ACC Big Men Have Bright Futures: Will Their Teams Follow?

Posted by Chris Kehoe on February 22nd, 2014

It is often bandied about that guards win games (along with defense) because they have the ball in their hands most often and thus affect the action more than other positions. While this is certainly a valid viewpoint, interior post players can often mean the difference between a championship team or a bubble team. The popular mindset is that big men take longer to develop in the college ranks because of the learning curve required to manage their combination of power, size and dexterity. Most post players come to the Division I ranks with a limited post game but raw with athleticism and length, prized characteristics that NBA GMs in every professional franchise covet.

Kennedy Meeks is a handful in the paint (USA TODAY Sports)

Kennedy Meeks is a handful in the paint (USA TODAY Sports)

The ACC this season is rich in young frontcourt talent that is likely to stay for more than a year in the collegiate ranks. North Carolina is a great example of the conference’s youthful exuberance in the post, sporting a terrific breadth of versatility in that regard. Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson are the tip of the iceberg, both terrific rebounders with vastly different approaches.  At 290 pounds, Meeks is a strong and sturdy freshman who isn’t a terrific leaper but uses his body and angles to score and rebound the offensive glass very well. He also possesses one of the nation’s best outlet passes, a perfect conduit for guards Nate Britt and Marcus Paige to start Roy Williams’ break. Johnson, on the other hand, is a long beanpole of a forward who has had a breakout sophomore year for the Tar Heels, ranking fourth in ACC field goal percentage at 54.5%. UNC’s frontcourt depth doesn’t completely end there, though, as the Heels also have 6’10”, 280-pound sophommore Joel James, who is a load in the paint but hasn’t found consistent playing time this season. Freshman Isaiah Hicks too has a bright future ahead of him at UNC; the McDonald’s All-American recorded seven blocks and pulled down an insane 30 rebounds in his state’s high school championship game last year. But the ACC’s young frontcourt brigade of talent doesn’t end in Chapel Hill.

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Notre Dame Needs Its Frontcourt to Emerge

Posted by Walker Carey on November 25th, 2013

Notre Dame entered the 2013-14 season with a strong and experienced backcourt that will be vital to the Irish as they make the transition from the Big East to the ACC. Seniors Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant and junior Pat Connaughton were mainstays in the starting lineup of last year’s Irish and had developed a reputation as one of the most reliable perimeter groups in the country. Atkins is a true floor general who can hit timely shots and has been a strong leader for several seasons — he is the only player in Notre Dame basketball history to become a three-time captain. Grant is the scorer of the group and has the ability to get as hot as any player in the country. Connaughton, who also excels for Notre Dame baseball as a starting pitcher, is a true glue guy who does a little bit of everything.

Eric Atkins ( AP Photo/Joe Raymond)

Eric Atkins Anchors a Stellar Irish Backcourt ( AP Photo/Joe Raymond)

While the Irish have a proven backcourt that will certainly aid in winning a lot of games, the team’s frontcourt is still a bit of an unknown commodity. Replacing the production of graduated All-Big East forward Jack Cooley looms as a tall task. The most experienced forward in Mike Brey’s arsenal is fifth-year senior Tom Knight. After being sparingly used for much of his career, Knight took on a big role for the Irish during the second half of the 2012-13 campaign, as he was in the starting lineup for the final 16 games of the season. Fellow senior forward Garrick Sherman also brings a solid amount of experience to the fold, as he entered the 2013-14 season with 31 career starts (from both his time at Notre Dame and Michigan State). However, in his first season on the court with the Irish, Sherman battled through some consistency issues. While his season is probably best remembered for his 17-point performance in the five overtime win over Louisville, it also must be noted that he had fallen completely out of Notre Dame’s rotation in the four games prior to that epic contest.

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ACC M5: 10.18.13 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on October 18th, 2013

morning5_ACC

  1. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Jamie Dixon doesn’t sound too worried about the new rule changes that are designed to open up the floor a little for offensive players: when asked about the new rules, Dixon retorted, “We will see if they are going to call it.” Pittsburgh‘s defense under Dixon is known for being some of the most physical in the country, although the Panthers don’t rely on hand checks nearly as much as Louisville. But Dixon hit on the most important part of the supposedly drastic changes: They don’t matter unless they’re enforced. These aren’t new rules like the unpopular elbow rule; they’re changes in emphasis. Duke’s Tyler Thornton, for one, isn’t thrilled with the stricter definition of charges.
  2. Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Brian Gregory got some big news yesterday, as Tennessee transfer Trae Golden received a hardship waiver that will allow him to suit up this season for the Yellow Jackets. Golden will give the team much-needed experience at the point guard position, where sophomore Solomon Poole struggled mightily last year. Poole had an unthinkable turnover rate of 44.5 percent — meaning he turned it over on nearly half the possessions he was involved in. Golden won’t make Georgia Tech a contender, but he should make them much tougher to beat.
  3. Boston Globe: Boston College felt much more respected this year at media day. The Eagles were picked eighth, a far cry from their last place pick a year ago. Olivier Hanlan and Ryan Anderson are the real deal. Don’t be surprised if both end up on all-ACC teams when all is said and done. Dennis Clifford – sidelined much of last year with a nagging knee injury — may prove the difference between being a dangerous team and a team that makes then NCAA Tournament, though you don’t want to be too optimistic about a guy rehabbing two knee surgeries. Regardless, Steve Donahue’s squad should be fun to watch.
  4. Washington Post: Akil Mitchell leapt onto the ACC scene last year as an athletic double-double machine who made watching Virginia much more enjoyable. This wasn’t the first time Mitchell surprised people on the basketball court: In middle school he was cut twice (thanks to being the damning “stout and slow” according to his father), in high school he couldn’t dunk as a 6’5″ sophomore (to teammate and rare dunker Seth Curry’s chagrin), and he had his offer revoked by George Washington. It will be interesting to see how Mitchell deals with moving from the upstart underdog to a much better-known star role this year.
  5. Notre Dame: Mike Brey’s team will be without sophomore forward Zach Auguste for the next four to six weeks according to a school release. Auguste broke his hand in practice last week. This deals a blow to the team’s frontcourt, which needs to find a way to replace star Jack Cooley. While he likely won’t miss “important” games, Auguste will miss valuable time getting used to his expanded role.

EXTRA: Make sure to catch part two of Walker Carey’s chat with Len Elmore, Mike Gminski, and Bret Strelow.

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Season in Review: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Posted by Will Tucker on May 2nd, 2013

The Fighting Irish had an auspicious start to a season that was expected to represent a major step forward for Mike Brey’s program. But a slow start and sputtering finish to conference play, coupled with frustrations experienced against the Big East’s top teams, prevented the Irish from matching last year’s top three finish. Despite fielding one of the league’s most talented starting fives, a lack of depth hampered the Irish late in the season and contributed to yet another early exit from the NCAA Tournament.

Preseason Expectations

We ranked Notre Dame third heading into 2012-13, as did the coaches at Big East media day. Mike Brey’s roster returned its top five scorers from 2011-12 and was loaded with talented upperclassmen, namely preseason all-Big East center Jack Cooley, versatile super-senior Scott Martin and the backcourt scoring tandem of juniors Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant.

Jack Cooley,Mike Brey

Mike Brey must adjust to a life without Cooley in 2013-14 (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)

The Good

The Irish raced out to a blistering start, winning 12 in a row for the first time since 2006-07. By early January, they’d blown out #8 Kentucky at home, edged #21 Cincinnati on the road, won their first two Big East games and earned a #16 Coaches Poll ranking alongside their 14-1 record. Cooley (13.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG) lived up to his first team all-Big East billing as he shot 58% from the field and led the Big East in literally every rebounding category. Deep reserve big men Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman filled the void left by Scott Martin’s absence, and keyed huge victories over the likes of Louisville, Marquette and Villanova. The highlight of the season was, unquestionably, enduring five overtimes against the eventual National Champions after Jerian Grant scored 12 points in the last 45 seconds of regulation. Brey’s program claimed its sixth NCAA Tournament bid in seven years, and has averaged almost 13 Big East wins in each of the last three regular seasons –– a figure surpassed only by Syracuse.

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Big East M5: 01.31.13 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on January 31st, 2013

bigeast_morning5(2) 

  1. Mike Aresco mentioned the likelihood of Big East and Catholic Seven schools scheduling future non-conference series in his comments the other day in Connecticut. Fittingly, neither of the first two programs to arrange such a continuation will play in the Big East in two years. Syracuse and St. John’s will kick off a home-and-home in Madison Square Garden on December 15, extending a century-old intrastate rivalry. While the second game will have no affiliation whatsoever with the Big East, it’s an encouraging bellwether of other efforts to preserve existing Big East rivalries. That’s certainly the impression given in a statement from Syracuse AD Daryl Gross, which begins “As we continue to aggressively secure rivalries that are dear to us…” Perhaps the political entanglements of realignment won’t trample all of the conference traditions fans appreciate.
  2. It’s a moot point, but one Kevin Ollie’s team should feel proud of: the consensus is that UConn would be comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field right now, were they eligible. Before last night’s win over Rutgers, Jerry Palm and Joe Lunardi projected that the Huskies would be seeded between #7-#10, checking in “the low 30s on the S-Curve” in Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology. Much of the preseason conjecture on UConn’s outlook focused on whether they could stay motivated this season, but Shabazz Napier puts it simply: “You don’t play to lose games.” “It probably hasn’t hit a lot of guys that we’re almost done,” Napier continued, “I think the guys understand that we’re doing this for something bigger. We’re doing this to get ready for next year.”
  3. Prior to hosting Villanova last night, Notre Dame had lost a slumping starter to injury and dropped two of its last three games at the Joyce Center. Meditating on the Fighting Irish’s 65-60 win over Nova, Brian Hamilton at the Chicago Tribune says Notre Dame’s “new reality,” characterized by energetic contributions coming from unimaginable places, “might not be a bad thing.” In his second start in Scott Martin’s stead, Tom Knight scored efficiently in double digits again (10 points, four rebounds, two blocks). Talented freshmen Zach Auguste (four points) and Cam Biedscheid (18 points) contributed off the bench, with the latter scoring a career-high on 5-of-7 three-pointers. “It’s fun watching the new vibe that we have,” said Brey. For now, it’s a promising reality.
  4. In this week’s power rankings, Luke Winn points out that Russ Smith leads the nation with 7.6 transition possessions per 40 minutes, scoring 1.212 points per opportunity. To put that in perspective, deft transition scorer Shabazz Muhammad only scores 1.011 points per possession on 6.9 average chances per ballgame. That statistic underscores that Louisville isn’t utilizing its best offensive asset when the Cards haven’t scored more than seven fast break points in any of their past four games.
  5. Cincinnati managed to overcome a 10-point deficit last night with a hobbled Cashmere Wright to rally past a reeling Rutgers team, 62-54. Though Wright had eight days to rehabilitate his knee after a tough loss to Syracuse, the point guard still struggled to find his shot in 20 minutes of playing time. He’s shooting a paltry 15.7% since returning from injury: He followed last week’s 2-of-13 shooting outing against Syracuse with a 1-of-6, six-point affair tonight. Though Sean Kilpatrick and a defensive lift from Justin Jackson propelled the Bearcats, Wright’s recovery will be pivotal to their contention for a Big East title. According to Kilpatrick, you can’t fault his point guard’s effort: “With the injuries he has, I can’t see anyone playing through it. But he always gives us his everything. That’s a leader for you. He gives you everything until he can’t walk anymore.”
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Knee Issues, Slump Jeopardize Scott Martin’s Starting Job at Notre Dame

Posted by Will Tucker on January 23rd, 2013

After a surprise 14-1 start that drew on steady veteran leadership, Notre Dame suddenly finds itself losers of three of the last four games and at 3-3 in the Big East, coming off an historic home loss to Georgetown. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the team’s 10-day collapse is that Scott Martin, one of its most dependable veterans, has become a big part of the problem. Mired in a slump and showing signs of the knee injury that has plagued his six year-career, Martin will likely be the first casualty to an imminent shake-up in Mike Brey’s starting lineup. Martin has averaged 1.8 PPG on 2-of-11 shooting over the agonizing four-game stretch. He logged a season-low 18 minutes against the Hoyas before his aggravated knee and poor performance sidelined him for the remainder of the game. Prior to his recent skid, Martin had been enjoying the most productive season of his career, averaging 9.7 PPG and hitting at 50% from behind the line. But his dramatic slump has reduced his scoring and minutes to the lowest averages of his career.

(Credit Elsa/Getty Images)

Mike Brey says Martin’s knee pain affects every phase of his game (Credit Elsa/Getty Images)

Mike Brey attributes the forward’s struggles to the knee that was visibly nagging him against Georgetown: “I feel for him. He’s trying to give us stuff but the knee has been an issue. I think it’s affecting all of his phases.” In fact, it wasn’t until Tuesday morning that we learned Martin underwent a second surgery on the left knee that had previously forced Martin to redshirt in 2009-10. The operation took place over this past summer and was evidently kept under wraps, but the toll taken on the 24-year-old big man is clearly noticeable. “I don’t know how much he’s going to be able to practice the rest of the year,” Brey said; “It’s nothing major, it’s just a lot of wear and tear on a knee that’s had two surgeries.” Don’t be surprised to see 6’10″ freshman Zach Auguste (3.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG in 6.2 MPG) enter the rotation in Martin’s stead. The former four-star recruit is brimming with talent, but has only logged a total of four minutes of Big East experience. It’ll be interesting to see how he responds to a sudden expanded role.

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Tipping Off The Big East Countdown: #3 Notre Dame

Posted by mlemaire on November 10th, 2012

Expectations; it’s something that coach Mike Brey and Notre Dame aren’t used to. Last season the Fighting Irish were pegged to finish ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll and they went on to win 13 conference games and make it to the Third Round of the NCAA Tournament. But this season, thanks to the return of nearly every meaningful contributor from last season’s team and the addition of a few precocious freshmen, expectations are high and the Fighting Irish are expected to contend with Louisville, Syracuse, and Cincinnati for the Big East crown. Brey and his squad won’t be able to play the role of underdog anymore, but they won’t have to either as they finally have the talent and the depth to compete with any team in the conference. If they can tighten up their defense, develop more interior depth, and become more efficient offensively, this team will be one of the best in the country. But if they struggle to defend and the offense becomes stagnant, we could be looking at just the latest in a long run of Notre Dame teams to flame out on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

2011-12 Record: 22-12, 13-5

2011-12 Postseason: NCAA Tournament Round of 64, lost to Xavier 67-63.

Things Are Looking Up for Mike Brey, Who Might Have Assembled His Best Team Yet (AP Photo)

Schedule: Last season the Fighting Irish played the 236th-most difficult non-conference schedule and so this season, the program added a few challenges while also keeping most of the creampuffs as well. The biggest match-up will be against No. 3 Kentucky in the SEC/Big East Challenge at the end of November, but St. Joseph’s is their first opponent in the CvC Classic Championship and while they aren’t ranked, they favorite to win the Atlantic 10. And Purdue under Matt Painter won’t be an easy game either.

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Big East M5: Opening Day Edition

Posted by mlemaire on November 9th, 2012

  1. Given how well coach Jay Wright recruits guards, it should never be surprising when one of those guards finds themselves as the odd man out in the rotation and leaves the program. The latest to see the writing on the wall at Villanova is sophomore New Jersey native Tyrone Johnson, who played just nine minutes in the team’s scrimmage against Carleton University last week and is expected to transfer according to a release from the school yesterday. The Wildcats appear ready to hand over the point guard reins to freshman Ryan Arcidiacono and there wasn’t going to be a lot of playing time to go around for Johnson, a Montrose Christian Academy product. Johnson struggled as a freshman in trying to play too fast at times, but he would still have been a nice player to have for depth purposes. This does however give Wright another scholarship to play with next season, when a few big names may be keeping their eyes on the ‘Cats.
  2. For those intimately familiar with Big East basketball, the hallmark of Jamie Dixon-coached teams at Pittsburgh is their defense and toughness. That focus treated the Panthers well as they became one of the conference’s premier programs. But last year, one of the primary reasons Pittsburgh slipped so drastically was because their defense fell all the way to 151st in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. Dixon isn’t about to let that happen again and has emphasized creating turnovers and pressuring the opponents on defense. The Panthers will still run a physical man-to-man scheme, but they may look to be more opportunistic this year as they try to bounce back. If the Panthers can maintain the offensive efficiency they achieved last season and regain even a portion of their defensive prowess, they will be a team to be reckoned with.
  3. Anyone who tuned in to Louisville‘s exhibition game against Bellarmine was treated to some of the ugliest basketball the Cardinals are likely to play all season. The Cardinals looked ragged, abysmal shooting the ball, and tired, which may have actually been the case since apparently coach Rick Pitino put them through a rigorous practice session earlier in the day. The Cardinals did a lot of shooting, ran zero set plays, and basically looked terrible against a team coached by former assistant Scott Davenport. The moral of this is that Rick Pitino is probably heartless inasmuch as he is also a master motivator. His team has enormous expectations surrounding them this season, and this may have been an opportunity for Pitino to show his team that they are not immortal. What else can you say? There is a reason why the guy is considered a legend in the sport.
  4. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey has made a reputation off turning less-talented teams into winners but this season will be a departure from that familiar storyline as Brey is finally blessed with not just talent but also depth. Two four-star freshmen, Cameron Biedscheid and Zach Auguste, are major reasons why. The duo left high school as consensus Top 100 players in the country and play will play significant minutes this season as Brey and the Fighting Irish try to avoid a letdown after last season. Neither of the freshmen will be expected to start right away, although Biedscheid has the type of offensive versatility that is hard to keep off the floor, but they give Brey a luxury he isn’t used to having — depth.
  5. On the eve of the start of the season, Johnette Howard at ESPN gives the Big East a send-off of sorts with this lengthy piece that assesses the state of upheaval the conference now finds itself in. It spends a little bit of time explaining how Rick Pitino‘s recent tiff with Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim serves as a perfect example of the sort of potent cocktail the Big East has become, especially this season. Let’s just say that I am excited for the season to get started.
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