RTC Summer Updates: Atlantic Coast ConferencePosted by jstevrtc on July 21st, 2011
With the the NBA Draft concluded and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. The latest update comes courtesy of our ACC correspondent, Matt Patton.
- New Faces: That’s right, the ACC will be totally different conference this season. Only five of the fifteen players selected as to the all-conference teams will be running the floor this season, namely four of North Carolina’s five starters (with Miami’s Malcolm Grant keeping the group from being only Tar Heels). Somewhat surprisingly, all of the ACC all-freshman squad will be back in action. Duke’s Kyrie Irving was a prominent frosh, but he didn’t play a single conference game before leaving school and UNC’s Harrison Barnes opted to return for his sophomore campaign. Keep an eye on Wake Forest’s Travis McKie and Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin especially. Both should be the stars on their respective teams.
- However, the strength of the conference will rely heavily on the incoming players and coaches. Duke, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Florida State all bring in consensus top 25 classes according to ESPN, Rivals and Scout. To make a long story short, the rich get richer. Duke’s Austin Rivers (ranked 1st by Rivals, 2nd by Scout and ESPNU) will be expected to contribute immediately, while North Carolina’s James McAdoo (8th by Rivals, 4th by Scout and 5th by ESPNU) and PJ Hairston (13th by Rivals, 20th by Scout and 12th by ESPNU) should be given ample time to find roles on an already stacked team.
- Arguably more important, at least in the long term, are the new coaches: NC State welcomes Mark Gottfried, Miami welcomes Jim Larranaga, Maryland welcomes Mark Turgeon, and Georgia Tech welcomes Brian Gregory to the conference. The only coach I think is a surefire “upgrade” is Larranaga, who comes with some disadvantages (namely, age). While Gottfried experienced some success at Alabama, the Crimson Tide isn’t known as a basketball powerhouse and he didn’t leave the school on great terms. I also don’t think it’s a great sign that Ryan Harrow left for the bluer pastures of Kentucky. Gregory, though, sticks out as the strangest hire of the four. He had a fairly nondescript tenure at Dayton with many Flyer fans happy to see him leave. I know a tight budget hamstrung by Paul Hewitt’s hefty buyout deal probably kept the Yellow Jackets from going after the sexiest candidates, but the choice still surprised me. Gregory’s biggest disadvantage is his ugly, grind-it-out style of play that will eventually make it difficult to attract top recruits and could possibly alienate the entire GT fanbase (see: Herb Sendek).
- North Carolina Navigates Investigation Waters: Finally, it may not be basketball-related, but it’s impossible to mention this offseason without discussing North Carolina’s impending date with the NCAA Committee of Infractions. The story has dominated ACC sports news. To briefly sum things up, the Tar Heels had an assistant coach, John Blake, on the payroll of an agent. If that wasn’t enough, the NCAA investigation unveiled thousands (I’m not kidding) of dollars in unpaid parking tickets and even several cases of academic fraud. The university has come out very firmly saying these infractions only involved the football team** but the scandal has gained national notoriety. (**Author’s note: the one connection with the basketball team is that Greg Little was one of UNC’s ineligible football players. Little was also a walk-on for the basketball team during the 2007-08 season, playing in ten games. North Carolina has said that his infractions occurred after his year with the basketball team, so no win vacations are in the basketball team’s future.)
- Somehow, despite academic fraud, ineligible benefits and an agent runner on staff, the Tar Heels failed to get the NCAA’s most serious “lack of institutional control” violation for what appeared to be nothing less thana lack of institutional control. Again, this scandal is confined to football, but it’s one of the many recent scandals that have come to light in big time college athletics in the last couple of years (Connecticut, USC, Ohio State, Oregon, etc). These scandals could force the NCAA to augment its rules somewhat, and even though they may not directly relate to basketball, they may have a very real impact of college sports as we know it over the next few years.
- North Carolina: In July, The Tar Heels win in a landslide. They will probably sit atop the polls and deservedly so. With four all-conference players returning with a strong incoming class, UNC looks very well set for next season. Unfortunately for Heels fans, the talented newcomers don’t do anything to help the Achilles heel of this team, which is found at the two spot. Dexter Strickland will probably get the starting job because of his defensive tenacity and experience, but he’s definitely not an elite shooting guard. One interesting move would be to move Harrison Barnes over to the two and go extremely tall (playing Kendall Marshall, Tyler Zeller, John Henson and either James McAdoo or PJ Hairston in the final spot). A dreaded ACL tear will keep Leslie McDonald‘s three-point prowess off the court for most, if not all, of this season, and the big question about this team will be its backcourt. Can Marshall expand on his role as a facilitator, or will teams be able to play off of him as Duke did in the ACC Tournament?
- Duke: The Blue Devils reload after losing three starters from last year’s excellent team. This year’s team should be fascinating: The biggest question lies at the point guard position. Will Tyler Thornton develop into a starter, or is Quinn Cook ready to start right away? Will Mason Plumlee finally live up to his raw talent and potential? Needless to say, this team will have no shortage of scoring threats (Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins will complement Rivers’ scoring abilities quite well), but the key will lie inside the paint. Duke will have the ability to play tall next year, with four players at 6’11″ or taller, but none of those players are offensively inclined. If Coach K can figure out how to make his frontcourt effective, look out.
- Miami: I thought the Hurricanes were a sleeper last season, and I’m going to stand by that. I love the trio of Durand Scott, Reggie Johnson and Malcolm Grant. One thing to keep an eye on is that Johnson is expected to miss five months (until December) recovering from knee surgery. If all goes well, this means he’ll be back in time for conference play. Unfortunately, the time off will probably not do much good to his already lackluster conditioning. Johnson will be the x-factor. If he’s able to stay on the court for thirty minutes per game, the Hurricanes should be an NCAA Tournament team.
- Virginia: This is a stretch. Virginia was bad last season. I don’t totally have faith in Tony Bennett as the guy to turn it around, though it should be noted that most of the mainstream media think Bennett is an excellent coach even if his style is a little dull. All that said, Virginia returns about as much as anyone other than North Carolina and Miami. Double-double machine Mike Scott should be healthy and suited up (he applied for and was granted a redshirt for last season, despite appearing in ten games). Mustapha Farrakhan graduated, but the rest of the starting lineup will be back and ready to join up with incoming four-star recruits Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson. This pick could be a big bust, but I think Scott has the potential to be a game-changer inside, especially now that Maryland’s Jordan Williams is in the NBA. It should be noted that my predicted top four teams in the conference showcase the top four frontcourts in the conference.
- Florida State: The Seminoles will probably be more of the same. That is to say, they will be very long and athletic, but will struggle shooting the ball. Losing Chris Singleton and Derwin Kitchen will hurt the already stagnant offensive attack, but Bernard James and Okaro White look poised for (relatively) breakout offensive seasons. Both players had above average offensive ratings, which was a rarity on last year’s team. The team also sports a consensus Top 25 recruiting class headlined by Antwan Space
and Aaron Thomas[ed note: Thomas did not qualify]. Leonard Hamilton has been very good at picking players who fit his defensive-minded system over the years, and I expect both to contribute right away.
- NC State: The three teams below Florida State are virtually tied. All have major flaws. All are also capable of making the NCAA Tournament. My guess is only one makes it (with a strong possibility that none will). Starting with the Wolfpack, they lose Javier Gonzalez, Tracy Smith and Ryan Harrow. That hurts a lot. But CJ Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and Scott Wood are all back. There’s still enough talent on this team to make the Big Dance, but they’ve a very long way to go from where they were last season. Keep an eye on Leslie in particular – If Mark Gottfried can convince him to play his position (inside 15 feet) and he gains a few pounds, he could start living up to the expectations for him coming out of high school.
- Maryland: The Terps lost two crucial pieces from last year’s team: Gary Williams and Jordan Williams. I’m not totally sure what to expect from Mark Turgeon at his new program. He is a great coach at maximizing what he has. His teams at Texas A&M famously overachieved. The question is whether he can take advantage of the fertile recruiting grounds around College Park, a pipeline from which his predecessor strayed in his later years. To tell you the truth, it’s murky whether he can excel in such a hotbed when it comes to living room pitches. Regardless, I think he’s a very good coach and certainly the best of the new coaching class. Maryland’s success will rest on Terrell Stoglin’s shoulders. He was terrific last season for the Terps, but he’ll be the number one option this year. If he can up his production while maintaining his efficiency, I like this team a lot. I still think it’s on the outside looking in at an at-large bid, though.
- Virginia Tech: The Hokies have no excuse for not making the tournament last year. This year, they sport a Top 15 recruiting class (12th by ESPNU, 13th by Rivals and 15th by Scout), but they also lost their two best players from last year, Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen (as well as Terrell Bell). Five-star recruit Dorian Finney-Smith won’t be able to replace those guys, but I expect Erick Green to start scoring more consistently. Green and Victor Davila will have to be leaders on this team, something that has been sorely absent from the recent Hokie teams of almost-dancers.
- Clemson: I hate to put Clemson this low. I think Brad Brownell is a terrific coach, who really maximized last year’s talent. Make no mistake, this team probably has enough talent to sneak into the NCAA Tournament. But there’s a lot of work to do. First and foremost, Brownell has to figure out a way to replace Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant. Andre Young and Tanner Smith look like the most likely candidates to step up to heightened roles, and Tiger fans have to hope Devin Booker grows into a similar player to his brother during his junior season. One key will be reining in shot selection. Cory Stanton and Milton Jennings took way too many threes last season. Neither managed to crack 30%. That can’t happen this season.
- Wake Forest: In the cellar no more. That’s right, the Demon Deacons are back! Travis McKie should only get better from a very strong freshman season. I also expect JT Terrell to get more significant playing time. It’s easy to forget how young last year’s team was and between the inexperience and new coach, I think a perfect storm of horrendous basketball rained down on Winston Salem. The only player the Demon Deacons lose from last year’s squad is Gary Clark (who, unfortunately, was their most efficient player). Still, without getting carried away, there’s a decent youthful backbone with this team. They should improve substantially.
- Georgia Tech: The well is empty for the Yellow Jackets. With Iman Shumpert’s departure, the only Yellow Jacket returning with an offensive rating over 100 is Nate Hicks, who averaged just over seven minutes a game. Brian Gregory will have to make due with what he has, but unless someone really comes out swinging, it could be a long year in Atlanta.
- Boston College: Steve Donahue lucked into a talented team for his first year with the Eagles. Unfortunately, he started five seniors. Only three players who played on last year’s team are back in action, combining for just under nine points a game. Nine. Four-star recruit Ryan Anderson should be able to help out a little bit this season, but Boston College is in for an extended period of rebuilding until Donahue can get guys who fit his system.
The conference looks eerily similar to the last few years: Duke and North Carolina will be at the top, with three (possibly four) other NCAA Tournament quality squads fighting for auto-bids. I think the biggest issue for the conference has been coaching turnover. The “old guard” of ACC coaches now consists of Coach K, Roy Williams and Leonard Hamilton. Frankly, I’m pessimistic about the current lot of new coaches. Apart from Brownell and Turgeon, I don’t see any of them as long-term fits, so the lower half will continue to be stagnant. This is going to be a year with a lot of questions. More than likely, it will be another “down year” for the conference. I have a hard time seeing anyone outside of the top three being in the top 25 (though UNC and Duke will likely be in the top five for much of the season). The strength of the conference depends solely on the development of young players. Boston College, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Maryland and Duke all lost at least three starters. That’s a lot of minutes, points and rebounds to replace. This gives North Carolina and Miami (FL) a big leg up on their competitors.
Reggie Johnson, Mason Plumlee and CJ Leslie are my three breakout candidates.
- Reggie Johnson quietly was one of the best rebounders in the country last season, but fouls and conditioning limited his time on the floor. Unfortunately, he’s going to miss the first part of the season for Miami. Still, I think he’s one of the most underrated big men in the country and think he’ll put up great numbers for the Hurricanes once he’s healthy.
- Mason Plumlee has been predicted as a breakout candidate since high school: he has all the tools, but can never quite seem to get it together. That said, he’s definitely an x-factor for this Duke team. He needs to take one of two paths: (1) learn a Zoubek-esque role, accept it, and excel at it; or (2) develop a go-to post move and become a threat on offense. The biggest hurdle for both is his confidence. Plumlee has all the athleticism and height to be a dominant big man, but he’s got to believe he can drop step without traveling before it will become a reality.
- Finally, we get to CJ Leslie. Leslie is a bit of an enigma at this point. He came to NC State with a lot of hype, but tended to settle for jump shots instead of banging bodies (where he’d be at a distinct disadvantage because of his slight frame). However, I firmly agree with this quip from Basketball Prospectus’ Drew Cannon: “Nobody…has a wider range of possible 2011-12s than Leslie. There’s an argument to be made that he has the most raw talent of any college basketball player in the country. There’s also no one I’m less confident will finish the season at their school.” If Leslie “gets it,” look out. If not, he could find himself transferring before the end of the season.
Mark Your Calendar
The vast majority of the ACC will take part in one of several warm-weather neutral court events, headlined by…
- Maryland – Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 17-20) – The Terrapins’ biggest competition here will be the Purdue Boilermakers, though A-10 stalwart Temple is also included. This event also reunites three teams from the 2011 NIT Final Four, with Colorado, Alabama and Wichita State (one of Mark Turgeon’s former employers) gathering in San Juan.
- Duke – Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-23) – When the field was first announced last year, this event looked absolutely stacked, with Kansas, Georgetown, Michigan, UCLA, Memphis and Tennessee set to join the Blue Devils. While several draft departures have removed some of the punch, this is still the marquee event of the non-conference slate.
The annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge will again bring power conference squads together during the week after Thanksgiving. There are some intriguing games in store among the ACC’s middle tier, but the bouts below are most worthy of your attention:
- Duke at Ohio State (Nov. 29) – Jared Sullinger returns for his sophomore year, and if his conditioning efforts this summer pay off, he could have a field day inside. Selfishly, it’s a bit of a shame that this game comes a year too late for a long-range shootout between Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins for the Devils and the recently-graduated Jon Diebler, but this should be an intense battle nevertheless. Outside of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Duke will face Michigan State in the inaugural Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden.
- Wisconsin at North Carolina (Nov. 30) – A matchup of teams whose styles couldn’t be more different. Bo Ryan’s methodical, make-every-possession-count pace goes toe-to-toe with Roy Williams’ don’t-you-dare-blink track meet. Will one pace prevail or will they meet in the middle?
- Miami at Purdue and Illinois at Maryland (Nov. 29) – A pair of games that aren’t as alluring as they are of potentially major significance for tournament aspirations. While these games pale in comparison to the battles above in terms of star power, teams like Maryland and Miami may need wins like these in their back pockets to put them over the top come Selection Sunday. Should the Hurricanes and Terrapins come up short and be relegated to other postseason events, November 29 could be a date to be reviled.
- North Carolina at Kentucky (Dec. 3) – The beauty of this blueblood series is that a rematch is never far away. UNC and UK have traded wins the last four times, with Kentucky most recently bouncing the Tar Heels from the Big Dance in last season’s Elite Eight.