Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: Change has been good for the ACC the last couple of seasons and that trend should continue in 2014-15. The league added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame last year and gets powerhouse Louisville this season to ease in alongside stalwarts North Carolina and Duke, forming arguably the most dominant conference in all of college basketball.
Despite the embarrassment of an academic scandal in Chapel Hill over two decades, it is the Tar Heels that reign supreme heading into the 2014-15 campaign. Roy Williams' squad won 24 games a year ago, but hasn't made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2010. With a solid core and a stellar recruiting class, UNC will find its way to the top of the ACC once again.
If any recruiting class rivals UNC's it is Duke's. Mike Krzyzewski has once again reeled in tons of talent and that talent should help the Blue Devils push the Tar Heels and others for conference supremacy this season.
After Miami surged to the top of the conference in 2012-13, it was Virginia's turn a year ago, as Tony Bennett's Cavaliers finally put it all together in capturing the ACC crown. While improvement on a 30-win season is a lot to ask, the Cavaliers aren't going away anytime soon. Expect them to defend their crown with stifling defense once again and hang around the top of the standings all season long.
Holding down the fourth spot in the preseason is a nice place for newcomer Louisville to begin its ACC era. Rick Pitino's Cardinals may be young, but they are scary talented. That will go a long way in Louisville's first season in the conference.
The second tier in the ACC is probably good enough to win other conference crowns, as NC State, Syracuse and Florida State will jockey for position in the upper half of the league. A ton of experience returns for NC State, with the one glaring loss being last year's ACC Player of the Year. Still, Mark Gottfried's team can match its 22 wins from a year ago and perhaps improve on its 9-9 conference finish. Jim Boeheim's Orange also lost a key component to the NBA, but recruiting is never an issue with Boeheim, whose squad is once again young and extremely gifted. The Orange won 28 games last season and finished second in the ACC. That won't happen this time around, but they shouldn't be too far off the mark. Two of the conference's top-20 scorers return to Florida State, which may be the biggest team in the league. From a physical standpoint, not many teams compare. Translating that into wins will be Leonard Hamilton's job.
The next set of teams vying to climb the ACC ladder are Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Miami-Florida and Clemson. Jamie Dixon's Panthers have a top-notch backcourt, but matching that production up front with a slew of newcomers is a tall task indeed. Mike Brey's Irish get a boost from the return of their best player after being kicked out of school last year, but is there enough around him to help the Irish make a move in the right direction? Jim Larranaga's Hurricanes are just a year removed from a conference crown, but last year was a dose of harsh reality with just seven conference wins. A similar fate may befall the 'Canes this time around, as too much hinges on newcomers. Brad Brownell's Tigers won 23 games a year ago and made a nice run in the NIT. The team does have four starters back, but the one defection was all-conference.
The bottom of the conference will feature Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Boston College. Three of those programs are under new management. Buzz Williams is a master motivator and the Hokies are likely to overachieve as a result, but inching close to .500 would be a huge step in the right direction after winning just nine games a year ago, including a mere two ACC bouts. The Yellow Jackets continue to rebuild with Brian Gregory, but he will need newcomers to perform at top level for Georgia Tech to make any significant move up the ACC. Wake Forest has found its man in Danny Manning. The former Conference USA Coach of the Year with Tulsa, Manning knows how to win both as a player (1988 national title) and as a coach. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will Wake's return to the ACC elite. It will take some time, but Manning is more than capable. Steve Donahue just couldn't get the job done at Boston College, which opted for Jim Christian to take over this season after a successful run in the Mid-American Conference with Ohio. There is some talent to work with in Chestnut Hill this season, just not enough to be relevant in terms of competing with the conference big boys.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: North Carolina
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. North Carolina, 2. Duke, 3. Virginia, 4. Louisville, 5. NC State, 6. Syracuse, 7. Florida State, 8. Pittsburgh, 9. Notre Dame, 10. Miami-Florida, 11. Clemson, 12. Virginia Tech, 13. Georgia Tech, 14. Wake Forest, 15. Boston College
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
NORTH CAROLINA: An NCAA investigation continues to loom large in Chapel Hill, but so does heavy expectations for this year's basketball squad. Roy Williams' team is loaded with both veterans and an influx of young talent that should push the team to the top of the ACC. The team won 24 games a year ago, but a third-place finish in the conference standings simply isn't good enough at UNC. The team loses James Michael McAdoo to the NBA, but it may be a case of addition by subtraction, as the 2014-15 squad is shaping up to be a much more cohesive bunch. The backcourt will feature star guard Marcus Paige (17.5 ppg, 4.2 apg), but doesn't stop there. Nate Britt (6-1, 165) adds depth along the perimeter and the addition of McDonald's All-American Joel Berry (6-0, 188) could make the UNC backcourt special this season. Out on the wing another McDonald's All-American comes to town with tons of hype in the 6-6, 192-pound Theo Pinson, who can jump out of the building. The frontcourt has even more depth than the backcourt, starting with swingmen J.P. Tokoto (9.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and freshman Justin Jackson, yet another McDonald's All-American. Junior Brice Johnson (10.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and sophomore Kennedy Meeks (7.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg) will handle the dirty work in the paint. There simply aren't many weaknesses when sizing up the UNC roster. The Tar Heels haven't been in the NCAA Tournament for a few years, but that should change this season.
DUKE: Not to be outdone by UNC's acquisition of three McDonald's All-Americans this season, Mike Krzyzewski nabbed four. In all the team has nine former McDonald's All-Americans on the roster, the most in the nation (tied with Kentucky). The Blue Devils must deal with the departure of stars Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood to the NBA, but the aforementioned dearth of quality youngsters should help fill the void. The Blue Devils boast of a really good point guard in Quinn Cook (11.6 ppg, 4.4 apg) and the scary thing is that he might be beaten out for the job by freshman sensation Tyus Jones (6-1, 180). Jones is a superb court general with a pass-first attitude, but possesses the requisite skills to fill up the basket as well. Throw in junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon (9.9 ppg) and freshman Grayson Allen (another McDonald's All- American) and Coach K has to like his options along the perimeter. The frontcourt is even deeper thanks in large part (pun intended) to the arrival of seven-foot freshman Jahlil Okafor. The top recruit in the country, Okafor (7-0, 265) is already slated as the No. 1 pick in next year's NBA Draft. A do it all post presence, Okafor could vie for National Player of the Year this season. Junior Marshall Plumlee (7-0, 260) will give Okafor a breather at times and keep the big guy fresh. Versatile junior Amile Jefferson (6.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and freshman Justise Winslow will press for minutes along the wing. With more young talent than any team in the country, Duke will get its chance to get back in the ACC's driver's seat.
VIRGINIA: Everything went right for the Cavaliers last season, as their tough- as-nails defensive mentality led to a program-record 30 victories, while they captured both the regular season and tournament titles in the ACC (first time in school history). Virginia's ascension to conference elite came in steady fashion, with the team improving its conference mark in each of Tony Bennett's first five seasons. Improving on last year's 16-2 league mark isn't likely this time around, but that doesn't mean Virginia will give up the conference crown without a fight. The Cavaliers lose scorer Joe Harris (12.0 ppg) and rebounder Akil Mitchell (7.0 rpg), but there is still plenty of depth. While not possessing the flashy playmakers that UNC and Duke have, Virginia's roster is stockpiled with hard workers that have bought into Bennett's system. The backcourt this year will be headlined by All-ACC guard Malcolm Brogdon (12.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and London Perrantes (5.5 ppg, 3.8 apg). Both players handle the ball extremely well and aren't prone to turnovers. Newcomer B.J. Stith, son of Virginia legend Bryant Stith could be a valuable scorer early on and give the team a serious perimeter threat. The frontcourt lacks a star, but makes up for it with numbers. Juniors Anthony Gill (8.4 ppg), Mike Tobey (6.4 ppg) and Evan Nolte (2.8 ppg) are serviceable, while freshman Isaiah Wilkins (step-son of Dominique) should push for minutes. The Cavs have a target on their backs this season, but that shouldn't stop them from staying within striking distance down the stretch.
LOUISVILLE: The addition of Louisville to a conference as talent rich as the ACC almost doesn't seem fair. The Cardinals are only two years removed from an NCAA title and made a run to the Sweet 16 last season. Rick Pitino must find a way to replace All-American Russ Smith (18.2 ppg) and Luke Hancock (12.3 ppg), while taking a big step up in terms of competition from the AAC to the ACC. The cupboard isn't exactly bare, but matching last year's 31 victories would be a minor miracle. First and foremost, the team must find a backcourt identity now that Smith has moved on. The point guard spot is in good hands with the return of Chris Jones (10.2 ppg), while the hope is that sophomore Terry Rozier (7.0 ppg) takes the next step in his development alongside. Spelling Jones at the point will be freshman Quentin Snider (6-1, 170), who has great potential as both a scorer and facilitator. Louisville's frontcourt is in much better shape, thanks to Montrezl Harrell's decision to return to school instead of jumping ship to the NBA. Harrell (14.0 ppg, 8.4 rpg) will vie for All-America honors as the go-to-guy for the Cardinals this season. Senior forward Wayne Blackshear (8.2 ppg) has plenty of experience, while freshman Shaqquan Aaron (6-7, 175) is dripping with potential. The Cardinals aren't going to blow by many teams with gaudy point totals this season, but they possess the requisite defensive skills to have a very successful debut season in their new conference.
NC STATE: Mark Gottfried's Wolfpack picked up 22 wins last season, but the team struggled a bit in conference play, with a 9-9 ledger, good for just a seventh-place tie. The team was paced by a superstar in ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren, who finished third nationally in scoring at a hefty 24.9 ppg. Unfortunately, that led to Warren's exodus to the NBA and leaves Gottfried without a centerpiece. There aren't a ton of people worrying in Raleigh this year though, as most of the complementary pieces return. The backcourt will be a strength this season, led by senior guard Ralston Turner (10.5 ppg). Gottfried has the luxury of two quality ball handlers this season in sophomore Anthony Barber (8.5 ppg, 3.5 apg) and Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey (11.3 ppg, 3.2 apg two seasons ago). Throw in juco transfer Desmond Lee (8.4 ppg) and an NC State legacy in Chris Corchiani Jr. and the backcourt seems well stocked for the present and future. The frontcourt is where NC State must prove its worth. There aren't any real commodities to speak of down low. The hope is that star recruit Abdul-Malik Abu (6-8, 230) makes an immediate impact. Sophomore forward Kyle Washington (6-9, 225) will get extended minutes as well after flashes of strong play in limited action a year ago. The Wolfpack aren't likely ready to contend for the conference crown, but they will be competitive throughout and should remain in the upper half of the league standings.
SYRACUSE: Jim Boeheim's Orange were their usual selves last season, posting 28 total victories and finishing second in the ACC with a stellar 14-4 record. Syracuse has been very tough of late thanks to strong play at the point. A couple of years ago it was Michael Carter-Williams that bolted to the NBA early and this past season Tyler Ennis (12.9 ppg, 5.5 apg) was one and done. The frontcourt will also need an identity with the losses of C.J. Fair (16.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Jerami Grant (12.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg). Boeheim is likely to go with another youngster at the point and the hope is that 6-3 freshman Kaleb Joseph fits the bill. A top-50 recruit, Joseph is a facilitator with a ton of energy. Harnessing it will be job one. Perimeter scoring will come in the form of junior guard Trevor Cooney (12.1 ppg). The departures of Fair and Grant up front cannot be minimized. However, Rakeem Christmas (6-9, 250) is a force down low, especially defensively. A healthy DaJuan Coleman (6-9, 280) will provide another big body and freshman Chris McCullough (6-10, 220) can block shots as well. Junior forward Michael Gbinije could surprise a lot of people with more playing time. This will once again be a team relying on a very young point guard. If Joseph delivers like his predecessors, Syracuse will remain competitive in a top-heavy ACC.
FLORIDA STATE: It may be a little surprising, but FSU ranks third over the last six years in conference wins (62). Leonard Hamilton gets the job done year-in and year-out and last season was no different, as the Seminoles amassed a 22-14 record overall. The team loses Ian Miller (13.7 ppg) and Okaro White (13.6 ppg), but Florida State shouldn't miss a beat, with a nice returning core of players, some talented additions and of course, the bruising style of play that is synonymous with FSU. The hope in the backcourt is that freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes (6-4, 210) has been worth the wait. Ruled ineligible a year ago, Rathan-Mayes will finally suit up for FSU at the point. That should allow 6-3 junior Devon Bookert (8.5 ppg) to be much more of a scorer this time around and really complement outstanding junior Aaron Thomas (14.5 ppg) along the perimeter. FSU will boast of the biggest frontcourt in the ACC thanks to three seven-footers on the roster. Junior Boris Bojanovsky (5.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.9 bpg) is the best of the big men, that includes Kiel Turpin (7-0, 225) and Michael Ojo (7-1, 292). Freshman forward Phil Cofer (6-8, 205) will get every opportunity to thrive in FSU's frontcourt this season. The defense will once again be there for Florida State, but if the offensive weapons materialize as well, Hamilton may have one of his better squads in some time and that is saying a lot.
PITTSBURGH: The Panthers certainly asserted themselves as a force to be reckoned with in their debut season in the ACC, finishing 26-10 overall and a respectable 11-7 in conference play, good for a fifth-place finish. Jamie Dixon's squad must move on without stars Lamar Patterson (17.1 ppg) and Talib Zanna (13.0 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and that is a daunting task given the state of the roster this season. Long known for its defensive tenacity, Pitt may need to lean on that in 2014-15, at least early on. The Panthers has some stability in the backcourt with the return of both senior Cameron Wright (10.5 ppg) and junior James Robinson (7.6 ppg, 4.1 apg), Expect more from sophomores Josh Newkirk (4.6 ppg) and Chris Jones (2.4 ppg) as well. Sophomore forward Michael Young (6-9, 235) is the go-to-guy up front to start the year. The hope is that a healthy Durand Johnson (6-6, 210) is back to form and that Vanderbilt transfer Sheldon Jeter (6-8, 225) can provide offensive balance. Juco transfer Tyrone Haughton (6-9, 220) could evolve into a solid pivot, although he is a much better defender and shot blocker than scorer at this time. Dixon seems to always have a squad that can impose its will on opponents on the defensive end. That may need to be the gameplan once again until offensive weapons emerge.
NOTRE DAME: Mike Brey's squad lost one of the ACC's top scorers a year ago and as a result, the Irish were never the same, finishing a dismal 15-17 overall, with a mere 6-12 league ledger. It marked Notre Dame's first losing season since before the turn of the century. The good news is that the return of Jerian Grant should push the Irish back over the ,500 mark all but itself. Grant is a dynamic scorer, who netted 19.0 points and 6.2 assists per game in the 12 he played last season before being shelved for the year. He has found his way back on the court for Notre Dame and that is a huge plus for this team going forward. Grant will be joined in the backcourt by sophomore Demetrius Jackson (6.0 ppg), who did some nice things as a freshman last season. Jackson will see an increased role with the departure of Eric Atkins (13.9 ppg). Senior Pat Connaughton is a jack-of-all trades out on the wing, providing scoring (13.8 ppg), rebounding (7.1 rpg) and distribution skills (3.0 apg). Center Garrick Sherman (13.5 ppg. 7.3 rpg) was solid in the middle for Notre Dame last year, but has moved on. A couple of incoming freshmen will get a chance to make an impact in Bonzie Colson (6-5, 225) and Martinas Geben (6-9, 230), while 6-9 junior Zach Auguste (6.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg) will move from valuable reserve to primetime contributor this time around. The Irish will improve simply with Grant on the floor all year long. However, to make a move up the conference ladder, the newcomers will need to excel from the get-go.
MIAMI-FLORIDA: Despite having a slew of newcomers last season, Jim Larranaga managed to lead the Hurricanes to a winning record. The Hurricanes did win the ACC the year prior, but a 17-16 overall mark was really a solid job considering all that had to be replaced from that championship squad. Unfortunately, this season will likely mirror last year, as the team needs to replace a ton of talent, including Rion Brown (15.5 ppg) and Garrius Adams (10.2 ppg). The good news is that Kansas State transfer Angel Rodriguez is ready to suit up and handle the point. A gifted distributor and defender, Rodriguez posted 11.4 points and 5.2 assists per game for the Wildcats two seasons ago and was an All-Big 12 defensive team member two times. The point guard spot is settled, leaving scoring along the perimeter to be vetted out. Texas transfer Sheldon McClellan could be the man for the job, after averaging 13.5 ppg in 2012-13 with the Longhorns. Sophomore guard Manu Lecomte (7.7 ppg) showed flashes of strong play a year ago and a lot is expected of incoming freshman scorer DeAndre Burnett (6-2, 191), who averaged a ridiculous 37.0 ppg as a high school senior. The frontcourt isn't nearly as stocked as Miami's backcourt and balance may be hard to come by. There simply weren't any players of note on the roster following last year, but the hope is that Niagara transfer Joe Thomas (6-7, 235) and/or incoming freshmen Chris Stowell (6-7, 190) and Omar Sherman (6-8, 220) can develop into solid contributors.
CLEMSON: Brad Brownell was on a bit of a hot seat at Clemson a year ago, but his team responded with a 23-win campaign and a sixth-place finish in the ACC (10-8), resulting in a six-year extension for Brownell. No player meant more to his team than forward K.J. McDaniels, who averaged 17.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, while also being named the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year. McDaniels has moved on to the NBA, leaving a huge hole to fill along the frontline for the Tigers in 2014-15. Clemson made it to the NIT semifinals last year and does return four starters from that group, so the cupboard isn't completely bare. The backcourt is in good hands with veterans like seniors Rod Hall (9.7 ppg, 4.0 apg) and Demarcus Harrison (7.8 ppg) and junior Jordan Roper (7.4 ppg) back in the fold. Redshirt freshman Patrick Rooks and true freshman Gabe DeVoe add to the perimeter depth on the roster. The frontcourt is void of that kind of depth and will likely keep the Tigers fighting for position in the ACC all year long. Sophomore forward Jaron Blossomgame showed flashes of strong play a year ago, but suffered a leg fracture in the postseason. Blossomgame needs to take it to the next level as a key figure up front for Clemson this season. The center position will be manned by junior Landry Nnoko (6-10, 250), who was third in the ACC in blocked shots a year ago. Freshman Donte Grantham (6-8, 205) is the prized recruit coming in and will need to make an immediate impact for Clemson to compete at a high level this season.
VIRGINIA TECH: Three straight last-place finishes in the ACC was simply more than the Virginia Tech brass could handle, prompting an all-around change. The streak should stop there with the arrival of Buzz Williams, who left Marquette for the task at hand in Blacksburg. The roster is well stocked with four of five starters returning and a strong recruiting class. The backcourt will feature a myriad of options starting with 6-1 junior Adam Smith (11.0 ppg), 6-5 sophomore Ben Emelogu (10.5 ppg) and 6-4 sophomore Devin Wilson (9.2 ppg). A lot is expected of incoming freshman Ahmed Hill (6-4, 197) as well. The frontcourt isn't nearly as loaded, although familiar faces like senior forward C.J. Barksdale (8.1 ppg) and junior forward Joey van Zegeren (6.4 ppg, 1.7 bpg) should provide some balance. Juco transfer Shane Henry (6-8, 193) is on the frail side, but plays much bigger with his rebounding and shot-blocking skills. The Hokies ranked 326th in the nation in scoring last season, but that is likely to change this time around. Despite improved scoring though, scaling the ACC landscape is a few years away, even for Williams.
GEORGIA TECH: Brian Gregory was supposed to deliver in 2013-14, but a slew of injuries prevented Georgia Tech from making a move up the ACC, instead finishing with a mere 16-17 overall mark and a tie for 11th in the conference at 6-12. Excuses aren't acceptable though and Gregory could find himself on the hot seat in 2014-15 if things don't get better fast. The good news is that the backcourt seems to have some depth. USF transfer Josh Heath will get the first crack at the point. Heath left USF after his father, Stan was fired as head coach. He has been given immediate eligibility and has three seasons left. Travis Jorgenson (6-0, 177) will see minutes at the point as well following a redshirt year last season for an ACL injury. The two distributors will try to get the ball to scorers in junior guard Marcus Georges-Hunt (11.7 ppg) and prized recruit Tadric Jackson (6-2, 220). The frontcourt has much more work to do, thanks in part to the transfer of Robert Carter (11.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg) to Maryland. Likely candidates to replace Carter's production include East Carolina transfer Robert Sampson (9.1 ppg, 9.2 rpg in 2012-13), Maryland transfer Charles Mitchell (6.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and Ole Miss transfer Demarco Cox (6-8, 276). Scoring along the perimeter will be a strength, but if balance doesn't come in the frontcourt and Georgia Tech doesn't start showing results in the win column, the writing could be on the wall for Gregory.
WAKE FOREST: The Demon Deacons did finish last season with a winning record (17-16), but an 11th-place finish in the ACC (6-12) simply wasn't the kind of year that Wake Forest was looking for. The powers that be went out and made a huge splash by landing one of the most accomplished players in the history of college basketball in Danny Manning. The hope is that the former Conference USA Coach of the Year with Tulsa will make a difference right out of the gate in Winston-Salem and restore Wake Forest to conference relevancy. There are some key losses, most notably Travis McKie (10.7 ppg) and Coron Williams (10.2 ppg), but there is enough left on the roster, along with some intriguing newcomers that points to a bright future for the Demon Deacons. The backcourt returns 6-3 junior Codi Miller-McIntyre, who can both score (12.6 ppg) and distribute (4.2 apg). Freshman Mitchell Wilbekin (6-1, 165) signed on at Tulsa and was allowed to come over when Manning made the move. He is the younger brother of SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin (Florida) and has some of the same attributes as his accomplished brother. Wake's frontcourt has talented depth, starting with 6-9 junior Devin Thomas (11.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg). Campbell transfer Darius Leonard (6-9, 225) could develop into a go-to player under Manning's watchful eye, after averaging 10.2 ppg for the Camels a year ago. Juniors Andre Washington (7-0, 240) and Aaron Roundtree III (6-8, 195) provide defensive grit. Wake is in good hands with Manning, although a climb up the ACC isn't expected in year one.
BOSTON COLLEGE: Jim Christian did some nice things at Ohio the last couple of seasons and the hope is that it will carry over to Chestnut Hill, as Boston College moves away from the Steve Donahue experiment. The Eagles finished with just eight total wins a year ago despite having a couple of top-notch scorers, with only four wins coming in an ugly conference run that saw the team finish in 14th place. Joe Rahon (9.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.2 apg) was a savvy do-it-all guard but he is now gone. Senior Lonnie Jackson (7.0 ppg) will see more minutes at the point as a result. The off-guard spot is much more stable with the return of prolific scorer Olivier Hanlan (18.5 ppg), who scores from all over the floor. Rotational players in the backcourt include Old Dominion transfer Dimitri Batten (11.0 ppg) and seniors Patrick Heckmann (6.0 ppg) and Alex Dragicevich (3.9 ppg). The frontcourt lacks similar depth, and the transfer of two-time All-ACC forward Ryan Anderson (13.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg) to Arizona only adds to the problem. The team may be alright if oft-injured big man Dennis Clifford (7-1, 250) can stay healthy. Clifford played just two games a year ago due to injuries. There just aren't many standout performers on a roster in desperate need of them. The Eagles will remain at the bottom of the conference as a result, although Christian will have them competing each and every game.