RTC’s ACC Preseason Awards

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 11th, 2014

With the 2014-15 ACC season just about to tip off, our esteemed panel of micrositers has come together to release our preseason individual superlatives. It was a close race for most of these positions, but those who were close to making the cut will earn honorable mention below. Feel free to comment on where we went horribly awry or how accurately you think we’ve nailed it.

Player of the Year: Marcus Paige, PG, North Carolina. It might be a good thing if Paige’s scoring numbers drop this year, as that would probably mean more offensive production from his peers. North Carolina has a promising group of freshmen in the backcourt and on the wing, but a more mature and seasoned frontcourt could help Paige excel as the team’s primary ball-handler. Jahlil Okafor and Montrezl Harrell are two others who could easily claim this award by season’s end.

Marcus Paige is RTC's pre-season ACC Player of the Year (newsobserver.com)

Marcus Paige is RTC’s preseason ACC Player of the Year (newsobserver.com)

Freshman of the Year: Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke. We didn’t stray far from public opinion on this one. Okafor gives Duke its most formidable post player in many years, and his exhibition performances have done little to dampen the enthusiasm for his talent in Durham. Justin Jackson (North Carolina), Shaqquan Aaron (Louisville) and Kaleb Joseph (Syracuse) are dark horse candidates worth keeping an eye on.

Coach of the Year: Leonard Hamilton, Florida State. Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski were the others we considered, but the potential for Florida State to make some noise in the ACC race this year means Hamilton is the preseason choice. Florida State will continue to play its trademark smothering defense, but we think that the offense will be vastly improved. It says here that the Seminoles will improve on their 9-9 ACC record and return to the Big Dance after an NIT semifinals appearance a year ago.

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ACC Preview: North Carolina’s Burning Question

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 10th, 2014

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage. You will find a list with links to all the team previews on the ACC Microsite Preview Page, located here.

Can North Carolina’s frontcourt live up to its potential?

North Carolina underwent a major roster re-shuffling last season due to the dismissal of P.J. Hairston and the late insertion of Leslie McDonald into the lineup. The team was all over the place in the season’s first half, notching impressive wins over highly-ranked teams while suffering several head-scratching losses to lesser opponents. The Tar Heels finally found their footing come conference play, however, and finished 24-10 overall (13-5 ACC) en route to the NCAA Tournament’s Third Round, where they lost to Iowa State. This year’s edition is projected as a better team, but the Tar Heels’ chances of making a deep run in March will directly tie to the success of its deep but sometimes inconsistent frontcourt.

Johnson will need to use his added bulk to help him bang with the bigs in the ACC this year (gettyimages)

Johnson will need to use his added bulk to help him bang with the bigs in the ACC this year (gettyimages)

Brice Johnson was a sort of super-sub for North Carolina last year, spelling enigmatic James Michael McAdoo at power forward and occasionally filling in at the center position. He averaged 10.3 points per game, largely on transition baskets and buckets around the rim. Johnson’s biggest weaknesses were his lack of bulk, causing him to struggle playing against bigger, stronger opponents, and his propensity for foul trouble. He has reportedly added about 20 pounds to his frame, so the Heels hope that his improved strength will allow him to handle the night-in, night-out pounding in the paint. If he can also become a more well-rounded defender by tempering the tendency to send every opponent’s shot into the fifth row, Johnson can better remain on the floor and become a very dependable contributor on both ends of the court.

Johnson’s running mate in the paint, Kennedy Meeks, was a polar opposite of Johnson. Meeks came into Chapel Hill as a freshman needing to lose weight, and he has done so to the tune of a whopping 50 pounds in the last year-plus. Meeks is not a prototypical center at 6’8″, but he has excellent offensive moves around the basket and understands his limitations in playing below the rim. He is also an exceptional passer, helping to ignite fast breaks and finding open men from the post. Like Johnson, Meeks needs to stay on the floor with McAdoo no longer in the mix, but if his conditioning has greatly improved that will prove much easier for the sophomore. Meeks and Johnson also showed great chemistry in executing the high-low game when they shared court time last year, which bodes very well for the team when they are operating together in the Tar Heels’ starting lineup.

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UNC, Syracuse Investigations Cast Pall Over ACC and College Basketball

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 4th, 2014

It was omnipresent at the ACC’s Operation Basketball media day in Charlotte last week. It has dominated college hoops headlines on all the major sports networks. It was the foremost topic for Commissioner John Swofford to touch on during his “State of the Union” speech. The ongoing NCAA investigations of North Carolina and Syracuse — both focused largely on the basketball programs — has thrown a long and foreboding shadow over what should be a thrilling season of hoops in the ACC.

Roy Williams continues to show the strain of another rough off-season. (AP)

Roy Williams continues to show the strain of another rough offseason. (AP)

The now-widely dissected Wainstein report spelled out an unbelievable, almost surreal, number of academic issues in Chapel Hill that lasted over 18 years in duration. That spans the last several years of legendary coach Dean Smith’s tenure with the Tar Heels, caught all of the Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty eras, and finished as part of current coach Roy Williams‘ time with the program. While none of the current players appear to be affected by the allegations of paper classes and phantom professors at UNC, none can avoid the constant clamoring for answers on the topic from the media. Brice Johnson was the unfortunate soul who was forced to deal with a barrage of non-basketball questions last week in Charlotte, looking weary and uncomfortable in trying to defend practices that started before he was born and of which he had no influence. Read the rest of this entry »

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ACC Preview: NC State’s Burning Question

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 3rd, 2014

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage. You will find a list with links to all the team previews on the ACC Microsite Preview Page, located here.

Can Cat Barber run this team effectively?

NC State made its third NCAA Tournament appearance in a row last season as head coach Mark Gottfried cajoled his team to a surprising 22-14 record. The Wolfpack were immensely reliant on ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren to get there, as he accounted for 34 percent of the team’s scoring and 32 percent of its shot attempts. Warren has since departed as a lottery pick of the Phoenix Suns, so NC State will put its hopes on a balanced scoring effort this season to make up for his lost production. That will start with sophomore point guard Anthony “Cat” Barber. His ability to protect the basketball and facilitate the offense while also looking for his own shot will largely determine his team’s fate this season.

Barber needs to utilize his speed but keep turnovers low to help move NC State along (credit: wralsportsfan.com)

Barber (#2) needs to utilize his speed but keep turnovers low to help move NC State along. (AP)

Barber was erratic in the early going last year, largely because he had been a score-first point guard in high school who was suddenly asked to find good shots for his teammates (primarily, Warren). Those struggles to run the offense led to Tyler Lewis earning a large share of the available minutes at the point, with the team often looking significantly more fluid with him running the show. That won’t be an option this year, as Lewis has since transferred to Butler. Barber’s improvement during conference play, where his assist-to-turnover ratio was just a tick above 2-to-1, could be a precursor for the floor leader’s 2014-15 campaign. If the sophomore can cut down on turnovers while improving his overall scoring (8.5 PPG) and three-point shooting (26.1%), he’ll be able to keep defenses honest and make the game much easier for his supporting cast. Read the rest of this entry »

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15 Takeaways From ACC Operation Basketball

Posted by Lathan Wells on October 29th, 2014

The ACC’s Operation Basketball on Wednesday experienced the prevailing theme of putting last season in the rearview mirror and starting anew. This included the teams with successful campaigns just as much as those who had disappointing ones. It was clear after speaking with and listening to players and coaches that everyone is eager to make the 2014-15 ACC a more powerful entity than its predecessor of a year ago. Here are some takes on each team, in no particular order, gleaned from the Westin in Charlotte.

Duke: Much of the discussion centered on the Blue Devils’ newcomers, especially Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones. Both Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson were quick to point out that no rotation is set and that there is a ton of competition and talent in practice. Cook said as much when asked about practice: ” Yeah, we don’t have a starting lineup yet.  Different guys, we have like a white and blue team; different guys are put on the white team, different guys are put on the blue team.  So we’ll know soon, but whatever coach wants us to do, I think everybody will buy in because he obviously knows what he’s doing.  We all have to buy in and just put personal sacrifices aside.”

ACC Op BB

Wake Forest: Even when discussing their new coach, it was easy to tell that the Demon Deacons’ players still see him as a former National Player of the Year who enjoyed a long professional career. Manning, however, spoke mostly about his expectations for the team, which he put simply as “win every game.” The Demon Deacons, coming off the uninspiring Jeff Bzdelik era, better not spend their time in awe of their new coach, as they have a lot of ground to make up in order to compete in the ACC.

Miami: Transfers Sheldan McClellan and Angel Rodriguez representing the Hurricanes at this event was emblematic of a new Miami team that has put last year’s lackluster season behind it. Reverence for Jim Larranaga’s paternal style was obvious in listening to the two players discuss their coach. Larranaga immediately referenced them in his comments as well, showing that while the Hurricanes return some holdovers from last year, they will go as far as his two Big 12 transfers take them.

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ACC Preview: Virginia Tech’s Burning Question

Posted by Lathan Wells on October 22nd, 2014

Can Buzz Williams make Virginia Tech competitive quickly enough to fill the seats in Cassell Coliseum?

It’s no secret that Virginia Tech’s college basketball program is a distant second to its football program in Blacksburg. With that hurdle an annual one in terms of fan engagement, putting a subpar product on the floor has only further alienated whatever fan base the Hokies’ basketball team already had. While the team was modestly successful at times under Seth Greenberg, James Johnson’s two-year tenure was a complete disaster that kept fans away from the arena in droves. Last March new Athletic Director Whit Babcock made a splashy hire in hopes of changing the school and fans’ attitudes when he plucked rising star Buzz Williams away from Marquette. Williams took his Marquette teams to the NCAA Tournament five times in his six-year tenure, including three trips to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond. Williams has come into Blacksburg preaching toughness and attitude, putting together a “Boot Camp” aimed at toughening up his charges for the ACC gauntlet. While he reminded the nation that Virginia Tech actually has a basketball team while making a public relations tour during March Madness coverage, proving successful on the court in a competitive league will be a major challenge.

Buzz Williams hopes his enthusiasm helps reinvigorate a dormant Hokies fan base (credit: dailypress.com)

Buzz Williams hopes his enthusiasm helps reinvigorate a dormant Hokies fan base (credit: dailypress.com)

The Hokies return only four regulars from last year’s rotation, as a mass exodus of transfers and graduations greeted Williams at his new gig. The backcourt should be the team’s strength this year, with ACC all-freshman first team selection Devin Wilson returning to man the point. Adam Smith will likely man the other guard spot, and he will need to live up to his reputation as a lights-out long-distance shooter on a consistent basis. Malik Mueller is coming off of a redshirt campaign so there’s uncertainty there, but Williams did add to his backcourt depth by bringing signee Ahmed Hill along with him from Marquette. The immediate question mark for the Hokies will be in the frontcourt. Joey Van Zegeren will likely man the post after averaging career highs with 6.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game a year ago. After that, newcomers will be asked to play heavy minutes. Shane Henry, a junior college recruit from Georgia Perimeter College, needs to contribute immediately. Freshman Satchel Pierce, another Williams recruit at Marquette who followed his coach southeast, will also be counted on to help stabilize an uncertain frontcourt. Clearly there is far more unknown than known about the Hokies’ crop of big men, meaning this team will lean heavily on its backcourt early and often.

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What’s on the Mind of the 15 ACC Programs Right Now

Posted by Lathan Wells on October 17th, 2014

With the start of the ACC college basketball season rapidly approaching, allow us to put on our psychoanalyst’s hat to determine what’s on the mind of each of its 15 member programs right now. Some are of the optimistic variety, while others are fearful at what they see lying ahead. All of them, though, are hoping to contribute to discussions lauding the ACC as the nation’s preeminent college basketball conference this year. Let’s jump into each program alphabetically.

  • Boston College: Blind optimism. The reality is that the Eagles, even with an all-ACC caliber star in Olivier Hanlan, are likely one of the three worst teams in the conference. But there’s a new coach around in Jim Christian, and thanks to the usual roster turnover, few remaining pieces to recall the 8-24 debacle of a year ago. Buying in to a new coach and system may not be a problem, but production on the court will continue to be.
  • Clemson: Loss. That loss is a huge one, in the departure of NBA draft pick K.J. McDaniels, who was their best player on both sides of the ball last year and led the team in four statistical categories. A 10-win improvement from the year before earned Brad Brownell a six-year contract extension, but how will this team score enough to win even if it replicates its defensive success of a year ago?
Jim Christian's hopes a clean slate and overhauled roster reverses BC's fortunes (credit: bostonherald.com)

Jim Christian hopes a clean slate and overhauled roster reverses BC’s fortunes (credit: bostonherald.com)

  • Duke: Motivation. Not just because of a stellar recruiting class that includes their first dominant center in some time in Jahlil Okafor and the overall potential to be in the mix for a championship. There’s also the internal motivation for Quinn Cook to keep a hold on the starting point guard role in light of the arrival of stud freshman Tyus Jones, and Rasheed Sulaimon’s motivation to show that an early-season slump last year (temporarily earning him a place in Coach K’s doghouse) was an aberration. Oh, and that first round NCAA Tournament loss to Mercer could light a fire of some sort, too.

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Reviewing Five Notable ACC Offseason Headlines

Posted by Lathan Wells on October 16th, 2014

The 2014-15 ACC college basketball season is roughly a month away, which means Midnight Madnesses, secret scrimmages and overseas exhibitions are either on the near horizon or recently concluded. With Louisville’s replacement of Maryland in the league this year, it should be another dynamic season of ACC basketball. To further elicit excitement for the upcoming year, here are a few of the offseason storylines that bear revisiting as we build up to the start of games in the middle of November.

Coach K dismisses idea that coaching Team USA helps with recruiting

Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski Teamed Up to Win Another Gold Medal This Summer (Photo: Raleigh News & Observer / Getty Images)

Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski Teamed Up to Win Another Gold Medal This Summer
(Photo: Raleigh News & Observer / Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski wrote a piece last month suggesting Coach K’s Duke teams benefit heavily from his status as the coach of Team USA, comprised of the best professional players in America. Krzyzewski dismissed this idea, pointing to all the great players he recruited before assuming the mantle of America’s team and citing the measured success he’s had in the college ranks since. His friend, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, came to his defense, pointedly remarking that the main dissenter of Krzyzewski’s side gig was Kentucky’s John Calipari. There’s no need to state how humorous a complaint about recruiting that comes from a guy running an NBA combine at his practices happens to be, but this idea is ludicrous to begin with. Duke is going to be good every year because they have a great coach and a program with great tradition, and if Krzyzewski’s coaching the U.S. Men’s National Team also provides him more face time in high school stars’ living rooms? Well, deservedly so.

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After Lackluster Season, ACC Must Improve Depth to Have the “Best Ever” Conversation Again

Posted by Lathan Wells on April 4th, 2014

Prior to the beginning of the college basketball season, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski infamously proclaimed that the ACC had the potential to be the greatest college basketball conference of all-time. That was a bold proclamation at the time, as we covered here, and with the 2013-14 season now drawing to a close, it’s become painfully apparent that the conference this year did nothing to stake such a claim. So the question then becomes, what does the ACC need to do in coming years to proudly proclaim itself the best basketball conference ever assembled? Here’s a road map for the league’s coaches and administrators.

Virginia's ascendance will only help the ACC's argument that it's the premier basketball conference (USA Today Sports)

Virginia’s ascendance will only help the ACC’s argument that it’s the premier basketball conference. (USA Today Sports)

The conference’s elite have to dominate the non-conference slate and enjoy copious postseason success. While there were a handful of marquee wins spread around prior to ACC play (North Carolina’s defeats of Michigan State, Kentucky, and Louisville; Duke’s defeat of Michigan; Syracuse handling Villanova), the league’s postseason results were anything but stellar. The conference managed to get six teams into the NCAA Tournament, but the upper tier didn’t produce much success when they got there. Duke lost in the opening round; North Carolina and Syracuse fell in the round of 32. Virginia, the regular-season and ACC Tournament champion, may have drawn a rough match-up in the Sweet Sixteen with Michigan State, but it could not advance (and UConn was able to handle the Spartans in the nexts round). The embarrassing result was that there was no ACC teams in the Elite Eight. These teams have to produce in postseason play in addition to their non-conference victories to help the perception of the conference return to an elite level.

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Virginia Tech Earns Instant Credibility With Hire of Buzz Williams

Posted by Lathan Wells on March 25th, 2014

When Virginia Tech announced on Friday that it had poached head coach Buzz Williams from Marquette to replace the recently-fired James Johnson, the immediate reaction was that of general astonishment. Why on Earth would Williams leave a team he’d taken to the postseason in five out of six years on the bench to a program that had only reached the Big Dance once since 1996 and has finished last in the ACC three years running? While the reasons, thoroughly outlined here, became more apparent in the ensuing days, the real story is the amazing acquisition made by new Virginia Tech athletic director, Whit Babcock. The hiring of Williams and the way it managed to circle all of the major media outlets during the opening weekend of NCAA Tournament play, gave the Hokies basketball program something it hasn’t experienced in years: instant credibility.

Buzz Williams Virginia Tech PR campaign included a TNT appearance during the NCAA's (cbssports.com)

Buzz Williams’ Virginia Tech PR campaign included a TNT appearance during the NCAA Tournament (cbssports.com)

Williams oversaw a very successful Marquette program in the Big East, going an impressive 139-69 in his six years at the helm and taking the school to two Sweet Sixteen appearances and an Elite Eight run. No doubt his ability to navigate a difficult conference schedule (prior to realignment) and enjoy postseason success was extremely attractive to a Hokies program just trying to get noticed. Williams obviously looked around the ravaged Big East — a conference that the ACC raided to bring in Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh — and saw a chance to jump to the premier basketball conference in the land to match wits with four Hall of Fame coaches in Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, and Mike Krzyzewski. Some may have originally seen the move as a bizarre one (especially Williams’ pay cut from $3 million to $2.3 million annually) , but coupling the chance to compete in the new-look ACC with the uncertainty in the Marquette administration as well as the state of the weakened Big East, the decision began to make more sense.

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James Johnson’s Dismissal Highlights the Other Unpleasant Side of March

Posted by Lathan Wells on March 17th, 2014

The month of March is one that brings joy to many college basketball programs across the country, as they now have the chance to chase a national championship via the NCAA Tournament (or to a lesser extent, an NIT title that at least yields a banner). But as many know, March is often a time of despondency across the college basketball landscape. It starts with the teams that had their hopes dashed on Selection Sunday when their names weren’t called, but it also extends to the programs whose seasons are completely over. That’s where the dark days in March occur, and Virginia Tech’s James Johnson experienced such a day today as he was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Hokies after a mere two seasons on the bench.

James Johnson's uninspiring term at Virginia Tech ended after only two years (newsleader.com)

James Johnson’s uninspiring term at Virginia Tech ended after only two years (newsleader.com)

Johnson was considered something of a surprise hire when he replaced the ousted Seth Greenberg two years ago. In fact, he had never been a head coach at all, having recently left Blacksburg to take on a similar assistant coaching role at Clemson. Instead, Greenberg’s messy exit coupled with resounding support from the holdover players convinced the administration to hire Johnson to take over the program, citing in particular his recruiting ability for some of the better teams of the Greenberg era. He inherited a bad team in his first season that only produced 13 wins, even with ACC Player of the Year and eventual pro Erick Green on the roster. His follow-up nine-win campaign, which resulted in a dead-last performance in a 15-team ACC, was due to an extremely underwhelming roster. In the preseason, Johnson made the bizarre decision to name an incoming freshman team captain despite the presence of seniors Jarell Eddie and Cadarian Raines returning. And it wasn’t a superstar talent like Jabari Parker who was named the leader, either; it was two- or three-star guard Ben Emelogu. Emelogu had a decent start to his first college campaign, but he was far from a star.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: ACC Teams

Posted by Lathan Wells on March 16th, 2014

Selection Sunday has now yielded a 2014 NCAA Tournament field, and the bracket is filled out. It’s time to analyze how the ACC teams fared in their quest to garner postseason success. Some teams seem to have an easier path than others, but it is March and nothing can be taken for granted. Some may be surprised that six ACC teams made the field, especially since Florida State was the presumed ACC team on the brink, but nonetheless the ACC tied for the second-most teams in the field behind the Big 12’s seven entrants. Here’s a look at the six ACC squads that were lucky enough to hear their names called, and what their NCAA Tournament might look like.

Virginia, #1 seed, East Region. The Cavaliers were rewarded (and justly so) for claiming the ACC regular season and tournament titles with a #1 seed in the East. They won’t have to travel far in the early stages, either, with the opening rounds in a familiar venue in Raleigh. After what should be an opening round win over Coastal Carolina, Virginia will have to tangle with either Memphis or George Washington. The Cavaliers are one of the few teams in the country that always controls the tempo, so a match-up with a running team like the Tigers won’t faze them a bit. Tony Bennett’s team has a good shot of advancing to the Final Four if it can survive a potential Sweet Sixteen match-up with a suddenly-healthy #4 seed Michigan State. Villanova as the #2 seed is not as potent as other regions’ second seeds, so the Cavaliers have a very realistic shot of ending up in Arlington.

Virginia's dominance of the ACC regular and postseason helped them grab a number one seed (usatoday)

Duke, #3 seed, Midwest Region. Duke also gets the favorable early draw of playing in Raleigh, opening with Mercer. The Blue Devils’ region arguably has the most questionable top seed in Wichita State, but a potential UMass meeting in the second game could be tricky. Duke’s NCAA hopes are always pinned on how they shoot from distance, and if they’re on they can beat anyone. If they’re off, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood have to make plays to rescue the team. The region’s #2 seed, Michigan, already tussled with Duke earlier in the year and fell short, so that should also bolster Mike Kzryzewski’s outlook. Nevertheless, Louisville lurks in the Midwest with a head-scratching #4 seed, so Duke is not without a test at every turn in its quest to bring glory back home to Durham for the fifth time.

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