Atlantic Coast Conference Preview
North Carolina’s league to lose?
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Regular Season Champion: North Carolina
Defending Conference Champion: Duke
Top Player: Harrison Barnes, North Carolina
Top Freshman: Austin Rivers, Duke
Most Underrated Player: Malcolm Grant, Miami
Projected Tournament Teams: North Carolina, Duke, Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech
1. How will Miami’s off the court troubles affect Jim Larranaga’s first season in Coral Gables?
The Nevin Shapiro booster scandal and the resulting fallout will have some impact on the Miami basketball program. If the preliminary punishments of the football team are any indication, it’ll be hard for Hurricanes basketball to avoid some mixture of suspension, sanction, and probation (especially when a current player, senior forward DeQuan Jones, was directly implicated in the investigation).
You’re delusional if you believe all of the above won’t be a distraction at some point, but a more immediate cause for alarm is the injury bug that is wiping out the Miami frontcourt. Reggie Johnson, one of the ACC’s premier centers, tore his meniscus and is out of action through January, while his backup Julian Gamble will miss the entire season after tearing an ACL. Suddenly, it looks like Miami, once on the verge of a deep Tournament run, will be lucky if the wheels haven’t fallen off by the time March rolls around.
Jim Larranaga should be thankful he has the fine backcourt pair of Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant to rely on, but without some frontcourt punch, Miami could struggle. If Larranaga has any magic left in that wand he used in 2006 with George Mason, now would be the time to dust it off.
2. Is Florida State just the third-best team in a weak conference, or are the Seminoles a real threat?
Both? Despite losing defensive behemoth Chris Singleton and solid guard Derwin Kitchen from last season’s Sweet Sixteen squad, Leonard Hamilton’s program is still on the rise. The team will hang its hat, as usual, on its in-your-shirt defense. When defense is a team’s strength and a coach/program grooms players to think D first like Hamilton does (think Pitt, Final Four-UCLA, Duke), moving on without key players usually isn’t as big of an issue. Without saying Singleton is replaceable (the guy was a first round pick for a reason), the Seminoles are capable of reloading with more long and disruptive defenders like Michael Snaer, Okaro White, and Xavier Gibson.
That being said, there are stronger third-best teams out there in other conferences. Below Florida State in the ACC, there isn’t one school that is a guaranteed future NCAA Tournament team. Virginia, Virginia Tech, NC State, and Miami all have a shot (and one or two of that group will end up snagging a bid) but Florida State is the final ACC squad that is a lock for March Madness. This doesn’t mean the Seminoles aren’t for real—it’s just the reality of a down, top-heavy league.
3. What does Duke have to do to hang with North Carolina?
Not even the team’s mediocre perimeter defense can keep North Carolina from winning the ACC this season (it helps to have John Henson and Tyler Zeller sitting in the paint to take care of mistakes). If the Tarheels don’t take the league title comfortably this season, it will be due to the team’s well-documented shooting woes. No one plans on beating UNC in a track meet, but when the game is stuck in the halfcourt, the game plan will remain the same: pack the paint and let them shoot jump shots.
In the teams’ head-to-head matchups, Duke has to hope that its group of finesse-oriented big men has the chops to hang with North Carolina’s frontcourt inside. This matchup doesn’t favor the Tarheels as much as it seems (the brothers Plumlee are Herculean compared to Henson, and Zeller is more skilled than he is physical), but Roy Williams has a decisive edge in the production he can expect in the paint. Henson, Zeller, and incoming freshman James McAdoo are capable low post scorers, while the athletic Plumlees and the sharpshooting Ryan Kelly aren’t as comfortable with their backs to the basket.
Predicted Finish + Bottom Line:
Say hello to your national title favorite. If shooters finally emerge to force opponents to stretch their defenses, how do you guard this team?
Coach K has a fresh batch of exciting freshmen, headed by Austin Rivers, to mold into bona fide Blue Devils. But the losses of Nolan Smith/Kyle Singler and no true post threat will make catching the Tarheels a tall order.
The gap between the Seminoles and Duke might be smaller than the one separating the Blue Devils and North Carolina. Leonard Hamilton’s defense has always made the opposition uncomfortable – now he has a group of talented players to go along with it.
Year three could be the breakout season for Tony Bennett in Charlottesville. Skilled big man Mike Scott returns for a fifth-year after missing most of last season with a left ankle injury.
Unfortunately for Seth Greenberg, Va. Tech could have another bubble team on its hands. This should be a classic scrappy Hokie team led by Dorenzo Hudson, but losing Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen hurts.
First year coach Mark Gottfried should be thankful C.J. Leslie stuck around for another year. The sophomore forward will once again be one of the ACC’s most nightmarish matchups.
7. Miami (FL)
After an especially noteworthy offseason, people will forget how tough the ‘Canes might be. Miami’s guard duo of Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott is the most difficult backcourt matchup in the conference, but frontcourt injuries will hold Miami back.
Point guard Andre Young is an exciting player to keep an eye on, but expect a small drop after the graduation of do-it-all guard Demontez Stitt. There’s an outside shot at a tourney bid if Devin Booker taps into monster potential.
Recruiting has already picked up since bringing head coach Mark Turgeon over from Texas A&M and assistant Delonte Hill from K-State. But Terps fans will have to sit through another mediocre season first.
10. Boston College
Steve Donahue nearly brought BC back to the Tournament in his first season on Chestnut Hill, but after the departures of leading scorers Reggie Jackson and Joe Trapani, the Eagles could be starting as many as four freshmen.
11. Wake Forest
Things can’t get any worse for the Deacons and Jeff Bzdelik. Some progress should be made behind and Wake’s sophomore class (minus J.T. Terrell who is leaving the school following a DWI), but don’t expect any miracles.
12. Georgia Tech
The Jackets are in for a long season without Iman Shumpert and under new coach Brian Gregory. If he can shoot the three a little more like his pops, Glen Rice Jr. will be a bright spot for the program in his junior season.