One on One: An ACC Preview With Bret Strelow

Posted by Walker Carey on November 5th, 2014

RTC interviews one on one

Rush the Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you throughout the preseason with previews of each of the major conferences.

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 with the ACC, RTC correspondent Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) recently had the pleasure of speaking with an ACC expert in Bret Strelow (@bretstrelow), the ACC basketball reporter for The Fayetteville Observer.

Rush the Court: Duke was an extremely talented unit last season, but it was ultimately done in by its defensive deficiencies in its stunning NCAA Tournament loss to Mercer. The Blue Devils once again have a talented roster and are widely projected to win the league. Will this season be any different than last when it comes to the defensive end of the floor?

Bret Strelow: It would be hard to get much worse. The Blue Devils ranked in the 100s in defensive efficiency, which is a far cry from what a Mike Krzyzewski-coached team usually is. With Jabari Parker, defense was not his calling card. Rodney Hood took on some tough assignments and struggled at times. The current thought around the Duke camp is that Jahlil Okafor at 6’11” and 270 pounds is a legitimate rim-protector. Duke can clean up some of its mistakes and pressure the ball a little bit more with Okafor back there. I think Duke should ultimately be a better defensive team, but we will see how much of a difference that will make.

Marcus Paige could be NPOY This Sesason. (credit: Ethan Hyman / Raleigh News & Observer)

Marcus Paige could be NPOY This Sesason. (credit: Ethan Hyman / Raleigh News & Observer)

RTC: Marcus Paige alone can probably keep North Carolina competitive in the ACC, but if the Tar Heels want to compete for the league crown, they are going to need a supporting cast to step forward. What Tar Heels can you see breaking out this season?

Strelow: It really might be a little bit of everybody. If Marcus Paige has to carry the load like he did for much of last season, North Carolina is probably not going to reach the goal that it has of contending for a Final Four and a national title. I think you can expect a little bit from everybody. Brice Johnson was extremely efficient last season in a secondary role behind James Michael McAdoo. If Johnson can stay out of foul trouble and guard well enough, I think his offense will be there. Kennedy Meeks has slimmed down. His offense has never been a problem. With Johnson and Meeks, you have two solid front line guys. When you look at the North Carolina freshmen class, Justin Jackson is a guy who has the uncanny ability to score. He has a way of scoring quickly and scoring in a way that does not require a lot of dribbles. I think he can really have a big year. He is probably more of an offensive threat than fellow freshmen Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II. I think outside shooting might still be an issue for North Carolina outside of Paige and if Jackson can hit a few. When you look at a guy like J.P. Tokoto, outside shooting is not his game. I think the Tar Heels have enough inside and with Jackson coming along, they are going to have enough to help Paige carry the load this season.

RTC: Louisville begins its inaugural season in the ACC after a successful one-year stint in the American Athletic Conference. With Montrezl Harrell returning up front and Chris Jones and Terry Rozier leading the backcourt, could the Cardinals potentially be a league title contender?

Strelow: They might be able to get there, but I do not think they are quite there yet. They are a top 10 team. They might be a team that will start a bit slower. There is going to be an adjustment period. Louisville looks to play an up-tempo style and it likes to pressure. That style might suit the ACC a bit more. Harrell is a legitimate first-team All-American candidate. I know they are expecting a big jump in Rozier’s production. The jury might still be out on them a little bit. Big picture, I think they definitely have the talent to be more of a Final Four contender than a national title contender.

RTC: Virginia obviously took the league by storm last season, as it won its first league title since 1976. The Cavaliers return seven of their top nine players, but the two players they did lose were key leaders Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell. Will Tony Bennett’s squad be able to effectively counteract those important losses and once again contend in the league?

What Does Virginia Have for an Encore? (credit: Robert Willett / Raleigh News & Observer)

What Does Virginia Have for an Encore? (credit: Robert Willett / Raleigh News & Observer)

Strelow: I predicted Virginia to win the league. That is different than saying Virginia is the best team in the league. I think Duke and North Carolina have better national title potential, but the combination of what Justin Anderson can do defensively and Anthony Gill‘s ability to come in and score really has Virginia set up to have a nice season. Rebounding is obviously going to be a key with Mitchell gone and with everything that Joe Harris did, that is obviously going to be a big loss. With Virginia – and I think its fans are sick of hearing about it – is that it does have another good ACC schedule. It only plays both North Carolina and Syracuse once, and those are on the road. It only plays both Duke and Pittsburgh once, and those are in Charlottesville. It does have to play Louisville twice, but when you look at the teams it only has to play once, that can definitely make a game or two difference in the standings. I think that can help Virginia win the regular season and this is a team that I have in the top 10 nationally as well. We will see what that means come March, but I think this team is built for another good regular season run.

RTC: Syracuse is in a bit of a reloading mode this season after losing Tyler Ennis, Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair from last season’s team. Who will Jim Boeheim look to this season to pick up the slack for those significant losses?

Strelow: It is going to be a little bit of everybody – from newcomers to returning players. Right off the bat, you think of Kaleb Joseph running the point and Chris McCullough – a 6’10”, 220-pound freshman – who is going to be right in the thick of things. With Tyler Ennis, Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair gone, a lot is going to be put on those two freshmen. I do not think those two are ready to come in and be stars right away like Ennis was last year. I think maybe a guy like Rakeem Christmas might be a key. He is a good shot-blocker and rebounder. With his size, he is a pretty efficient offensive player even though he had limited opportunities last year. A guy like Tyler Roberson is going to need to be counted on a little bit more. It is going to be a group effort. I think Syracuse is going to need a bit more out of those returning guys instead of putting it all on those freshmen if it wants to get where it wants to be.

RTC: Florida State has had the reputation of being a big, physical team throughout Leonard Hamilton’s tenure. With offensive talent Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Devon Bookert, and Aaron Thomas accompanying that usual Seminole brawn, what is the ceiling for this Florida State squad?

Strelow: That is the magic question. I have a tougher time figuring out that group than I do maybe than any other team in the league. In my mind, there is a clear top six with Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh. After that, it is a bit of a muddled middle with Florida State, Miami, Notre Dame, and NC State. Florida State definitely has the talent to be atop that group. Leonard Hamilton certainly has the track record at Florida State with last year notwithstanding. When this team is going, its defense and rebounding are among the best in the league. Xavier Rathan-Mayes is a guy who was a top 50 recruit who I think a lot of people are overlooking because he did not play last season. Coming out of high school, he was a guy that a lot of schools really wanted. He can really have a big impact on this season and give Florida State some punch.

RTC: Mark Gottfried has taken NC State to the NCAA Tournament in each of his three seasons in Raleigh. Replacing T.J. Warren will be a tall task this season, but do the Wolfpack have enough talent in place to make it four bids in four years for Gottfried?

Strelow: I think they have enough talent, but what I think will hurt them is that some of the teams around them in the league pecking order have gotten better. Last year, Miami and Notre Dame took steps back, and NC State was able to capitalize on that and get to its third straight NCAA Tournament. Miami and Notre Dame both figure to be better this season. I still think NC State is a pretty good team. A staple of Mark Gottfried-coached teams is offensive balance, as that is how the UCLA high-post game is kind of built. Sans Warren, I think they will get back to that this year. A guy like Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey may lead them in scoring with Ralston Turner also right there. They will definitely not be as reliant on one guy like they were with Warren last season. Will they be able to guard enough though? We will see. Schedule-wise, after starting off with Wake Forest, the first eight or nine games of their ACC slate is pretty difficult. They are a young team and if they can survive that, maybe they will flourish. But if that tough stretch beats them down, it could be a long year. How they react to that tough stretch is really going to define who they are and what they can do.

RTC: Notre Dame suffered its first losing season of the Mike Brey era last year. With Jerian Grant back from a semester-long academic exile and versatile Pat Connaughton now a senior, can the Irish experience some success in their second season as an ACC member?

Jerian Grant Returns From Suspension (Photo: US Presswire / Richard Mackson)

Jerian Grant Returns From Suspension (Photo: US Presswire / Richard Mackson)

Strelow: I think we will see more of the Notre Dame that we thought we were going to see when it entered the league. That group entered last year as a Top 25 team and was off to a pretty good start until Grant was lost for the season. Getting Grant back is huge for Notre Dame. He is a first-team all-ACC performer, who averages 18 points and six assists per game. Mike Brey can get back to running that free-flowing offensive system that he really had to bring to a halt last season because of the personnel he had to force into action. It still stands to see how much Notre Dame will improve. I do not know if the Irish are a Top 25 team. I would not put them there. I could see them potentially getting to that sixth, seventh, or eighth spot in the conference and battling for a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

RTC: Georgia Tech has yet to find its stride in the Brian Gregory era. It is now year four for Gregory in Atlanta. Do you believe that he is under pressure to win now?

Strelow: Certainly. Last year, Boston College made a coaching change and Wake Forest made a coaching change. He is the guy who is getting the heat now. Georgia Tech needs him to do better, and right now I think it is going to be tough for him to make that big of a climb. With Louisville coming into the league and other teams getting better, the league is going to be as good as it has been since he got the job. He does have some talent with Charles Mitchell coming over from Maryland and Marcus Georges-Hunt returning, but it is going to be a tough, tough road for Georgia Tech this season.

RTC: Of the three new coaches in the league (Buzz Williams at Virginia Tech, Danny Manning at Wake Forest, and Jim Christian at Boston College), who do you believe is in the best position to experience early success? 

Strelow: Wake Forest had some tough personnel losses with Arnaud William Adala Moto transferring and Tyler Cavanaugh transferring. I thought those guys could form a nice core with Devin Thomas and Codi Miller-McIntyre returning. Wake Forest does have some good freshmen coming in. Even with those losses, I am going to go with Wake Forest. Boston College does have Olivier Hanlan and that changes everything, but Wake Forest does have more upside than either Boston College or Virginia Tech. Buzz Williams does have things going in the right direction for Virginia Tech, but not immediately with how down things are there personnel-wise.

RTC: Duke, North Carolina, and Louisville seem to be the top three contenders in the league with Virginia and Syracuse falling right behind. If a team outside those five emerges to challenge in the standings, who do you think it will be and why?

Strelow: Outside of those five, you have to go with Pittsburgh. Jamie Dixon has a track record of proving that you really cannot doubt his team that much. They had some wins last season, but did not have the quality of wins that you equate with a top team. They did still play well enough to be an NCAA Tournament team. They really need to do a better job of scheduling and get some of those non-conference signature wins. Cameron Wright is still in a boot after suffering a broken foot. If Pittsburgh can get him back healthy, that will be important for them and what they want to do. When it comes to the middle of the league, I think you have to trust Pittsburgh due to its track record, coaching, and current roster.

RTC: Lastly, 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?

Strelow: My pick for ACC Player of the Year is Marcus Paige. I am extremely impressed with Jahlil Okafor, but I think with how good North Carolina is going to be, we are really going to see what Paige can do and his impact on the game. For Coach of the Year, I think if Tony Bennett can take his team to another ACC regular season crown, he is the front-runner. I think there is a little bit of a “curse” when it comes to Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams when it comes to those awards. They may not really get considered as much for them because their success is taken for granted. I could see that same thing happening to Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim. When it comes to Coach of the Year, the voting philosophy is often whose team overachieves the most. That is kind of how Seth Greenberg won all of his awards when he was at Virginia Tech. Greenberg did a great job at that program, but his teams did overachieve quite a bit. But, if Tony Bennett is leading Virginia back to the top of the league, he will once again be the leading candidate.

WCarey (318 Posts)

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