RTC Conference Primers: #4 – Atlantic Coast ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on November 3rd, 2011
Reader’s Take I
The ACC looks like it has three tiers this year. The top: North Carolina, Duke and Florida State. The bottom: Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. And then there’s everyone else.
- Can North Carolina Win Its Third Ring in the Roy Williams Era?: By all counts, yes. And to this point I haven’t heard any “undefeated” nonsense from anywhere, which means people’s expectations aren’t totally out to lunch. There are several other very good teams this year. Last year’s Tar Heel team wasn’t unstoppable, even at the end of the season (they lost to a #4 seed, remember?); I don’t expect them to be unstoppable this year, either. But if you’re looking for the most complete team with the fewest unknowns, you won’t find it anywhere else in college basketball. My one peeve with the offseason coverage of this team is the idea that four of the five starters should be first team All-ACC (or even All-American). There are only so many possessions in a basketball game. Only so many players can be integral. Part of the intimidating nature of this team on paper is that no one player controls the team’s fate: On any given night, Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller or John Henson are all candidates to blow up the scoreboard (though in Henson’s case, it’s usually keeping opponents off it). It’s the fact that the combination could be more than the sum of its parts that makes the Tar Heels a lock for preseason number one.
- Will Florida State Challenge Tobacco Road And Make The ACC Interesting Again?: Yes. I was pretty low on Florida State for my summer update, but I’m currently very high on the Seminoles. Specifically, I think Bernard James is the best defender in the country (though John Henson is a significantly better rebounder), and Jeff Peterson will be able to find offense more effectively than Chris Singleton and Derwin Kitchen last season. Oh, and the Seminoles are also hungry after an ugly loss to VCU left them stranded in the Sweet Sixteen last year (and they then had to watch the Rams march on to the Final Four).
- How Will This Year’s Batch Of New Coaches Fare?: I think Jim Larranaga will objectively perform the best, but I also think he has the most talent at his disposal. Against my better judgment, I’m warming up to this NC State team and Mark Gottfried’s leadership (at least for the first few years). As for Georgia Tech and Brian Gregory, yikes. There’s been a little recent buzz about the Yellow Jackets being better than people expect (which is a very low threshold), but I don’t see it. Gregory has an undermanned roster full of guys he didn’t recruit with nothing to speak of in the post, and he doesn’t have a dedicated home court. Not the combination for success. In College Park, Mark Turgeon should return Maryland to regular conference title contenders again once he reopens the pipeline to Washington, D.C., talent.
Predicted Order of Finish
- North Carolina (14-2)
- Duke (11-5)
- Florida State (10-6)
- Miami (9-7)
- Virginia (9-7)
- Virginia Tech (8-8)
- NC State (8-8)
- Clemson (7-9)
- Maryland (6-10)
- Wake Forest (5-11)
- Boston College (5-11)
- Georgia Tech (4-12)
All-Conference Picks (key stats from last season in parentheses)
- G – Seth Curry (121.7 ORtg, 43.5 3FG%, 9.0 PPG): Curry was just named one of Duke’s three captains. He’s very consistent (think Jon Scheyer but with more of a scoring repertoire), but his floor general qualities are relatively untested. Based on the ease with which his brother, Stephen Curry, made the transition to point guard his junior year, the younger Curry will be fine. If you look at Duke’s lineup, Curry is the only proven commodity.
- G – Terrell Stoglin (105.9 ORtg, 21 PP40, 11.4 PPG): Stoglin, like Curry, will be forced into playing point guard for the Terrapins much of the year because of Pe’Shon Howard’s broken foot. Overshadowed by Jordan Williams last year, Stoglin had arguably the best offensive year of any freshman in the conference. He won’t be able to make up for lack of size and depth on the Maryland roster but he’ll be an absolute terror in transition that could average 20 points a game efficiently.
- F (POY) – Harrison Barnes (106.5 ORtg, 15.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG): Barnes is the most talented player on the best team in the conference. He’s one of the favorites to win National Player of the Year too, assuming he doesn’t experience last season’s slow start. The scariest thing about Barnes isn’t his raw talent; it’s his work ethic. He’s a perfectionist with ample athleticism to dominate the college game.
- F – Mike Scott (112.8 ORtg, 15.9 PPG, 10.2 RPG): Scott sits atop the wealth of talented power forwards and centers in the ACC. Until his injury last season Scott stood with Jeff Allen, Tyler Zeller and Jordan Williams as the most productive big men in the conference. Only Zeller is back, and Scott is a much better rebounder than the Tar Heel center. Virginia is getting a lot of preseason love (the Cavaliers were picked fourth by the media), and the senior frontcourt of Scott and Assane Sene is the reason why.
- F – John Henson (11.7 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 3.2 BPG): Henson is a defensive monster who also managed to score double figures last year despite looking hideous on the offensive end. Although I doubt he’s bulked up significantly, no one has shown the ability to back him down at the college level. With Kendall Marshall at the helm, Henson should have no trouble getting the ball in position to score. Assuming moderate improvements in his post game and continued dominance on the defensive end, Henson’s season could be special.
Author’s Note: I only had room for two, but here’s an extended list of very good ACC bigs in alphabetical order: Bernard James, Reggie Johnson, CJ Leslie, Travis McKie, Miles Plumlee, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly are also potential breakout candidates) and Tyler Zeller.
6th Man – Kendall Marshall (6.2 PPG, 6.2 APG, 40.6 Assist %): Marshall may not be the most talented cog in North Carolina’s offense, but he’s almost definitely the most important. Roy Williams’ teams need great point guards. Unfortunately, those great point guards generally find themselves buried behind the stats of the talented frontcourt (see: Tyler Hansborough getting more credit than Ty Lawson on the 2009 National Championship team). Marshall is one of the most exciting players to watch on the floor, and tracking his progress will be a must this season.
Impact Newcomer – Austin Rivers (28.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.2 APG in high school): Rivers is the clear favorite for the category. Other potential choices were Jeff Peterson, who comes to Florida State from the SEC via the Big 10 (and yes, he’ll be the first player to play in the ACC, Big 10 and SEC), and Boston College’s entire roster. But Rivers will probably set Duke’s ceiling this year. Everyone knows he can score, but there are questions about his defense and general attitude. Two things make me think he’ll eventually find his role: First he’s the son of an NBA coach who should understand the importance of defense and team chemistry, and second, he willingly chose Duke knowing how Coach K runs his teams. It won’t be easy, and there will be plenty of benchings after missed threes lead to fast breaks the other way. But he’ll get there; the only question is how long it takes. Once he fits into the system Rivers will be one of the most dynamic scorers in the country (and should be a very strong perimeter defender).
North Carolina (NCAA #1 Seed): The Tar Heels are the prohibitive favorite to win it all. They bring back everyone of significance but Justin Knox, who should see his minutes swallowed by talented frosh James McAdoo and John Henson. The North Carolina frontcourt of Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and Henson is without a doubt the deepest in the country. Add in Kendall Marshall at the point, and “stacked” is the only way to describe this team. There are certainly weaknesses, and with more tape to watch, will teams consistently be able to exploit Marshall’s offensive inadequacies, and who will keep defenses honest on the perimeter? Freshman PJ Hairston may be able to satisfy the latter question, but many recruiting experts looked for Reggie Bullock to play the sniper role last season. Even if no one steps up as a sharpshooter, you can count the teams on one hand with matching height and athleticism up front (Ohio State, Kentucky, Duke and Connecticut). Barring injury, anything short of a Final Four would qualify as a bust for this team.
- Duke (NCAA #3 Seed): The Blue Devils have loads of talent, but lost too much from last year’s team to make for a seamless transition. They could realistically finish the year anywhere ranked fourth or twenty fourth. Word from the summer is that Miles Plumlee has made huge leaps forward, which would make them all the more dangerous. In addition to questions in the frontcourt, there are legitimate questions about perimeter defense. Over Mike Krzyzewski’s career, Duke has made a living on tight man-to-man perimeter defense. Only once (ironically the 2009-10 National Championship season) since Ken Pomeroy has been keeping his tempo-free statistics have the Blue Devils finished outside the top ten in opponents’ three-pointers attempted. This year, Duke’s lineup will be much less flexible defensively (also similar to the 2009-10 season) to be able to switch at will off screens. That’s just something to keep an eye on looking forward.
- Florida State (NCAA #3 Seed): As I said in “Top Storylines,” I think Florida State will make the ACC race more interesting than people are expecting this year. Right now, I’m not quite ready to go all the way and say the Seminoles will finish ahead of Duke, but I think it’s a real possibility. There’s still too much unknown about their offense to pencil them in too high, though, but I think at worst this team finishes around a five seed. Although they’re capable of making the Final Four with the right draw, I think reaching the Sweet Sixteen is a more reasonable prediction for the postseason.
Keep An Eye On…
- Virginia (NCAA #8 Seed): I’m ready to cautiously jump on Tony Bennett’s bandwagon this year, which is already loaded down with the media. Virginia’s biggest struggles last season were offensive rebounding and two-point field goal percentage. A healthy Mike Scott should provide a major boost in both categories. Combined with Assane Sene, the Cavaliers will have a strong frontcourt, and plenty of experience to boot. Look for the Cavaliers to fall on that eight or nine seed line and run into a buzz saw in the Third Round.
- Miami (NCAA #9 Seed): The Hurricanes need to pray Reggie Johnson is able to stay in shape while he rehabs his knee. Johnson was a top five rebounder in the country last season when he was on the floor. Unfortunately, he only managed to play less than two-thirds of the available minutes. Jim Larranaga is a great coach who inherited the best roster outside the top three teams. I think Miami could give a top seed a real scare come March, but the Third Round of the Big Dance will probably be where the run ends.
- NC State (NCAA #12 Seed): Warning: I always get on the Wolfpack bandwagon, though there’s very little concrete evidence for my decision. But I think Mark Gottfried, like Jim Larranga at Miami, will bring a lot of structure to a team formerly under a “player’s coach.” That structure will be especially beneficial for a player like CJ Leslie, who seemed to be going through the motions at many points last season. Offensive rebounding beast Richard Howell will also see plenty of time in the frontcourt with Scott Wood keeping teams honest from downtown. There’s plenty of talent in Raleigh, but an NCAA Tournament berth would also be a huge leap forward from last season.
- Virginia Tech (NIT): The Hokies are not as talented as they were last year, but Erick Green looks poised for a breakout junior season. Losing three starters from last year’s squad definitely hurts, but a down conference and weak nonconference schedule should land the Hokies in the comfortable confines of the NIT.
- Clemson (NIT): Brad Brownell is a great coach, but this will probably be a rebuilding year for the Tigers. In addition to a weak nonconference schedule, Clemson isn’t set up for efficient offense. I expect the team’s defense to grant the team enough slack to nearly finish .500 in conference play, but that won’t be enough to earn an at-large bid.
- Maryland: Maryland just needs more bodies. With Alex Len set to miss some time early (ten games), the Terrapins won’t have any real post presence to speak of in the early going. To make matters worse, Pe’Shon Howard’s foot injury will make it nearly impossible to play the four guard lineup. Sean Mosley needs to have the year people expected of him last season. My biggest worry about counting Maryland out is Mark Turgeon’s coaching ability. I think he has the potential to make this team competitive very quickly. I may have slotted Maryland three places too low, but the question of whether Turgeon will retrofit Gary Williams’ holdovers into his system is a considerable one.
- Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons will be much better this year, but JT Terrell’s transfer makes it virtually impossible for them to climb out of the ACC cellar (which has been renovated to hold three teams this season). Sophomore Travis McKie is primed for a great year.
- Boston College: The bad news: Steve Donahue’s Eagles bring literally no scholarship players back from last year’s team (read that again). The good news: Donahue favors the three-point shot, which means they’re bound to get hot and win some games at some point.
- Georgia Tech: I mentioned the Yellow Jackets’ deficiencies above, but here they are again: nothing in the frontcourt, a new coach and no dedicated home court. That’s not a recipe for success.
Reader’s Take II
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
Austin Rivers is virtually the only one-and-done candidate in the conference unless James McAdoo gets more playing time than expected at Chapel Hill. Rivers is an elite scorer, who should be an immediate impact at the college level. The one things that might keep him around are a very strong NBA Draft class and the chance he might take longer to adjust to the college game than people anticipate. On the coaching side, Jeff Bzdelik may quickly find himself on the hot seat if he doesn’t show significant improvement at Wake Forest this season. Last season was one of the worst ones in school history, and even being friends with the athletic director won’t make up for one-win conference seasons.
As you probably know, the ACC was one of the more proactive leagues during the recent bout of conference realignment. The league added basketball powers Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East. Although the move crippled the Big East, it’s hugely beneficial to the overall talent level basketball-wise for the ACC. Pitt and Syracuse are two of the most consistent high-level programs in the country that should annually challenge the powers of Tobacco Road for conference dominance once they join in 2014.
Spotlight on… Mike Krzyzewski
I covered this in much greater depth recently for RTC’s Season Preview, but Mike Krzyzewski will pass his mentor Bob Knight for most wins in NCAA history very early this season. This milestone speaks volumes about Krzyzewski’s high level of success over an incredible length of time. It’s this consistent success that makes Coach K the best coach of the modern era. I won’t rehash the analysis from the article here, but for some perspective of just how staggering 900 wins is I’ll leave you with this fun fact. Brad Stevens would have to knock out over 31 25-win seasons to match Coach K’s current win total, which would make Stevens the ripe old age of 66 (two years older than Krzyzewski).