ACC Preview Revisited – Part OnePosted by Lathan Wells on January 1st, 2014
As the non-conference portion of the 2013-14 college basketball season nears its conclusion and conference play looms large in the New Year, the ACC has seen its share of ups and downs along an uneven early stretch. While some of its teams (Duke, Syracuse) appear to be capable of the preseason hype bestowed upon them, others have been a mixture of confounding (North Carolina), shockingly underwhelming (Boston College, Maryland) and utterly but pleasantly surprising (Florida State). The conference some were talking about being the greatest college basketball had ever witnessed hasn’t shown the depth and consistency in non-conference play to justify that acoolade, but there is still a long way to go as this new-look league embarks into ACC play. Here’s a look back at the RTC preseason ACC rankings as voted upon by the writers and how those teams have performed thus far and look to perform as the season progresses.
1. Duke Blue Devils (11-2)
- Signature wins: #22 Michigan, UCLA
- Signature losses: #5 Kansas, #4 Arizona
- Reasons for optimism: Quinn Cook has shown he is the multi-threat point guard the team had hoped he would become, adding some serious offensive game to his role as facilitator. Jabari Parker is in the running for early NPOY honors and has done nothing to dampen his enormous expectations. Rodney Hood has stepped in and become an instant multi-purpose threat as a transfer, and Rasheed Sulaimon now appears to be ingratiating himself with Coach K again, making this a very talented offensive team with many versatile weapons.
- Reasons for pessimism: The team has looked lost defensively on the perimeter at times. While still very competitive, they lost to both of the best teams they played in the non-conference slate, displaying an inability to get key stops down the stretch. Parker’s need to control the offensive flow has come to the detriment of Sulaimon’s development. Will that change now that Sulaimon seems to be earning more minutes? There’s still no prominent big man (sorry, Marshall Plumlee), and the three-point shooters are not as scary as in years past.
- Forecast: This team has got plenty of talent, and Parker is a dominant go-to guy who can single-handedly rescue this team from an off night. Duke still lives and dies largely from the perimeter, though. They have won titles without significant impact in the paint before, but they have also flamed out of the NCAA Tournament early because of the same deficiency. Parker is too good and has enough complementary threats in Hood, Cook, and possibly Sulaimon to rely on for this team to underwhelm late in the season. This is a squad with Final Four credibility.
2. Syracuse Orange (13-0)
- Signature wins: #18 Baylor, #8 Villanova
- Signature losses: None
- Reasons for optimism: Well, they’re undefeated, for one thing. The very early progression of freshman point guard Tyler Ennis has come as a relief to Jim Boeheim, who already had frontcourt stars in C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant to carry the team on most nights. Trevor Cooney has likewise rediscovered his three-point stroke. Then there’s always that infamous zone which continues to flummox opponents and will be an unwelcome site to ACC teams who have never regularly competed against it.
- Reasons for pessimism: Syracuse does a lot of things well, but hasn’t done all of them consistently thus far. The team struggles when Fair has an off night, and when shots aren’t falling from outside they look quite vulnerable. They have struggled against some of their “lesser” competition, which could point to an inconsistent (and troubling) intensity level. They are still extremely reliant on their frontcourt duo, and Ennis is still a freshman prone to freshman play.
- Forecast: This team is good enough on paper to make a return trip to the Final Four, but the key may be the center-by-committee approach Boeheim is leaning on in the middle. If a true difference-maker emerges there, they are solid at the one through five positions on the floor and can withstand a bad night from one or two of their best players. Their ability to play with a grind-it-out style feeding from the zone as well as getting out into transition makes them a very dangerous, very versatile opponent.
3. North Carolina Tar Heels (10-3)
- Signature wins: #3 Louisville, #1 Michigan State, #11 Kentucky
- Signature losses: Belmont, UAB
- Reasons for optimism: Well, you can start with the three wins listed above. Somehow, a team missing its best player from a year ago and one of only two three-point threats until the 10th game of the season knocked off three of the top-ranked teams in the country, two of those away from home. Marcus Paige has become a star, playing a new position at the two but scoring consistently for a team still trying to find offensive identity. The freshmen are playing early and often, and center Kennedy Meeks in particular has shown an ability to command the paint and make the frontcourt a position of depth and strength for the Tar Heels. They also finally know what their roster will look like for the remainder of the year with Leslie McDonald’s reinstatement and the knowledge that P.J. Hairston’s Carolina career is officially over.
- Reasons for pessimism: First of all, no game is a gimme for this team. They have knocked off college basketball’s best and yet struggled to beat teams with inferior talent and size. Their free throw shooting is among the worst in the nation, and has probably cost them all three games they have lost. And though Hairston’s absence is confirmed and the team can now move on without him, it’s a big loss to know his scoring and tenacity aren’t going to be available at all this year. Can UNC beat anybody? The Heels have shown that they can. They have also shown that no wins are guaranteed for this team at this point in the year.
- Forecast: Good luck predicting this team’s future. World-beaters one day; head-scratching inconsistency the next. Paige has shown he can be the dynamic force and leader the team needs, but without consistent play from James Michael McAdoo and Brice Johnson, the team at times lacks scoring options. Free throw shooting is the key; they generally have the edge inside and can make up for a lack of outside threats with an edge in rebounding. It’s just too difficult to say if this team has the ability to string together enough consecutive victories to ensure a high NCAA Tournament seed and make a deep March run. An early-round exit in the NCAA Tournament at this juncture would seem cautiously optimistic.
3. Virginia Cavaliers (9-4)
- Signature wins: Northern Iowa
- Signature losses: #14 VCU, #8 Wisconsin, Wisconsin Green-Bay, Tennessee
- Reasons for optimism: Most of the reasons for optimism with this team are rooted in what the Cavaliers should be. Joe Harris should be contending for POY honors in the conference. Akil Mitchell should be a consistent force in the post along with a supposedly much-improved Mike Tobey. London Perrantes has provided more offense from the point guard position, a change from the position’s largely facilitating and defensive-minded role on Tony Bennett’s roster last year. Justin Anderson has continued showing flashes of brilliance off the bench, and transfer Anthony Gill too has shown why he was a much-ballyhooed transfer from South Carolina. Unfortunately, all of the elements are there, but they haven’t yet translated to signature wins. Virginia does often compete well in conference play against the elite, so fans can hold tight to the hope they replicate those performances with ACC play about to begin.
- Reasons for pessimism: One of the reasons the Cavaliers were on the outside looking in last year when Tourney selection time came around was they did little in the non-conference slate and experienced a late-season swoon. There’s no avoiding the fact that the former has reared its ugly head again this year, as UVA missed out on both opportunities for marquee early-season wins against ranked opponents. Harris doesn’t look like the same player as last year, and Mitchell is mired in a serious slump. The Cavaliers’ offense is built to feed off of its defense, meaning most of their match-ups will be close. The problem is this team isn’t built to come from behind, and early deficits have led to four early-season losses. Can they step up offensively and start counting on their (supposedly) known commodities to produce?
- Forecast: It’s hard to think that a team that duplicated its dreadful non-conference performance from a year ago can improve on its ACC win-loss record now that the conference has arguably gotten tougher. But John Paul Jones Arena is still a tough place to play, and Bennett usually has his team beating the elite at least once or twice in ACC play. Realistically, this squad will be doomed by its inability to capture those crucial early-season wins over ranked teams and will narrowly miss the NCAA Tournament yet again.
5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (9-4)
- Signature wins: Indiana
- Signature losses: Indiana State, #23 Iowa, #3 Ohio State
- Reasons for optimism: Head coach Mike Brey’s track record and the veteran makeup of the team come to mind. With the loss of Jerian Grant (see below), the team will no longer have its top scorer or most versatile player available for the rest of the season, however. Guard Eric Atkins, averaging roughly 12 points and four assists a game, will be counted on even more heavily for scoring. Three players other than Grant average double-figure points per game, so the offense will suffer but maybe not as badly as some may think. Pat Connaughton and Garrick Sherman still offer a very solid frontcourt pairing, and Brey certainly has a history of pushing seemingly average teams to excel.
- Reasons for pessimism: Uh, they just lost their best player for the rest of the season. Notre Dame also struggled against its best non-conference opposition, including a demoralizing loss to Ohio State in which the Irish blew an eight-point lead with under a minute to go. That, coupled with the Grant academics-related dismissal, seems like a turning point for a team heading in the wrong direction entering conference play. Oh, and they draw Duke first on Saturday.
- Forecast: While this team has some veterans and is hardly a bare cupboard, losing its most talented player entering conference play can be a death knell. And it wasn’t like this team was entering the ACC slate on a high note, already tallying four losses and looking uneven in victory. More than likely Notre Dame will find itself struggling to stay afloat in the conference rankings and an NIT bid is probably a best-case scenario this year.