re doing is this year. It just adds up. These guys are working hard. My coaching staff is working really hard. We’re just trying to play a little bit of catch-up.”

Obviously, this isn’t the first year teams have relied on freshmen. Specifically, Duke and Kentucky have made a living on teams build around one-and-done freshmen over the last decade. With many of the top high school prospects having options to play in the pros, either overseas or in the G League, the other-worldly freshmen stars — the Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis and Jahlil Okafor types of players — aren’t there. Instead, there are the more classic freshmen players — the ones who need some seasoning to get up the steep learning curve.

“We don’t have anyone in this class that was rated as highly as Ty (Lawson), Wayne (Ellington) or Brandon (Wright, the three players who topped UNC’s 2006-07 freshman class) or Tyler Hansbrough’s (2005-06) class,” Roy Williams said.

UNC has relied on guard Caleb Love along with other freshmen this season — and the Tar Heels have also had to go through the expected growing pains of a utilizing a young roster. (Curtis Compton / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Not only are a large number of freshmen seeing the floor, but they’re also playing at the position where experience is most valuable — point guard. UNC has two freshmen — Caleb Love and RJ Davis — running the point this season. Duke freshmen DJ Steward and Jeremy Roach have both spent large amounts of time at point. Even NC State has had freshmen Cam Hayes and Shakeel Moore playing big minutes in the backcourt.

“Right now, we’re playing two freshmen a lotta, lotta minutes,” NC State coach Kevin Keatts said. “In this league, it’s tough to win with freshmen, to have a freshman point or shooting guard. You hope you could bring freshmen along a little bit slower. They’ve been thrown in the fire. They’ve had to play a lot of big-time minutes.”

That’s not to say the freshmen guards have been a disaster. Love, Davis, Steward and Moore have all won ACC Freshman of the Week honors this season. The problem is, while they have moments where they shine, there are also turnovers, bad shots and head-scratching decisions.

“You look at most programs playing a freshman point guard or freshman guards, they typically struggle,” Keatts said. “I think that’s part of our issue right now.”

In a year when preseason practice was cut short and exhibition games were called off, this season’s freshmen started even farther behind than normal.

“It takes more time,” Williams said. “You’ve got to be much more meticulous about what we’re doing, take time, give them a little more instruction.”

The good news is freshmen usually start to figure things out as the year goes on. UNC is already showing signs of having things click. Duke, State and even Kentucky could be the next to see things start to turn.

Until they do, it will be more early-morning crash courses — literally.