Well, here we are, my friends, on the precipice of another college hoops season. And, with the seemingly warranted threat of an NBA lockout, we actually have a lot more returning talent to the college landscape than the past several years (most of it sitting in Chapel Hill, NC, and Columbus, OH, but still…). And, there is a decent influx of talented freshman and other upperclassmen that will be given the keys to their respective programs all across the country. The one sport that never, EVER disappoints has begun, so buckle up, it’s time to go.
Over the next week or so, I am going to try and give quick editorials on the relevant teams from individual conferences across the country. I am going to start in the mid-Atlantic with the ACC, not because it is the best conference (and it’s probably not close), but because, well, it gets the most airtime around here and houses the preseason #1.
The Favorite – North Carolina
Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, and John Henson all decided to forego NBA riches (and lockouts) to try and match what a couple of Heels named Hansbrough, Lawson, and Ellington did a couple years ago and put off pro ball for a year for a shot at a national title. And, they certainly have a shot, as they enter the season #1 in the country – and there is very little debate about it.
The Guy. Every team has some that is “The Guy” on their roster. But, not every team has a guy like Harrison Barnes. After a slow start due probably to the untenable expectations, the top-rated recruit in the country, Barnes, started to become the player everyone thought he was going to be by the end of the year. Now, this year, while everyone is touting guys like OSU’s Jared Sullinger or UK’s Terrance Jones as potential national players of the year, I think Barnes will be the nation’s best player this year.
The Frontcourt. With Barnes, Tyler Zeller, and John Henson, the Heels don’t just have the best frontcourt in the nation this year, but they have, in my opinion, the best frontcourt the college game has seen since Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer were busy winning back-to-back titles down in Gainesville (right before all three were selected among the first 9 picks of the NBA draft the following year). Barnes, Unless, of course, they don’t need him to do it all because of the load that Zeller and Henson can take off of him. Zeller little jump hook is almost unstoppable, and Henson’s length gives him the potential to be the best interior defender in the country with a little work. This frontcourt is loaded with reinforcements off the bench. The best of the subs will probably be 6’9″ freshman James Michael McAdoo, who can give time at both forward spots. Recognize the name? Yes, he is a distant relative of Bob McAdoo, who was an okay player in his day. They also brought in a talented center in 6’10” Desmond Hubert, who could use a little size, but should contribute 8-12 decent minutes off the bench.
The Backcourt. The backcourt – while overshadowed – isn’t too shabby either. Kendall Marshall was thrust into the starting lineup last year when Larry Drew quit the team 12 hours before a game. Well, it might have been the best thing that happened to the Heels because Marshall was worlds better than Drew – and in just the way the team needed. He loves to pass, and he loves to do it in the open floor. Is there a better style of point guard for a team with quick, athletic, great finishing bigs? Is there a better style of point guard for a Roy Williams coached team? Probably not. Now, don’t get me wrong, Marshall is not going to make anyone forget the names Ty Lawson or even Raymond Felton, but, when it comes to fullcourt offensive distribution, he is typecast. And, Marshall’s running mate, Dexter Strickland, is also good in the open court. But, there is a problem, though. How good are these guys in the halfcourt on offense, and, more importantly, are they going to stop anyone on the defensive end? And, furthermore, how many minutes – in this uptempo style – can these two play? And, if it’s not 35+, then how big of step back will the team take with Reggie Bullock or P.J. Hairston on the floor. The frontcourt depth took a shot with the injury to Leslie McDonald, so we may even have to see a lot of Justin Watts, which wouldn’t be a good sign.
Strengths. Overall, the Tar Heels are absolutely loaded with talent and experience, particularly in that monstrous frontcourt. Just Barnes, Zeller, and Henson alone would make this team a real contender, but they also have McAdoo off the bench and Marshall, who could become a dynamic playmaker for this team. Just imagine how unstoppable they would become if they get a breakout season from either Strickland or Bullock at the 2-guard – which is entirely possible because they are both supremely talented and will never be the target of opposing defensive gameplans.
Question Marks. The only real vulnerability this team has is if Marshall isn’t equipped to handle a full workload at the point. They don’t really have anyone else to step in if he is in foul trouble or is just simply getting abused by his opposite number (which is entirely possible with all the quality lead guards out there).
Their Ceiling. Anything short of a Final Four would an unmitigated disaster for this team, and anything short of a national title would be a letdown. The ACC is somewhat weak, so they should walk away with a conference title and a #1-seed. I fully expect Roy Williams to bring yet another title to Tobacco Road.
My Favorite – Virginia
I have been doing these previews for a couple of years now, and I have a somewhat consistent format. I will give the overall consensus favorite to win the league (“The Favorite”), followed by a team that I’ll dub “My Favorite.” It is going to range from teams that I think are true, legit contenders to unseat the presumed favorite to teams that might jump up and shock the league all the way to teams that I just find a LOT better than what appears to be the general accepted opinion of them. I’m not entirely sure where the Cavs fall on that continuum, but, either way, they are My Favorite in the ACC this year, for several reasons.
I am a huge fan of the Bennett family coaching tree. Dick Bennett was phenomenal at every stop, and his son, Tony, is picking up right where dad left off. This is now his third year in Charlottesville, and it looks as if he might be finishing up the revitatlization of this one-storied program.
The Guy. Mike Scott – no doubt. Scott is a force inside and could be a first-team all-ACC performer this year if everything goes to plan. A 6’8″ 5th-year senior missed 21 games last year due to a knee injury and was granted a medical redshirt. Now, he’s back and ready to pick up where he left off – which was pretty good (15.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg).
The Frontcourt. Scott is joined by a 7’0″ senior center from Senegal, Assane Sene, who, like many West Africans, is a menace on the defensive end of the floor and on the glass, but unlike many West African bigs, is not a total liability offensively, shooting well over 50% from the floor last year. Sene will be very important to keep Scott out of foul trouble, so he can get to work on the offensive end. While the team will likely play a three-guard lineup (and should with all the depth back there), they are overly shallow (though inexperienced and unproven) in the frontcourt, either. Sophomore Akil Mitchell is an active rebounder at 6’8″ tall; 6’9″ redshirt freshman James Johnson is a widebodied bruiser, and a lean, athletic 6’8″ freshman Darion Atkins was actually a McDonald’s All-American finalist from Clinton, Maryland.
The Backcourt. The only real significant loss from last year’s team was a guy who wasn’t even supposed to be a big loss. But, Mustapha Farrakhan surprisingly exploded last year to be, arguably, the team’s best all-around player. Farrakhan is gone, but left behind are some really talented guards, plus a pair of potentially super freshmen. The point guard position will be much as it was a year ago – a split between 6’1″ senior Sammy Zeglinski and 5’11” junior Jontel Evans. Zeglinski is more of a “glue guy,” while Evans is the feitsy competitor coming off the bench to rattle the opposition’s second-team. The 2-guard position vacated by Farrakhan should be capably filled by a couple of sophomores, who are both poised to burst onto the scene. Joe Harris, though not a starter, played almost 30 minutes a game last year at a variety of different positions, including some power forward. While Harris will probably start somewhere this year, he will probably play mostly the 3-spot, so that Bennett can get another budding sophomore, KT Harrell, into the starting lineup. Harrell can flat-out score and, if given the time, could be the perfect complementary outside threat to Scott’s inside presence. And, if those four guys weren’t enough, the Cavs also welcome a couple of huge and hugely talented freshman to the backcourt. 6’5″ Malcolm Brogdon was voted Georgia’s Mr. Basketball last year and could see time at any of four different positions, including the point. Yet another Mr. Basketball, Paul Jesperson, is a 6’6″ sharp-shooter from Wisconsin, and forces defenses to guard him anywhere on the court, so could be a nice way of stretching defenses to create more room for guys like Scott and Harrell. This backcourt is young, but potentially loaded.
Strengths. First of all, they have a great coach in Bennett. Second, they have an elite player in Scott. And, third, they have a ton of young talent that is good and eager. If Sene continues to shine on the defensive end and the glass, it’s hard to see the holes in this team.
Weaknesses. I think there are two potential issues of concern for this team. One, do they have a second scorer after Scott? I don’t think Sene will ever provide more than 5-6 points per game, so they probably need one of the shooting guards (Harrell or Harris) to make up for at least some of the 14 ppg lost with Farrakhan’s graduation. The other is frontcourt depth. I like Mitchell as an energy guy off the bench, but they need at least one of the freshmen, Johnson or Atkins, to emerge and give them a solid 8-10 minutes a night.
Their Ceiling. I love this team, but I can’t let myself get too excited because they still don’t have any elite players other than Scott. I think they could probably get into the top 3 or 4 in the ACC and, with a little luck, they might even be wearing white in their first NCAA tournament game in about a decade. But, in reality, this looks like a borderline Top 25 team, at best, with a very, very outside shot at a surprise Sweet 16 appearance in Scott’s swan song. But, the future is very bright in Charlottesville.
Elite – Duke
The Dukies will always be good as long as Coach K is at the helm. But, as for their preseason #6 in the country? I just don’t see it. I know that they are loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans, and I know that they finally welcome in Austin Rivers, but am I the only one that remembers what they lost from last year’s team? Now, I know that Kyrie Irving didn’t play much, so it’s hard to say that that’s a “loss,” but do you know who did play a lot? Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. They played a whole lot, and now they’re gone. Now, there are players on this roster that could pick up some of what they lost in Singler and Smith, but will they? I’m not ready to bet on it.
The Guy. Remember how good Kyrie Irving was last year? Well, Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics coach, Doc Rivers, is supposed to be considerably better.
The Backcourt. Along with Rivers, who will play any of the three spots on the perimeter, the Dukies do have some guys who can score the ball. Most notably, is another high-profile son of an NBA star, Seth Curry. Curry, the son of Del Curry (the NBA’s all-time leader in three-pointers) and brother of Steph Curry (the former Davidson star and current Golden State Warrior), has shown the signs of the family tradition. He can shoot. The question is – can he run the point? That remains to be seen. The third guard in the tradition Duke three-guard offense will be a guy who you might think is yet another son of a former NBA star, but Andre Dawkins has no relation to former Duke and 76er point guard Johnny Dawkins. The good thing about Dawkins is that when the Devils do play all three guards, they can lean on him to do some of the dirty work in the post on the defensive end and on the glass. He is a strong 6’5″ and can rebound. The question mark about him, though, is whether or not he can contribute enough at the guard spot to even render this discussion meaningful. If Dawkins is not an ACC-caliber starting guard, then Coach K will have to mix and match to find a good combination. Then again, there’s an outside chance he becomes a star – Nolan Smith did. The only other two guards that will get significant minutes should be sophomore Tyler Thornton, who emerged as a solid floor general when Irving went down last year, and a 6’0″ freshman from Oak Hill Academy, Quinn Cook. Cook was one of the top recruits in the nation as a junior, but tore his ACL, and there are people who doubt he will ever be the same player again. If he can regain what made him the Washington DC High School POY as a junior, he could be a real find.
The Frontcourt. If Dawkins doesn’t force Coach K’s hand to play all three guards, the Devils have plenty of bodies to use in the frontcourt. If you want tall, overhyped, mediocre bigs named Plumlee, well Duke has cornered the market, as they now have three of them. Mason Plumlee (the middle child) is the best of the three right now and is probably the best option this team has in the frontcourt. Miles Plumlee is the eldest of the three, yet probably won’t start his senior year because he just never developed into the star people thought he would. Mason and Miles are cut from the same mold – quick, agile, skilled bigs, who lack a certain toughness to go along with their supreme talents. Marshall Plumlee, only a freshman, may actually have that toughness, but, alas, may also lack the athleticism and skill of his older brothers. More of a back-to-the-basket player, Marshall is a bit more of the plodding big, as opposed to the open floor big that his brothers are. But, the jury is still out on Marshall and the questions won’t be answered this year because it’s unlikely that he sees a ton of minutes because there are a couple decent options ahead of him. The one guy Krzyzewski really wants to make the leap is 6’11” junior, Ryan Kelly. If Kelly becomes the star that many people believe he can be, then this team looks a whole lot better on paper. I have my doubts, but we shall see. The Devils also have a possible star in Alex Murphy (the younger brother of Florida forward Erik Murphy – and son of former NBA’er, Jay Murphy). Murphy, dubbed by some as the next Kyle Singler, could give the Devils some solid minutes right away. Duke can also lean on 6’7″ freshman Michael Gbinije, who is freakishly athletic, but rather raw, particularly on the offensive end (yes, he’s on Duke’s roster…).
Strengths. First of all, they will always be better than their talent because their coach is that good. Second of all, they will always have elite talent because their brand is so good. That means they will always be in contention for a national title. If Austin Rivers is anywhere near as good as advertised, then this team will be exceptional. If any of the plethora of potential breakout stars makes that leap, then this team could be downright special.
Weaknesses. As good as Rivers is supposed to be, I still struggle to see how they are going to replace the production of Singler and Smith. I think it’s safe to say that the eldest Plumlee (Miles) is nothing special. The middle Plumlee (Mason) might be great, but who knows, and the youngest (Marshall) is still green. Is Ryan Kelly the answer? What about Andre Dawkins? Is Seth Curry good enough to excel when defenses key on him? Still don’t know that either. A lot of questions are out there yet to be answered.
The Ceiling. I know it sounds as if I’m really down on this team. I’m not. They are very, very good. I’m just not sure they have enough individual or collective greatness to be special. Rivers is going to turn heads, but he’s still a freshman – and a freshman with a reputation as a shaky decision-maker, at that. I think Curry is good as a 3rd or 4th option. I think Dawkins could emerge, but that’s a big if. And, the same goes for the entire stable of bigs. Would I be shocked if they won the national championship? Not really. I would actually be more shocked if they won the ACC because they’re better suited for a tournament than a grueling season where they could really be exposed. So, I would say that, while this team could win the title, I don’t see them doing it as a favorite come March. I’m thinking a 2- or 3-seed, at best, and a pretty solid second-place in the ACC.
The Sleeper – N.C. State
Last year, I had the Wolfpack as “My Favorite” in the ACC. Well, I’d like to take a mulligan on that because, well, Sidney Lowe can’t coach. But, the ‘Pack – after an embarrassing number of coaches passed – has found themselves a coach…and he’s a good one. If you don’t remember Mark Gottfried was the first coach to ever achieve a national #1 ranking at Alabama. He had up and down success, but he proved (at least to me) that he is a great coach. And, now, he is at a basketball school with some talent left over.
The Guy. If this team is going to do anything to make me not feel like a fool for touting them in back-to-back years, it is going to be 6’8″ sophomore forward C.J. Leslie. Leslie, probably the most celebrated recruit to come to N.C. State in several decades was one of the most disappointing freshmen in the country last year. That is not to say he didn’t show flashes of why people think he’s so special (supreme athleticism, a soft touch, great length, and flat-out hops), but what he didn’t show was any sign, whatsoever, of maturity. He was a malcontent whenever things started to go in the wrong direction and he seemed to compound each and every mistake either he or a teammate committed with a bad turnover or piss-poor shot selection. Now, he may never find the maturity to turn it around, but there are two things that make me think that he will become a better teammate and, therefore, a better player. One is the coaching change. One thing that Sidney Lowe is not famous for is being tough. Gottfried, on the other hand, will not allow Leslie’s laziness to continue. And, second, is Leslie’s decision (after a meeting with Gottfried) to withdraw his name from the draft. It seemed last year and if he was just using N.C. State as a showcase for his professional talents (which he probably was). But, he probably had a large piece of humble pie when he heard that he would most likely be a second-round pick and not the top 5 that he anticipated. If he puts it together, this team could be a lot better than people think.
The Backcourt. While the names might not jump out at you, this backcourt is solid and big. Junior shooting guard Scott Wood is the team’s standstill jumpshooter. At 6’6″ and deceptively quick, Wood can find open shots and, like any good Indiana kid, can knock them down when he gets them. Lorenzo Brown, a husky 6’5″ sophomore, may not look like the prototypical ACC point guard, but he really grew into the role last year and could emerge as one of the tougher matchups in the country at the 1-position. Backing up Brown (or maybe playing alongside him in certain sets) will be 5’10” jet Alex Johnson. Johnson, a senior transfer from CS-Bakersfield, should provide a steady presence on both ends of the floor if Brown finds his opposing number too quick. 6’4″ freshman Jaqawn Raymond may eventually be a star, but he has a lot of work to do to have the results match up with his elite physical talents.
The Frontcourt. While the backcourt is actually pretty steady and set, the frontcourt (other than Leslie), on the hand, may still be a work in progress. Gottfried might not have a choice but to play 6’5″ senior C.J. Williams 30+ minutes because he is just too valuable on the defensive end. With Williams (who can play some 2-guard, as well), Leslie would slide to the PF spot. Rebounding issues resulting from the smallishness of this frontcourt may be mitigated by (a) the elite athleticism of Leslie, (b) the sheer size of the starting guards, and/or (c) 7’1″ center Jordan Vandenberg. Vandenberg, an Aussie, who has really struggled on the defensive end, could emerge to be the team’s starting center, which would mean that Williams and Leslie would easily slide into the forward positions without fear of vulnerability in the middle. However, if Vandenberg cannot cut it defensively (which will probably be the case, at least early), then Gottfried will have to use some combination of 6’8″ senior Richard Howell or 6’9″ sophomore DeShawn Painter. Howell is more the polished workman, while Painter has raw skills and struggles defensively and with shot selection.
Strengths. This team is a lot more talented than people may think, even after losing star senior Tracy Smith. And, if Leslie can emerge to his potential (possibly even a first-team all-ACC performer), then watch out because the complementary pieces are in place, particularly in the backcourt.
Weaknesses. Their biggest possible strength is probably also their biggest possible weakness – C.J. Leslie. It wouldn’t shock me if his season was anywhere from off-the-charts spectacular to wholly forgettable and embarrassing. It’s that unpredictable. And, as is probably obvious, the Wolfpack’s season relies a lot on where, in that continuum, he falls. The other vulnerability is their frontcourt size, but that can possibly be compensated for by the size of their backcourt (6’6″ and 6’5″).
Their Ceiling. They will not contend with UNC for an ACC title, nor are they likely to challenge the Dukies in any legitimate way, but it is not out of the question that this team could be the third best team in the ACC. If so, they will be in the tournament. But, even if everything goes perfectly, it’s hard for even me to believe they will still be playing into the second week of the tournament.
Contender – Florida State
There is a ton of hype surrounding this Seminole team this year, and, quite frankly, I’m not sure I’m seeing it. Honestly, I think that the public perception is that they are probably the 3rd best team in the ACC (which I don’t think I would argue) and the 3rd best team in, historically, the best basketball conference has to be an elite team. And, historically, that has been true – where the 3rd best team in the ACC often found itself easily in the top 10 in the country. But, times have changed, and this is not your older brother’s ACC. UNC is phenomenal and the Dukies are elite. After that, there is a huge dropoff, whether or not the public wants to believe that.
The Guy. At least last year, they could answer nay-sayers like me with two words: Chris Singleton. But, the stud forward is gone to the world of labor unrest and lockouts. In the wake of the Singleton departure, there are any number of candidates to step up and be “the guy” on FSU, but I have my doubts about whether any of them actually will, which is why I am not so bullish on the ‘Noles as some.
The Backcourt. The funny thing about the love for FSU this year is that I’m not even sure that Singleton was their biggest loss from last year’s team. They also lost their leader and floor general in point guard Derwin Kitchen. They will now turn over the reigns of a team desperate for consistent guard play to a 5th-year senior, Luke Loucks, who has never shown any real consistency. Fortunately, the 2-guard will be manned by a guy much from the same mold as the departed Kitchen, in Michael Snaer, and may even go with the three-guard lineup by starting Lithuanian sharp-shooter Deividas Dulkys. They also have the well-traveled Jeff Peterson off the bench. Peterson played two years for Iowa, before transferring to Arkansas. After one year on the Razorbacks, he transferred again to FSU for grad school. And the big wild card might be sophomore Ian Miller. Miller, who was highly-touted as a recruit last year, suffered a groin injury that slowed him down. If he can find his form, he might be just what the doctor ordered for this otherwise forgettable backcourt.
The Frontcourt. The key to the whole season for the Seminoles lies in their 26-year old center, Bernard James. James, who didn’t play organized basketball until his days in the Air Force, has emerged to be a certifiable ACC big man. The real question remains however, that despite his being a very inspirational story, can this guy who never played organized basketball on any level, be the go-to guy on a contending team? I have my doubts. One thing that could temper that could be an emergence of Okara White, who looked real good as a freshman last year, so could be ready to make the leap as a sophomore. And, who knows, maybe 6’11” senior Xavier Gibson might actually put it all together and be the superstar people were saying he would be for three years now. Or, maybe 7’0″ first-year senior (yes, that’s right), Jon Kreft will emerge.
Their Ceiling. You see, here is the thing with a overly-inflated public image of a conference, as a whole. When the Seminoles win double-digit ACC games this year (and maybe a shocker over Duke or UNC), everyone is going to feel vindicated in their preseason top 25 ranking of FSU, and the committee will give them a 7-seed, even though, if you really looked at it, their resume will not really have any meat on it. But, they will take this 7-seed, throw their ridiculous athletes at a 10-seed that is either an undersized mid-major or a middling major conference team playing out the string and win a game before bowing out silently to a far superior 2-seed. And, the tournament win will vindicate all these “prognosticators” even more. Needless to say, I think their actual “ceiling” is a lot higher than I even think it should be.
I honestly do not think that any of the other teams in this league are all that relevant this year (with apologies to all my Maryland fan followers), but I’ll give a quick editorial line on each.
- Virginia Tech. I love Coach Greenberg and think that there is talent here in Blacksburg, but they lost their three best players from a team that wouldn’t have made a 65-team field.
- Maryland. I cannot say enough about how great of a hire I think Mark Turgeon is, but the surprise departure of Jordan Williams leaves this team in irrelevancy. But, it looks like it might be just one year, as the early returns have Turgeon killing it on the recruiting front.
- Clemson. As a big supporter and defender of Clemson basketball the past few years, I can say this with no regret – they aren’t relevant this year. Too much talent has left this program (Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant, most recently) without enough talent brought back in. That being said, I totally believe in Coach Brownell and think that he will make the Tigers an annual contender.
- Miami. Frank Haith is gone…not sure that’s a bad thing.
- Georgia Tech. Paul Hewitt is gone…not sure that’s a bad thing.
- Boston College. 10 freshmen? Sounds like they’ll be lucky to finish in 10th place.
- Wake Forest. Nowhere to go but up…