Monday, April 11, 2011

2011-12 Preview: ACC

Atlantic Coast Conference

This was a very disappointing season for the ACC. With the stupid way that the media judges conferences, they typically just look at Duke and UNC, and if both are good then the conference is up, and if one or more are down then the conference is down. So last year the conference was underrated because North Carolina stunk so badly. But this year, the conference (as much as it was panned by the media) may still have been overrated. The third best team in the conference was a pure bubble team, and the conference also had a couple of really bad teams at the bottom (Wake Forest was a joke). But there are a bunch of new coaches and young teams, so the conference should pick up in quality in 2011-12.

I have to start the preview with Duke, since they were the best team in the conference, though they struggled in the NCAA Tournament - barely surviving Michigan in the Round of 32 and then losing to Arizona in the Sweet 16. They lose star Nolan Smith to graduation, as well as Kyle Singler. Kyrie Irving is going pro, though I expect him to be the only one to go. In the backcourt they return Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton, with Curry being the one best able to run the point. In the frontcourt they should have three Plumlees next year: Mason, Miles and Marshall (Scout: 7 C, Rivals: 82). They also return Ryan Kelly, who improved dramatically between his freshman and sophomore years, and Josh Hairston. They also had three other big time recruits (besides Miles Plumlee): Austin Rivers (Scout: 1 SG, Rivals: 1), Quinn Cook (Scout: 5 PG, Rivals: 28) and Michael Gbinije (Scout: 5 SF, Rivals: 31). They are going to be absurdly deep in the frontcourt, but I worry about their backcourt depth. Coach K often benched the Plumlees against smaller teams or teams that pressed, knowing that he could rely on three backcourt players at the same time. Without Nolan Smith or Kyrie Irving, either Austin Rivers or Quinn Cook is going to need to step up and be a big time ACC player right away. Both have the pedigree, but true freshmen are always a question mark. Still, Duke looks really good and will compete for another ACC title.

North Carolina came on very strong late in the year, knocking off Duke to take the ACC regular season title, but falling to Duke in the ACC tournament tournament title and then falling in the Elite 8 to Kentucky. They only lose Justin Knox to graduation, but the real worry is the NBA Draft. So far, UNC has gotten remarkably good news. Tyler Zeller and John Henson already say they'll be back, and the indications right now are that Harrison Barnes will be back as well. If all three come back that immediately makes them a National Title contender. Those three will be joined in the frontcourt again by Reggie Bullock, and they will add James McAdoo (Scout: 3 PF, Rivals: 8) and Jackson Simmons. The backcourt will definitely be back, led by Kendall Marshall at the point and Dexter Strickland at shooting guard. Leslie McDonald and Justin Watts return off the bench, and they also add PJ Hairston (Scout: 6 SG, Rivals: 14). The team will be even more talented than they were this past season, and they'll go from being a thin team to a deep team with those recruits.

Florida State was probably the third best team in the conference, and they were only other ACC team to make it past the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament. Their strength, as it's been the past few years, has been an unbelievably long and athletic defense. When you watch them play you wonder how any team ever attempts shots within 15 feet against them without expecting it to be blocked. The problem is that they only had two good offensive players, and one graduates (Derwin Kitchen) and the other is likely going pro (Chris Singleton). Assuming both are gone, they will still have Okaro White, a good swing foward who was relatively efficient for a true freshman, and Bernard James, who is just a massive human being and can score efficiently if you can get him the ball close to the rim. Terrence Shannon and Jon Kreft are also frontcourt returners, but neither is good offensively. They also add Antawn Space (Scout: 17 SF, Rivals: 88). But if they're going to have a decent offense they need to get some from their guards. The most likely offensive creator there is Michael Snaer, though Deividas Dulkys is also decent. Other returners are Luke Loucks and Ian Miller, and they add Aaron Thomas (Scout: 18 SG, Rivals: 49) and Terry Whisnant (Rivals: 101). They're going to be ferocious defensively again, but unless they can find some decent amount of offense they will not improve as a team.

Clemson played well under first year coach Brad Brownell, using stifling defense to finish strong. They earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament, where they whooped UAB in the First Four before losing narrowly to West Virginia in the Round of 64. They lose Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant to graduation. Andre Young is a capable point guard and he'll be back, as will Tanner Smith and Cory Stanton. They also add Daniel Sapp and Devin Coleman from their 2011 recruiting class. The frontcourt is not as deep, where only Devin Booker returns from the starting rotation. Milton Jennings and Bryan Narcisse return from the bench, with Jennings being far better (he's actually the best returning rebounder). They do add Bernard Sullivan (Scout: 19 PF, Rivals: 70) and swing forward KJ McDaniels from their recruiting class. Brad Brownell has this program moving in the right direction, even if they might take a small step back in 2011-12.

Maryland was a very good team that just couldn't win games. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated them better than a bunch of teams that earned at-large bids, but not only was Maryland not in the at-large discussion - they didn't even make the NIT. They will lose Dino Gregory, Cliff Tucker and Adrian Bowie from their starting rotation, and I think Jordan Williams (by far their best player) will go pro. That leaves them with only Sean Mosley from the starting lineup. They should still be alright, though, as Gary Williams had already brought in a lot of quality talent in his 2010 class to prepare for these losses. Pe'Shon Howard is going to step up and be that star guard that he looked like in that win over College of Charleston way back in November, as he, Sean Mosley and Terrell Stoglin will be the key backcourt returners. Mychal Parker and Haukur Palsson are two backcourt players that didn't earn many minutes as true freshmen, but could down the road (Parker in particular, who was a very highly rated 2010 recruit). They also add Nick Faust (Scout: 13 SG, Rivals: 42) and Sterling Gibbs (Scout: 29 PG). Things are dicier in the frontcourt, where James Padgett is the only returning regular. They also get back Ashton Pankey, a 2010 recruit who missed the 2010-11 season with an injury. Their only frontcourt recruit is Martin Breunig. Assuming Jordan Williams leaves, Maryland is going to be a very small team, with a very thin frontcourt.

Boston College and Virginia Tech were too senior-laden teams that ended up just short of the NCAA Tournament. Steve Donahue did a great job coaching Boston College, but his starting lineup had four seniors, and the fifth starter (Reggie Jackson) is expected to go pro. Every big victory they had all year came on the back of a terrific performance from Jackson, so losing him will really be killer. The three returning players that got any real playing time are all guards off the bench: Danny Rubin, Gabriel Moton and Dallas Elmore. To replace all of the bodies, Donahue has put together a big and deep recruiting class, but without stars. Ryan Anderson (Scout: 28 PF), center Kyle Caudill and shooting guard Lonnie Jackson are the three best. It's going to be a rebuilding year for Boston College. Virginia Tech was robbed of an NCAA Tournament bid, and you have to really feel for seniors Malcolm Delaney, Jeff Allen and Terrell Bell. Delaney in particular has been such a great ACC player for several years now that he really deserved to go Dancing. Shooting guard Erick Green and big Victor Davila are the two returning starters. Forwards Manny Atkins and Jarell Eddie will be back off the bench. But the key will be medical redshirts - the team actually had three of them: Dorenzo Hudson, Cadarian Raines and JT Thompson. All of them were big losses, though Hudson was probably the biggest. All will be important players next year if healthy. Allan Chaney also missed the year, though he missed it because of a heart ailment, so it's unclear if he'll be able to play basketball again. Seth Greenberg has also put together a deep recruiting class, with Dorian Finney-Smith (Scout: 7 SF, Rivals: 37), CJ Barksdale (Scout: 13 PF, Rivals: 95), Robert Brown (Scout: 21 SG, Rivals: 105) and Marquis Rankin (Scout: 19 PG). Assuming they can get all of their medical redshirts healthy again, Virginia Tech will be a bubble quality team. Though I don't know if their fan base can handle another year on the bubble.

In the end, here's how I see the ACC playing out:

1. North Carolina - Assuming Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller all come back, I don't know how you can bet against this team.
2. Duke - They have a good shot of being a Top Ten team again, depending on how their guards develop, and if at least one of the Plumlees can become a more efficient offensive player.
3. Florida State - It's hard to bet against that defense, particularly if they can get anything out of guards like Michael Snaer and Deividas Dulkys offensively.
4. Virginia Tech - It's easy to forget just how decimated this team was with injuries last season. So even with all of the graduations, they do get all of those injured players back.
5. Miami - They still don't have a head coach, so it's hard to project exactly where they'll end up, but they do return a really good backcourt of Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant, and Reggie Johnson is a load in the paint. They should have been better than they were this past season, and I think that a change at coach (they really can't do much worse than Frank Haith) can only help.
6. NC State - It's a sign of where NC State is now in the college basketball pecking order that with all of the money they were offering they could only get Mark Gottfried. But assuming he can hang onto CJ Leslie, this is a team that should be improved next year.
7. Virginia - Tony Bennett has this team going in the right direction, and they are still going to be very young. Once he really gets the players he wants in place, he will have this team contending at the top of the ACC.
8. Clemson - I won't drop this team further because of the way they play defense. Brad Brownell did a great coaching job in his first season at the helm of Clemson.
9. Maryland - It's going to be a rebuilding year for Gary Williams. He's got a lot of talented youth, but it's mostly untested.
10. Georgia Tech - Brian Gregory, the former Dayton coach, is the new Georgia Tech coach. The knock on Paul Hewitt was that he could recruit but couldn't coach. We'll see if Gregory can coach these kids before he has to start recruiting. It will really help if he can convince Iman Shumpert to skip the NBA Draft and come back, though I don't think he'll succeed.
11. Boston College - Steve Donahue did a really good job with this team, but unless Reggie Jackson comes back the cupboard is going to be completely bare. It will take at least two recruiting classes for Donahue to get his program in serious at-large contention again.
12. Wake Forest - I didn't like the Jeff Bzdelik hire when it happened, and he might already be on the hot seat after one season. The team was embarrassingly bad - the worst ACC team I've seen in many years. On the plus side, everybody is back from this past season, so just by inertia they should be at least a little improved.

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