College Basketball Nation: ACC

Where are UNC's outside shooters?

August, 29, 2014
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There are plenty of reasons North Carolina should be excited about this season.

Marcus Paige is one of the best point guards in college basketball. (Ask Connecticut how invaluable that can be.)

The Tar Heels' big men Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson should be among the best scoring and rebounding duo of post players in the ACC. Meeks also has proved to possess an added weapon of the outlet pass, which is crucial for a team that likes to run as much as Carolina does.

Junior forward J.P. Tokoto is the lone player returning in the league who made the all-defensive team last season.

And with a recruiting class ranked No. 3 by RecruitingNation, the Heels have depth at every position.

It all adds up to Carolina likely vaulting into a preseason top-10 team on paper. It should compete for an ACC title and be right up there among the Final Four contenders.

There’s just one not-so-slight problem that could keep the Heels from accomplishing those feats. For now, forget the fact that they had one of the worst free throw shooting teams in program history last season. That was partly because of James Michael McAdoo, who shot over 100 more free throws more than the next closest teammate. McAdoo is gone along with his 53.7 free throw percentage.

The question that should scare those in Chapel Hill is where is the outside shooting going to come from outside of Paige?

Paige is their lone proven shooter. He led the team in 3-point percentage last season converting 38.9 percent of his attempts. With the departure of Leslie McDonald, Paige is the only returning player on the roster to reach double digits in 3-pointers. His 2.5 average makes per game is second in the ACC among returnees only to Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney.

Paige accounted for almost 60 percent of the Heels' made 3-pointers last season. That’s why they ranked 339th nationally out of 345 NCAA Division I teams with just 4.3 made 3s per game.

Tokoto was 8-for-36 (22.2 percent) and Nate Britt made 3 of 12 (25.0 percent), but obviously neither player commanded a full closeout from opposing defenders. Tokoto’s midrange game improved toward the end of last season, but that may be his limit. Britt’s shooting from behind the arc is a total mystery given his switch from shooting left-handed last season to right this season.

With limited options from 3-point range, Carolina’s 434 attempts were the fewest 3-pointers in program history since the NCAA adopted the line in 1986-87. (That does not include 302 attempts in the 1982-83 season when the ACC played with an experimental line.)

Carolina might have to wait until the 2015 class to get a pure shooter on its roster. But it would settle for any of the freshmen emerging as a threat.

At 6-foot-7, Justin Jackson has no problem shooting over smaller defenders. He’s comfortable at shooting guard or small forward and has shown enough promise that he could develop into a viable 3-point option alongside Paige. If freshman wing Theo Pinson and point guard Joel Berry II can make enough to keep defenses honest, it could change the entire scouting report for opponents.

Many teams played zone against the Heels last season, a few resorted to exotic defenses such as a box-and-one to contest Paige on the perimeter, but allow anyone else to shoot from deep. (Texas even ran a triangle-and-two, choosing to defend Paige and McDonald.)

Carolina should again expect to see a lot of zone this season as teams pack it in and dare anyone but Paige to prove he can shoot from outside.
Glancing over the many challenges of North Carolina’s schedule prompted coach Roy Williams to say, “This one may be a little off the charts.”

The Tar Heels face a nonconference slate that’s highlighted by the Battle 4 Atlantis with a field that could lead to potential matchups against Oklahoma or UCLA and Florida or Wisconsin. The marquee games continue at home against Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago’s United Center against Ohio State.

Both of those games are sandwiched around a trip to Lexington to face Kentucky on Dec. 13.

In a released statement, Williams said the advantages of being successful against a tough nonconference schedule can be “enormous.”

“If you have some success, you can say that I am more prepared than just about anybody to get into conference play and that’s what we are trying to do,” Williams said. “In the pre-conference, get ready for conference play, but also to play some of those national-type games to measure yourself to see how you can do outside the league as well. It is planned to try and get better, get better, get better so that you are hopefully playing your best basketball at the end of the season, when it’s the most important.”

North Carolina opens against its other Durham rival, N.C. Central. The Eagles are coming off their first NCAA tournament appearance last season.

The “All in the Family” portion of the schedule includes dates against former Carolina players or coaches. It starts at home on Dec. 7 against East Carolina, coached by Jeff Lebo, who lettered from 1985-89; Dec. 16 versus UNC Greensboro, coached by Wes Miller, who lettered from 2004-07; Dec. 27 against UAB, coached by Jerod Haase, who played for Williams at Kansas and served on his UNC staff when he arrived in 2003 until 2012; Dec. 30 against William and Mary, coached by William Shaver, who lettered from 1972-75.

The ACC schedule is highlighted by a tough, five-game stretch that entails four road games including at Louisville, Pittsburgh and Duke. The Heels haven’t had a stretch like that since Dean Smith’s final season in 1997. It will mean 19 days away from home between facing Virginia on Feb. 2 and Georgia Tech on Feb. 21. The silver lining during that span is that the Heels have a week off between the Boston College and Pitt road games.

The Heels play Louisville, NC State, Georgia Tech and Duke twice in league play. Their road-only games are Clemson, Wake Forest, Boston College and Miami. Their home-only opponents are Florida State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and Syracuse.

North Carolina landed a top-five recruiting class and, with the return of national player of the year candidate Marcus Paige, will likely be ranked in the preseason Top 10. The season begins, in earnest, on Oct. 3 with the team’s annual “Late Night with Roy” celebration.

At least 20 of the Tar Heels’ regular-season games will be televised on the ESPN family of networks.

“The season is a long journey,” Williams said. “… We are going to have some incredible opportunities or incredible challenges; it depends on the way you want to look at it.”

I'm excited to see: the ACC

August, 21, 2014
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Before we talk about the upcoming season, let's first glance back to 2010-11.

Back when the Big East Conference lived up to that "Beast" nickname. Back when a record 11 of 16 league teams received NCAA tournament bids.

Half of the Big East finished ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll that season.

Connecticut, which finished just .500 in the league and ninth in the standings, did not lose a game outside of conference play the entire season en route to capturing the 2011 national championship.

Think about that a minute: from ninth-best in the Big East to national champions.

I'm excited to see whether the ACC has that kind of depth this season.

It could.

The league could have three teams ranked in the preseason top 10 and at least four in the top 15. (Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Virginia.) That last happened 10 seasons ago when Wake Forest, Duke, Carolina and Maryland achieved the feat in the 2004-05 campaign.

Having four potential heavyweights at the top of the standings is fun in and of itself -- especially with Louisville making for a new rival as it replaces a Maryland program that had become stagnant.

But just having four contenders is not why the league should be so competitive this season. The strength comes in the teams that should be fighting in the middle tier:

Syracuse: I don't expect Kaleb Joseph to simply step in and do what Tyler Ennis did at point guard last season. But if he can at least stabilize the position, coach Jim Boeheim will have enough talent around him. Fellow freshman Chris McCullough could make an immediate impact at power forward, and Tyler Roberson is ready for an expanded role with C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant gone.

Pittsburgh: It's time the ACC got used to what the Big East knew: Coach Jamie Dixon always finds a way to have the Panthers in the mix. Cameron Wright and James Robinson form an experienced backcourt, and, if forward Durand Johnson comes back strong from his knee injury, Pitt will again prove to be a tough out.

Notre Dame: Guard Jerian Grant led the team in scoring and assists before being sidelined after just 12 games because of academic issues. Grant's return gives the Irish instant credibility. Pat Connaughton and Demetrius Jackson will help make them one of the best 3-point-shooting teams in the league.

NC State: Could have one of the better backcourts in the league with sophomore Anthony Barber and Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey. There's no way to replace T.J. Warren, but coach Mark Gottfried signed a solid class with three top-100 recruits led by power forward Abdul-Malik Abu.

Miami: It might seem odd to expect the Canes to make a leap with just three players and 15 percent of their scoring returning from last season. But transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) will help them get better in a hurry, not to mention redshirt freshman guard Deandre Burnett, a four-star recruit who was sidelined with a wrist injury last year.

Florida State: The Seminoles could be the sleeper of the league. They return six of their top nine players from last season, including leading scorer Aaron Thomas. Coach Leonard Hamilton's teams are always tough defensively, and, with a trio of 7-foot rim protectors, they'll be tough to score on again.

Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons return their leading scorer (Codi Miller-McIntyre) and leading rebounder (Devin Thomas). Now, if first-year coach Danny Manning can just get them to win on the road, where they have been just 2-32 against league opponents the past four seasons, he'll have them turned in the right direction.

Even Clemson, which lost K.J. McDaniels to the NBA but returned almost everyone else of note, could pull off a few surprises.

North Carolina and Duke have carried the mantle for the ACC for far too many years. This season there will be plenty more teams that can shoulder the load.
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Fans with tattoos commonly get their favorite team's logo or maybe its mascot, but rarely do they tattoo an image of the head coach on their body.

But that's exactly what 28-year-old Richard Miner asked for Wednesday when he walked into Tymeless Tattoo in Baldwinsville, New York, and had tattoo artist Kyle Proia ink his best Jim Boeheim on Miner's leg.

"I'm a lifelong Syracuse fan," said Miner, a chef at a barbecue restaurant in Syracuse. "He's done remarkable things for the program for more than four decades."

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Finally, it seems North Carolina Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige will enter a season where things are exactly how he expects them to be.

That didn't happen when he signed out of high school. Paige thought he'd play backup to Kendall Marshall at point guard and slowly make the transition to the college game. Instead Marshall bolted for the NBA, which sent Paige into the starting lineup from the opening tip.

It didn't happen as a sophomore. P.J. Hairston figured to be the Tar Heels go-to scorer on the floor, but was never reinstated after receiving impermissible benefits. That forced Paige to take over the scoring burden.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige
AP Photo/Eric GayMarcus Paige, who led the Tar Heels with 19 points, hit some big shots down the stretch against Providence.
For the nine games Leslie McDonald was ineligible, Paige was the Heels' only 3-point threat. For the entire season, he was the only player UNC fans felt comfortable seeing at the free throw line.

"There were some things that happened in the offseason that obviously shook up our team a little bit -- a lot of bit -- and just kind of changed the whole dynamic of leadership, of scoring options all that stuff," Paige said. "This year we haven't any of that. Our roster has been set. Everybody is good to go. It's been a lot more relaxing from that standpoint. I'm more at ease with what's going on."

Entering his junior season, Paige is burden-free. And that may actually mean he does less next season as the Tar Heels accomplish more.

Paige became the first player to lead the Heels in both scoring (17.5) and assists (4.2) since Jeff McInnis (16.5 ppg, 5.5 apg) in 1995-96. But with the offensive weapons added to the roster, he doesn't think he'll have to score as much next season.

"Our scoring will be more balanced this year, there's guys that are ready to make leaps, especially offensively," Paige said.

Starting with sophomore center Kennedy Meeks, who has dropped nearly 50 pounds from where he arrived on campus and is down to 271. Meeks' conditioning will allow him to stay on the court longer. He showed snapshots of his potential last season including his 13-point, 12 rebounds and seven assists in the win over Louisville.

Paige pointed to forwards Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto as having bigger roles and he said the freshmen trio of Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson were all talented scorers as well. He said it should amount to the Heels not having as much trouble scoring in halfcourt as they did last season.

"I expect to shoot a higher percentage from the floor and from the 3-point line," Paige said. "I shouldn't have to take as many tough shots as I had to take last year at times to try to create points. We struggled to score a lot in the half court last year against tough defensive teams. I think I won't have to do that as much."

But for the times he will have the ball and the Heels need a basket, Paige said he's been working this summer on scoring in isolation and creating his own shot.

Paige doesn't expect a repeat of last season's tendency to have quiet starts offensively before erupting in the second half.

"Coach [Steve] Robinson told me to set the tone with my intensity and my aggressiveness and if they have to scale me back they'll do that," Paige said. "That's kind of the mindset I'm going to have going in, but I wouldn't expect to average 20 [points] a game or anything this year because we're too talented for that."

Paige could again find himself playing off the ball for portions of the game with either sophomore Nate Britt or Berry running point. He could also see a lineup when he is at point guard and joined by the 6-foot-6 Pinson or 6-foot-8 Jackson at shooting guard.

That's the kind of versatility that gives Paige high hopes for the coming season.

"I don't think there's any team that I'm looking at like, 'We can't beat them,' or 'we don't have the talent to matchup with them,'" Paige said. "We'll definitely have our tests with our schedule, but I think that will help us out and I think we're a legitimate Final Four contender if we can put all our pieces together."

Paige was asked about the ESPN.com college basketball coach poll that ranked UNC's Roy Williams 16th: "That's kind of ridiculous honestly. There's no chance that's remotely close. I may be biased, but, no way."

3-point shot: A tough transfer

June, 30, 2014
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Andy Katz reports on why Dominic Artis isn't headed to St. John's, how Louisiana-Lafayette plans to springboard off Elfrid Payton's NBA lottery status, and the upcoming first days in new conferences for Louisville, Maryland and Rutgers.

3-point shot: Return pays off for Napier

June, 27, 2014
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In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz reports on how returning to school for another year could have boosted the draft stock of Jahii Carson and James Michael McAdoo the way it did for Shabazz Napier, who was taken in the first round of the 2014 NBA draft.

Williams: McCants doesn't ring true

June, 7, 2014
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams told ESPN's Jay Bilas that he was in "shock" and "disbelief" when he learned former guard Rashad McCants had told "Outside the Lines" that tutors wrote his term papers, he rarely went to class for about half his time at UNC, and he remained able to play largely because he took bogus classes designed to keep athletes academically eligible.

In a 35-minute, on-camera interview Saturday that was attended by 11 former basketball players as a show of support, Williams said the experiences McCants shared did not match what he knows about his players' academic efforts and records and the basketball program he oversees.

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3-point shot: Potential rules changes

May, 21, 2014
May 21
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Andy Katz discusses Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim's thoughts on the 30-second shot clock experiment and the NBA draft age limit, as well as Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins eventually succeeding Boeheim.

The NBA installed a 24-second shot clock in 1954. It took men's college basketball another 30 years -- until 1985 -- to follow suit.

Decades of painful stalling strategy would have seemed to make the shot clock a no-brainer, but the college game put up an admirable resistance. Tennessee's infamous 11-6 victory over Temple happened in 1973, 12 years before the first men's shot clock. When the NCAA rules committee finally gave in, it did so nervously: The first version of the college shot clock was 45 seconds, nearly twice the length of the NBA clock. Eight years later, it changed to 35 seconds.

Now, two more decades later, we might finally, mercifully lop another five seconds off the clock.

On Thursday, ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson reported that the ACC would experiment with a 30-second clock in exhibitions in the coming season. ACC commissioner John Swofford said the coaches and athletic directors were on board; Pitt coach Jamie Dixon told ESPN's Andy Katz a shorter clock is "where the game is headed." The experiment will be just that -- a brief lab trial staged in otherwise meaningless games. The ACC will report back to the NCAA men's basketball rules committee. A tentative toe will be dipped into the frightening waters of change.

[+] EnlargeShot Clock
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesThe college basketball shot clock has been set at 35 seconds since 1993.
The 2012-13 season was its slowest and lowest-scoring in decades at 67.5 points per game, despite upticks in points per possession, which is why the new freedom-of-movement rules were designed before the start of last season, when scoring increased to 71.0 points per game. If you believe the college game is too slow, this is encouraging news. It is a step in the right direction.

What's the worst that could happen? If you believe the college game is fine the way it is, the idea of a shorter shot clock is a little bit scary. Your answer to the first question is "a lack of personality."

The theory is not without some merit: A longer clock allows stylistic flexibility. It gives smaller schools a chance to compete with the big boys. It means up-tempo pressure and methodical offense can exist within the same sport. Variety is the spice, etc. If you lose time, won't everything get watered down? What if the shorter possessions hurt the quality of play? Speed isn't everything, right? What if the game gets shorter and worse?

The only problem with the first theory is that it is the same argument employed against the original college shot clock. It was more institutional then; now the worry is stylistic. It is still the same rough fear. And the stuff about quality of play is almost insulting: These are Division I athletes, coached by men who make millions (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars a year. Give them a season. They'll figure it out.

A shot clock hasn't always made the game faster. The 45-second clock worked like a charm; teams quickly blew past the limits of the incentive. But the 35-second clock correlated, if not caused, a drastic, decades-long drop in average possessions per game. Coaches tightened their grips. Scoring went down not because offenses got worse, but because games got slower. The trend finally abated last season, but compared to 30 years of sloth, the uptick was marginal. This is another argument against a shorter clock: The last time we went down this road, the game got slower. Correlation or causation?

The game is slow. That much we can agree on. A yet-shorter clock might solve the problem. It might introduce new ones. The game might get faster, but at what cost? Asking doesn't really matter, because the only way to find out is to change the rule and see what happens. Go to 30 seconds. Go to 24. The NBA tried it out in the mid-'50s, with players most modern college athletes would dust. Let's experiment. What's the worst that could happen?

3-point shot: Coach K's NBA draft thoughts

May, 14, 2014
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Andy Katz looks at Mike Krzyzewski's call for change in the NBA age-limit rule and the ACC title game's move to Saturday.

For the third time since the ACC/Big Ten Challenge began in 1999, more teams have been added to the mix. The battle for conference supremacy started with just nine games deciding the outcome back when that was the extent of ACC membership.

The league has ballooned to 15 teams and now that the Big Ten expanded too, a slate of 14 games over three consecutive nights from Dec. 1-3 will determine bragging rights.

The ACC was 6-0 when just nine teams played in the Challenge. It was 4-2 after ACC expansion and 11 teams played. Since going to 12 teams the Big Ten won once and the Challenge has ended in consecutive ties.

The ACC still holds an advantage winning 10 of the 15 meetings overall, but it has not won the Challenge since 2008.

Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) will make their respective debuts in the Challenge this season. Clemson, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech did not participate last season for the ACC. Boston College will sit this one out this season.

As Maryland changes allegiances from ACC charter member to Big Ten expansion team, it becomes the Big Ten team with the most wins. The Terrapins have participated in every challenge and has a 10-5 record, and trails only Duke (13) for most Challenge wins. Five Big Ten teams (Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin) are tied with seven wins in the series.

From top to bottom, here are the best matchups of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge:

1. Duke at Wisconsin: It just might be an early Final Four preview. On paper, both have the rosters that could be playing the final weekend of the season. The Badgers, led by center Frank Kaminsky, return most of the rotation that got Bo Ryan to his first Final Four during his Wisconsin tenure. Duke restocks with the No. 1 recruiting class led by center Jahlil Okafor and guard Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils were 0-4 versus top 10 teams away from home last season in a year that ended with a NCAA second round flameout against Mercer. Wisconsin will be an early test to see if Duke will write a different narrative this season.

2. Iowa at North Carolina: Expect a high-scoring game because the Hawkeyes and Tar Heels both want to run early and often. Forward Jarrod Uthoff and center Gabriel Olaseni give Iowa a formidable frontcourt duo that will put up points in Fran McCaffery’s system despite their roster losses from last season. The Hawkeyes have never won on the road (0-5) in the Challenge. UNC will be a much more athletic team than it was last season with the addition of freshmen Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson. The game could offer a small bit of redemption back home for guard Marcus Paige, who is a Marion, Iowa, native, after the Heels were bounced by Iowa State in the NCAA tournament.

3. Ohio State at Louisville: The last time Thad Matta squared off against Rick Pitino, Xavier upset the Cardinals in the 2004 NCAA tournament en route to the Elite Eight. It was the run that helped Matta land the Buckeyes job. Matta will learn what he’s working with in an early road test for a young, but talented team. The game will also serve as a homecoming for Ohio State freshman guard D’Angelo Russell, a Louisville native, who had an offer from Louisville. Ironically, next season, the Cards will rely heavily on sophomore guard Terry Rozier, a Cleveland native, who is expected to have a breakout year with the departure of Russ Smith. Montrezl Harrell’s decision to return to school was like a recruiting coup for the Cards.

4. Virginia at Maryland: A new twist to an old rivalry. The two foes have literally played the past 100 years, and as ACC rivals the game had the exalted status of the final regular season game for the better part of the last four decades. It could easily be the most intense game of the Challenge since both teams know each other so well. The backcourt battle pitting Virginia’s London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon against Maryland’s Seth Allen and Dez Wells could determine the outcome.

5. Michigan State at Notre Dame: From 1908 to 1979 the Spartans and Irish had a healthy basketball rivalry, meeting 94 times. It’s the first meeting between the schools since MSU beat the Irish in the Elite Eight en route to its 1979 national championship. The Spartans bring back Branden Dawson, who considered turning pro. The Irish welcome back Jerian Grant, who withdrew from school at the start of conference play due to an “academic matter.”

6. Syracuse at Michigan: Think of how great this game would have been with guard Tyler Ennis and forward Jerami Grant still suiting up for the Orange and guard Nik Stauskas, forward Glenn Robinson III and center Mitch McGary playing for the Wolverines. Instead, they form an all-star lineup of NBA early entries. In a rematch of the 2013 Final Four game, only a combined five players (Syracuse: Rakeem Christmas, Trevor Cooney; Michigan: Spike Albrecht, Caris LeVert) remain who played in the game.

7. Nebraska at Florida State: If the Cornhuskers plan on improving on last season's NCAA appearance, they have to learn to win games like this. The Huskers were just 3-8 last season on the road and Tallahassee can be a tough place to play. The Seminoles missed the NCAA tournament last season due to several close nonconference losses, a trend they’ll need to reverse this season.

8. Pittsburgh at Indiana: The Panthers haven’t played the Hoosiers in Bloomington since 1941 and Pitt's experienced guards Cameron Wright and James Robinson won’t be intimidated by Assembly Hall. Noah Vonleh’s decision to turn pro possibly set IU back in its bid to rejoin the nation’s elite. But guard Yogi Ferrell and newcomer James Blackmon Jr. means the Hoosiers' cupboard isn’t bare.

9. Illinois at Miami: The Illini could be a darkhorse in league and an early road win could prove it. Guard Rayvonte Rice will be even harder to stop if he can improve his 3-point shooting from 29.5 percent last season. The Canes return just three players from last season, who accounted for just 15 percent of their scoring. Transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) should make immediate impact for Miami.

10. Minnesota at Wake Forest: Guards Deandre Mathieu and Andre Hollins give Minnesota backcourt stability. The Deacons counter with their top duo of leading scorer Codi Miller-McIntyre and leading rebounder Devin Thomas, who should help Danny Manning make a smooth transition in his first season as coach.

11. Rutgers at Clemson: The Mack and Jack show is back for Rutgers. Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack were the top two scorers from last season and a formidable duo. Clemson returned everyone of impact except leading scorer and rebounder K.J. McDaniels. Guard Rod Hall will likely expand his scoring role after leading the Tigers in assists.

12. NC State at Purdue: The Boilermakers are the hottest team in the Challenge with five straight wins. Junior 7-footer A.J. Hammons gives Purdue a solid centerpiece to build around. NCSU has the monumental task of replacing 2014 ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack's fortunes could rest with talented, yet erratic, point guard Anthony Barber.

13. Georgia Tech at Northwestern: Both teams hope to get a boost from guards lost to injury last season. Tech’s Travis Jorgenson played in just four games before tearing his ACL. Northwestern’s oft-injured guard JerShon Cobb, its leading scorer returning, missed the last five games with a foot injury. The Yellow Jackets have only won once on the road in the Challenge.

14. Virginia Tech at Penn State: The Nittany Lions return most of their rotation that lost eight games by five or fewer points. Senior guard D.J. Newbill, who led the team in scoring, is now the unequivocal leader with Tim Frazier gone. Buzz Williams begins Hokies rebuilding project with a good starting point -- guard Devin Wilson was on both the coaches and media all-ACC freshmen teams and ranked third in the league in assists.

Look back, look ahead: ACC

April, 16, 2014
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A basketball-related expansion -- an anomaly during the entire conference realignment shuffle -- was supposed to culminate by making the Atlantic Coast Conference rise above other conferences. The league was supposed to be the biggest and baddest of the major conferences thanks to its first season with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame as league members.

However, the only thing that increased was disappointment in the league’s overall showing.

Expanding to 15 teams did little to affect the ACC’s reach in the NCAA tournament. Six teams received bids -- and that likely would have been just five until NC State’s late push (including its upset of Syracuse in the ACC tournament).

North Carolina and Duke both failed to advance into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 1979. The Blue Devils were upset by Mercer in the second round. The Tar Heels lost to Iowa State in the third round. The ACC has long depended on the bluebloods to carry the league’s baton, and this season did little to change that narrative.

Only Virginia, which earned a No. 1 seed by winning the league title, advanced to the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers were then eliminated by Michigan State.

The league should improve next postseason thanks in part to Carolina's and Duke's potential to have powerhouse squads.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesWith a stellar recruiting class, Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils may be the ACC's best in 2014-15.
What we saw this season: The Cavaliers returned to prominence by winning their first outright ACC regular-season title since 1981. Criticism followed since the Cavs, who only played Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina once each and two of those games were in Charlottesville. It took winning the ACC tournament for Virginia to erase those doubts.

Freshmen Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) and Jabari Parker (Duke) proved to be not only among the best players in the conference, but in the nation -- regardless of class.

Many ACC teams had outstanding individual talents -- NC State’s T.J. Warren (won the league’s player of the year award), Duke’s Rodney Hood, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels to name a few -- but those teams were heavily flawed. Opponents who stopped Lamar Patterson essentially stopped Pittsburgh. Syracuse had trouble scoring. Duke had a thin frontcourt. Carolina was limited by its shooting from the perimeter.

Syracuse started the season strong -- winning its first 25 games -- but faded down the stretch losing six of its last nine games, as its offense went on hiatus. The Orange did provide two classics sure to be talked about in ACC lore. Their first meeting with Duke was a thrilling 91-89 overtime win in the Carrier Dome and their 66-60 loss at Duke featured Jim Boeheim’s first ejection in a regular-season game.

As has long been a problem since the league expanded to 12 teams, the ACC failed to develop a strong second tier of added depth. The conference continued to be top-heavy as Florida State, Maryland, Clemson and Notre Dame never quite became teams to fear.

Three of the bottom four teams in the standings played poorly enough to end the season with their coaches being fired. Boston College arguably had the most disappointing seasons of them all relative to its talent level. The Eagles pulled it together long enough to hand Syracuse its first loss, which was the highlight of their season.

What we expect to see next season: More of the nation’s top freshmen. Duke’s recruiting class is considered tops in the land and is led by center Jahlil Okafor, who is ranked No. 1 overall in the ESPN 100, and Tyus Jones, the No. 1 point guard who is fourth overall. North Carolina also snagged two top-10 recruits in Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson and is ranked third as a class by ESPN.com.

Newcomers are great and all, but let’s also appreciate what we won’t see in the ACC for the first time in its existence. Maryland, a charter member of the conference started in 1953, will begin competing in the Big Ten. Let’s pause to remember the good times.

Long enough? OK.

Louisville obviously doesn’t compare to the tradition Maryland had within the league, but it could be considered an upgrade otherwise. With three national titles and a Hall of Fame coach currently on its sideline, the Cardinals fit the league’s basketball pedigree.

Their addition, plus Virginia’s returning most of its ACC title squad, should help the league become closer to the juggernaut many of its coaches expected this past season.

For all the hand-wringing over a change of guard in the ACC, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels look primed to re-establish their stranglehold on the top of the league standings. Regardless of how Parker’s NBA draft decision falls on Wednesday, Duke will have a good blend of experience (Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson) and young talent (Okafor, Jones, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen) at Mike Krzyzewski’s disposal.

Carolina returns the likely front-runner for preseason player of the year in Paige. Forward Brice Johnson and center Kennedy Meeks give the Heels an inside offensive scoring punch that will be hard to contain.

Because of those teams at the top, a trio of new coaches could face a harsh inaugural season in the league. Buzz Williams shocked many by leaving Marquette to take the reins at Virginia Tech, replacing James Johnson. Jim Christian (after a stint at Ohio) takes over Boston College, replacing Steve Donahue. And Danny Manning returns home to Tobacco Road to rebuild Wake Forest, replacing Jeff Bzdelik.

It could all add up and help the ACC live up to its own expectations as the best basketball conference in the nation.

Virginia, the underdog favorite

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
6:25
PM ET

NEW YORK -- They put Virginia in the New York Knicks' locker room. It’s the cushiest space, bigger than the visitors' rooms in Madison Square Garden, lined with plush carpeting and tricked out with wooden stalls.

It’s meant to be a reward, an honor reserved for the highest seed competing in the regional.

Of course, the joke is that they put Virginia in the Knicks’ locker room ... as in the home of the woebegone, train wreck of an NBA franchise, a backhanded compliment if ever there was one.

Because it is, after all, Virginia, the George Harrison of No. 1 seeds, the Rodney Dangerfield of hoops, the insert-your-cliched-or-hackneyed-name-about-some-chronically-disrespected-entity-here squad of this NCAA tournament.

The Cavaliers are a living, breathing, dribbling oxymoron -- an underdog favorite.

Or is it a favorite underdog?

Whatever the case, no one believes in the Cavaliers.

More than 11 million people entered ESPN’s Tourney Challenge. A grand total of 413,115 (or 3.75 percent) picked the Hoos to win the national championship. People had more faith in each of the other three No. 1 seeds, one 2-seed (Kansas), a No. 3 seed (Duke, which, by the way, lost by nine to Virginia in the ACC tournament just two weeks ago) and two 4-seeds (Michigan State and Louisville).

In fact, according to James Quintong, an editor at ESPN Fantasy, Virginia is officially the underdoggiest of the most recent favorites. Every other 1-seed in the past four years received at least a 5 percent good-faith vote to cut down the nets.

[+] EnlargeTony Bennett
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsDespite celebrating ACC regular-season and tournament titles this year, Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers remain the Rodney Dangerfield of college hoops.
Heck the president of the United States, whose office sits 115 miles from UVa’s Charlottesville campus, went with Michigan State.

The Cavs won the ACC regular-season title. They won the ACC tournament.

They blew out Memphis in the round of 32.

What else do you need, people?

“I think maybe if we win the national championship people will believe in us," Malcolm Brogdon said.

“Yeah, except then they won’t pick us for the next year," Akil Mitchell added.

Truth is, the Cavaliers might be a little closer to earning respect than they think. Somewhere around the middle of the second half of the Big Ten tournament title game, about when Michigan State started its systematic drubbing of Michigan, the Spartans went from injury-beleaguered question mark to the smart choice to win it all.

And now the hot pick meets Dangerfield in the Sweet 16. If you polled 50 people outside of the Garden, odds are 48 (provided they weren’t wearing Virginia gear) would pick the Spartans. Vegas has set Michigan State as a two-point favorite, which isn’t much, but remember, the Spartans are the 4-seed.

It’s all something of a running joke in the Virginia locker room, this no-respect theme that has been dogging the team all season. The players don’t care.

Seriously, they don’t. They’ve won 30 games, lost just six and aren’t terribly worried about proving anything to anyone.

“It’s kind of funny," Anthony Gill said. “We know we’re overlooked, but that’s fine. We know what we’re capable of."

So why doesn’t anyone else?

For starters, this is Virginia, home to Thomas Jefferson, blue blazers, khaki pants and really good lacrosse.

The basketball history books exist, but they are in six inches of dust, dating back to the short-shorts era of Ralph Sampson in the 1980s. It’s been 19 years since the Cavaliers played in a regional semifinal, 30 since their last Final Four.

Now compare that to Michigan State, where the regional semifinal is like the warm-up act. If Adreian Payne and Keith Appling don’t make it to the Final Four this year, it will be the first senior class under Tom Izzo to not play in a national semifinal in his 19-year career.

“Earlier in the year, they got beat by Tennessee by 30, but look at what they’ve done and who they’ve beat since," Izzo said. “They shouldn’t be underdogs, but I think it’s more because they’re a program in the making. Ours is more established."

Tony Bennett is changing at least that part of the image. This is Virginia’s third consecutive postseason (two NCAA tourneys surrounding last year’s NIT) under him.

The man has now won at Washington State and at Virginia, which is perhaps slightly easier than balancing a teacup on the end of a pencil while riding on the back of a charging elephant.

But Bennett is also both the solution and part of the (perceived) problem for the Cavaliers. In a sport where he with the most points wins, the man does not care if his team scores.

“Well, that’s not said, but it’s sort of implied," Brogdon said.

And the general fan simply cannot get all in a lather about a good defensive crouch. We are a country that actually cares to keep up with the Kardashians.

We don’t want substance. We want flash.

The Cavaliers are about as flashy as Rand Paul.

Mitchell came into the Knicks’ locker room, searching out Carmelo Anthony's locker. The senior was hoping to get it for himself. Teven Jones beat him to it.

“I’ve always been a fan of Carmelo’s," he said. “I always pictured myself guarding him."

Guarding him, not being him. Who says that?

No one, at least no one in a Knicks locker room recently. Phil Jackson’s hot mess scores an un-Virginia 98.8 points per game; it gives up 100.3, or 19 fewer than the Cavaliers have allowed in two NCAA games.

Surrounded by media in a corner of the locker room entrance, Bennett joked that he might steal a peek at the Knicks’ whiteboard while he was in town, maybe garner a play or two.

Anywhere else (well, except maybe Philadelphia) that wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Not here, of course. No, here that would be akin to risking a bad case of basketball cooties.

And that is just so Virginia, treated like favorites but living like underdogs.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- While Virginia coach Tony Bennett huddled with his assistants at halftime the Cavaliers players actively discussed their dilemma. Trailing 35-30 to No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina, the phrase that kept being repeated was, “to get back to doing what we do.”

There was frustration, yet it didn’t lead to finger pointing. Senior forward Akil Mitchell said he didn’t even yell.

“There was no reason to yell; I yell out there on the floor when everybody needs to hear me and when it’s time to get excited,” Mitchell said. “We needed to settle in and we needed to know that we’d be fine.”

The Cavs know that if they play Sunday against Memphis like they did in the first half Friday, their NCAA tournament stay will end in the Round of 32. They agreed the best thing to come out of their 70-59 win over Coastal Carolina was the relief of getting that first win.

“It’s only two or three players on our team that’s played in the NCAA tournament,” said sophomore forward Justin Anderson, who was scoreless in his NCAA tournament debut. “The expectation level is high; everyone expects you to go out and make every shot. You never factor in the adversity that you may see.”

[+] EnlargeAnthony Gill
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsVirginia's Anthony Gill shows some emotion in the victory over Coastal Carolina.
Virginia got tested more than it expected in the first half when Coastal shredded its vaunted defense. The Chanticleers had eight assists on their first 13 field goals en route to shooting 52 percent for the half. The Cavs twice got caught sleeping on back-door cuts and more often than not had slow rotations that left shooters open.

Halftime allowed them to regroup. They shed their fears of being on the wrong side of history -- becoming the first No. 1 seed in 120 games to lose to a 16-seed -- that guard Malcolm Brogdon admitted was in the back of their minds.

They’ve seen or heard about all of the upsets in the first two days of the tournament and it had an impact on their start.

“We came out with some jitters and it took us a whole half to shake them off,” said Brogdon, who had 14 points. “The jitters are gone. We’ll play a very good team on Sunday like we did tonight and we can’t come out like we did. We have to come out like we did in the second half and impose our will from the beginning.”

Getting back to what the Cavs do best meant playing better defense. Virginia held the Chanticleers to just two field goals for nearly the first 10 minutes of the second half. Those open shots Coastal got with ease were nonexistent after halftime.

Offensively it took sophomore forward Evan Nolte, nicknamed Nol-trey by his teammates, knocking down back-to-back 3-pointers to expand a three-point lead to 56-48 with 7:11 left. Nolte played just two minutes in the first half, but in the second scored all eight points of his points within a two-minute stretch that broke the game open for the Cavs.

“That’s just kind of my game,” Nolte said. “People ask me where it comes from; that’s what I do in practice.”

Mitchell said Nolte’s baskets “opened up the floodgates” as the Cavs’ lead never dipped below six after that. As they begin preparation for Memphis, Virginia hopes to start on Sunday the way it finished.

“Everyone is here to win,” Nolte said. “The margin of error is so small. We came out flat, and I think we learned from that. On Sunday we’ll come out with an edge and try to punch people in the mouth -- figuratively.”

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