ACC Season Preview
Duke is No. 1. Miami hit recruiting gold?
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Conference Champion: Duke
Defending Regular Season Champion: Duke/Maryland
2. Virginia Tech
3. North Carolina
4. NC State
7. Florida State
8. Boston College
10. Wake Forest
11. Georgia Tech
Summary: Unfortunately, this is going to be one of those years: No one (except for Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas) wants to pick Duke, but everyone with half a brain is forced to do so because no school in the ACC seems ready to challenge the defending champion Blue Devils this season. Duke loses three senior starters, experience, toughness, leadership, some outside shooting…oh yeah, and Brian Zoubek (Let me say that I respect the hell of Zoubek for battling through numerous injuries, but it still amazes me that someone who can’t jump over a phone book and misses more layups than he makes was the starting center on a national championship team), but what they have returning and coming into the program has to excite Coach K. Many have argued that Duke didn’t have a typical national championship roster last year in terms of talent, but this year’s team has reloaded and then some. They still have the essential senior leadership that won them the title last season (Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith) but will be a WAY more up-tempo/aesthetically pleasing team to go with it now that dinosaurs Zoubek and Lance Thomas have graduated. Throw in Duke’s most exciting group of incoming freshman/transfers in years (highlighted by Kyrie Irving, Liberty transfer Seth Curry), and on paper, the league race might be over before it starts.
That doesn’t mean the race for second place won’t be full of intrigue. North Carolina could capitalize on an uncharacteristically down ACC with a huge bounce back season. The talent is there in Chapel Hill, and if Lary Drew III finally transforms from the decent point guard he’s been for two years now to a game changer, and if Harrison Barnes is close to as dominant as advertised (ridiculous comparisons to Paul Pierce, unfair comparisons to Grant Hill, and incompetent comparisons to Kobe Bryant have been tossed around all summer), the Tar Heels could find themselves near the top of the league once again. Seth Greenberg’s Va. Tech Hokies have a great shot to reach the upper half of the league with Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen returning, and this looks like it will finally be the year that the guys in Blacksburg won’t have to sweat out Selection Sunday on the bubble. NC State and Miami could surprise some people this season, but both will be relying on young, unproven talent to win ballgames. In other words, beyond Duke, things are far from settled in a conference that may be lucky to earn four NCAA bids this March.
Team on the Rise: When LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach, there might not have been a happier man in America than Miami coach Frank Haith. Having LeBron and his cavalcade of NBA friends in the Hurricanes’ backyard could end up being recruiting dynamite. But while Haith may have to wait one season to see the benefits of sharing a city with LeBron, DWade and Chris Bosh, his team might do some recruiting of its own this season. In a down ACC (I feel like I’ve said the ACC is down about 10 times already), Miami could sneak into the top half of the conference with talented freshman, some young emerging stars with the potential for break out seasons, and a little luck. Point guard Durand Scott is back after a solid freshman campaign, and guard Rion Brown is the most highly touted of a promising group of newcomers. Miami advanced to the semifinals of the ACC Tourney last spring when many of their young players finally began fulfilling their potential. If players like Scott, Reggie Johnson, Dequan Jones and Julian Gamble build on the improvements they made at the end of last season, the Hurricanes could be as big of a story in Miami as their NBA neighbors next spring.
Team on the Decline: Interesting category, because while no team in the ACC is in program freefall, there are plenty of teams that will take a step back from last season. Clemson, more than any other team in the ACC over the last several years, has been built to succeed based on a coach’s preferred style. Once Oliver Purnell recruited athletes who would thrive in an up-tempo, intimidating, pressure-defense system, Clemson took off. Now that Purnell has left for DePaul, new coach Brad Brownwell has inherited a roster that is still full of talented athletes, but ones that thrived in Purnell’s system. If the roster takes a while to adjust to the new regime, and if Brownwell can’t find a dependable go to scorer to replace Trevor Booker, Clemson might find itself toward the bottom of the ACC.
Underrated Player: When Steve Donahue took the job at Boston College, I honestly felt sad for the players like Evan Ravanel and Rakim Sanders who left the Eagles program before going through one workout with their new coach (blown opportunity: BC’s offensive numbers will skyrocket across the board this season). One player who saw the potential in the Donahue hire, and who is probably the key to Donahue’s first season at Chestnut Hill, is guard Reggie Jackson. In order for BC to come close to replicating the offense Cornell displayed last March, every player on the floor needs to be a serious threat to pass, dribble, and shoot. Good thing for Coach D that the versatile Jackson excels in all these areas and should see a huge spike in numbers this season in an offense that couldn’t be more dissimilar to Al Skinner’s tedious flex sets. Jackson has already stated publicly that the Eagles have NCAA potential. The junior could be right if he emerges as one of the conferences’ top players.
Keep an eye on: Whether the all-world freshmen coming into college sports’ greatest rivalry live up to the hype and become go-to players on their new teams. Kyrie Irving and Harrison Barnes both have enormous potential and even bigger expectations to live up to. Irving’s breakout summer for USA Basketball’s U18 team has experts slotting him as next summer’s No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft and Duke fans salivating over the idea of pairing him with Nolan Smith in the backcourt. Irving’s presence has made Duke a favorite to repeat as national champs, so the pressure is on the New Jersey native. Harrison Barnes might be under even more pressure in Chapel Hill. Last year’s top high school prospect is being counted on to restore order to the universe and get North Carolina back to the NCAA Tournament. No one expects UNC to struggle as badly as they did a year ago, but a lot of that has to do with Barnes’ arrival. If Barnes becomes the playmaker the Tar Heels so obviously lacked last season, UNC will be bounce back.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.