The RTC Interview Series: ACC Preview with Len Elmore, Mike Gminski & Bret Strelow, Part IIPosted by Walker Carey on October 17th, 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.)
*Make sure to start with Part I of the ACC Preview, published on Tuesday.
RTC: Hot seat talk in the preseason is often a bit overblown, but who are coaches in the league that are certainly under pressure to win now?
Elmore: When you look at Wake Forest with Jeff Bzdelik, that is going to be an issue right there. I think this is going to be a make-or-break year for him. Part of the fan base wants Bzdelik gone, another part wants athletic director Ron Wellman gone, and some others want both gone. Unfortunately, Jeff Bzdelik is definitely on the hot seat. I say unfortunately because Bzdelik is a solid teacher, he does well imparting the fundamentals, and has done a good job with some of the offseason stuff with some players over the last few seasons. I think when you look at Mark Gottfried at NC State, he is also a guy who has something to prove. He had some tremendous talent last season and the team just fizzled out. Beyond Bzdelik and Gottfried, you look at James Johnson at Virginia Tech and he just started, so he is going to be given a bit of a long leash. Brad Brownell does a great job with his guys at Clemson, but he has to get some players in there. Miami is going to be down this year with all its departures from last season, but no one can argue with Jim Larranaga and what he has been able to do with that program. I think when it comes down to it and you are looking at two guys who are going to feel some discomfort, they are going to be Jeff Bzdelik and Mark Gottfried.
Gminski: I would think Jeff Bzdelik at Wake Forest is squarely on the hot seat. He has been there since the start of last season and that pressure continues to mount. Other than Bzdelik, I am not sure if anyone can be considered to be on a hot seat. James Johnson is only in his second season at Virginia Tech, so he will get more time. Brad Brownell might be facing a little pressure down at Clemson, but I would not consider him to be on a hot seat. I think other than Bzdelik, every other coach in the conference seems to be in pretty solid shape.
Strelow: I think it always starts with Jeff Bzdelik and Wake Forest. The fan base there is very unhappy with both Bzdelik and athletic director Ron Wellman. The team did show signs of life at different points last season with home upsets over Virginia, NC State, and Miami. Last season, veterans C.J. Harris and Travis McKie led the way for them. Freshmen Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas also showed they were capable of playing at a high level. Harris is gone this season, but the other three are back and it feels like this is the first team made up of all guys that Bzdelik recruited. If things do not go well this season, the pressure is only going to intensify for Bzdelik and Wellman. Things could get ugly there if the team does not get off to a good start.
Brad Brownell at Clemson is another guy that I think could be feeling a bit of heat. I think everyone respects him as an in-game coach and a stand-up guy, but it is in recruiting where he has struggled a little bit. When you look at Clemson’s roster, it is not stocked with a ton of talent. In some order, Clemson and Virginia Tech will probably be picked to finish last and second-to-last in the league. I think patience might be growing thin at Clemson, but at the same time I am not sure if it has been knifing at them or not. I do not know how rabid the basketball fan base is there to get too worked up over the struggles. Brownell and Clemson certainly have an uphill climb this season. The cupboard is a little bare there right now.
RTC: Who will be the top three teams at the end of the season and why?
Elmore: I am going to go with Duke and Syracuse as the top two. I am hesitant to say North Carolina because of all the offseason problems, but if it can overcome those, it will definitely be in there. If North Carolina cannot overcome its issues, I am going to say either Virginia or Maryland could be in there. If you remember Virginia is returning a whole bunch of talent – most notably Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell. Maryland has a bunch of guys who can play and it is a scrappy team that can end up winning some games it is not supposed to win.
Gminski: I think Duke is definitely the front-runner with its nice mix of returning players and incoming talent. I think Syracuse is going to be in that mix as well. I would say North Carolina, but I think it has to be seen as a question mark right now with the Hairston situation. Notre Dame and Virginia also have to be in that mix. It is kind of interesting that two of the five schools I mentioned are just coming into the conference, but that is the kind of talent both Syracuse and Notre Dame have.
Strelow: Duke is a national title contender – not just an ACC title contender. The talent they have is elite. You can put them next to Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, and Michigan State on the national scale. I think the next two teams right now are probably North Carolina and Syracuse. North Carolina is talented, but it is going to need another big guy to step up and it is also going to need James Michael McAdoo to be more consistent than he was last season. I do not think Roy Williams wants to play a small lineup again, so the emergence of that second big is going to be crucial. I think it might take some time for Syracuse to figure out some of its pieces, but the talent is definitely there. Duke, North Carolina, and Syracuse is the top three with Notre Dame and Virginia just a bit outside of it.
RTC: Who is a sleeper team in the league to keep an eye on throughout the season?
Elmore: The biggest sleeper in my mind is Boston College. Last season, they snuck up on a lot of people and ended up in a lot of close games. Most of the scoring last season came from freshmen and sophomores. Guys like Olivier Hanlan, Joe Rahon, and Ryan Anderson are coming back with the tremendous experience they got last season. If those guys can progress and if they get some help in the middle, I think Boston College is certainly a team that can do some damage in the conference.
Gminski: I kind of like Boston College as a surprise team. Steve Donahue has a terrific backcourt with Olivier Hanlan, who was great as a freshman, and Joe Rahon. Ryan Anderson is entering his third season with the program and really gives the team some production inside. Eddie Odio became a factor for the team last season. The health of Dennis Clifford inside will be key, as he battled through injuries last season. I think Boston College has the talent to surprise some people and finish in the top half of the conference.
Strelow: Pittsburgh is an interesting case. It lost more than half of its scoring, but it does bring back three starters. I think a lot of people have faith in Jamie Dixon to get the most out of his team. Having James Robinson at the point will help the team throughout the year. In terms of teams that have the chance to grow, I think Boston College and Georgia Tech are the most interesting cases. I am not sure what those teams’ ceilings are, but they both played a lot of young guys last season. Boston College relied a lot on underclassmen Olivier Hanlan and Ryan Anderson last season and they are both now a year older. I think everyone believes they are just going to get better. A thing about Boston College too is it plays a style that makes for difficult match-ups, as other teams in the league do not see that style a lot. I do not know if Georgia Tech has the talent or upside of Boston College. Georgia Tech does have versatile talent in sophomores Robert Carter and Marcus Georges-Hunt. It also now has Tennessee transfer Trae Golden running the point. Both Boston College and Georgia Tech have the talent where they can grow this season, but with the three former Big East teams joining the league, the extent to which they can grow remains to be seen.
RTC: Who is a team that you believe will drop off a bit from where it usually as it within the conference?
Elmore: I think it is going to be North Carolina. Usually North Carolina is one or two in the conference, but I just feel this distraction is going to end up hurting its chances. Florida State is another team that is probably going to fall a bit. You expect Florida State to always be around as a contender because of its defense, but this year, the cupboard is pretty much empty and I think it is a development year for Leonard Hamilton and the Seminoles. They lost Michael Snaer from last season and they just do not have anyone who is going to come in and replace him right away.
Gminski: Florida State has some work to do if it wants to be where it usually is within the conference. Losing a guy like Michael Snaer is obviously going to hurt the Seminoles. Leonard Hamilton has done a great job with the program and it has been one of the most consistent programs in the conference over the last five years. Last season, the team really took a dip defensively and that was surprising to me. It is going to be a tall order to get back to where they need to be defensively and they are going to have to figure out who is going to be their big scorer and who is going to take the big shots. The team that is going to take the biggest hit from last year is obviously going to be Miami. It lost everything from last season. If Shane Larkin had stayed, Miami might have been able to keep it going, but with him off to the NBA, they are really in a bind. Jim Larranaga is a great coach and I have a lot of respect for him, but his team just lost too much scoring to be a factor this season.
Strelow: Florida State. Some people have Florida State finishing as high as six or seven in the league and others have it finishing in the double digits. Losing Michael Snaer from last season is going to definitely have an impact. They are definitely a team that is going to meddle in the middle of the pack and it could definitely drop lower than that. I think some of the other teams that Florida State usually finishes ahead of have gotten better and I do not think you can say that Florida State has gotten better.
RTC: The league is stacked with many high quality players and coaches. Who do you believe will take home conference player of the year and conference coach of the year when all is said and done in March?
Elmore: From what everyone tells me, Jabari Parker is the real deal. I am not really one to tout freshmen because I feel it puts a lot of pressure on them, but if Parker is as good as everyone is saying, he definitely has a chance. I think both Dez Wells and Joe Harris could put together great seasons and win the award. If Duke goes undefeated in the league, you have to give coach of the year to Mike Krzyzewski. If Duke does not go undefeated in the league, I think Mark Turgeon has a chance if Maryland can surprise some folks and finish near the top of the league. Steve Donahue should also be a candidate if Boston College can surprise teams – like I think it can.
Gminski: Player of the year is an interesting question. It is going to be a newcomer? Will Jabari Parker step up and have the freshman season that people are expecting? I think C.J. Fair is a player who is primed to have a great season. Virginia’s Joe Harris is another player who has to be considered. He had a great season last year and is only going to get better. Right now, I think Parker, Fair, and Harris have to top that list. In theory, you could give the coach of the year every year to Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, or Roy Williams. Those are three Hall of Famers. If you are looking at guys outside of that mix to step up, if Virginia has a big year, Tony Bennett could very well earn the honor. Looking at Notre Dame, Mike Brey is a guy who has to be considered if Notre Dame makes some noise. Brey is a coach who has been undervalued nationally for years now. If you are looking for a dark horse, Bennett and Brey are probably your guys.
Strelow: When it comes to conference player of the year, I am going to give it to one of the Duke guys and I am leaning towards Rodney Hood. He is a 6’8” lefty who can shoot from the outside. He can guard several positions – he can even guard the point guard if he has to. If he plays as well as everyone says he is going to, he is the front-runner. Other guys who have to be considered are Jabari Parker, C.J. Fair, and Virginia’s Joe Harris – who had a great year last season. As far as coach of the year, with the dynamic of the ACC, if Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams do what they are supposed to do, they are not necessarily going to be rewarded with any accolades. I think you are always looking for someone to overachieve when it comes to giving out coach of the year. Maybe if Virginia or Notre Dame does really, really well, Tony Bennett or Mike Brey will garner that award. Maybe if Boston College grows to the point where it makes the NCAA Tournament, Steve Donahue will win the award. At this point, I think I will give it to Mike Krzyzewski. If Duke wins the league outright, maybe he will get his due because it has been a long time since he won conference coach of the year (Krzyzewski last won the award after the 1999-00 season). This is the type of Duke team that can definitely help Krzyzewski get that honor.