The ACC basketball season has gotten underway as this article goes online early Saturday afternoon, and once again, it’s Duke at the head of the pack. The Blue Devils are undefeated and ranked #1 in the nation. There’s only one legitimate challenger, and as usual it’s a team that’s also from the state of North Carolina. Only this time it’s N.C. State, rather than the usual suspects from Chapel Hill. Let’s size up the whole of the ACC basketball landscape…
THE TITLE CONTENDERS
It’s a contest of opposites. Duke has the pedigree and all the championship banners, both conference and nationally in recent years, while N.C. State has been mostly off the grid until a strong push at the end of last season. The Blue Devils have met expectations in the non-conference part of the schedule and deserve the role of solid favorite, while the Wolfpack struggled a bit early on, though the ship now seems to be righted.
Duke: Mason Plumlee gives the Devils the anchor in the post they need, as the 6’11” senior is averaging 18 points/11 rebounds a game. The burden inside falls on him, because the other 6’11” senior, Ryan Kelly, is more comfortable stepping out to the three-point line where he hits 46 percent.
The Duke backcourt is, as usual, brilliant, with Quinn Cook handling the point guard duties and Tyler Thornton being a solid backup quarterback. Senior Seth Curry and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon are combining to average 28 ppg and give the offense scoring punch. There’s not a lot of depth outside the top six, so an injury, especially to Plumlee, will be hard to overcome, but there are no weaknesses as Mike Kryszeswksi looks to follow up coaching Team USA to Olympic gold by winning his fifth national championship.
N.C. State: An early loss by twenty points to Oklahoma State was concerning, an ensuing loss to Michigan was troubling. The questions still linger, as the Wolfpack rebounded to win seven straight, although Stanford and UConn were the best wins. The surest way to clear the question marks out is to win a string of ACC games in succession and the Pack has the horses to do it.
Lorenzo Brown is a point guard who can do most everything—score, rebound and distribute. He does everything except hit the three-ball, though his shot inside the arc is solid. N.C. State then comes at you with depth at the forward spot, where Scott Wood, C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell and T.J. Warren all go between 6’6” and 6’9”, and all score and rebound. Howell is the best rebounder, while Warren has the ability to go outside.
The lack of a classic post player is an issue, especially when matched up with Duke, but there are enough rebounders here that State can compete with anyone. The bigger need for this team is for freshman two-guard Rodney Purvis to become more consistent in helping Brown with perimeter scoring and ball distribution.
THE YOUNG BUCKS
North Carolina is certainly the most prominent of the programs re-tooling with young players, but you can also put Virginia, Maryland and Georgia Tech in this group. Because of Carolina’s reputation, we can give them a crack at breaking the top two, while the other three are aiming at an NCAA Tournament berth and stronger seasons ahead.
North Carolina: Early losses to Butler, Indiana and Texas marked North Carolina’s growing pains, but they beat UNLV last Saturday and you know a Roy Williams-coached team won’t be down forever. The team is built around sophomore forward James Michael McAddo, averaging a 15/8, but otherwise this team is mostly smallish. That’s quite a change from recent years, where Carolina was big across the frontline. Now they rely on senior quarterback Dexter Strickland to run the offense, as underclassmen including Marcus Paige and P.J. Hairston get worked into the lineup. If these players develop quickly, and Williams can give more minutes to 6’9” freshman Brice Johnson—five rebounds a game in only 13 minutes of playing time, UNC will be a tough out .
Virginia: Jontel Evans and Joe Harris are the core of the team, but ultimate success lies in integrating four underclassmen into the lineup effectively. Paul Jesperson and Teven Jones in the backcourt, along with Darion Atkins and Evan Notte up front, have not been productive as of yet. That needs to change, or non-conference losses to George Mason, Delaware and Old Dominion will be a harbinger of things to come.
Maryland: The Terps lost by three to Kentucky to start the year and then ripped off twelve straight wins against non-descript competition, so it’s tough to get a read on where they’re at. The sophomore class is outstanding, with athletic wingmen in Dez Wells and Nick Faust, along with 7’1” center Alex Len. Maryland then gets good point guard play from Pe’Shon Howard and developing freshman Seth Allen. The bench is deep, with James Padgett and Charles Mitchell hitting the glass. I think they’re for real.
Georgia Tech: Losses to Cal and Illinois are all that mar the Yellow Jackets’ resume to date, and both of those are respectable. There aren’t any notable wins. Two freshmen, guard Marcus Georges-Hunt and forward Robert Carter, are the two key players, with senior point guard Mfon Udofia being a steady hand at the wheel. Georgia Tech is hurt by a lack of three-point shooting, and while they give the bench decent minutes, nobody has really stood out. That needs to change if this team is going to make the NCAAs.
Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech are—along with Clemson—the football schools in this basketball-oriented league and all three teams have the ability to make some real noise in conference play and put it together for an NCAA run. All have also had issues in November and December that makes one pause.
Miami: They have all the pieces necessary to be really good, so long as senior center Reggie Johnson (13 points/10 rebounds) returns from a hand injury. Even without Johnson, the Hurricanes have a quality three-guard backcourt, with Shane Larking, Durand Scott and Trey McKinney Jones. Scott is the go-to player, while Larkin is a good scorer and who shares the ball. Jones has the touch from downtown. Then 6’11” senior Kenny Kadji has to develop some consistency. His 12/7 average so far is a good start. Miami’s beaten Michigan State and LaSalle, but a loss to Florida Gulf Coast makes you wonder. I’m also skeptical, because I believed in the ‘Canes a year ago, but the frontcourt never really came around. I want to see it on the floor before I give the benefit of the doubt.
Florida State: Over the last two seasons, the Seminoles have made a Sweet 16 run and challenged for the ACC title. They have a good guard-forward combo in Michael Snaer and Okaro White, who each score, rebound and hit the three. The rest of the team is young, and that’s shown in losses to South Alabama, Mercer and Auburn, along with more understandable defeats to Florida and Minnesota. The kids have to improve quickly or the season will get away.
Virginia Tech: No one puts points on the board like Erick Green, the guard averaging 24 ppg, and 6’7” forward Jarell Eddie also pops in 15 a night. There’s not a lot of rebounding going on though, and the Hokies lost by a combined 62 points in defeats to Colorado State and BYU.
BRINGING UP THE REAR
Clemson, Wake Forest and Boston College can find their best hopes in playing spoiler and making the NIT.
Clemson: The frontcourt isn’t bad, with Devin Booker, Milton Jennings and K.J. McDaniels, and along with a good shooting guard in Rod Hall, Clemson has the most promise of anyone in this group. They also have the least offensive discipline. Booker and Jennings can’t hit threes, but insist on launching them up. That’s a sure formula for letting games get away.
Boston College: Better days may be ahead, as the Eagles break in good freshman guards in Olivier Hanson and Joe Rahon, along with a tough sophomore forward in Ryan Anderson, averaging a 16/10. The losses to Charleston, Bryant and Harvard, among others, show there’s a long way to go, but a program that’s hit the skids at least has the foundation to build.
Wake Forest: You have to like senior guard C.J. Harris, a good scorer and lights-out shooter from the perimeter, and maybe one hot night from Harris will key a memorable upset somewhere along the line. Beyond that, only forward Travis McKie is a contributor, so depth—even depth within the starting five—is a big issue for the Demon Deacons.