As I mentioned during my early look at the ACC back in June, there are plenty of storylines to follow heading into this season. That doesn’t even count conference expansion, which I have generally chosen not to acknowledge until teams actually move.
I will say that the impending additions of Syracuse and Pitt will provide additional depth to a league which has been pretty top-heavy in recent years. But none of that matters this season.
What does matter is that the ACC boasts a North Carolina team rated first in virtually every preseason poll to go with perennial contender Duke and a number of other intriguing teams competing for tournament berths.
Before I unveil my predictions for this season’s ACC, here’s a quick rundown of what has happened in the league since I first broke it down.
- Duke: The Blue Devils went to China and Dubai over the summer for an exhibition tour, and big man Ryan Kelly was described as the team’s best player on the trip. Seth Curry also started each game at point guard, a trend which is expected to continue this year.
- Florida State: Juco transfer Kiel Turpin has been unable to participate in practices thus far, not because of eligibility questions, but because of mono. Luckily, the Seminoles have some solid depth along the front line, which should allow them to ease Turpin into things as he gets healthy. Recruit Aaron Thomas failed to qualify and will spend this season at prep school.
- Georgia Tech: Forward Brian Oliver transferred to Seton Hall, leaving an already thin roster in an even tougher bind heading into Brian Gregory’s first season at the helm.
- Maryland: The Terps added Ukrainian center Alex Len, although his eligibility remains in question as the season draws near. He gives the team some much-needed size inside and has been described by some as a potential lottery pick. Forward Haukur Palsson announced his decision to leave the program to pursue a professional career in Europe, making an already thin roster that much thinner. As if that wasn’t enough, sophomore guard Pe’Shon Howard broke a bone in his foot last week and will miss up to three months. There has also been some discussion of a medical redshirt, but nothing formal has been decided in that regard.
- Miami (FL): Big man Reggie Johnson tore his meniscus during a pickup game and will miss the beginning of the season. Coach Jim Larranaga is hopeful that Johnson can return by the start of conference play. The Canes were dealt another blow when forward Julian Gamble tore his ACL. He will miss the entire season, putting more pressure on Florida transfer Kenny Kadji, particularly in the early going. In light of the Miami scandal that broke over the summer, there is some question around the eligibility of swingman DeQuan Jones, but nothing official has been announced.
- North Carolina: Guard Leslie McDonald tore his ACL in a summer league game and is expected to miss the season. This puts more pressure on Reggie Bullock as he recovers from his own knee injury, as well as freshman P.J. Hairston, who got off to a hot start by hitting four three-pointers in UNC’s first exhibition game.
- North Carolina State: Forward C.J. Williams suffered a hairline fracture in his thumb during a recent practice. It’s unclear at this point how much time he might miss.
- Virginia Tech: Florida transfer Allan Chaney was denied medical clearance for his heart condition and will not suit up for the Hokies. For a team with relatively few options inside, this will put additional pressure on redshirt freshman Cadarian Raines and true freshman C.J. Barksdale. In addition, freshman point guard Marquis Rankin underwent knee surgery and is expected to return in late November or early December.
- Wake Forest: After violating the student code of conduct, center Ty Walker will not play until a December 10 matchup with Seton Hall. Teammate Melvin Tabb wasn’t so lucky, as he has been dismissed from the team after another brush with the law, and guard J.T. Terrell transferred to USC in the wake of another alcohol-related incident.
This one was a no-brainer.
The Heels are absolutely loaded across the front line with Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, and John Henson. Barnes entered last season with incredibly high expectations and struggled early on, but he rebounded to averaged nearly 20 points over the final 18 games of the year. Zeller blew up in the NCAA Tournament and gives the team a terrific post scorer and rebounder, while Henson averaged a double-double last year and blocked over three shots per game. That level of depth will allow highly touted freshman James Michael McAdoo to come off the bench and ease his way into the college game.
The key backcourt returnee is point man Kendall Marshall, who sparked the team when inserted into the starting lineup last year. He should easily lead the league in assists. Shooting guard is essentially the only question on the team, with the aforementioned Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston along with Dexter Strickland. The Heels really don’t need a ton of scoring from that spot, so it shouldn’t be a huge issue. Another option might even be to play Barnes at shooting guard to go with a bigger lineup. Regardless, this is one of the top teams in the country and should take home the ACC crown.2. Duke
Despite losing three top players, the Blue Devils are still ranked in many preseason Top 1o’s. The strength of the team should be their backcourt. Seth Curry is sliding over to the point after finishing third on the team in assists last season. Like fellow guard Andre Dawkins, Curry hit better than 40 percent from beyond the arc last year. The gem of another top recruiting class is Austin Rivers, who some services had pegged as the nation’s top high school player. He can knock down shots from the outside and is aggressive driving to the basket, so scoring won’t be an issue for the Blue Devils. Defense might be though, particularly on the perimeter.
Inside, Duke has a trio of Plumlees to go with Ryan Kelly. Mason and Miles Plumlee are the most experienced, but neither has shown the ability to be a consistent offensive threat, which needs to change this season. As mentioned above, Kelly played well this summer, but he would much rather play on the outside than bang down low. Freshmen Michael Gbinje and Alex Murphy give Coach K additional options on the wing, and soph Josh Hairston should see expanded minutes as well.
As is always the case with Duke, the talent and coaching are constants, but there are a lot of moving pieces here, making their early season play something to keep an eye on.3. Florida State
Like Duke, the ‘Noles have a couple big holes to fill after the departure of Chris Singleton and Derwin Kitchen.
There is plenty of depth up front, starting with Bernard James who posted 8.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks in just 21 minutes per game. Sophomore Okaro White showed flashes last year and should emerge as the second-best frontcourt option this season. Xavier Gibson, Terrance Shannon, and the aforementioned Kiel Turpin give Coach Leonard Hamilton multiple options for rebounding and defense.
There are definitely more questions in the backcourt. It will be imperative that Michael Snaer play more consistently as a junior, and the same can be said of Ian Miller, who had an up-and-down freshman year. What the Noles really need is a guy who can consistently knock down outside shots, and freshmen Antwan Space and Terry Whisnant may end the season as the team’s top shooters.
Defense and rebounding will keep FSU in virtually every game this season, but offensive question marks leave a fairly wide gap between them and the top two teams in the league.4.Virginia
I was high on the Cavaliers during my early look at the conference, and I am still firmly on the bandwagon.
All indications are positive about the health of Mike Scott, who is one of the top players in the league. He was averaging a double-double when he went down last season, and he should pick up where he left off as a sixth-year senior. Big man Assane Sene gives the team a defensive presence in the lane, and I continue to read rave reviews about redshirt freshman James Johnson who should add another dimension to the frontcourt.
The backcourt and wing positions feature plenty of depth and multiple reliable outside shooters. Joe Harris averaged in double figures as a freshman and hit over 40 percent from deep. Fellow soph K.T. Harrell played well early last year and should be more consistent this year, while Sammy Zeglinski played his best basketball late in the season and shot well from the outside. Jontel Evans is a lockdown defender at the point, and a pair of freshman, Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson, will add to Coach Tony Bennett’s stable of sharpshooters.
The key here is Scott’s health, but assuming he doesn’t suffer any setbacks, the Cavaliers have a ton of upside and should challenge for a tournament bid.5. Virginia Tech
Despite the loss of guys like Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen, the Hokie cupboard isn’t bare.
Guard Erick Green scored at least 10 points in 22 of the final 26 games last season. His assist rate was decent as well, and improvement on his outside shooting will only make him more dangerous offensively. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by Dorenzo Hudson, who ended up taking a medical redshirt but averaged over 15 points in 2009-10. J.T. Thompson is also back after missing last season with a torn ACL and should provide additional rebounding and athleticism on the wing.
Inside, Victor Davila will need to be more than a role player this year to help with interior scoring. Cadarian Raines will also be asked to contribute inside, as will freshman C.J. Barksdale. The top-rated incoming freshman is Dorian Finney-Smith whose versatility will allow Coach Seth Greenberg to experiment with different lineups. He should start right away and be one of the ACC’s top newcomers.
There is enough talent on the roster that you can’t just write the Hokies off, but they aren’t a surefire tournament team either. That said, all signs point toward a continuation of Coach Seth Greenberg’s annual appearance as a potential snub on Selection Sunday.6. Miami
I’d probably have the Hurricanes at least a couple spots higher if not for Johnson’s injury. Sure, he’s expected back for the conference season, but conditioning will be a big concern for a guy who has battled weight issues in the past. When at full strength, he’s a double-double machine and a monster on the offensive glass. With Julian Gamble also out, Coach Jim Larranaga will have to rely heavily on Florida transfer Kenny Kadji, who was once a highly rated recruit. Seldom-used Raphael Akpejiori will also be thrust into action.
While the frontcourt is a complete unknown, the backcourt is the exact opposite. Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott may well be the top tandem in the league. Grant scored nearly 15 points per game and hit 42.3 percent from deep en route to 29 double-digit scoring games. Scott is a do-it-all talent who finished second on the team in points, rebounds, and assists. They combined to shoot over 300 free throws last season, with both converting over 83 percent of their attempts. Garrius Adams will likely be the starting small forward after starting 24 games there last season. His efficiency numbers aren’t great, but they need his help on the glass.
If the Canes can keep things afloat while Johnson works his way back, they could outperform this ranking, but their lack of depth inside may plague them the entire season.7. Clemson
The Tigers lost a couple key players from a team that snuck into the tournament thanks to a weak bubble last year, but there is a nice nucleus here, starting with senior Andre Young. The 5-foot-9 guard had 20 double-digit scoring games, hit almost 40 percent from three-point range, and posted a strong assist-to-turnover ratio, which is particularly good news since he will play more point guard this year. Fellow senior Tanner Smith needs to improve his shooting and offensive output this season, and a trio of freshman will be counted on as key reserves in the backcourt and on the wing.
Up front, Milton Jennings and Devin Booker return. Jennings contributed 8.3 points and 5.2 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game but posted brutal efficiency numbers in the process. He needs to harness the talent that made him a McDonald’s All-American for the Tigers to exceed expectations. Booker averaged 8.1 points and 5.5 boards last season, and Coach Brad Brownell needs even more from him this year. The team’s top recruit, Bernard Sullivan, should provide additional depth inside, and senior wing Brian Narcisse will finally get a chance to play extended minutes.
Brownell’s teams are always tough to play against on the defensive end, which should allow them to stay close in most games and ultimately finish in the middle of the pack.8. North Carolina State
Coach Mark Gottfried’s first team will have some talent but not a ton of depth. C.J. Leslie averaged 11 points per game and led the team in rebounds and blocks as a freshman, but he has the potential to be even better and certainly to be more consistent. The breakout performer on the front line should be Richard Howell who had the sixth best offensive rebounding percentage in the nation and will see expanded minutes with Tracy Smith gone. He posted 7.4 points and 6.5 boards in roughly 18 minutes per game last year.
Lorenzo Brown and Scott Wood give the backcourt a solid foundation. Brown led the team in assists and steals as a freshman and showed steady improvement as the season went along. He’ll be counted on to run the point following Ryan Harrow’s transfer, but he needs to cut back on his turnovers. Wood is an outstanding shooter as evidenced by his gaudy effective field goal and true shooting percentages. UCSB transfer Alex Johnson gives the team another experienced guard and should factor heavily into the rotation after scoring 13.3 points per game last season. The other returnees of note are C.J. Williams, one of the team’s top defenders, and DeShawn Painter, who gives additional bulk inside. The freshman to watch is Tyler Harris, whose brother Tobias was drafted by the Bucks last summer.
The starting lineup should be decent, but the depth just isn’t there to finish much higher than this.9. Maryland
The hiring of Coach Mark Turgeon will ultimately pay dividends, and he’s already making great strides on the recruiting trail. But his first year at the helm is setting up to be a long one due to a short bench.
The team’s top player is sophomore guard Terrell Stoglin, who SI’s Luke Winn tabbed as one of his breakout performers for the upcoming season. In under 22 minutes per game last year, Stoglin scored 11.4 points and dished out over three assists. During one seven-game stretch he averaged over 20 points per game, and Turgeon will need plenty of that this year. Fellow soph Pe’Shon Howard showed flashes as well, but as mentioned above, a foot injury will minimally cut his season short. Sean Mosley is back on the wing after scoring 8.1 points per contest last year, but he’s known more for his defense. That means true freshman Nick Faust will be counted on early and often, and thanks to a well-rounded offensive game, he should be able to answer the bell.
Very little offensive production returns to the frontcourt, with Scott Padgett’s 3.3 points per game leading the way. Turgeon needs more from him and senior Berend Weijs, as well as youngsters Ashton Pankey and Mychal Parker. Given the question marks there, Alex Len’s eligibility will go a long way toward determining Maryland’s fate.10. Georgia Tech
Iman Shumpert was one of the most hotly debated NBA draft picks last year, but he meant pretty much everything to the Jackets. Even so, the strength of this team is still its backcourt. Glen Rice Jr. is the team’s top returning scorer at 12.8 points per game to go with 5.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.5 steals. He can get hot at times, but his three-point shooting numbers took a dive last year, a trend that Coach Brian Gregory hopes to see reverse this season. Mfon Udofia will replace Shumpert at the point, but his poor assist rate and shooting percentages are red flags. Guard Jason Morris hit 40 percent from beyond the arc last year and was starting by the end of the season, and Arkansas State transfer Brandon Reed for the averaged 15.1 points for the Red Wolves in 2009-10. He needed plenty of shots to do it, but he does provide some added scoring punch for GT.
A trio of returnees form the foundation of the frontcourt. Daniel Miller started every game last season, but Gregory needs him to show more on the offensive end to complement his solid rebounding and shot-blocking. The same can be said of Kammeon Holsey and Nate Hicks, who combined to average 5.0 points last season. Their limitations open the door for true freshman Julian Royal to earn minutes right away.
Gregory’s teams have traditionally been built on a defensive foundation, and his first team at Georgia Tech will need to embrace that mindset in order to finish outside the bottom third of the league.11. Wake Forest
After winning just one conference game last year, there’s nowhere to go by up for the Demon Deacons.
While the offseason has been a bit tumultuous as described above, they do return talented sophomore forward Travis McKie. He led the team with 13.0 points and 7.7 rebounds and shot better than 50 percent from the field. McKie posted strong rebounding percentages on both ends and finished with 24 double-digit scoring efforts.
With J.T. Terrell gones, C.J. Harris is expected to slide back over to shooting guard. He scored 10.3 points per game and led the team in assists but never really felt comfortable playing the point. Tony Chennault was limited to just 15 games last season after breaking his foot, but he’s now healthy and is likely to be the starting point guard. The top newcomer is freshman guard Chase Fischer who averaged 37 points as a senior in high school and should easily be the team’s top outside threat.
Up front, soph Carson Desrosiers returns, and it sounds as though he has added some much-needed bulk in the offseason. He’ll definitely see extended minutes while Ty Walker sits out early on. Nikita Mescheriakov played for his native Belarus over the summer and should improve on his 4.5 points per game from last year, and freshman Daniel Green may also seem time inside out of necessity during what is shaping up to be another long year for Wake.12. Boston College
It won’t take long for me to recap BC’s top returning players, since no one on the roster scored more than 4.1 points per game last year. Guards Danny Rubin and Gabe Moton are really the only returnees of note, with Rubin averaging 4.1 points and hitting 43.4 percent from deep and Moton showed solid defensive ability at the point. Oregon transfer Matt Humphrey was a highly regarded scorer coming out of high school and should lead the Eagles in scoring.
A large recruiting class will be thrust into action right away. Forward Ryan Anderson was the Gatorade Player of the Year in California and should start at the four, while big men K.C. Caudill and Dennis Clifford will rotate at center. Eddie Odio gives the team a tremendous athlete on the wing, and German guard Patrick Heckmann played well in the 2010 European Championships. Jordan Daniels lacks size but brings tremendous quickness to the point, while fellow frosh Lonnie Jackson has been described as the best shooter among the nine-man incoming class.
There are essentially no expectations for Boston College given the roster turnover, and Steve Donahue will deserve Coach of the Year consideration if this team finishes any higher than 11th.ACC Predictions: POY and All-Conference Team All-Conference
- Harrison Barnes, F, North Carolina
- Malcolm Grant, G, Miami
- Austin Rivers, G, Duke
- Mike Scott, F, Virginia
- Tyler Zeller, F, North Carolina
His challenges to live up to the preseason hype last year were well documented, but Barnes was terrific over the latter half of the season and showed the clutch scoring ability inherent in all great players. Over the final 18 games of the season, he averaged 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds while hitting nearly 38 percent from beyond the arc.
Among the many highlights of his freshman season was a marquee performance against Clemson in the ACC semis, where he scored 40 points, including 14 of UNC’s 18 points in OT. He worked on his ballhandling over the summer and enters this season ready to lead the nation’s top team, and his experience dealing with high expectations last season will serve both him and the Tar Heels well in that endeavour.Freshman of the Year: Austin Rivers, G, Duke
After earning multiple high school player of the year honors last season, Rivers brings a definitive swagger and confidence to Durham. He has a wide array of skills on the offensive end, which make him extremely difficult to defend.
Rivers can blow by you and get into the lane, pull up for mid-range jumpers, or knock down three-pointers. When he gets on a roll, just sit back and enjoy the show. If he can avoid the temptation to force the action and instead focus on protecting the ball and shot selection, the sky is the limit for Rivers given his immense talent and fearless attitude.
Follow me on Twitter (@andybottoms) for more thoughts on college hoops, and check out the latest edition of the Bottoms Line podcast.
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