ACC Preview: The New ‘Super-conference’
The newest version of basketball ‘super-conference’ will enjoy its first year at full strength now that Louisville has officially entered the fold. However, just like the ACC before reconfiguration this is a very top heavy conference with more question marks and bubble teams than tournament locks once you get past the top four teams. However, you see several preseason All Americans and four potential top two NCAA seeds dotting the new landscape of the ACC.
Maryland departs for the Big 10 with Louisville taking their place in the conference. For those counting at home, this is Louisville’s third conference in the last three years. On the coaching carousel, Buzz Williams takes the place of James Johnson in Blacksburg and Jim Christian comes from Ohio via TCU and Kent State to take the place of Steve Donahue at Boston College.
Where to start? This is a conference absolutely loaded with highly recruited freshmen. Starting in Durham, everyone has heard about ‘package deal’ Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones. Both should play big minutes for the Blue Devils with Okafor lauded as a potential player of the year candidate as the #1 overall recruit from the class of 2014. Staying in Durham, don’t be surprised to see fellow top 25 wing recruits Grayson Allen and Justise Winslow play bigger minutes especially if Rasheed Suilamon struggles. Down Tobacco Road, the Tar Heels boast their own collection of top 20 recruits. Wings Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson should help take the scoring load off Marcus Paige with Joel Berry getting minutes at the point. Kaleb Joseph (Cuse), Ja’Quan Netwon (Miami), and Chris McCullough (Cuse) look to earn big minutes as well.
Hot in here or just me?
Brian Gregory is the most obvious candidate on the hot seat. In his first three years at Georgia Tech he hasn’t exceeded 16 wins after a streak of four straight 22+ win seasons at Dayton. Gregory needs to show significant improvement and at the very least qualify for the NIT to secure his job. I like Gregory, of the Tom Izzo coaching tree, a lot as a coach, but he has yet to gain any traction with the Yellow Jackets and faces a daunting task this year to make significant strides.
Brad Brownell at Clemson has missed the NCAA’s all three years since making the tournament in his first year after taking the helm. He did make a deep run in the NIT last season, but after KJ McDaniels left early for the NBA, there will be pressure to not take too far of a step back. I wouldn’t say his seat is hot quite yet, but it is a situation to keep an eye on if Clemson struggles in 2014-15.
Unlike the Big 10, this conference is not impressive in its depth, but the top of this league is awe-inspiring. Duke, Louisville, Virginia, and North Carolina all should be major players in the national picture throughout the season. However, after that the next tier significantly less clear. I know the strength of this conference will propel five or six teams into ‘lock’ status for the NCAA Tournament; I’m just not certain which team(s) will separate itself from the pack sitting on the bubble.
Louisville – Just like Syracuse a year ago, a new team will enter the conference with a unique defensive philosophy that will take the league by storm. Even with the loss of Russ Smith and Luke Hancock, Louisville is absolutely loaded with talent from its last two recruiting classes. Sophomore Terry Rozier and senior Chris Jones will hold down the backcourt with Rozier primed for a breakout. Wayne Blackshear will look to replace Hancock on the wing with sophomore Anton Gill providing minutes off the bench. In the frontcourt this team has size for days. Montrezl Harrell is one of the best big men in the country and he’ll play alongside a rim protector in Mangok Mathiang and a multitude of bigs off the bench in freshman Chinanu Onuaku (brother of former Orange-man Arinze) and sophomore Akoy Agau. How loaded is Louisville? I haven’t even mentioned top 50 freshmen guards Quentin Snider and Shaqquan Aaron.
Duke – The first round upset at the hands of Mercer left a bad taste in Duke’s mouth and an abrupt end to Jabari Parker’s college career. This year Duke replaces Parker and fellow first round pick Rodney Hood with arguably the top class in the country. After a few years of playing small, Duke will have a deep and talented frontcourt consisting of #1 recruit Jahlil Okafor, Amile Jefferson, and Marshall Plumlee. In the backcourt, senior Quinn Cook has company at the PG position in top recruit Tyus Jones. I expect those two will often play alongside each other with Rasheed Sulaimon. Sulaimon is the key to this team after struggling to find a consistent role last year. He’s their best shooter and they need him to help space the floor. If he struggles look for Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen, and Matt Jones to pick up some of the scoring on the wing. Semi Ojeleye grew two inches over the summer (6’8”) and might be able to play some stretch four if Duke decides to go small.
Virginia – The Cavaliers swept through the ACC last year taking both the outright regular season title and the tournament title. They lose do-everything guard Joe Harris and their best defender in Akil Mitchell. However, they do return the rest of their rotation including G Malcolm Brogdon, Mike Tobey, and an improving sophomore PG in London Perrantes. Anthony Gill and senior Darion Atkins will look to replace Mitchell’s defense and rebounding while Justin Anderson faces the unenviable task of replacing Joe Harris. This team will continue to play suffocating defense under Coach Tony Bennett and with improvements from Brogdon and Perrantes, they will again challenge for the ACC crown and a top seed.
North Carolina – If Marcus Paige continues to make strides like he did heading into his sophomore year, he may be the best player in the country. Paige was at times even the focus of box-and-one defenses last year. This year, he should have more help on the perimeter with top ten wing recruits Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson arriving in Chapel Hill along with continued improvements from JP Tokoto and Nate Britt. Their frontcourt can rival anyone’s in the conference with Brice Johnson primed for a breakout year alongside the improving Kennedy Meeks and highly touted sophomore Isaiah Hicks. Make no mistake this is a young team and has an ugly academic scandal hanging over its program’s head. Will it be a distraction or rallying point?
Notre Dame – Confession, I am a Notre Dame fan, but this conference is wide open behind the top four teams and at this time last year a very similar Notre Dame squad was picked fourth or fifth by most experts. What happened last year? Leading scorer Jerian Grant was suspended before conference play began, partially leading to a 6-12 ACC record filled with close losses. Grant is back this year and so is senior Pat Connaughton. Mike Brey should have this team playing small and fast with Connaughton as a stretch four alongside Zach Auguste at center. Highly touted sophomore PG Demetrius Jackson will step in for departed senior Eric Atkins at PG. This team will likely struggle at times on the glass, but if they can improve their defense, I like their chances to finish in the top six. It helps that the four teams ND gets for a home and home are Clemson, Georgia Tech, Boston College, and Duke.
Syracuse – Dion Waiters, Michael Carter-Williams, Tyler Ennis. Can freshman Kaleb Joseph be the next in the line of Syracuse guards to burst onto the scene before getting drafted in the first round? I’m not sure, but I think this is the season ‘Cuse finally succumbs to roster turnover and takes a step back. Losing Ennis, CJ Fair, and Jerami Grant leaves quite a hole on the roster. However, they return a lot of size up and down the roster. Rakeem Christmas, DaJuan Coleman, and freshman Chris McCullough will continue to use their length to fluster opposing frontcourts in the patented Syracuse zone. The question will be scoring. This was a team that struggled to score with CJ Fair. Can sophomore wings B.J Johnson and Tyler Roberson combine with sharpshooter Trevor Cooney to pick up the scoring load? I’m not confident. Between that and the ACC getting their second look at the zone defense, I think Syracuse falls back into the pack a bit this season. Keep an eye on former Duke recruit Michael Gbinije playing some point guard.
Florida State – This looks like another year on the bubble for the Seminoles. Their backcourt should be dynamic with leading scorer Aaron Thomas returning along with steady PG Devin Bookert. Highly touted recruit Xavier Rathan-Mayes is eligible after having to sit out his freshman year. The thing that really jumps out when you play Florida State is the fact that they have three true seven footers (Boris Bojanovsky, Michael Ojo, and Kiel Turpin)! Yet somehow they struggled on the glass last year, don’t ask me how. This should be a very good defensive team with the potential to be a decent to above average offense. This should be a year where Florida State finds itself on the right side of the bubble.
Pitt – Jamie Dixon will trot out yet another version of the low-scoring, bruising Pitt basketball team that we all hate to play against. This team faces the task of replacing its two best players in Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson. The backcourt is talented with junior PG James Robinson and jack-of-all-trades Cameron Wright. Durand Johnson coming back from a torn ACL and Josh Newkirk should provide some much needed shooting off the bench. The frontcourt unsurprisingly offers size and rebounding. Mike Young will provide a solid presence at power forward with Joe Uchebo and Rutgers transfer Derrick Randle providing size and rebounding down low. However, where is the scoring coming from on this team? Lamar Patterson was the go to scorer on this team last year on a team that struggled mightily with its consistency against top teams. I don’t see that player on this team. This Pitt team will be competitive with great defense, but I’m not sure if the scoring will be there to take another step forward.
NC State –NC State squeaked into the tournament last season for the third straight year despite the fact that they were a poor offensive team with one of the best offensive players in the country in TJ Warren. On the wing, the Wolfpack do return sharpshooter Ralston Turner and have a now eligible Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey ready to pick up some scoring slack in the absence of Warren. Undersized PG Tyler Lewis has transferred leaving the PG duties to highly touted Anthony Barber who averaged 8.5 ppg as a freshman in 2013-14. The frontcourt will feature two sophomores in Kyle Washington and Beejay Anya both of whom played last season as well as highly touted freshman Abdul-Malik Abu. Despite the loss of Warren, this team is too talented to take a huge step back and will likely hover around .500 in the ACC for the second year in a row.
Miami – Jim Larranaga faces another year with significant turnover losing over 75% of its scoring from a mediocre team last year. However, the cupboard is not bare in Coral Gables. A solid freshman class made up of guards Ja’Quan Newton and James Palmer figure to play early alongside newly eligible transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State), Joe Thomas (Niagara), and former top recruit Sheldon McClellan (Texas). This team will be very thin in the frontcourt, especially until Spanish stretch four Ivan Uceda gains eligibility in January, but this is a talented team that has the potential to surprise.
Boston College – Bad news? Jim Christian takes over a team that finished 8-24 last year with two of his top three scorers transferring. Good news? Olivier Hanlan, one of the best scoring guards in the ACC, returns along with two senior transfers – Aaron Brown (So. Miss) and Dimitri Batton (ODU). Both of those transfers averaged double figures with their previous teams and will step right into the lineup for Jim Christian. This team played absolutely atrocious defense last year, but were competitive in a majority of their games last year including an upset over Cuse in the Carrier Dome and pushing National Champ Connecticut to the brink in December. I see a slight rise from the basement with a new coach and a new attitude in the program.
Wake Forest – Danny Manning takes over a Wake Forest team that has faded into irrelevance under Jeff Bzdelik. Manning takes over a team that loses three starters in Travis McKie, Coron Williams, and Tyler Cavanaugh. The core of this team has a lot of potential with returning starters Devin Thomas, Codi-Miller McIntyre, graduate transfer Darius Leonard, and former top recruit Greg McClinton coming off a torn ACL. Watch out for under-recruited freshman Mitch Wilbekin (yes he’s the brother of Scotty!), Rondale Watson, and Cornelius Hudson (brother of Michael Crabtree). This team lacks the talent to compete with the top of this league, but everything I see out of Winston-Salem has the Deacs buying into Danny Manning. I think that keeps them out of the cellar.
Georgia Tech – Things could get worse for Brian Gregory in Atlanta after losing four of his top five scorers from a 16 win team. However, transfers Charles Mitchell (Maryland) and Demarco Cox (Ole Miss) should immediately shore up a thin frontcourt. Marcus Georges-Hunt is a dynamic scorer on the wing and will be joined by top 100 recruit Tadric Jackson. However, a glaring hole at PG and lack of depth across the roster will continue to hurt this team.
Virginia Tech – Buzz Williams joins the Hokies this year and brings with him a lot of, well, Buzz. Unfortunately, Hokie fans will have to wait at least one year to see a massive improvement from this team. They lost a whopping nine players from last year’s team, most of which to transfers. There is talent here starting with the freshman trio of guards Ahmed Hill, Jalen Hudson, and Justin Bibbs with Maryland transfer Seth Allen waiting in the wings for next season. This team will be led by returning sophomore guard Devin Wilson who was selected to the All ACC Freshman team last season (no small feat in this conference). A ridiculously easy out of conference slate should have this young team feeling good before heading into ACC play. No guarantee they can keep it up.
Clemson – This team surprised and actually finished sixth in the ACC last year in what seemed like a best case scenario for that team. KJ McDaniels is gone, but they return almost every other rotation piece. However, losing KJ McDaniels is no small matter for a team without another scorer in the double digits or another defender of his caliber. They start ACC play v. UNC, @Louisville, @Virginia, v. Cuse. I hate betting against a senior PG like Rod Hall, but I could see things going poorly for the Tigers this season.