The RTC Interview Series: ACC Preview with Len Elmore, Mike Gminski & Bret Strelow, Part IPosted by Walker Carey on October 15th, 2013
Rush The Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you periodically throughout the offseason. If you have any specific interview requests or want us to interview you, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. As part of our national preview of the ACC, RTC Correspondent Walker Carey recently had the pleasure of speaking to several ACC experts in Maryland basketball legend and ESPN analyst, Len Elmore, Duke basketball legend and CBS analyst, Mike Gminski, and the ACC reporter for the Fayetteville Observer, Bret Strelow. (Ed. note – we spoke to each individual separately, but for the sake of expediency, combining their answers into a round table format made the most sense.)
Rush the Court: What kind of impact do you think the additions of Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse has on the ACC as a basketball conference?
Len Elmore: It is clearly going to make a tough ACC even tougher. Adding those three established programs into an already tough conference – with Duke and North Carolina plus upstart Virginia and a Maryland team that seems primed to do some damage – is going to lead to a lot of jockeying up an down within the league standings.
Mike Gminski: I think it definitely strengthens the conference. The ACC is adding three established programs that are used to winning and going to the NCAA Tournament. They are coming to the ACC from the Big East, which was a great conference. Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse are all coming into the ACC looking to play in the upper half of the league immediately. From that standpoint, the addition of those three teams makes the ACC one of the top conferences in the country.
Bret Strelow: A lot of people have been very vocal about this. Mike Krzyzewski has probably been the first and foremost voice about it, as he believes that this will make the ACC the strongest league in, perhaps, history. I think the Big East had 11 teams make the NCAA Tournament a few years back and I think a lot of people are pretty optimistic that the ACC can at least push towards double-digit berths. I think a double-digit number would be on the high end with a baseline around seven or eight teams. Adding Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse is a big deal because those are three teams that win a lot of games year in and year out. I think the ACC had four teams in the Tournament last year, as the league had taken a step back a bit. But with the addition of those three teams, I think the league will be back to being a power league within college basketball.
RTC: Duke lost its three leading scorers from last season (Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, and Mason Plumlee), yet it is still projected to win the ACC. What is it about this year’s Duke squad that has expectations so high?
Elmore: They have blue-chippers coming into the fold. They have two of the best newcomers in the country – from what I have been told – in Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood and freshman Jabari Parker. These guys are coming in ready to play. Hood and Parker will have help from players like Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon. Duke might not have the biggest team in the country, but it has guys who will be able to compete all over the court. It certainly could be the most athletic team in the ACC.
Gminski: This is going to be a different team for Mike Krzyzewski. It is not going to have the bigs that it has had in the past, so the style of play will be different. I think this year’s squad will play a bit more like Krzyzewski has coached his Olympic teams. They are going to be very diverse, much more up-tempo, and will have some versatility. They have two great new guys in Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood and freshman Jabari Parker. A lot of people thought that even though Hood did not play last year, he might have been Duke’s best player in practice. Jabari Parker comes into the fold after being one of the best high school players in the nation. They will not have that big guy inside this season, but they will be much bigger and more athletic on the perimeter. I think they are going to be a very interesting team to watch.
Strelow: I think it is the arrival of two newcomers in Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood and freshman Jabari Parker. Both of those guys have perimeter skills and incredible size and length. Duke has not had a lineup that will feature this much athleticism since the ’98-’99 season when they were dominant before finishing as national runner-up to Connecticut. They also had incredible athleticism when they won the title in 2001. Pairing Hood and Parker with Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon in the backcourt gives the team that very athletic dimension. Andre Dawkins also returns to that backcourt. If you recall, Jabari Parker was the number one player in his high school class until Andrew Wiggins reclassified. Rodney Hood, at many times, was the team’s best player in practice last season. He has been voted a team captain as a redshirt sophomore and it is very rare for an underclassman to be a captain at Duke. I think Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus were the only other ones. I think those Hood and Parker are foundation pieces for Mike Krzyzewski, which is kind of strange to admit because neither of them have played in a Duke uniform yet. As a whole, Duke is absolutely loaded and it is definitely the clear favorite in the league.
RTC: The story of North Carolina’s offseason has been the off-the-court transgressions of star player P.J. Hairston. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams has acknowledged that the suspended Hairston will miss “some games.” What kind of impact do you believe Hairston’s troubles will have on North Carolina as it begins its season?
Elmore: It is a distraction. There is no way in the world that you can go through a season with your best player having this black cloud hanging over his head and having to deal with the media every day without it being a distraction. Outside of Hairston, North Carolina has some players who are ready to step up, as well as some experienced guys. Marcus Paige is ready to take the next step at the point guard spot. James Michael McAdoo was a bit of a disappointment last year. A lot of people thought it would have been him leaving to go to the NBA instead of Reggie Bullock. This is a talented team, but the question is if it can be focused totally on basketball. I think Hairston’s offseason problems will present an obstacle for the team.
Gminski: I imagine early on it is going to be a distraction because it is going to be a big story. Right now, he is theoretically suspended, but it is not known just how many games he will be out for. No matter how long his absence is, it will have some impact on the team. With Hairston, North Carolina is able to play a more conventional style, as opposed to the small lineup that Roy Williams was forced to go with last season. You have to view the big question mark with North Carolina entering the season as how long is Hairston going to be suspended and what effect is this going to have on the team early on.
Strelow: Big picture it is kind of hard to tell right now because we are going to have to wait and see what the NCAA has to say about the whole thing and then how Roy Williams reacts to that. I think right now the idea is that Hairston – at most – will miss 8-to-10 games. I think him being out for any amount of time will have an impact on the team in non-conference play and how they build their team up. Right now, I do not think it is having much of an impact. Hairston is being allowed to practice and it does not seem as if his teammates are having any issues with him. They believe in him and he has apologized to them. I mean he is pulling pranks on Marcus Paige by jumping out of lockers and scaring him. Moving forward, P.J. Hairston is North Carolina’s most offensively talented player. He is an explosive shooter and he can really score for them. I do not think any of this will have much of an impact come January and February unless the NCAA really comes down on him. I think Roy Williams has shown that he is willing to give him a second chance – or a third or fourth chance – and that will definitely help the team make progress and get better as the season gets into swing.
RTC: Syracuse lost its two starting guards from last season’s Final Four team with Brandon Triche exhausting his eligibility and Michael Carter-Williams leaving for the NBA. Freshman Tyler Ennis takes over as the Orange’s point guard and many complementary players from last season are moving into larger roles. Are the new look Orange ready to be contenders in their new league?
Elmore: I do not think Ennis and the other young guys are ready to lead Syracuse. C.J. Fair was probably the most consistent guy Syracuse had last season and he is going to be the guy upon whose shoulders the pressure will fold. If Fair can take his game up a notch and develop an even greater consistency, I think Ennis and the other young guys will have the ability to follow that lead and play their roles. That 2-3 zone is always going to be difficult for teams to solve and with teams seeing it for the first time in ACC play, it is going to cause some potential problems.
Gminski: When reading Jim Boeheim’s comments, it seems like he really feels that Tyler Ennis is going to be able to step in right away and take over. It is a huge thing when a coach has that much confidence in a freshman point guard right off the bat. I was a big fan of Michael Carter-Williams. I thought he was a terrific player and his size made him a tough match-up every night. I think the tougher guy to replace is going to be Triche. Boeheim speaks glowingly of Triche. He was a major contributor for Syracuse for four years. When you look at replacing that production, will guys like Duke transfer Michael Gbinjie, freshman Ron Patterson, and redshirt sophomore Trevor Cooney be able to step up and make plays? When it comes down to it, this Syracuse team’s strength is in its front line with C.J. Fair – who is one of the best players in the ACC – and Rakeem Christmas – who played very well last season. The 2-3 zone is always going to be a tough match-up and I expect Syracuse to figure out what works and be a top four team in the conference.
Strelow: I think there will be some growing pains, but I think that Syracuse has shown before that when you kind of count them out a little bit; they have enough to be as competitive as anybody. I think everyone expected Syracuse to struggle a bit last season – and they definitely did at times during the season – but they still found a way to end up in the Final Four. That is a real testament to Jim Boeheim and what he is able to do with teams. Syracuse always seems to have a few players that you do not really know about that end up breaking out. The young guys are not going to have to do everything by themselves. C.J. Fair returns for the Orange and he is a first team All-ACC candidate and might even be a contender for conference player of the year. I do not think the transition will be too tough for Tyler Ennis and those other young guys. It will not be like they will have to carry the team on their shoulders.
RTC: Notre Dame has a lot of talent on the perimeter with veteran players Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant, and Pat Connaughton, as well as freshman Demetrius Jackson. Is this talent enough to offset the departure of Jack Cooley inside and make the Irish a factor in the ACC race?
Elmore: Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant, and Pat Connaughton are guys who can really put the ball in the basket. Grant is a guy who can put the ball on the floor, make plays, and get to the rim. He is pretty explosive offensively. What it come down to is that they are going to have to find a guy who can rebound. That is where Cooley made his mark. He was a relentless rebounder. They have four returning starters from last season, but Jack Cooley was the key guy. He has to be replaced by someone who is going to attack the boards and make the other four perimeter guys better.
Gminski: This is going to be the third year of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant playing together. That is a huge deal. They can both make plays. That is a very comfortable thing for Mike Brey to have to enter the year. Demetrius Jackson is going to be a really great player for Notre Dame. He is right from South Bend and brings a lot of athleticism. Pat Connaughton is the team’s best three-point shooter. This team definitely has the ability to go small. Still, replacing Cooley is going to be a tough task. Seniors Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman have experience, but the Irish will probably have to replace Cooley’s production by committee. The interesting sidenote to Notre Dame joining the ACC is that Mike Brey is the first former Mike Krzyzewski assistant to come into the ACC as a head coach and coach against him. It should be fun to watch and make for an entertaining rivalry right away between Notre Dame and Duke.
Strelow: I think Notre Dame will be a factor. I think it is one of five teams (along with Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Virginia) from the league that should enter the season ranked in the Top 25. I think it will be very interesting to see how the Irish mix in the new league. Mike Brey has a Duke background and he has said that his team played more of an ACC style of basketball in the Big East. I think their style fits well with the teams that they will be playing. Will this work well and everything will mesh together or will it make them just about the same as everyone else? I am not really sure how that will work out right now. That backcourt is extremely talented and that will help make them a top five – maybe even a top three – team in the league this season.
RTC: Maryland is entering its final season in the ACC before heading off to the Big Ten. Does Mark Turgeon have enough talent on his squad to make the Terps’ final season in the league a memorable one?
Elmore: Maryland is going to be an interesting team to watch. It lost Pe’Shon Howard – who transferred to USC – and Alex Len – who was a lottery pick in the NBA Draft. Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell came on late last year and helped Len inside on the boards. Jake Layman, Nick Faust, and Seth Allen are all pretty good perimeter shooters. The key guy for Maryland is definitely going to be Dez Wells. Wells is a guy who does a little bit of everything and if he can continue to get better and make plays, the entire team will be better. They also have Evan Smotrycz, the transfer from Michigan, eligible and he is a guy who can shoot from the perimeter and pass the ball real well. If all their pieces fit and they can continue to get better, they are a team that can surprise some people.
Gminski: I think it is going to be interesting to see how Maryland’s final season in the conference plays out. It is going to be a huge storyline and the team is going to have to answer questions related to the move all year long. The ACC threw a tough schedule at the team as a going away present as well. When you look at the team, Mark Turgeon is a great coach and this is the first year he has had seven scholarship players returning. He has guys in place that know the system and he has some really good players. Dez Wells is very explosive and can make plays. Nick Faust is becoming more comfortable in the system. They lost some size inside with Alex Len going to the NBA, but Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell are wide bodies. Evan Smotrycz, the Michigan transfer, is a nice stretch-four who can make things happen. This team has some nice talent and it has a legitimate chance of being an NCAA Tournament team.
Strelow: Maryland does have talent – some of it is unproven. With this team, it really starts with the ballhandling. This team was really sloppy and had a lot of turnovers last season. Pe’Shon Howard transferred from last year’s team, but they still have Seth Allen and he had some bright spots at the end of the season – for example, he played very well in the home upset of Duke in February. Dez Wells returns and he is very talented. They have some guys inside – most notably, Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell – who are big and got into much better shape. I think Mark Turgeon is going to get the most out of what he has and schedule-wise, things are not too favorable. Maryland does go to North Carolina, it does go to Duke, and it does go to NC State. That is some punishment for leaving the league there. Things do balance out a bit because it does get Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse at home. At the end of the day, I see Maryland being in the next tier after Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Virginia – and I can see it being the cream of that next crop.
*Check back on Thursday for Part II of the The RTC Interview Series: ACC Preview. Update: Part II is located here.