Early ACC Basketball Look

Congratulations to Duke head coach Mike Krysewski, who became the all-time coaching leader in wins tonight when the Blue Devils beat Michigan State in Madison Square Garden. Coach K passed Bob Knight on the all-time list, and while Coach Knight is my favorite person in all of sports, records are made to be broken and this one was broken by one of the worthiest men in college basketball.

The Notebook will honor Coach K by keeping the focus he said he’s trying to keep with this team—it’s about this year, as he told ESPN’s Chris Berman in an interview at halftime of the Green Bay-Minnesota game where he made a joint appearance with Knight. So in that light, we’ll dip our toe further in the water of college basketball and see how the ACC looks.

On Friday night, we took a look at North Carolina, the top-heavy favorite to win both the conference and national championships. The Tar Heels won their own opener, also over Michigan State. This post will focus on whether anyone can challenge them for league supremacy.

UNC and Duke are to this league what the Yankees and Red Sox are to the American League East—they loom large over it, sucking up all the oxygen in the room when it comes to media attention. But if you’re looking for a viable challenger to the Tar Heels, Duke is just one of a few. The Blue Devils came up short last year because of a lack of consistent frontcourt play, and the Plumlee brothers—Mason & Miles—have to be much more consistent this year. The backcourt should be its usual stellar self—even with saying goodbye to one-and-done Kyrie Irving, Duke welcomes another super frosh in Austin Rivers to join Seth Curry and sharpshooter Andre Dawkins.

Miami and Virginia each have the look of solid darkhorse challengers. The Hurricanes in particular, have the horses to keep up with Duke and to at least put some heat on Carolina. Miami’s backcourt of Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott is as productive as any, and post man Reggie Johnson can score and hit the glass. It’s  a good group to work with for new coach Jim Larranga, who is in the rare situation of coming from a midmajor in George Mason where he’s already made a Final Four.  Virginia has everybody back, including proficient forwards Mike Scott and Joe Harris. What separates both the ‘Canes and Cavs from the rest of the pack is the potential for consistent frontcourt scoring, something that is the exception and not the norm in today’s college basketball world.

This is a year of new coaches in ACC, with Maryland, N.C. State, Georgia Tech joining Miami in having a fresh face on the sidelines. Gary Williams retired at Maryland and was replaced by Texas A&M’s Mark Turgeon.  A major rebuilding project is ahead in College Park, with the loss of power forward Jordan Williams, the best player in the ACC last season, to early entry in the NBA draft. The cupboard is similarly bare in Raleigh where former Alabama boss Mark Gottfried now trods in the considerable historical footsteps of Jim Valvano. Georgia Tech hired Brian Gregory, a product of the Tom Izzo system at Michigan State, and Gregory will have to try and put a team together around swingman Glen Rice Jr.

Florida State and Virginia Tech both made noise at NCAA Tournament time last year. For the Hokies it was the kind of noise they’ve gotten too familiar with—that’s howling from a lot of unbiased people wondering how they got left out of the field. It’s going to be a tough haul for Seth Greenberg to even reach that point this year, but an explosive scoring guard in Dorenzo Hudson provides a piece to build on. Florida State reached the Sweet 16 before running into Virginia Commonwealth. Leonard Hamilton has a solid postman in Bernard James. If the ‘Noles get consistent backcourt play from Lithuanian import Deividas Dulkys and Michael Snaer, you can elevate them into the group with Duke, Miami and Virginia as a legit challenger.  Clemson is in a similar situation, where power forward Devin Booker is reliable, and potential exists in a backcourt with returnees Tanner Smith, Milton Jennings and Andre Young. The trio needs to turn their experience into more points.

Wake Forest and Boston College have long years ahead of them. Wake is still rebuilding after an 8-24 season in 2011, and BC has only three returning players—not starters, players. Nine freshman fill out the roster for Steve Donahue’s program.