ACC Basketball: Can N.C. State Get Over The Top?

The last time anyone other than Duke or North Carolina won the ACC basketball title outright was back in 2003, when Wake Forest pulled it off. Since then, we’ve seen Virginia (2007) and Maryland (2010) slip in for shares of first place, but the Blue Devils or Tar Heels have either been a part of a tie or won the league outright. N.C. State is a team looking to change that this year, as TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the top of the ACC.

N.C. State, Duke and North Carolina are in the preseason Top 16 and we touched on them briefly last week as a part of that nationwide preview. If we wanted to put it in soundbites we’d say that the Wolfpack have the horses, but not the pedigree, that the Blue Devils need a point guard and the Tar Heels need experience. All true enough, and in this post we’ll go a little deeper on the three ACC teams projected to make a national impact this season.

N.C State: Mark Gottfried took over as head coach last season and the Pack came on strong down the stretch. They closed the regular season well, then reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Now they have four starters back and some quality impact freshmen coming in.

Lorenzo Brown shifted from two-guard to the point last year and as he got comfortable, the team began to take off. Brown scores 13 ppg and is a good defender. He provides the backcourt balance on a team whose strength is its frontcourt. The Pack aren’t necessarily big—no one goes taller than 6’9”, but they are strong at all three spots.

C.J. Leslie is the go-to player at power forward, averaging 15 points/7 rebounds and mixing in some blocked shots to boot. He would have been a first-round pick in the NBA draft, but his decision to come back to Raleigh is the biggest reason for the optimism surrounding this team. Richard Howell is a similarly tough rebounder at center and can score well enough to keep defenses honest if they focus too much on Leslie. Scott Wood at small forward is a pure shooter, who hits 40 percent from behind the arc.

Gottfried has two freshmen ready to play. Rodney Purvis will get every chance to earn the backcourt spot alongside Brown. He’s an aggressive offensive player and is able to handle the ball, making State a tough team to trap or press, with two guards able to handle the ball. Purvis’ academic past is undergoing some investigation, so his eligibility is not yet assured. But at this point it’s safe to assume he’ll be on the floor.

He did have to miss the team’s summer trip to Spain because of the investigation and another freshman, T.J. Warren, got extra minutes. Warren is more of a natural small forward, able to rebound and defend the interior and if the coaching staff feels Wood is too one-dimensional, a change could be made here.

Duke: Austin Rivers packed up and left for the NBA after just one season, leaving the Blue Devils with a big hole at the point guard spot. The first shot at the job is going to sophomore Quinn Cook. Knee problems have bedeviled Cook his first two years (one of which he redshirted), but from his high school track record, what the coaches have seen in practice and his own very limited playing time, Duke observers feel like he’s a good distributor and if that’s the case, he’s exactly what this team needs.

Seth Curry is back for his senior season at two-guard and he’s a capable scorer. Where the Blue Devils do have problems is that they don’t have a second ball-handler here—Curry struggled mightily whenever he had to play the point. So Mike Krzyzewski is left with a choice of being vulnerable to pressure or going with a three-guard offense, thereby mitigating his strength in the post.

That strength in the post is anchored by Mason Plumlee, the senior and future first-round NBA draft pick. Plumlee averages an 11/9, and if he can push those rebounds into a double-digits this year, Duke will have the one element that usually defines whether they have a big NCAA Tournament run—a big man who can hit the glass. Ryan Kelly is at power forward. He’s more of a finesse forward and shoots the ball well, but his rebounding has improved each year at Duke and Kelly now enters his senior year.

The plans currently look to have freshman Alex Murphy playing the small forward spot. He’s 6’8” and if he’s anything like his brother Patric at Florida, he can shoot the ball. Other options would be a three-guard offense that might include Tyler Thornton, a lockdown defender who can take care of the basketball, or freshman Rasheed Sulamoin, also able to handle the ball and a pure outside shooter. We’ll see how Coach K meshes these various combinations starting tomorrow night against Kentucky.

North Carolina: Roy Williams has a lot of rebuilding to do, but he can at least begin with a team that plays some defense. Dexter Strickland and Reggie Bullock, the players who man the wings, have good reputations for lockdown defense and UNC’s new freshman center Joel James is also expected to contribute right away at the defensive end.

It’s finding some scoring and someone to run the floor that will be the issue. James Michael McAdoo is back at power forward for his sophomore year. Even though he only played 15 minutes per game on Carolina’s immensely talented frontcourt a year ago, McAdoo was still highly regarded enough to have the NBA as an option. He wisely chose to come back and actually get some playing experience, but the mere fact pro scouts like him this much tells you how good he is. And he needs to be Williams’ #1 scoring option this year.

Kendall Marshall left early for the NBA and left North Carolina with a  hole at the point. The opportunity to fill it falls to Marcus Paige at the point, with new recruits P.J. Hairston and J.P. Tokoto in position to get a chance if Paige should falter. Another question mark is getting offensive help for McAdoo, and it’s the upperclassmen who have to step up. Strickland and Bullock both averaged in single digits last year. That was fine with that particular team, since defense was the main need. Both have to figure out how to become viable offensive threats without taking possessions off at the defensive end.

So how does it all shake out? Sitting here on November 12, N.C. State certainly looks like the best team, but we have to wonder how they’ll handle the pressure of high expectations. Duke and Carolina are used to it. The Wolfpack players and coaches aren’t. And if Duke fills its point guard void, they become a little bit better in either case. I would lean Duke as slightly better than State, with the Tar Heels being a major building job that we’ll have to wait until conference play to get a better handle on.