Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall are perfect examples of why players DO and DON’T make the All-ACC first team in basketball. Barnes was supposed to, Marshall wasn’t.
Carolina’s entire dominating front court made the first team – Barnes, the ACC’s third-leading scorer, John Henson, the top defender, rebounder and shot blocker, and unanimous pick Tyler Zeller, the ACC Player of the Year for his stellar senior season. But Marshall HAD to be in there somewhere.
He’s the best point guard in the ACC and, thus, one of its best five players. He leads the league in assists (299) and will break the single-season record this weekend at the ACC Tournament in Atlanta (currently held by Georgia Tech’s Craig Neal with 303) and assist-turnover ratio. And if you define “most valuable” as the player a successful team can least do without, Marshall is the man for the Tar Heels in a landslide. Imagine them going 27-4 and 14-2, winning the ACC regular season championship, without the lithe lefty. Wouldn’t have happened. Not even close.
Several key factors put players in the “lead” position for All-ACC, and only one of them is actual performance based on statistics.
EXPECTATIONS. Barnes is the classic example of this, because he entered the ACC last year as not only the most-ballyhooed freshman in the conference but also in the country. Cripes, he made preseason first team All-American before he ever played a college game! So the stoic Black Falcon was, and remains, on the fans and voters’ minds and his steady, if not spectacular, play all-season garnered the fifth-most votes and only two ahead of Marshall atop the second team.
Duke’s Austin Rivers, who had the fourth highest number of votes, benefitted from the same expectations coming into college. The door was open for Rivers to take over for Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler as the Blue Devils’ best player, and he brazenly stepped through it. Rivers had a great season and his team played for first place in the last game, but unquestionably the winning shot he made against Carolina on February 8 justified those expectations for a lot of people.
If that shot did not go in, or if Carolina had not allowed it to be the game-winner, Rivers would have wound up on second team. He is the seventh-leading scorer in the ACC but NOT among the top six 3-point shooters or the top ten in 3-point shooting percentage.
SURPRISE, SURPRISE. Virginia’s Mike Scott, who shot the highest percentage in the ACC, became the face of the over-achieving Cavaliers after their fast start. Scott is a terrific inside player, no doubt, but in his two biggest games of the season – losses to UNC – he underperformed because of foul trouble. By then, however, he was already entrenched in the minds of enough voters to make first team, even though Virginia skidded and hung onto the fourth seed in the ACC Tournament by beating eighth-seeded Maryland in overtime on the last weekend.
ASSISTS. Marshall surprised many people by improving his play this season after taking over in February of his freshman year and completely turning the Tar Heels around. Never has a player gotten more raves and reviews and less All-ACC votes. The reason? Marshall excels in the still-unappreciated art of passing the basketball. People see it, the amazing court vision, the pin-point long passes, the drives and dishes that set up his teammates. But, for some reason, passing remains less important to the common fan than putting the ball in the hole, even though the latter cannot happen without the former. The ACC still lists assists as its 13th statistical category, behind 3-point percentage defense!
NBA scouts, who have Marshall high on their mock draft board (along with Barnes, Henson and Zeller), appreciate the skill and know it will translate into a pro career even as Marshall continues to struggle with his shooting.
PUBLICITY. Not as important in these days of viral, 24/7 news dissemination, but an organized publicity campaign can still affect a player’s All-ACC chances. In Carolina’s case, there were simply too many stars to promote, which is why no school has ever placed four on the All-ACC first team and only one other (Duke in 2002) has had three previously.
Rivers benefitted from being the only player on his team with a chance to make the top five in All-ACC voting, so the internal and external notoriety he received helps (his father Doc, the Celtics coach, seen sitting behind the Duke bench at many games did not hurt). Put that together with Rivers’ expectations coming in, his flashy stutter-step drives (on which he often travels) and long-range bombing, and it’s understandable why he made it.
Any voters who sent in their ballots before Saturday night’s game might have changed their first-team, second-team selections after watching Marshall dominate the Blue Devils and Rivers succumb to a ramped-up Carolina defense. As is, the votes weren’t that close, with 13 separating Rivers on the first team from Marshall.
UNC Coach Roy Williams, unwittingly, does not help his players’ chances with his candid, oft-flippant post-game remarks in which he praises them but will then point out a “bonehead” play that kept them from having a near-perfect performance. Ol’ Roy is not that calculating in his comments, but in this case he may have helped draw that fine line between one of his players who made the first team (Barnes) and one who just missed it.