Each week here at the microsite we’ll take a look at which ACC teams and players are trending up, down, or remaining flat. It’s still very early in the season, but there are some trends to be gleaned from the first week of opening games. Let’s take a look below:
Duke. Despite all of the preseason hype placed on Duke’s freshmen (Jahlil Okafor in particular) and speculative questions about overall team chemistry, the Blue Devils have looked the part of a title contender thus far. Their blowouts over Presbyterian and Fairfield may not have convinced anyone, but their wire-to-wire victory over Michigan State showed that Duke is already in top form.
Miami. The Hurricanes’ early returns on their big-name transfers have been outstanding. Sheldon McClellan (from Texas) is putting up 11.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game through two contests, and former Kansas State point guard Angel Rodriguez is not only averaging a team-high 18.3 points per contest, but he also hit the game-winning three over rival Florida that ended the Gators’ 33-game home winning streak. Pretty solid start for Jim Larranaga’s newcomers.
Angel Rodriguez has produced pleasant early returns for Miami (USA Today Sports)
Virginia Tech. Why are the Hokies trending up when they only have wins over Maryland-Eastern Shore and Liberty? Well, go back in time one year ago and Virginia Tech had just lost its season opener to South Carolina Upstate. At a minimum, Buzz Williams has his team beating the teams it should beat, something last year’s group couldn’t boast. Freshman Justin Bibbs’ solid start to the season has been a pleasant surprise as well.
Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 17th, 2014
After having to answer questions all preseason dealing with the school’s “paper class” scandal, there’s little doubt that North Carolina’s players and coaches were even more excited than usual to tip off the 2014-15 season over the weekend. The program needs something positive to rally around, and with two games now under the team’s belt, there’s something to be excited about. On Friday night at the Smith Center, North Carolina defeated North Carolina Central by a score of 76-60, in a game that Roy Williams described as “not the prettiest in the world.” Things came much easier for the Tar Heels in Sunday afternoon’s 103-59 beatdown of Robert Morris. It should be noted that each of North Carolina’s first two opponents were not the traditional cupcakes that some may believe — in fact, both schools won their respective conference regular season championships last season.
Kennedy Meeks (with ball) and Brice Johnson (#11) give North Carolina a Powerful Inside Game. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
So let’s look at some of the takeaways from the Tar Heel’s first two games.
North Carolina has a dynamic duo in the post. In the opener, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson were solid (combining for 22 points and 17 rebounds), but they were dominant against Robert Morris, combining for 44/20. We had heard reports in the preseason that each player had undergone a physical transformation, and we can confirm that the change in both is striking. The sophomore Meeks has lost approximately 50 pounds and is now listed at a solid 270, while the junior Johnson has done the opposite, gaining about 20 pounds to get to his current listed weight of 228. The result is that Meeks is able to run up and down the court much easier and is more explosive around the basket, and undoubtedly will be able to log heavier minutes. Johnson, on the other hand, will no longer be so easily knocked off-balance on the blocks, capable of holding his position defensively without having to foul.
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, locatedhere.
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)
Brice Johnsonwas 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.
If you read any preview on North Carolina this season, perimeter shooting is universally cited as the key to the success of the team. We know that, barring injury, All-America candidate Marcus Paige is set to be one of the primary three-point marksman in the nation, but beyond that, this team lacks proven perimeter shooters to support the star junior. The situation in Chapel Hill raises some interesting questions, which we will look at one at a time below.
North Carolina’s Marcus Paige Will Need Some 3-Pt Shooting Help in 2014-15. (Photo: Robert Willett/ Raleigh News & Observer)
1. How important has three-point shooting been at North Carolina under Roy Williams historically? The answer to this question is that it has not been very important. One could reasonably argue that Williams does not hold three-point shooting in very high esteem on either end of the court. Defensively, last year’s Tar Heel squad allowed opponents to attempt 34.1 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc, a mark that ranked fairly high (#222) in the NCAA. But as a matter of fact, that ranking matches the team’s average over the last five years. On the offensive end, Williams’ teams have not made three-point shooting much of a priority either. Only once in the last eight years have the Tar Heels ranked among the top 299 teams in the country in frequency of shots launched from deep. That outlier group, of course, was the 2012-13 team, when Williams by necessity switched to a perimeter-based lineup in early February with good results. That Tar Heels squad still did not finish high nationally in three-point attempts taken (#237), but it profited greatly from improved accuracy (37.2%). It’s safe to say that whenever Williams has a team with capable post scoring ability (every year except 2012-13), three-point shooting will not be a huge part of the offensive game plan. And for those who worry that opposing defenses will pack it in and force more long-range bombs from the Tar Heels, don’t count on it. Williams has stated multiple times that his philosophy is not to take “what the defense gives us,” but rather to be persistent enough to “take the shots we want to take.”
Seven Sweet Scoops is a weekly column by Sean Moran, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you seven notes from the high-stakes world of college basketball recruiting. We also encourage you to check out his contributions at The Intentional Foul, dedicated to recruiting coverage and analysis. You can also follow Sean at his Twitter account @Seanmohoops for up-to-date news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at email@example.com.
Tonight the top high school players in the country gather to participate in the 37th annual McDonald’s All-American game held at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. Twenty-four of the top ranked high school seniors will provide the college basketball world with a glimpse of what can be expected from the next touted class of youngsters on ESPN at 9:30 PM ET. The high school class of 2014 might not have the star power similar to last year in a game that featured the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon, but there are still several good storylines and match-ups to keep an eye on during tonight’s contest.
1. Chicago Natives At Home
There are three McDonald’s All-Americans from Chicago this year, including two of the top five players in the country. Five-star center Jahlil Okafor and five-star power forward Cliff Alexander will suit up for the East and West squads, respectively. The two played together on the AAU circuit this past summer and faced off in high school action several times over the last three years. Okafor is considered the No. 1 player in the country and is headed to Duke next year, while Alexander is ranked No. 5 and has committed to Kansas. Alexander put together a monster senior campaign, but it was Okafor who won the Illinois state title. Okafor and Alexander excel with different styles although they are both low post scorers. The 6’11” Okafor has the more refined post game and is almost impossible to stop in a one-on-one situation while Alexander is a DeAndre Jordan clone who looks to dunk and block everything in sight. While these two might not match up in tonight’s game, you can be certain that they will both have the hometown crowd on their feet. To go along with the Windy City twin towers, there is also diminutive 5’9” point guard Tyler Ulis (#29). The four-star prospect is headed to Kentucky and will be the quickest player on the court. The floor general is great at beating his man off the dribble and creating easy shots for his teammates. Ulis will suit up on the East squad along with Okafor, while Alexander will play for the West.
It doesn't matter who comes back for Kentucky, I don't know how they could keep Tyler Ulis off the floor. He's a leader w/ terrific vision.
There is only one prospect in the game that remains uncommitted and he is 7’0” center Myles Turner, who is also the No. 2 ranked recruit in the country. This time last year the Texas native wasn’t even considered a top 100 player, but after a meteoric rise last summer he is now the hottest commodity in high school. Turner just recently took an official visit to Texas after previously visiting Ohio State, Duke, Oklahoma State and Kansas. He has also taken unofficial visits to SMU and Texas A&M, and is also reportedly considering Arizona and Kentucky. It’s been a whirlwind journey for Turner, who plans to sit down with his advisers and family after the Jordan Brand Classic to discuss his choice of suitors.
Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Sean Moran, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to discussing the recruitments of the top uncommitted players in the country. We also encourage you to check out his contributions atThe Intentional Fouldedicated to recruiting coverage and analysis. You can also follow Sean at his Twitter account @Seanmohoops for up-to-date news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some players make the McDonald’s All-American game based on their summer AAU play. Other players, like four-star (and soon to be five-star) Theo Pinson earn their invitation through fabulous senior seasons. Pinson, a 6’6” small forward headed to North Carolina next year, is currently ranked No. 10 in the country by ESPN. His high ranking is largely due to an extremely impressive senior year at Wesleyan Christian Academy (NC), a school which just won its second straight state championship over their weekend.
Over the summer, Pinson led his CP3 All-Stars team to the championship game of the famed Nike Peach Jam. Despite the loss, Pinson was solid in averaging 15.0 points and 5.6 rebounds per game over the course of the event. With his slashing and athletic style of play, Pinson lived at the free throw line at times, with games where he went 16-of-18 and 17-of-18 from the line. The one weakness in Pinson’s game has been his outside shooting. Known for his “chicken-wing” form, Pinson shot a chilly 31 percent from behind the arc. Knowing his faults allowed him to focus on improving his outside shot with high school coach and former Maryland player, Keith Gatlin, who talked with InsideCarolina about his star. “I think now his shooting is his most underrated skill,” Gatlin said. “He’s been knocking them down while playing heavy minutes. He’s doing it all right now… he’s getting to the cup, finishing and making his free throws. You can’t really play him one way. A lot of teams say ‘let’s make him shoot.’ You can’t do that with him. “
Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Chad Lykins, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to discussing the recruitments of the top uncommitted players in the country. We also encourage you to check out his contributions dedicated solely to Duke Basketball at Duke Hoop Blog. You can also follow Chad at his Twitter account @CLykinsBlog for up-to-date breaking news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at email@example.com.
The North Carolina Tar Heels are currently in the middle of a very up-and-down season, with five losses and uncharacteristic play through the team’s first 17 games. However, while the Tar Heels continue to search for success on the basketball court, they remain a perennial powerhouse on the recruiting trail. On Monday, five-star junior point guard Joel Berry pledged his verbal commitment to North Carolina, as he will join a long line of highly-ranked floor generals under head coach Roy Williams to don Carolina blue. Berry chose the Tar Heels over offers from Florida, Florida State, Kansas, Maryland, North Carolina State, Ohio State, and others.
Joel Berry becomes the first commitment for North Carolina from the class of 2014
“I feel honored and blessed to officially be apart of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels tradition and excellence,” Berry tweeted. The #12 overall ranked junior and #3 ranked point guard in the class of 2014, Berry becomes the first player from that class to commit to North Carolina. Taking advantage of a new NCAA rule that allows juniors to take official visits following January 1 of that year, the 6’0″ standout visited Chapel Hill first for the Tar Heels’ ACC clash against the Maryland Terrapins this past weekend.
Berry will bring to North Carolina a lethal dosage of scoring and speed, two aspects of the game that the Tar Heels are traditionally known for. With great quickness and athleticism, he is capable of breaking down his defender and getting into the lane under control and scoring around the rim using his outstanding leaping ability. Berry is also a threat from the outside and mid-range, as he can light up a scoreboard quickly. He is an exceptional ball-handler and sees the floor very well in an up-tempo environment.
Greenville News: Devin Booker had a career game at NC State over the weekend, but it wasn’t enough. While he was an outstanding 8-of-11 from the field, the rest of the team started 2-of-20. The team was slightly better in the second half, but the damage was done. Booker is for real, though. He dominated Florida State’s front line at Clemson, he dominated Richard Howell at NC State, and he dominated Mason Plumlee head-to-head at Duke. His consistency isn’t what it could be, and he doesn’t have the same range as his brother, Trevor, but he’s been the best post player in the ACC through the first few games.
South Florida Sun-Sentinel: Speaking of post players who are really overachieving this season, Miami’s Julian Gamble has filled in for Reggie Johnson perfectly. Gamble, a sixth-year senior, isn’t the most skilled or athletic guy on the court, but he’s got a Richard Howell-like motor and knows some tricks of the trade. He shows flashes of brilliance in the post (see: his beautiful lefty baby hook against North Carolina), but most of what he does well isn’t pretty. In some ways, Miami may be better with him in the game than Johnson (who had a tendency to check out of some games), a thought that seemed absurd just a couple of short weeks ago.
Washington Post: I’m going to go ahead and disagree with Roy Williams a lot. In Monday’s teleconference with ACC coaches, Williams said, “I do think, top to bottom, the league is probably the best in the 10 years I’ve been back. If you take somebody lightly in this league right now, you’re going to lose. I don’t care who you are or who you’re playing.” I’d direct him to his first season in the league (2003-04) when six of the conference’s nine teams made the NCAA Tournament with seeds of #1, #3, #3, #4, #4 and #6. Only one team was ranked below #56 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings (Clemson at #97)–and three were in the top 10. But Williams does have a point: The league is full of mediocrity and road wins are going to be nearly impossible to come by this year.
Streaking the Lawn: Speaking of road wins, Virginia is in some serious RPI trouble, as the Cavaliers currently sit at #139. No team has ever made the NCAA Tournament as an at-large with an RPI below #70. The biggest issues are home losses and a horrid strength of schedule. On paper, Virginia’s schedule was never full of world-beaters, but an untimely home loss to Delaware (which caused the Cavaliers to play Lamar and North Texas instead of a couple of stronger power-conference teams) and major under-performance (here’s looking at you Old Dominion) have sabotaged Virginia’s RPI to an alarming extent. It will come up, but the Cavaliers are going to need to steal some ACC road wins and avoid any home losses at all costs going forward.
Orlando Sentinel: Well so much for the “Roy Williams can’t recruit anymore” narrative. It was always a reactionary storyline, but Williams put it to bed for the time-being with a commitment from consensus Class of 2014 top-15 prospect Joel Berry. Berry, one of the top point guards in that class, should quiet worried fans as well as help attract other top players to Chapel Hill going forward.