Duke’s upset loss at Temple yesterday was the biggest news outside of the Orange Bowl shellacking Clemson took, making it a tough night for the ACC in both sports. If nothing else though, football is over and the conference can turn its attention to hoops, where league games begin on Saturday.
The ACC still has a good national reputation in basketball, although observers have noted that the league’s depth has been lacking in recent years. While North Carolina and Duke remain national powers and have won two of the last three national championships, the middle class is rotting away. And what we’ve seen early on hasn’t gone a long way toward dispelling that growing perception. Virginia joins its two prominent rivals in the national rankings, but no one else is there, no one else is even in the “others receiving votes” category and no one else even inspires you with thoughts that they’re being disrespected. The Notebook breaks the league down into three distinct categories—The Contenders, where I’ll continue to give Virginia their respect and include them, then the Embattled Middle Class, where we look at five teams that are just hoping to get the NCAA Tournament. Then the Basement, with four teams who look unlikely to rise above NIT-level at most.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels were a consensus #1 when the season started and they still have the greatest potential for dominance. But they did lose to UNLV and while a one-point loss at Kentucky is no shame, a narrow home win over Wisconsin is not the mark of a powerhouse. UNC is very tough up front, with John Henson and Tyler Zeller both double-digit scorers and able to take over a game on the glass. Harrison Barnes at small forward is the team’s superstar and go-to guy, able to get a bucket or a board when you need it. Kendall Marshall is an extraordinary point guard, averaging ten assists a game. The two-guard is a hole, with Dexter Strickland and 6’7” Reggie Bullock looking to step and claim the job, but the Heels are, no pun intended, well-heeled. They’re the best team in the conference and while I wouldn’t rank them #1 based on performance, it’s still the team I expect to see cutting down the nets in April.
Duke: Coach K’s team has got problems and as is often the case here, it starts with rebounding. While Mason Plumlee is a tough post presence, Duke isn’t getting what it needs from 6’11” Ryan Kelly or Plumlee’s brother Miles. As is less often the case, depth at guard is a problem. Austin Rivers, the stud freshman and son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, is the cornerstone, but Seth Curry has not played well against good teams and third guard Andre Dawkins hasn’t played consistently. Because of the man on the sidelines, the Blue Devils will have a good year and get a high NCAA seed, but there’s a long way to go before they can beat out North Carolina for an ACC championship.
Virginia: Tony Bennett’s Cavs’ team has had a nice December, with a quality win over Michigan and decent victories over Oregon and LSU. Forward Mike Scott is the one who does the damage with 16 points and 9 rebounds per game, while being supported by a quality backcourt with Jontel Evans and Sammy Zeglinski. UVA does need extra rebounding help, just as Duke does, and unlike Duke they don’t have untapped potential from players 6’10” and up. There’s no way this team wins an ACC crown, but they’re off to a good start for getting into the NCAA Tournament.
THE EMBATTLED MIDDLE CLASS
Virginia Tech: Seth Greenberg’s team is well on their way to another near-miss on Selection Sunday, with its best wins being a pair over Oklahoma State, whose in a major rebuilding year. The Hokies have a good backcourt with Erick Green and Dorenzo Hudson and a tough rebounder in 6’8” freshman Dorian Finney-Smith. Jarell Eddie is a swingman who can play down low. Va Tech has what it takes to move past Virginia and maybe even put a little scare into Duke, but they still haven’t really put it all together on the floor. I want to see some quality wins from this group before thinking they can finally push over the hump and into the Dance.
Maryland: The Terps made big coaching changes in football and basketball this academic year. The football team was supposed to springboard to new heights. They went 2-10. The basketball team was supposed to be in serious trouble after Jordan Williams left early for the NBA. They had a respectable December and there’s enough pieces in place to think they could also make a move toward the NCAAs. Terrell Stoglin came on down the stretch last year and is pouring in 21 points a game this season, while getting good support from sidekick Sean Mosely in the backcourt. What really makes Mark Turgeon’s team interesting is the presence of 7’1” Alex Len, a freshman from the Ukraine, who’s getting eight rebounds a game. Add to that a good playmaker in Pe’Shon Howard and I can see this team finishing second or third. Like Virginia Tech though, I want to see the individual pieces really come together into wins over good teams, something that didn’t happen in December.
N.C. State: Lorenzo Brown is one of this league’s good all-around players, scoring, rebounding and distributing. He’s got respectable help underneath from C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell, but the Wolfpack could really use a pure playmaker to run the show and let Brown focus on scoring. N.C. State beat Texas, who’s on a rebuilding year, and none of their losses (Vanderbilt, Indiana, Stanford, Syracuse) are anything to be ashamed of, so the jury is out in Raleigh.
Miami: I expected more of the Hurricanes this season, with a very good backcourt of Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott, along with twin towers down low in 6’10” Reggie Johnson and 6’11” Kenny Kadju. And maybe I’ll still get more. But they did not play well in non-conference action, losing to Ole Miss and a rebuilding Purdue team, along with Memphis and West Virginia.
Florida State: After a trip to the NCAA Tournament and advancement to the Sweet 16, the Seminoles are back with a very deep roster that has seven players getting 20-plus minutes a game. FSU hasn’t put it all together, with losses against a good Harvard team, plus UConn, Michigan State, Florida and a not-so-good Princeton squad. But unlike other teams who haven’t really clicked I can make excuses here. Relying on depth it may take a little longer to really get everything settled in. The ‘Noles rely on Luke Loucks for their playmaking, Michael Snaer and Ian Miller to score and Bernard James to rebound, although that’s a very crude portrait that don’t reflect how much balance there is. Whether that’s balance that can deliver in a grueling conference schedule and just balance in mediocrity is what we’re about to find out.
The basement really splits into two levels, as I don’t want to put Wake Forest and Clemson as low as I would Georgia Tech. Maybe it’s even three levels, with Boston College owning one all its own. It’s very rough times in Chestnut Hill these days where Steve Donahue is working with a roster almost entirely composed of freshman and sophomores. Georgia Tech has one talented player in Glen Rice Jr, and maybe we can give them the benefit of the doubt on Mfon Udofia at the point, but they’re 7-7 and nowhere near talented enough to win more than three or four ACC games. Clemson and Wake have a shot at moving up in the world. The Tigers can build around a solid power forward Devin Booker, and decent backcourt of Andre Young and Tanner Smith. The Deacons are developing a pair of seven-footers down low in Carson Derosiers and Ty Walker who can at least give you the illusion of thinking they can win any given game if nothing else. They really do need guard C.J. Harris, a sound scorer and backcourt presence to get healthy from a nagging groin injury.