Tuesday, April 07, 2015

2015-16 Preview: ACC

Atlantic Coast Conference

I've talked in the Big 12 and Big East previews about why the ACC was overrated this past season. The fact that the bottom half of the league was so bad does have to matter as long as the top teams play Boston College and Georgia Tech as often as they play Virginia and Duke. But that said, the ACC certainly did have the strongest top of the league of any conference. That the league's second best team won a national title is a testament to that, as well as Notre Dame and Louisville both coming so close to a Final Four themselves.

In addition, the ACC should expect to be stronger and deeper next season. Particularly if you look at the teams at the bottom of the league which dragged down the ACC's computer ratings, most of them were fighting through rebuilding seasons and expect to be significantly better next season.

We have to start with a Duke team that was basically constructed like a John Calipari team, getting the vast majority of its production from freshmen, nearly all of whom will be one-and-done. Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow are certainly gone, and for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume Tyus Jones goes as well. With Quinn Cook graduating, that leaves as returners Matt Jones, Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee. In addition, Coach K has already signed Chase Jeter (Scout: 7 C, Rivals: 9) and Luke Kennard (Scout: 6 SG, Rivals: 25). They also add 6'9" Sean Obi, who averaged 11.4 ppg and 9.3 rpg as a freshman at Rice in 2013-14. It's certainly a very talented roster yet again, but I don't know if any of those players will have the star power or dominance of Okafor or Winslow, and Duke might not be quite as good overall next season.

The best team in the ACC during the regular season was Virginia, though the Justin Anderson injury really sapped the life out of their season. The dumb media criticism of Virginia (just as it was of Wisconsin before last season and of any other team that plays a slow tempo) is that they played great defense but couldn't score. Yet the day Anderson was injured (February 7th), Pomeroy rated Virginia the 5th best offense in the nation. The offense wasn't the same without him, though, and slid to 24th by the end of the season. Still, Anderson was starting to get healthy in the NCAA Tournament, and Virginia could have gone far if not for brutal three-point shooting luck against Michigan State (the Spartans shot 6-for-12 while Virginia shot 2-for-17 in a game decided by six points).

That all makes Justin Anderson's NBA Draft decision crucial. But he's considered a borderline first round pick at best, so for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume he returns. And if he does, that means Virginia will return every scholarship player other than Darion Atkins and the lightly used bench player BJ Stith. Atkins is a fabulous defender and "glue guy", but that would put Virginia in great shape with Anderson, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte returning to the front court, and with London Perrantes, Malcolm Brogdon and Marial Shayot in the backcourt. If there's one young player who didn't contribute much this past season but could do so next season it's probably 6'7" Isaiah Wilkins, a 2014 recruit. In addition, they'd add 6'4" Darius Thompson, who averaged 2.5 ppg and 2.4 apg as a freshman at Tennessee in 2013-14, as well as Jarred Reuter (Scout: 30 C, Rivals: 141). It's certainly a roster built to make another run for a national title.

Notre Dame was the biggest positive surprise in the ACC this past season. They were undersized and not particularly good defensively, but they had the second rated offense in the nation according to Pomeroy and came within a single possession of knocking off Kentucky and making a Final Four. They lose two crucial starters to graduation in Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, and also wait on the NBA decision of Demetrius Jackson. For the sake of this preview I'm going to assume Jackson returns, which will be crucial to the Irish having success next season. Steve Vasturia is going to be a very good player, but he's not a point guard, and the only other guard on the roster (Matt Ferrell) barely played as a freshman, though they also add 6'4" Rex Pflueger (Rivals: 99). Notre Dame's front court is more certain, returning Zach Auguste, VJ Beachem and Bonzie Colson. Colson, in particular, really exploded late in the season and has Irish fans very excited for the future.

North Carolina fans are very excited for next season for an obvious reason: every player from their ten man regular rotation is set to return. An NBA defection is still possible, from one of a few different players, but for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that they all return. Their top returners are the same as their best players this past season: Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, JP Tokoto, Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, etc. If there's one young player on the bench to get significantly better next season, I'd bet on 6'6" Theo Pinson, a talented 2014 recruit. What about additions? Roy Williams has only added 6'8" Luke Maye so far, but he still has one more scholarship to give out.

There were five elite teams in the ACC this past season, and Louisville was the fifth, but the Cardinals are going to have a very different roster next season. Wayne Blackshear is the only graduation, but Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier are off to the NBA while Anton Gill has left via transfer. Rick Pitino has suggested publicly that another player or two might leave transfer as well, though at the time this post is going live none have been announced. The three returners (for now) who played significant minutes this past season are Mangok Mathiang, Quentin Snider and Chinanu Onuaku. Shaqquan Aaron and 7''0" Anas Mahmoud were two other players further down the bench who will return. That said, Louisville has a number of big additions. They add 6'2" Trey Lewis, who averaged 15.8 ppg this past season with Cleveland State and will be eligible to play right away. They also add Donovan Mitchell (Scout: 4 SG, Rivals: 32), Raymond Spalding (Scout: 7 PF, Rivals: 40) and Deng Adel (Scout: 6 SF, Rivals: 51).

The sixth and final NCAA Tournament team out of the ACC was NC State, perhaps the most inconsistent team in the nation. They beat Duke, Villanova, Louisville and North Carolina (with only the Duke game coming at home), but also lost to Wake Forest, Clemson, Wofford and Boston College. But they head into next season losing just Ralston Turner from their regular rotation. The front court will be loaded with Abdul-Malik Abu, Beejay Anya, Lennard Freeman, Kyle Washington and Caleb Martin, all of whom played well this past season. The backcourt has an excellent pair of starters in Trevor Lacey and Anthony Barber, and they also add 6'4" Terry Henderson, who averaged 11.7 ppg as a sophomore at West Virginia in 2013-14. They have no 2015 recruits signed yet, but have what I believe are three scholarships still to give. I wouldn't be surprised if Mark Gottfried goes out shopping for more backcourt depth.

Miami failed to make the NCAA Tournament, but they took the NIT seriously and made it all the way to the title game. And they head into next season returning their top ten minute earners, led by point guard Angel Rodriguez and big man Tonye Jekiri, along with wing scorer Sheldon McClellan. If there's one young player on the bench expected to do more next season it's point guard Ja'Quan Newton, a highly touted 2014 recruit who didn't do much as a true freshman.Their biggest addition is 6'8" Kamari Murphy, who averaged 6.1 ppg and 6.3 rpg as a sophomore at Oklahoma State in 2013-14.

Syracuse is in a really tough situation with the impending scholarship reductions, which won't hit next season but could begin the season after that. Next season's team should be fine, but long term it's incredibly difficult to win when you have to hit on basically every scholarship, and particularly when everybody knows that Jim Boeheim will be retiring sooner rather than later. For next season, they are losing Rakeem Christmas, Chris McCullough, BJ Johnson and Ron Patterson, though they will be getting back DaJuan Coleman (4.3 ppg and 4.2 rpg in 2013-14), who missed the 2014-15 season with injury. They'll return Kaleb Joseph and Trevor Cooney in the backcourt along with Tyler Roberson and Michael Gbinije in the front court. Yet while scholarship restrictions are coming soon, Syracuse already had a big 2015 recruiting class coming on board: Malachi Richardson (Scout: 7 SF, Rivals: 31), Tyler Lydon (Scout: 13 PF, Rivals: 66), Moustapha Diagne (Scout: 12 PF, Rivals: 69) and Franklin Howard (Scout: 23 SG, Rivals: 82). Syracuse actually should be better and deeper next season, but it'll probably be the best team Jim Boeheim coaches the rest of his career.

There are quite a few teams from the bottom of the ACC that have a reasonable chance to make the NCAA Tournament next season. For the sake of a pinch of brevity, I'll stick to just Florida State and Pitt. Florida State was a young team that improved as the season went along. They saw flashes of brilliance was the talented freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes (who just needs an outside jump shot to become of the best players in the ACC). From the nine man rotation that they finished the season with, only Kiel Turpin graduates. Devon Bookert and Robbie Berwick join Rathan-Mayes in the backcourt while the massive front line of Michael Ojo. Boris Bojanovsky, Jarquez Smith, Montay Brandon and Phil Cofer showed significant improvement, but should be better defensively and on the glass than they are. They could use more backcourt/wing depth and athleticism, and will get it from a deep 2015 recruiting class led by Dwayne Bacon (Scout: 5 SF, Rivals: 23), Malik Beasley (Scout: 20 SG, Rivals: 45) and Terance Mann (Scout: 19 SF, Rivals: 95).

Pittsburgh heads into next season losing just Cameron Wright from their regular rotation. Their entire front court of Michael Young, Jamel Artis, Chris Jones and Sheldon Jeter is back, along with Durand Johnson (who scored 8.8 ppg as a junior in 2013-14 but was suspended for 2014-15), but it's a front court that was awful defensively. Pitt's defense was rated 202nd in the nation by Pomeroy (compared to an offense rated 30th). The only front court addition so far is 6'11" Juco transfer Rozelle Nix, but Jamie Dixon has scholarships available and he's in the mix for several possible bigs. Pitt's backcourt has a pair of nice returners in James Robinson and Josh Newkirk, but needs some depth. They add Damon Wilson (Scout: 8 PG, Rivals: 94).

Finally, if there's one deep sleeper for next season in the ACC, I think it's got to be Wake Forest. They lose just Darius Leonard off of what was a very young regular rotation. They have one of the better inside-outside combinations in the ACC with Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas, and they got big contributions out of 2014 recruits Mitch Wilbekin and Kostas Mitoglou. Throw in a couple of big time recruits in Doral Moore (Scout: 19 C, Rivals: 50) and Bryant Crawford (Scout: 10 PG, Rivals: 80), and this is a team that could surprise a lot of people next season.

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

1. Virginia - Before Justin Anderson got hurt, Virginia was a clear #2 team in the country in the computers behind only Kentucky. The fact that they should be even better next season should scare a lot of opposing teams.
2. North Carolina - The Tar Heels will likely be a consensus top five team in the nation in the preseason human polls. The ACC certainly will be in the mix for multiple 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament yet again.
3. Miami - The Hurricanes return everybody from their regular rotation and also add Kamari Murphy off a team that finished in the Top 50 in the computers. With Jim Larranaga at the helm, they should be Top 25 next season.
4. Duke - Duke could easily slide up this ranking if they add more recruits, but for now they have some holes and they lack a top end offensive creator/scorer.
5. NC State - This team will be stronger next season, but they have to play more consistently to be one of the top three or four teams in the ACC.
6. Notre Dame - Assuming Demetrius Jackson comes back, the Irish should get back to the NCAA Tournament, though they probably won't be quite as strong as they were this past season.
7. Louisville - Rick Pitino has enough talent to get back to the NCAA Tournament, but it's tough to project a roster that will be so completely different next season.
8. Syracuse - The Orange have a chance to be improved next season, but next season might also be their best chance to make the NCAA Tournament for a while.
9. Pittsburgh - Pitt should be improved next season, but their front line has to play defense better for them to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
10. Florida State - With the size they have, these Florida State teams appear at first glance like the dominant Leonard Hamilton defensive teams from a few years back, but that's certainly not how they play. Still, they have a great chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
11. Wake Forest - The Demon Deacons might still be one more year away from the NCAA Tournament, but they're trending in the right direction.
12. Georgia Tech - The Yellow Jackets had horrible luck in close games (0-13 in games decided by seven points or fewer against ACC opponents), but they also lose a pair of starters. They have a couple of decent transfers (Nick Jacobs from Alabama the most interesting), so there's reason to think that they can be as good next season as they were this past season. If some of that bad luck evens out, they could be more successful overall.
13. Clemson - This program feels like it's sitting in neutral. They play hard defense, but are never able to score efficiently enough to win consistently. If they get to the NCAA Tournament bubble next season, it'll likely be because Jaron Blossomgame took the next step as a scorer and became a borderline All-ACC player.
14. Boston College - This team was basically cobbled together with transfers this past season, and they lose four key players to graduation. So even assuming Olivier Hanlon doesn't go pro and comes back for another season, I don't see why this team should be any better than they were this past season.
15. Virginia Tech - Buzz Williams has a pretty good recruiting class coming in, along with a couple of transfers, but he's basically starting this roster over from scratch. Adam Smith was probably their best player, and he's leaving via transfer. Buzz gave a lot of minutes to a deep 2014 recruiting class that mostly struggled as true freshman. Perhaps as sophomores they will give this team the lift to get out of the ACC basement.

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