Monday, April 13, 2009

2009-10 Preview: ACC

Atlantic Coast Conference

I'm not sure what to make of this past season for the ACC. For most of the year they seemed like the best conference in the nation. All of the computer ratings bore that out. And yet other than North Carolina they all stunk it up in the Tournament. I think the correct answer is to not buy too much into a one-and-done playoff. Several teams ended up with tough draws, and sometimes Team A just beats Team B. I still think that the ACC was the best conference from top to bottom, even if they were just barely better than the Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East, in some order.

One question I never had was how good North Carolina was. I picked them as the #1 team back late April, and stuck with them all season long. I never understood why other people got off the bandwagon other than that they just weren't watching the games. The Tar Heels were just the best team, by far. Watching them slip in the polls just further made a mockery of Top 25 polls, which still masquerade as a ranking of the 25 best teams. As I've long explained (here and here), the Top 25 polls are anything but a ranking of the 25 best teams. Either way, the Tar Heels do lose a ton from this year's team. Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green and Bobby Frasor graduate. Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington are currently looking at the draft, and their status is unclear. But the rumors are that Lawson would be a mid-to-late first rounder, while Ellington would go in the second round, so while I think Lawson will go pro there is probably a better chance than not that Ellington comes back. Of course, Marcus Ginyard will get his Senior year back, and Deon Thompson, Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller and Larry Drew II will all be back as well. That's a Top 25 quality starting lineup already, even without Ellington. On top of that they bring in what is probably the top recruiting class in the nation. They will have at least five blue chippers, led by John Henson (Rivals: 6, Scout: 1 PF) and Dexter Strickland (Rivals: 17, Scout: 4 SG). They will certainly be back in contention for an ACC title, and could potentially even make a Final Four run if Wayne Ellington comes back.

It was something of a disappointing season for a Duke program that hasn't been a Championship contender in what seems like a really long time. They don't lose all too much to graduation, only Greg Paulus and David McClure. Gerald Henderson is expected to go pro, but Kyle Singler says he's coming back. Henderson will be a tough loss after the way he put this team on his back late in last season, but the back court will still be good even without Paulus and McClure. Jon Scheyer will be back as will Elliot Williams, who really improved as the season went along. The bigger question will be the inside, where Lance Thomas was the only consistent player this past season. Brian Zoubek will get time off the bench, but he probably won't start. We'll see if either Miles Plumlee or Olek Czyz become important pieces after a year of seasoning (I think Plumlee has the better shot). Both of Duke's blue chip recruits are big men, so obviously Coach K is hoping to fix that one hole in his team. I wouldn't be surprised to see both Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee get playing time as Freshmen. If Gerald Henderson comes back then this immediately becomes a serious Final Four contender. But since he's probably going pro, they probably won't have the overall talent.

Wake Forest was a tremendously talented team that was just too young and immature to put together a Tournament run this season. Without any Seniors graduating, they would be in perfect position to make a Final Four run if nobody went pro. But that's not going to happen. James Johnson is already gone, and it looks like Jeff Teague and Al-Farouq Aminu are going to go as well. L.D. Williams, Chas McFarland and Ishmael Smith will all be back, but I don't think that's going to scare too many ACC opponents. The recruiting class is decent, but not great. Unless Aminu and Teague make an about face and come back to college, I don't see any way this program doesn't take a pretty big step backwards next season.

Clemson once again got off to a great start and completely fell apart down the stretch. I don't know what it is about that program that they can't hold things together in late February and March. K.C. Rivers is the only starter to graduate, and Trevor Booker says that he's coming back for his Senior year, so Clemson should be in good shape. Demontez Stitt is developing into a very good creator, and Raymond Sykes does a good job pairing up with Booker down low. And it feels like Terrence Oglesby has been around forever, yet somehow he'll only be a Junior next season. Their recruiting class is highlighted by Milton Jennings (Rivals: 12, Scout: 8 PF).

Florida State and Boston College both were basically one man teams, and both of them will lose that one man. Florida State really was the Toney Douglas show all season long, and while they will continue to be a great defensive and rebounding squad they are going to have a lot of trouble scoring without him. Uche Echefu also graduates. Their star recruit is Michael Snaer (Rivals: 11, Scout: 5 SG). Boston College only loses Tyrece Rice, and while he wasn't quite as important to BC as Toney Douglas was to FSU, he'll still be impossible to replace. They have some quality role players in Rakim Sanders, Joe Trapani and Corey Raji, but I'm not sure who the star will be. Without a big time recruiting class coming in, I don't see how Boston College plays as well next season.

The ACC is going to be very deep this season (similar to the Big Ten this past season) without a lot of Top Ten teams but with every team thinking that they have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. Here's how I see the whole conference playing out:

1. North Carolina - I just can't drop them, they're going to be too talented. They're not going to be the best team in the country, and they might be too inexperienced to make a serious Final Four run, but I just can't pull them from the top spot right now.
2. Clemson - We'll see if they can finally get over the hump and play well in the latter stages of the season.
3. Maryland - This is assuming that Greivis Vasquez stays for another season, which means that they'll only lose one player from this team. They don't get the super-duper stars that North Carolina gets, but they'll be deep enough and experienced enough to challenge for an ACC title.
4. Duke - They should have their best set of inside players in a few years, and their guard play should still be pretty good. Expect Elliot Williams to take on an even larger role next season.
5. Georgia Tech - They lose Lewis Clinch and Alade Aminu, but I love their young core. And they were a lot better than their record this past season, when they really were snake bitten. Throw in Super-Frosh Derrick Favors and I like their chances to get back to the Tournament.
6. Virginia - I have to say that I don't understand why Dave Leitao didn't want to stick around for one more year with so many key pieces returning. Sylven Landesberg is really going to be a star, and they return basically of their other key parts. Throw in a quality recruiting class and Virginia should be vastly improved. They also have an excellent new coach in Tony Bennett, even though it remains to be seen if his deliberate style of coaching will work in the up-tempo ACC
7. Wake Forest - They could move up if more of their key players come back. But it looks like the NBA is really going to kill their chances for next season.
8. Boston College - Tyrese Rice will be very tough to replace.
9. Virginia Tech - They had a lot of tough losses this past season and were better than their record, but A.D. Vassallo will be gone, as well as Cheick Diakite. The recruiting class is very deep, but I don't see any super stars who will be able to take this team back to the Tournament right away.
10. North Carolina State - Could be a bit of a rebuilding year with Ben McCauley and Courtney Fells graduating, and a quality recruiting class coming in.
11. Florida State - They are really going to struggle to score points. Even if their defense is spectacular again, it still probably won't be enough to make them serious Tournament contenders.
12. Miami (Fl) - Jack McClinton and Lance Hurdle graduate. Even if Dwayne Collins comes back (he's currently testing the NBA waters) this will still be a rebuilding year for Miami.


DMoore said...

Maryland over Duke? Really? Yes, Vazquez is very good, but is one strong player better than two (Singler & Scheyer)?

Jeff said...

Well, I'll argue a couple of points. For one, yes, one great player is better than two good players. And I'm not saying that Vazquez is suddenly going to be the best player in the ACC - he won't. In fact, I'd argue that Gerald Henderson was more important to Duke over the last two months of the season than Vazquez was to Maryland. But that's why Henderson's likely exodus to the NBA hurts so much.

Duke loses two key players, and Maryland loses none. And there wasn't a huge gap between the teams this past season. So without a doubt the teams will be close. Right now I have Maryland as a 4 seed and Duke as a 5 seed. Even if you want to argue that you think Duke will be better (and I do believe that a legitimate argument can be made there, even with the assumption that Henderson is gone, if you want to say that maybe Elliot Williams becomes an All-ACC caliber player), you are still going to have to argue that the teams will be close. Maybe Duke should be the 4 and Maryland the 5?? I don't think there's too much disagreement here. Right?

DMoore said...

Hmmm. We're definitely looking at this differently.

To me, Maryland was the most overachieving team in the ACC this season -- credit to Gary Williams. But they were not a team loaded with talent.

"Duke loses two key players, and Maryland loses none."
OK. I think this is just flat wrong. On reflection, I'm wondering if you and I are thinking of the same people as the two key players Duke will lose. Henderson, obviously. Dave McClure will be missed. He was Duke's glue guy, but that can be replaced (and with MUCH more offense). Paulus simply did not have it this season. I suspect his injury last summer was far more of an issue than everyone is letting on. He got no playing time the last quarter of the season.

Maryland loses Dave Neal. He played the same glue guy role as McClure, but with far superior stats. I'm not seeing how you come up with two key losses for Duke without seeing what a real loss he will be for Maryland.

Without Neal, Maryland may have to run a 4 guard offense this year, unless one of their new guys comes through far more than expected. Maryland only adds two medium rated big guys as recruits.

Duke adds two well thought of big men. If any of their 4 big guys comes through, Duke will have finally plugged a hole they've had for years.

I do think that Duke will be better next year, even with Henderson leaving. All the remaining key players have been showing considerable improvement year over year, and I don't see why that won't continue. With the expected slip of Wake & FSU, I don't see why they couldn't go 11-5 in conference again.

However, I have real trouble seeing Maryland being significantly better. I think Gary Williams is getting about all out of his team that he can, and they aren't adding the level of talent they need to rise in the conference. If Maryland improves to 8-8 in the ACC next season, I'd say Gary has done another great coaching job.

p.s. "[T]here wasn't a huge gap between the teams this past season."
In the head to head games, that's not true. Duke beat Maryland 3 times this season, and none of those games was really in doubt. Do you not see a sizable gap between 30-7 (11-5) and 21-14 (7-9)?

Jeff said...

In terms of distance apart I was talking 2 seed versus 10 seed. The point is that with them 8 seed lines apart and Duke getting worse and Maryland getting better, that gap will close.

I'm not sure how you can argue that Duke will be better without Gerald Henderson. Their problem the last few years offensively has been a lack of athleticism, that they just don't have the ability to create offensively. Gerald Henderson was that answer for the last two months. Duke was really struggling until he took the team on his back. Elliot Williams helped, but I think he's got another year or two to go before he's Gerald Henderson.

And while Duke's two big men are highly rated, they don't look much better than the previous year's incoming big men (Olek Czyz and Miles Plumlee). Big men, except for super-duper stars, need time to develop. Your best shot for a big man next year might be Miles Plumlee with a year of seasoning, rather than a true freshman Ryan Kelly. I mean, have you seen what Kelly looks like? Look at this picture. The kid needs another year to put on weight.

Like I said, I think there's a good chance that Duke will be better than Maryland, but the gap will close. If Gary Williams could get that team to overachieve once he can get them to overachieve again. It's essentially the same group of guys.

Anonymous said...

True, big men often do take time to develop. Every now and then you might catch lightning in a bottle; maybe Maryland's Padgett or Williams will blossom like Joe Smith did years ago. But more likely is that they'll see continued improvement from some of their other big men, like Dino Gregory or Jerome Burney, who could give them rebounding and defense in the lane and maybe the occasional 12-16 point game. That, along with a very deep and talented rotation of guards and swing men, could be enough for them to land near the top of the conference standings.