Monday, April 12, 2010

2010-11 Preview: ACC

Atlantic Coast Conference

I was in a bizarre position this past season with respect to the ACC. Historically the ACC has been the most hyped conference, and Duke has been one of the most over-hyped teams, to the point that one of the safest bets in Las Vegas is usually to bet against Duke basketball, the same way you should always bet against Notre Dame football. But ACC hype has been passed the past few years by Big East hype, and this past season the ACC suffered from what I often talk about, which is that even most professional analysts judge conferences by how many Top 25 teams they have. The ACC had two Top 25 teams most of the season, which meant that they were "way down", and this conventional wisdom that the ACC stunk, combined with the typical Duke hatred, meant that everybody undervalued how good Duke was. Even Dick Vitale was dumping on the ACC all season! So I was left pointing out all season long that the ACC was better than every other conference besides perhaps the Big 12 because as weak as the top was, the bottom of the ACC is better than the bottom of every other conference (DePaul and Rutgers aren't remotely in the same class as Miami or North Carolina). And I was also left pointing out that Duke was wildly underrated. All season long Sagarin and Pomeroy said that Duke and Kansas were the two best teams in the country, and it wasn't close. I was told by readers that I was nuts and ignorant for thinking Duke would even get to the Sweet 16. But the computers knew what I knew: Duke had the perfect combination of experience, savvy, shooting, defense and rebounding. They might have lost straight-up to Kansas in the National Title game if it had gotten to that, but after Kansas was upended Duke deserved to be the favorite to win the Tournament, and they took care of business. Duke does lose quite a bit to graduation after this season: Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek. As disappointing as Zoubek's first three years were, he really came alive during the second half of his senior season and was a huge part of their title run. He might even be a bigger loss than Lance Thomas, who is less of an offensive threat than Mason Plumlee, who will likely take his place in the starting lineup, alongside his brother Miles. Scheyer is a big loss not only because of how good he is, but because Duke was so thin at the guard position. Nolan Smith should be back, of course, as will Andre Dawkins. Seth Curry will be able to play after his redshirt season, and while he's not as good as his older brother he should still be ready to play from day one. I also expect Dawkins to play more with a year's experience, particularly with how good his outside shooting is. Duke's top recruit is also a guard: Kyrie Irving (Rivals: 9, Scout: 2 PG). Despite being a blue chipper, Coach K generally doesn't like giving freshmen a ton of playing time, and I'd expect Irving to come off the bench. A key for Duke, of course, will be keeping Kyle Singler out of the Draft. If he comes back then they'll be a contender to win the ACC again. Without him they'll struggle for offensive production, although they're going to be a Top 25 quality team no matter what.

Maryland tied Duke for the ACC regular season title, but they'll have a lot to replace with Grievis Vasquez and Landon Milbourne graduating. Eric Hayes will be the top returner, and they'll look to Adrian Bowie to expand his game and be a key offensive weapon. On the inside, Jordan Williams had an outstanding freshman season and should continue to develop as a sophomore, and he'll start alongside Dino Gregory. It's no surprise that Maryland's season really took off after Gregory returned from suspension. Maryland's top recruit is Mychal Parker (Rivals: 53, Scout: 12 SF). Florida State was an interesting team because of how good their defense was, and because of how bad their offense was. Their defense was not just the best in the country, but probably the best we've seen in a few years. But at the same time their offense was downright awful, and was completely incapable of scoring other than off turnovers and offensive rebounds. It ended up killing them in the NCAA Tournament because they ran into a Gonzaga team that just got really hot, and the Seminoles were incapable of mounting a comeback because they had no offensive weapons. They graduate only one senior from their regular rotation (Ryan Reid), but the bigger concern is whether Solomon Alabi or Chris Singleton will go pro. Right now I'm going to assume Alabi leaves, but Singleton stays. Alabi will be a tough loss, but there's no reason Xavier Gibson can't grow into the player that Alabi is. Singleton is probably the more important player to keep anyway, since he was the closest thing Florida State had to a competent offensive player. The development of Michael Snaer, who had a strong freshman season, will be a big part of how good they'll be offensively next season. They're still going to be very long and very athletic, and one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Their top recruits are Okaro White (Rivals: 59, Scout: 11 PF) and Ian Miller (Rivals: 70, Scout: 10 PG). White will be expected to immediately play big minutes, particularly with Jordan DeMercy transferring out.

North Carolina was possibly the most disappointing team in the last decade. They were one of the most talented teams in the nation and should have been a National Championship contender. They did have some tough injuries (Tyler Zeller, Ed Davis and Travis Wear all missed at least ten games), but the real thing that killed them was lack of effort. They absolutely gave up on the season, and all of it actually made me appreciate Tyler Hansbrough. Like everybody else in the country, I grew to dislike Hansbrough because of the insane media over-hyping, but the one thing you couldn't criticize him for was effort and leadership, and I just refuse to believe this team would have fallen apart if he was there in practice every day. The way the team just absolutely gave up reflects very poorly not just on Roy Williams, but also on the senior class that showed zero leadership. As you can guess, I don't think UNC is going to miss the senior class of Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson much. Ed Davis is expected to go pro as well, but nobody else is expected to go with him. Larry Drew II developed a lot over the course of the year and should be a capable point guard, and Dexter Strickland will be back as well, who was probably my favorite player on this UNC team - I complained all season that Roy needed to give him more playing time. If Tyler Zeller can stay healthy then he'll be a very good inside player, and John Henson still has a chance to live up to the hype he had out of high school, but I'm not a fan of either of the Wear brothers and don't think UNC is going to contend for an ACC title with either of them starting. Obviously UNC will expect superfrosh Harrison Barnes to start at the 3, since he is considered by many to be the top overall recruit in the 2010 class. The other UNC recruits are both guards: Reggie Bullock (Rivals: 10, Scout: 2 SG) and Kendall Marshall (Rivals: 32, Scout: 5 PG). UNC will be very good at the guard position, and Barnes will be a force from day one. But the big concern will be down low, where they'll be vulnerable if Zeller gets injured again. If Zeller can stay healthy then North Carolina will be a challenger to not only win the ACC, but perhaps seriously contend for a Final Four... the NCAA's Final Four. Georgia Tech is a team that loses a ton: D'Andre Bell and Zachary Peacock graduate, but more importantly Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors are both expected to go pro. While Favors is the player with more pro potential, Lawal is the bigger loss for Georgia Tech. For the past two years the Yellow Jackets have risen and fallen because of Lawal, and he's been the star basically every single time they've won a big game. They don't have anybody left on the roster who can replace his scoring and leadership. They do return Iman Shumpert and Mfon Udofia, but the real player I'm looking to be a key for them is Glen Rice, Jr. He developed so quickly this past year and it was no surprise that Georgia Tech started turning it on late in the season when they finally put Rice into the starting lineup. Despite those good backcourt returners, the big concern is that their two best returning big men (Daniel Miller and Kammeon Holsey) have yet to play a competitive game at Georgia Tech (both redshirted their freshman seasons). Both Miller and Holsey are players that were highly recruited and have potential, but it's tough to go into a season without any experience down low. I don't think there's any question that Paul Hewitt will try to find a big man over the next couple of months with the scholarships opened up by the NBA defections of Lawal and Favors.

The two NCAA Tournament teams from the ACC that I haven't talked about yet were Wake Forest and Clemson. And both teams are difficult to project because neither has a head coach right now: Oliver Purnell saw the writing on the wall and jumped to DePaul, while Dino Gaudio was finally fired from Wake Forest (I was never impressed with the job he did, and have no problem with his firing as long as they can find a capable replacement). Clemson loses Trevor Booker and David Potter. Booker is obviously the bigger loss because of his presence down low. Most of Potter's minutes will probably go to Noel Johnson, who was a recruiting coup last season and should grow as a player as he heads into his sophomore season. They do return their three excellent guards: Demontez Stitt, Andre Young and Tanner Smith. All three are good ball handlers, and Stitt is the type of go-to scorer that teams need to have to win close games. Trevor Booker's younger brother, Devin, will try to fill some of the void left by Booker, and so will Milton Jennings. They don't yet have much of a recruiting class, so unless they sign somebody over the next few months they'll be very dependent on their backcourt next season. Wake Forest loses much more than Georgia Tech, with their outstanding backcourt of Ishmael Smith and L.D. Williams graduating, along with star big man Chas McFarland, and David Weaver off of the bench. Al Farouq-Aminu will be leaving early for the NBA, meaning that C.J. Harris will be the only returner who played more than 20 minutes per game this past season. Ari Stewart and Tony Woods, both frontcourt players, are the other two key returners. Wake Forest does have a very good recruiting class, including four players in the Top 100, but you have to wonder what will happen to that class when a new coach comes in. With only three returners who played double-digit minutes per game this past season Wake will be heavily dependent on their recruiting class, and if it falls apart because of the coaching change then it's going to be a very long season for them.

Virginia Tech was probably the best team in the country that missed the NCAA Tournament, but they deserved to miss it with the joke of a schedule they put together. I have a lot of complaints about the Tournament Selection Committee, but one thing I like is that they demand you play a tough schedule or they put you at a big disadvantage. The biggest problem I have with college football is that it rewards teams that play easy schedules. That all said, the big concern for Virginia Tech fans right now is Malcolm Delaney, and whether he'll stay or go pro. He's a tough player to predict, but right now he's being compared most to Greivis Vasquez, which is why I think he'll stay for his senior season. He was one of the best players in the ACC this past season, and will potentially be the Player of the Year if he returns. If he returns then Virginia Tech will have their best team in years with every other player who earned double digit minutes per game returning. They'll also start four seniors (Dorenzo Hudson, Jeff Allen and Terrell Bell, along with Delaney), which always is a huge help in a sport where so many teams depend so heavily on freshmen. They also add Allan Chaney, a very strong power forward who played ten minutes per game for Florida as a true freshman, and a recruiting class led by Jarell Eddie (Rivals: 63, Scout: 15 SF). The Hokies will probably improve even if Delaney leaves for the NBA, but with him back they'll potentially challenge for one of the top two or three spots in the ACC. The other intriguing team in the ACC is Boston College, which loses only bench player Tyler Roche to graduation. Rakim Sanders, Joe Trapani, Corey Raji and Biko Paris will all be seniors and all started this past season. With a decent recruiting class coming in as well there would be no question this team would improve... except for the fact that they got rid of Al Skinner and replaced him with Cornell coach Steve Donahue. Skinner was always one of those coaches who was a good recruiter but couldn't coach his players, and I don't have a problem with Boston College trying to bring in a coach that they believe will be able to do both, but in the near term this means that they might lose some of their players. I'd imagine that all of the rising senior starters will stay because players typically don't transfer and deal with a redshirt year with just one year of eligibility left unless it's a really dire situation (Trapani, for one, has already transferred from Vermont and can't transfer again), but I wouldn't be surprised to see a BC bench player or two leave, or if they lose a recruit or two. If Donahue can hang onto every player and every recruit, however, there's no question that BC will be improved next season.

In the end, here's how I see the ACC playing out in 2010-11:

1. Duke - I don't think they'll be as good as they were in 2009-10, but as long as Kyle Singler stays they'll be one of the favorites to get back to the Final Four. If Singler goes pro then they'll probably drop in the ACC standings.
2. North Carolina - They probably had Top 15 talent this past season, and they'll be more talented this coming season. The only thing that can derail them would be another Tyler Zeller injury, or if Harrison Barnes disappoints.
3. Virginia Tech - This position assumes Malcolm Delaney comes back for his senior season, and I'll drop them if he goes pro.
4. Boston College - I don't think the four rising-senior starters will bail on Steve Donahue, but I'm also assuming that Donahue can hang onto their recruiting class. You never know with coaching transitions like this if a bunch of players will transfer out, but so far there are no signs that this will happen to BC.
5. Clemson - I really like their backcourt, and you can never discount a team that actually has a clutch go-to scorer for those tight finishes.
6. Florida State - Their defense will again be very good, but it's going to be hard to replicate how good they were this past season. They will have to improve their offense dramatically to be anything more than a bubble team again.
7. Maryland - I feel like a lot of Maryland's success this past season was smoke and mirrors. With Grievis Vasquez gone they really just don't have the elite basketball players that the other top ACC teams have.
8. Miami (Fl) - They do lose three senior starters, but Miami was a very young team that was powered by a very good freshman and sophomore class. Miami started getting pesky late in the season as those young players started to develop, and I expect the team to actually be better as all of those kids get the experience that they need to seriously compete at the ACC level. They might miss the NCAA Tournament in 2011, but if they can avoid NBA defections then they should definitely be Dancing by 2012.
9. Georgia Tech - There are big question marks with Daniel Miller and Kammeon Holsey because they haven't played yet, but both were hyped out of high school for a reason, and they should help fill at least some of the void left by Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors.
10. Wake Forest - The loss of Ishmael Smith and L.D. Williams is killer. With a new coach coming to town it will definitely be a rebuilding season for Wake Forest.
11. NC State - You have to wonder how much patience NC State still has for Sidney Lowe. The program has absolutely zero direction, and has not been a factor in the ACC for years.
12. Virginia - This will be a rebuilding season for Virginia with Tony Bennett clearing out the players who didn't click with him and his coaching style (Sylven Landesberg, Tristan Spurlock, Jamil Tucker and Calvin Baker are all gone). I expect Bennett to depend very heavily on his incoming freshman class, under the hope that he'll have this program contending near the top of the ACC by the time they're juniors or seniors.


DMoore said...

This was a really good breakdown of the ACC. Thank you. A few comments and questions:

Duke -- Seth Curry is likely to impress a lot of people next year. He was one of the high scorers for the national team (where he played with Gordan Hayward and Sheldon Mack), and with a years experience to learn Duke's defensive system he should be one of the most impressive newcomers in the league. Duke obviously loses a lot of experience, but will be a much quicker team (and deeper, if they don't lose Singler).

Florida State -- As long as they keep Singleton, they should actually be much improved next year. He is already the best defender in the conference, and was showing improvement on offense. Snaer should improve offensively as a sophomore, too.

UNC -- I agree with your assessment of Zeller. When he was healthy, he was contributing more than Thompson or Davis. However, the jury is still out whether Drew can cut down on his turnovers. he could be next year's version of Ish Smith -- often explosive, but sometimes more like an exploding cigar.

I'm not sold yet on the idea of Boston College being much better next year. Yes, they return a lot, but what they're returning didn't do that well. Also, Al Skinner's schemes were somewhat unusual, so there will be an adjustment period to learn to work within a new system.

I agree with your assessment that Maryland will struggle next year with all that they lose, but I don't agree that their success this year was smoke and mirrors. I just could not understand why everyone didn't expect them to do well in the ACC this year. They finished strong the year before, lost very little, and had three good seniors. If they just got a little help in the front court, then they would be in great shape.

Good call on Miami. They have a lot of young talent, and when a lot of other teams were packing it in at the end of the year (ahem), they responded to mounting losses by battling even harder and continuing to improve. A lot of those losses were close ones, too.

Jeff said...

Looks like the point about Boston College isn't going to matter with Rakim Sanders leaving. There might be even more going. That's always the risk of bringing in a new coach, that the established players you already have might jump ship and the new coach will have to start over.

Boston College can still make the Tournament without Sanders, but I'd probably drop them behind Clemson right now. And it will just get worse if more players go.