Friday, April 11, 2014

2014-15 Preview: ACC

Atlantic Coast Conference

With the addition of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, and the impending addition of Louisville, there was a lot of hype about the ACC becoming the new basketball power. And it didn't quite work out in year one, though it would be silly to be too down on the ACC. After all, the league had three legitimate contenders for a 1 seed, landing one in the end with Virginia. But still, most of the league ended on a disappointing note. Virginia ended up going down in the Sweet 16, Duke went down to Mercer, Syracuse faded badly... But so it goes. Adding the team that was arguably the best in the nation this past season means that the ACC is primed to be even stronger next season. And maybe they'll get back to being the nation's strongest conference.

Let's start with the Virginia team that earned the outright ACC regular season title. I've been a big Tony Bennett fan for years, and it was nice to see him finally break through and win a conference title, and to finally begin shedding the stereotypes that his teams can't score or don't have enough talent to compete at the highest levels. Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell graduate, but everybody else should be back. Malcolm Brogdon was the team's leading scorer, and he'll start in the backcourt again with point guard London Perrantes, who had a really nice freshman season. They need more backcourt depth, but could get it from 2013 recruit Devon Hall or BJ Stith (Scout: 16 SF, Rivals: 48). The front court is a bit more of a concern. Mike Tobey, Anthony Gill and Justin Anderson are all good players, but none is much of a scorer. Of the three, Gill was the most efficient scorer this past season, finishing with a 58.7 eFG%. The Cavaliers also add 6'8" Isaiah Wilkins (Rivals: 107).

Duke is a tough team to figure out because it really does seem like Jabari Parker is on the fence about entering the NBA Draft. Rodney Hood is likely going pro, and the team loses Andre Dawkins, Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston to graduation, but if Parker returns they'll very likely be the #1 team in the country preseason. Aside from Parker, who are the key returners? The backcourt will again be strong, returning Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, and likely getting a lot more from 6'4" Matt Jones, who struggled at times as a true freshman. Coach K adds Tyus Jones (Scout: 2 PG, Rivals: 5) and Grayson Allen (Scout: 7 SG, Rivals: 34). The front court will be a bigger question mark if Parker leaves, as he really was the only productive true front court player (Rodney Hood was basically a 6'8" shooting guard). Marshall Plumlee could be more of a factor next season, though he's still not much of an offensive player. 6'6" Semi Ojeleye didn't play much as a true freshman, but he was a blue chip 2013 recruit. And the team adds 6'10" Jahlil Okafor (Scout: 1 C, Rivals: 1) and Justise Winslow (Scout: 4 SF, Rivals: 9). Parker was forced to play center all season because the team didn't have any other real bigs, but if he somehow comes back and can shift to power forward with Okafor at center, he will suddenly look a lot better defensively and make this Duke team just filthy deep and talented.

Syracuse had a crazy string of luck, winning their first eight games decided by six points or less before losing five of their final six. We were deluded with the insane stats that Tyler Ennis had in the clutch (like this), but then Ennis made several key mistakes and missed several key shots late in close games late in the season. It's just the zillionth example of "clutch stats are random and should not be treated like a repeatable skill". But this Syracuse team was, if anything, a little underrated by the end of the season. They have several key losses, though. CJ Fair graduates and Tyler Ennis is off to the NBA. Jerami Grant is 50/50 on going to the Draft, but for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume he stays. The key returner is Trevor Cooney, who shot out of his mind earlier in the season before regressing to the mean later on, so it's not totally clear what type of player he'll be next season. They also return Rakeem Christmas and Michael Gbinije, and also get back DaJuan Coleman, who missed most of the season with injury. Also look for 6'7" Tyler Roberson and 6'7" BJ Johnson, both 2013 recruits who played sparingly as true freshmen, to contribute more next season. They also add Chris McCullough (Scout: 3 PF, Rivals: 16). But while the Orange will have a ton of size and likely a good defense again, the question comes back to offense. They magically found offense early in the season with the emergence of Tyler Ennis as a star point guard and playmaker. Next year they'll be back (likely) to another freshman point guard: Kaleb Joseph (Scout: 16 PG, Rivals: 55). If he doesn't play really well right off the bat, Syracuse could be in big trouble scoring the ball.

Louisville is the ACC newcomer, coming off two seasons of arguably being the best team in the nation with arguably the best player in the nation (Russ Smith). But this is perhaps the end of an era for Louisville, with the loss of Russ Smith. Luke Hancock also graduates, as does Stephen Van Treese, and most people think that Montrezl Harrell will go pro. That would leave only Chris Jones back from the starting lineup. Off the bench, Louisville returns combo guard Terry Rozier, shooting guard Wayne Blackshear and 6'10" Mangok Mathiang. Of the three, Rozier is the one most likely to develop into a star player next season. Shooting guard Anton Gill, a 2013 recruit, is another player expected to take a step forward next season. But Louisville's success next season will come down to the play of a gigantic 2014 recruiting class, led by Shaqquan Aaron (Scout: 11 SF, Rivals: 27), Quentin Snider (Scout: 7 PG, Rivals: 31), Jaylen Johnson (Scout: 14 PF, Rivals: 56) and Chinanu Onuaku (Scout: 9 C, Rivals: 65).

North Carolina is a team that finished the season very strong, including that late 12 game winning streak, and they should be even better next season. James Michael McAdoo is going pro, and with his physical size and strength he should be an okay pro, but I don't think it's a huge loss for North Carolina. It was a running joke that almost every North Carolina game I saw the announcers would bemoan that McAdoo was having a tough game... if that's the case every game, maybe it's just that everybody's expectations for him were too high. The real superstar for North Carolina this past season was Marcus Paige, and he says he'll back, along with Brice Johnson. The one graduation is Leslie McDonald. Kennedy Meeks will be back, and he along with Brice Johnson both look like really special players who could be an awfully good starting front court next season. Look for 6'8" Isaiah Hicks, a highly touted 2013 recruit, to be a much bigger part next season with McAdoo gone. Roy Williams has two blue chippers coming on board in the front court, too: Justin Jackson (Scout: 3 SF, Rivals: 10) and Theo Pinson (Scout: 10 SF, Rivals: 19). In the backcourt, starters Paige and JP Tokoto return. Nate Britt is the one returner off the bench, and they add Joel Berry (Scout: 3 PG, Rivals: 25). If Jabari Parker goes pro, expect a lot of people to project UNC as the ACC favorite.

Pitt was an underrated team all season long, finishing with a nearly identical efficiency margin in conference play (+0.05 PPP) to North Carolina (+0.07), and deservedly being a big Vegas favorite in their 8/9 game. They lose do-everything star Lamar Patterson, along with Talib Zanna. They have a couple of good offensive creators in James Robinson and Josh Newkirk, so I wouldn't expect their offense to fall off a cliff. Their front court will be anchored by Michael Young, and they also get back 6'6" Durand Johnson, who was lost for the season with a knee injury in early January. Off the bench, 6'7" Jamel Artis seems like the best sleeper to take the next step to being a quality ACC player next season. Jamie Dixon's 2014 recruiting class is deep, but without any blue chippers. The most talented of the bunch, 6'11" Shaquille Doorson, is considered a project. So I'm not sure I'd bet on Pitt getting back to the Top 25, but they have to at least be in that discussion.

The final NCAA Tournament team out of the ACC this past season was NC State... for some reason. They were far and away the oddest at-large team chosen. Though whether it's motivation from being trashed all week or what, that last team in always seems to do well, and NC State won their play-in game and would have taken out St. Louis if not for a brutal collapse late in that Round of 64 game. They lose Jordan Vandenberg to graduation, star TJ Warren to the NBA, and Tyler Lewis to transfer. The backcourt returns Anthony Barber, Ralston Turner and Desmond Lee from the regular rotation, and they add Trevor Lacey (11.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg and 3.2 apg as a sophomore at Alabama). Twins Caleb Martin (Scout: 13 SF, Rivals: 59) and Cody Martin (Scout: 26 SF, Rivals: 106) could play in the backcourt as well. The front court is going to be very young next season, as all of the top returners were freshmen this past season, led by 6'8" Leonard Freeman. Their highest rated 2014 recruit is 6'8" Abdul-Malik Abu (Scout: 12 PF, Rivals: 50). The concern for the team is definitely going to be offensive playmaking, though. Trevor Lacey is going to have to be a star for this team to be better.

Florida State went through a fun four year run from 2008-09 to 2011-12 where they were arguably the best defense in the nation every year, featuring probably the most imposing front line in the nation. Then everybody graduated and the defense was pretty bad in 2012-13. But now, Leonard Hamilton has a new bunch of impressive defensive bigs, and while the overall team defense wasn't great this past season, you can see the pieces of a potentially strong defense next season, led by Boris Bojanovsky, Michael Ojo and Jacquez Smith. And they should get back 7-footer Kiel Turpin, who missed the season with injury, and would give Florida State three 7+ foot players in their regular rotation. That said, Okaro White graduates, as does point guard Ian Miller. Devon Bookert and Aaron Thomas are the top two backcourt returners, but I don't think they really going to scare anybody in the ACC. A big need will be shooting guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, their top 2013 recruit, who was academically ineligible to play this past season. 6'7" Montay Brandon, a wing player, also looked a lot better late in the season and should be improved next season.

Clemson was a team that played in a whole lot of ugly games. Their defense was strong, but their offense was brutal, particularly shooting the ball. They were dead last in the ACC in 3P% and 2nd to last in eFG%. And the one guy on the team who could score consistently, KJ McDaniels, looks like he's more likely than not leaving for the NBA Draft. But with everybody else back, the defense should still be strong. Rod Hall and Damarcus Harrison are a solid backcourt, with Landry Nooko anchoring the paint defensively. 6'7" Jaron Blossomgame is a freshman who came on strong late in the season and should be better next season. They will get back shooting guard Patrick Rooks, a 2013 recruit who took a redshirt. Also look for a lot of playing time for 6'8" Donte Grantham (Scout: 21 SF, Rivals: 66), who should immediately be one of the best offensive players on the roster.

While you can't quibble too much with Tony Bennett getting an ACC Coach of the Year award, I believe that the team which outperformed its roster the most this past season was Miami. They lost everybody from their 2012-13 team other than Rion Brown. That said, they got Garrius Adams back and added Donnavan Kirk as a transfer, and those three all started this past season and now all graduate. So Miami is losing three starters again. They also lose Erik Swoope off the bench. But Jim Larranaga has some good young returning talent, and is again bringing in some transfers. The top returners are 5'9" Manu Lecomte, 6'7" James Kelly and 7-footer Tonye Jekiri. They should get back shooting guard Deandre Burnett, a 2013 recruit who missed the season with injury. The transfers are Angel Rodriguez (11.4 ppg and 5.2 apg as a sophomore at Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (13.5 ppg and 3.9 rpg as a sophomore at Texas). The 2014 recruiting class is led by Ja'Quan Newton (Scout: 10 SG, Rivals: 35). They'll definitely have more offensive weapons next season, but the question is where the big man depth and talent will come from.

Danny Manning absolutely could not have walked into a better situation than Wake Forest. I actually perfectly predicted the Jeff Bzdelik tenure at Wake Forest four years ago. Bzdelik is a fairly good coach, but he's not a quick-fixer-upper. Coming into a totally screwed up situation where the few good players had to be jettisoned for bad behavior, it was always going to take him four or five years to get the team back to the NCAA Tournament. Throw that in with his slow style of basketball and I figured Wake Forest fans and the media were going to hate him too much to let him complete his rebuild. Which is exactly what happened. This Wake Forest team actually was fairly decent this past season, finishing just outside the Top 100 in the computers. With everybody by Coron Williams and Travis McKie coming back, this Wake Forest team is primed to make a run at an at-large bid next season. And now Manning walks in with tons of media love after winning an at-large bid with Tulsa. He has to be the preseason pick for ACC Coach of the Year. Their star is Codi Miller-McIntyre, and he'll be back along with 6'9" Devin Thomas. They should get back 6'6" Greg McClinton, their top 2013 recruit who missed the season with a torn ACL. Their top 2014 recruit is 6'3" Shelton Mitchell (Scout: 15 PG, Rivals: 67). Expectations are going to be incredibly low for this team next season, but expect them to be exceeded. Is Manning a better head coach than Bzdelik? I don't think we can know that yet, as Manning has only coached for two seasons. But the visceral hatred the entire campus had for Bzdelik will give Manning a nice several-year honeymoon in Winston Salem.

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

1. Duke - If Jabari Parker comes back, Duke will be the preseason #1. Even without him, they'll contend for the ACC title.
2. North Carolina - If Parker goes pro, I wouldn't be surprised to see North Carolina the preseason ACC favorite. I really like Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson to be stars next year.
3. Virginia - This team was a lot more than Joe Harris. They'll again be great defensively, and have a likely first team All-ACC player in Malcolm Brogdon.
4. Louisville - It's hard to figure out where to put this Louisville team. They'll have blue chip recruits out to their 8th and 9th men, but so much of next year's projection is just potential. They lose a ton.
5. Pittsburgh - They lose Lamar Patterson, but Pittsburgh's offense is always good (even if they never get credit for it because their tempo is too slow). I'm concerned about their depth, though.
6. Syracuse - This Syracuse team feels a whole lot like last year's team. If Kaleb Joseph turns into Tyler Ennis, this is a borderline Top Ten team. But if he isn't particularly good, the Syracuse offense will be just awful.
7. Miami - I'm not sure any team in the country is landing two transfers as skilled as Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellon. Rodriguez could end up first or second team All-ACC.
8. Notre Dame - Assuming Jerian Grant comes back, the Irish should be improved next season. It can't be overstated how important Garrick Sherman was to this team, though. He'll be very missed.
9. Wake Forest - This team probably needs one more player to make the NCAA Tournament, but they have to be in the discussion. Danny Manning is a huge unknown after only two seasons. This hire could end up blowing up in their face, but it could be brilliant. We can't know for a few years.
10. Clemson - Assuming KJ McDaniels is gone, it's going to be another year of ugly, low scoring games for Clemson.
11. Florida State -  I might be too low on the Seminoles here, but I'm concerned about their lack of depth and playmaking ability.
12. NC State - This is a team full of highly rated recruits, but Mark Gottfried isn't exactly known for getting the most out of talented recruits. The loss of Tyler Lewis is quietly a really brutal one, as he would have been their primary playmaker after the loss of TJ Warren.
13. Boston College - I kind of have to assume that Jim Christian will retain this roster. After all, a big reason Steve Donahue was fired was because of the players threatening to leave. If Christian can hold this roster together, it actually has some really talented offensive players on it. They just need to get (a whole lot) better defensively.
14. Georgia Tech - The Yellow Jackets lose three of their top four players off a team that wasn't good to begin with, and don't really have the top level talent to compete with the top half of the league.
15. Virginia Tech - I'm sure Buzz Williams will upgrade the talent level, but it's going to take time to get new players in here. And in the short term, as is often the case in coaching transitions, he's actually starting to lose players. Trevor Thompson has already announced that he's leaving via transfer.

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