Thursday, October 3, 2013

32 In 32: Atlantic Coast Conference

Shown here during his well-chronicled power nap before watching a recruit this offseason, Jim Boeheim will catch most of his new ACC foes sleeping as Syracuse makes jump from Big East. (Photo courtesy of The Big Lead)

Two conferences remain in our "32 In 32" preview series, which reaches its conclusion tomorrow when the Big East is profiled; but until then, we reach into the league that managed to attract three former Big East members during its expansion to fifteen teams.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has long been considered, at least to this writer; who grew up watching it as a North Carolina fan despite living in New York, to be the best conference in the nation since it was still a nine-team league and the bottom two teams in the standings competed against one another in a play-in game to determine who drew the regular season champion in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. Since then, the league has evolved exponentially, now to the point where its affiliation is the largest in its history. Without any further ado, here is how we see the ACC ultimately faring in its first season with Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse within its umbrella:

1) Duke - Very rarely does a team lose its top three scorers from the previous season only to be considered a bigger national championship threat, but not every program is overseen by the all-time winningest coach in Division I. With Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly all having departed Durham, Mike Krzyzewski puts a greater trust in his backcourt of junior point guard Quinn Cook and sophomore shooter Rasheed Sulaimon, while also welcoming Andre Dawkins back after he redshirted last season. Up front, Plumlee and Kelly will be replaced by highly touted Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood and Chicago freshman Jabari Parker, who was considered the best overall prospect in this year's recruiting class before Andrew Wiggins reclassified and signed with Kansas. The youngest of the three Plumlees, seven-foot sophomore Marshall, will likely see considerable minutes at some point this season for the Blue Devils, even if "Coach K" opts to use the freakish athleticism of 6-9 sophomore wing Amile Jefferson alongside Hood and Parker. Senior guard Tyler Thornton, who has endeared himself to the "Cameron Crazies" for his tendency to have big games against archrival North Carolina, leads the charge off the bench going into his senior season on a team that should be one of the last standing in March.

2) North Carolina - Roy Williams will be searching for a replacement for P.J. Hairston early in the season while the junior swingman serves a suspension at some point, but this year's contingent is much improved after gaining valuable experience to complement their relative youth last season. Sharpshooter Reggie Bullock declared for the NBA Draft a year early and was taken in the first round by the Los Angeles Clippers, but the Tar Heel backcourt that returns to Chapel Hill is still a solid unit behind sophomore point guard Marcus Paige and senior marksman Leslie McDonald, who will pick up some of the slack when Hairston is not in the lineup; as will freshman Nate Britt, who will spell Paige at the point for stretches during games. The biggest key for North Carolina this season will be getting the most out of James Michael McAdoo, who has been largely inconsistent during his first two seasons, and burgeoning young big men Joel James and Desmond Hubert will attempt to be reliable sources of support in the paint, along with incoming freshman Kennedy Meeks and 6-9 sophomore Brice Johnson, who should see an increased workload. If Williams uses him the right way, sophomore swingman J.P. Tokoto has the potential to be the Tar Heels' X-factor, as he has played much better than his statistics let on.

3) Syracuse - Jim Boeheim and the Orange do not have as much guard depth now that Brandon Triche has graduated and Michael Carter-Williams was drafted eleventh overall by the Philadelphia 76ers last June, but New York's College Team makes up for it with the best frontcourt in the nation, a unit led by arguably the most underrated player in the country, that being explosive senior wing C.J. Fair. Fair gets mounds of support in the middle of the 'Cuse's world-famous 2-3 zone defense from centers Baye Moussa Keita and Rakeem Christmas, not to mention 6-9 mountain of a man DaJuan Coleman, as well as Jerami Grant, who will eventually succeed Fair as the next in a long line of great Syracuse wings. Expect large doses of Trevor Cooney and Duke transplant Michael Gbinije in the backcourt alongside freshman point guard Tyler Ennis, who comes to the Orange by way of St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey as one of Boeheim's best recruits in his 37-year tenure.

4) Notre Dame - Like Syracuse, the Fighting Irish come to the ACC ready to contend, and will bring a multifaceted offensive attack combined with a chameleon-esque defense that can adapt itself to any opposing team's style within a matter of minutes. With that said, Mike Brey must find a way to replace the leadership of Jack Cooley and program stalwart Scott Martin, but his backcourt of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant will go a long way in preserving the status quo in South Bend as the pair enter their senior campaigns. Two-sport star Pat Connaughton showed significant improvement in his sophomore season, and the swingman will once again be the focal point of Notre Dame's offensive sets, especially when Brey opts to play a smaller lineup with sophomore wing Cameron Biedscheid, who should be a double-figure scorer with all the right breaks this season. Up front, the combo of Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman and fifth-year senior Tom Knight will ease the pressure of having to replace the automatic double-double that Cooley brought to the lineup, and 6-10 sophomore Zach Auguste should also make a bigger impact.

5) Maryland - College Park nearly celebrated an NCAA Tournament appearance, but the Terps' record against Top 50 RPI teams was one of the factors that ultimately relegated Mark Turgeon's unit to the NIT, where they competed valiantly en route to a semifinal appearance at Madison Square Garden. This season, replacing 7-1 center Alex Len; who was selected fifth overall by the Phoenix Suns in June's NBA Draft, will be difficult, but sophomores Charles Mitchell and Shaquille Cleare are poised to approach double-double averages this season, a campaign that also includes the arrival of Evan Smotrycz after he completed his year in residence last season following his transfer from Michigan. Smotrycz and junior Dez Wells will provide Maryland with a playmaking duo that will be hard to put a price tag on, while Nick Faust and sharpshooting sophomore Seth Allen anchor a backcourt that should see marked improvement from Jake Layman and immediate contribution from freshman Roddy Peters, giving many teams reason to Fear the Turtle.

6) Virginia - Tony Bennett is fortunate to have both halves of his inside/outside scoring duo back in Charlottesville for their senior seasons, as Akil Mitchell will be a double-double per game player inside the paint, and Joe Harris should have a first team all-ACC season for the Cavaliers at shooting guard. Together, the two will welcome Justin Anderson back for another season as the native Virginian enters his sophomore campaign, with fellow second-year players Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte join junior Darion Atkins in a deceptively strong frontcourt. Keep an eye on freshman point guard London Perrantes, a Los Angeles native who should see immediate playing time in the backcourt.

7) Pittsburgh - Replacing Travon Woodall will not come easy for Jamie Dixon as the Panthers enter the ACC from the Big East, but sophomore James Robinson solidified himself as one of the better ball handlers in the nation last year, as the former DeMatha Catholic standout posted an assist to turnover ratio of nearly 3:1. Senior swingman Lamar Patterson returns to the backcourt as Robinson's running mate, and junior Cameron Wright is on the verge of a breakout season just seven months removed from a quietly efficient sophomore year. Up front for Pitt, Derrick Randall arrives from Rutgers as a big body who will play immediately following the Mike Rice disaster, and a much-needed replacement for Dante Taylor. Freshman Michael Young could get significant playing time, and Talib Zanna appears to have finally gotten it all together as he enters his senior year.

8) Boston College - Remember this name: Olivier Hanlan. The Canadian sophomore shooting guard could very easily emerge from the middle of the pack as the ACC Player of the Year for Steve Donahue, who also has a walking double-double in junior forward Ryan Anderson to help the Eagles turn the corner in year four of the former Cornell coach's regime in Chestnut Hill. Notre Dame transfer Alex Dragicevich is eligible after sitting out last season, and will give Boston College massive guard depth with Joe Rahon, Lonnie Jackson and German import Patrick Heckmann all returning as well. Expect 7-1 junior center Dennis Clifford to have a breakout third season, especially if he sees enough time alongside Anderson in the starting lineup.

9) Georgia Tech - Slowly but surely, Brian Gregory is starting to transform the Ramblin' Wreck into a unit that resembles the quiet consistency he built up in the 2000s at Dayton. The Yellow Jackets get a huge boost at the point guard position with the arrival of Trae Golden from Tennessee, and the senior will step right in and join Marcus Georges-Hunt in a deceptively strong backcourt. Senior forward Kammeon Holsey should move into the starting lineup to give Georgia Tech a pair of physical power forwards, as sophomore Robert Carter Jr. should approach a double-double this season after averaging nearly ten points and seven rebounds per game as a freshman. Finally, Daniel Miller provides a versatile stat-stuffing big man who is not afraid to use his 6-11 frame to wreak havoc on the defensive end.

10) Florida State - With Michael Snaer having graduated, senior wing Okaro White gets the keys to the car for Leonard Hamilton and the Seminoles this season. The departure of Terrance Shannon to VCU will also make seven-foot center Kiel Turpin more of a force to be reckoned with. In the backcourt, FSU was dealt a minor blow when it was announced that highly touted freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes was declared academically ineligible, which places a greater onus on sophomores Devin Bookert and Aaron Thomas to produce in their second seasons in Tallahassee. Do not be surprised to see senior Ian Miller get an extended run as well.

11) NC State - The Wolfpack get their replacement for Lorenzo Brown next season once Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey becomes eligible, but in the meantime, Mark Gottfried will lean on freshman Anthony Barber to run his offense as NC State adjusts to life without their five starters from last season. Sixth man T.J. Warren now becomes the go-to guy in the paint, with newcomers Lennard Freeman and BeeJay Anya arriving in Raleigh with mounds of hype to complement their bruising physique. Sophomore Tyler Lewis will also see the bulk of the backcourt minutes after averaging just twelve minutes per game in his rookie season.

12) Wake Forest - The Demon Deacons scored a coup on the transfer wire when Jeff Bzdelik plucked sharpshooter Coron Williams away from Robert Morris, where he graduated last season, thus making him immediately eligible in Winston-Salem. Wake Forest will use him with incumbent point guard Codi Miller-McIntyre, who will split time with his fellow sophomore Madison Jones. Up front, the Deacons are much stronger, with senior big man Travis McKie becoming the center of attention while burgeoning big man Devin Thomas should come close to a double-double average in this, his sophomore season. Tyler Cavanaugh and Cameroon import Arnaud Adala Moto only add to one of the stronger front lines in the ACC.

13) Virginia Tech - Erick Green, who led both the Hokies and the nation in scoring last season, has graduated, which will accelerate the rebuilding process during James Johnson's second season at the helm in Blacksburg. Fortunately for Virginia Tech, Green's sidekick Jarell Eddie returns for his senior year at the small forward position, and will be joined by senior Cadarian Raines and junior C.J. Barksdale to form a potent interior trio of big men that can compete with more than half of the ACC. Expect to see a heavy dose of Marquis Rankin in the backcourt this season, as the junior will mentor three freshman guards who should also have chances to make a major impact.

14) Clemson - Brad Brownell loses his strongest weapon in Devin Booker, but the Tigers remain formidable thanks to most of Booker's supporting cast returning this season. Junior Rod Hall provided Clemson with a stable hand at point guard last year, and will once again have Jordan Roper as a running mate on the heels of the 5-11 sophomore shooting 41 percent from three-point range as a freshman last season. Damarcus Harrison could give the Tigers a multitude of options as the third guard, and K.J. McDaniels should have a breakout junior season as the primary option up front. Sophomore big man Josh Smith should see an increased amount of minutes this year as he teams up with redshirt freshman Jaron Blossomgame to complete the starting five.

15) Miami - Last season, Jim Larranaga and the Hurricanes completed the greatest season in program history when Miami won the ACC and advanced to the Sweet 16. This time around, the road into March will be long and winding, as the former George Mason coach replaces all five starters, including point guard extraordinaire turned NBA Draft pick Shane Larkin. In Larkin's absence, senior Rion Brown will be the center of attention offensively, with freshman guard Deandre Burnett being one of many young faces with the opportunity to assert themselves. DePaul transfer Donnavan Kirk will also see immediate playing time as a graduate transfer while Miami awaits the arrival of Kansas State expatriate Angel Rodriguez next season.

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