Monday, April 09, 2007

2007-08 Preview: ACC

Atlantic Coast Conference

After years of UNC/Duke domination, the ACC had a surprising amount of parity in 2006-07. The conference ended up with five teams finishing within one game of first place, and that didn't even include Duke. Any discussion should begin with the best team, and despite the parity in conference records the best team was clearly North Carolina. While Brandan Wright is going pro, everyone else is expected to stay. Another year of Psycho T, along with Wayne Ellington, Marcus Ginyard and others. They will have size, scoring and rebounding to spare. Without a doubt, this team should remain a serious contender for a #1 seed yet again.

Duke's struggles were a huge surprise in 2006-07, and the obvious problem was experience. Duke is a team that relies on players sticking around until their Junior and Senior seasons. They always have experience and maturity in boatloads. This past year they were younger than they have ever been in recent memory. Only one Junior or Senior got more than 1 minute per game (DeMarcus Nelson). Josh McRoberts will be going pro, but that's not as big of a loss as you might think. Last year he was expected to be The Man when it came to crunch time scoring, and he just wasn't able to fill that roll. With him gone, the final shot will more often be taken by DeMarcus Nelson, who I'd rather have taking the shot anyway. Duke also struggled a lot with backcourt turnovers, and another year of experience for Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer should turn the backcourt from a liability to a strength. Nelson should be an elite scorer and playmaker. The only question mark will be size on the inside. Without the presence of McRoberts, added pressure will be on Brian Zoubek to live up to his potential. As usual, Coach K brings in a Top Ten recruiting class (not many people can remember the last time Duke didn't have one of those). Expect Duke to be back with a vengeance.

The biggest positive surprise in the ACC last year was Virginia Tech (at least from my point of view, since I predicted Virginia to finish 3rd and Va Tech 11th). Another year this good might be too much to ask, but I don't see this team falling too far off either. Obviously, Zabian Dowdell was The Man on the offensive side of the floor this years, especially during Tech's biggest wins. His loss, along with double-digit scorer Jamon Gordon will be tough to replace. But there will still be a lot of key players returning, and the Hokies also bring in a Top 20 recruiting class. The biggest question mark for this team will likely be on the inside, with their only starter over 6'7" (Coleman Collins) graduating. Either Lewis Witcher, Cheick Diakite and Robert Krabbendam needs to become an elite inside force, or else Jeff Allen (Scout: 9 PF, Rivals: 17 PF) or Augustus Gilchrist (Scout: 11 C, Rivals: 26 PF) will have to pick up the slack right off the bat.

A team that could be really dangerous if no one goes pro will be Georgia Tech. They lose only one Senior (Mario West) off of a team that made the Tournament as a 10 seed already. It is, however, quite likely that either Javaris Crittendon or Thadeus Young goes pro. For now, I'll assume that Young goes and Crittendon stays. If they can keep even one of those guys, they will continue to have elite scoring and could contend at the top of the ACC if Ra'Sean Dickey can fulfill his potential on the inside. Especially if their solid recruiting class pans out.

Two good teams that should take a step back are Virginia and Maryland. This past season, the Cavaliers could always depend on a big performance by either Sean Singletary or JR Reynolds in big games. Singletary should stay for another year, but Reynolds graduates. Unless another elite scorer steps up to the plate, Singletary can't do it all every night. This team will still be good, but I can't see them being a Top 25 team unless some of their young freshmen or recruits become surprise stars. Maryland, meanwhile, is absolutely decimated by graduations. DJ Strawberry, Ekene Ibekwe and Mike Jones all graduate. In all, more than 40 points per game need to be replaced. The recruiting class is decent, but not good enough to come close to making up for all of those losses.

Boston College, too, should suffer without Sean Marshall and Jared Dudley. Sean Williams won't be allowed back (he'll likely enter the draft, even though he might not get drafted at all, because he really doesn't have any other options). They have a good recruiting class, but this feels like a rebuilding year. Clemson, on the other hand, could be improved. It's just hard to predict how that team will respond to their epic collapse. Which team shows up in November, the team that started 17-0, or the team that finished 4-10? If they show up recharged after their strong NIT performance, they will have almost every piece back. Only Vernon Hamilton graduates, and they return their leading scorer (KC Rivers, 14.0 per game), rebounders (James Mays and Trevor Booker, both 6.4 per game) and assist man (Cliff Hammonds, 4.1 per game). Throw in a slew of experience as far as ACC teams go (as many as three Seniors could start next year) and this team has the potential to be really good.

Two final teams that have decent shots at Tournament bids are NC State and Florida State. Both teams lose a star (Engin Atsur and Al Thornton, respectively). Both teams have Top 25 recruiting classes. Both teams have a group of returning starters ready to be stars (Brandon Costner, Gavin Grant and Ben McCauley for the Wolfpack. Toney Douglas and Jason Rich for the Noles). I can see both teams making the Tournament next year. Here are the full preseason ACC rankings:

1. North Carolina - Should be pretty unanimous in the press. This team will be elite unless there is some major unexpected change on the NBA front.
2. Duke - Too many members of the media are underestimating this team. Josh McRoberts had such a bad year this past year that they really don't lose all that much other than rebounding when he goes pro. Especially since McRoberts' absence could propel Nelson to take his offensive game to another level. Another year of experience for Scheyer and Paulus will do a world of good. Coach K should have this team back at the top of the ACC.
3. Georgia Tech - Could finish even higher if they can convince both Crittendon and Young to stay. This team played really well despite all of the youth. They were practically unbeatable at home in '06-'07 (17-1) but awful on the road (1-8). I attribute that to inexperience. Another year of preparation should make this a much savvier team. I see big things for the Jackets in 2008.
4. Clemson - I think the Tigers will use last year as a motivating tool. With pretty much everyone back this will be a very talented team. And this won't be the type of team that will panic because of a loss or two - they will have learned all of the lessons you can learn in that regard during 2007.
5. North Carolina State - Sydney Lowe got his team to overperform last year, and they came within a few minutes of a miracle ACC Tourney title. Engin Atsur will be missed as a leader, but in all honesty his game was more suited to Herb Sendek's style than to Sidney Lowe's. He sometimes tried to do too much, and won't really be missed as a scorer. The only question will be the point guard position, which could be thin without Atsur bringing up the ball. If they can find a decent pair of point guards, the Pack should be able to get back to the Tournament.
6. Virginia Tech - A good team with a lot of talent. But almost every big win they had last year came on a huge Zabian Dowdell performance. It might be a while before they find their new crunch-time scorer. I don't see them having enough consistency to finish at the top of the conference again.
7. Florida State - Will again have flashy scorers and Sportscenter highlights. But the Noles need to prove that they can win when they are expected to win. Too many times they have come up just short of the Tournament. They just seem too much like the Michigan of the ACC.
8. Maryland - A clear rebuilding year for a Maryland team that is still struggling through its post-Championship malaise. With a new crop of young stars, Gary Williams should be able to get off to a fresh start. This team could be back in 2008-09
9. Boston College - This team could finish in the top half of the ACC again, but they could also really struggle to score. Other than Tyrese Rice they don't return a single double-digit scorer. And you need the ability to score 80+ points on a semi-regular basis if you want to be able to compete in the ACC.
10. Virginia - This team has the potential to get back to the Tournament, but they could also be a Sean Singletary injury away from last place in the ACC. Other than him, they have no double-digit scorers returning. Without an elite defense, which the Cavaliers don't have, that just won't work. So many of their wins in 2007 came down to Singletary and Reynolds in crunch time. No one player on this side of Kevin Durant can do that by himself on a consistent basis.
11. Miami - Few major graduation losses and a good recruiting class mean an improved team. But there is still a talent gap between them and the rest of the ACC.
12. Wake Forest - This program needs to rebuild. They struggled last year and graduate two starters. The recruiting class is good, so the cupboard isn't entirely bare. I just can't see this team winning consistently.

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