- Eamonn Brennan, College Basketball Reporter
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The ESPN.com summer previewing tour continues again this week with Summer Shootaround, our exhaustive August look at key college hoops conferences. In addition to helping out with the Shootarounds, yours truly will be adding some related commentary on the blog. Today: a best-case/worst-case look at the ACC.
Best case: Most programs with new coaches get a year or three to figure things out. Boston College will not want to wait that long. New coach Steve Donahue -- fresh off a Sweet 16 run with Cornell -- inherits former coach Al Skinner's expectations. Fortunately, he also inherits some talent. Boston College returns six of its nine top scorers from a team that went 15-16 last year; that experience alone should make the Eagles a competitive bunch in the otherwise soft underbelly of the ACC.
Worst case: Being competitive is great, but Skinner's firing ensured Donahue will have to wait a season before he can welcome a talented incoming recruiting class. In the meantime, junior Reggie Jackson will have to become a more efficient shooter, and the senior trio of Joe Trapani, Corey Raji, and Biko Paris will have to make major strides under their new head coach. The experience is there, but coaching transitions are hard, and if BC doesn't improve on its .500-ish 2009-10 performance, no one will be all that upset. Or, for that matter, surprised.
Best case: And so the hallowed halls of Littlejohn Coliseum grow quiet once more. Just as it seemed Clemson was beginning to build a lively ACC program -- or at least one whose fans showed up to games -- head coach Oliver Purnell took his talents to Chicago to begin another rebuilding project at downtrodden DePaul. In his place steps new coach Brad Brownell, who could be forgiven for looking over his team and wondering whether leaving Wright State was all that prudent. There is some reason for hope here, though. Demontiz Stitt is a capable point guard, while former USC commit and sophomore Noel Johnson has (as-yet-untapped) talent to burn. If Tanner Smith and Devin Booker can become more consistent, and Jerai Grant, a sneakily efficient big man, can get a few more touches, Clemson could avoid a long slog to the bottom of the ACC standings.
Worst case: Whether it will, however, is less likely. The loss of big man Trevor Booker -- who played big minutes, scored efficiently, rebounded at a high rate, blocked shots, drew fouls and, in short, pretty much did everything well -- will be extremely difficult for a young team to overcome. Brownwell's main focus for the coming season is to keep Clemson's collective enthusiasm high. Then it will be time to develop young players and recruit a few more, lest the progress Purnell made is lost to a couple years of bottom-feeder ACC finishes. In the meantime, Clemson's position at the bottom of the ACC -- or perilously near it -- seems all but assured.
Best case: Ask anyone who even remotely enjoys college basketball -- you know, the "casual fan," also known as the person who doesn't spend his or her early September days poring over long conference previews -- who will win the ACC in 2010-11, and they'll say Duke. And guess what? They're right. The 2009-10 champs are every bit as talented as last year's team. That's thanks in large part to the returns of Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, two of the stars of the 2009-10 title run. It also has something to do with this team's youth. Freshman point guard Kyrie Irving could be one of college hoops' best guards from day one; sophomore sharpshooter Andre Dawkins is a potential star in the making; and Liberty transfer Seth Curry should bring an uncanny scoring knack off the bench. Add two parts Plumlee -- Miles and Mason -- to this concoction, mix it all together, and voila: The Blue Devils are a deep, fast, athletic and insanely talented team whose ultimate best-case scenario -- a second straight national title -- is practically an expectation.
Worst case: All of which is not to say Duke doesn't have a few nagging questions surrounding its new squad. Chief among them is how the Blue Devils plan to replace the comprehensive rebounding greatness of center Brian Zoubek. Duke advanced to the national title thanks in large part to Zoubek's ability to keep possessions alive; his offensive rebounding rate of 21.4 percent was the highest mark in the country. Can the Plumlees and Singler pick up where Zoubek (and, for that matter, senior forward Lance Thomas) left off? Can Irving replace senior point guard Jon Scheyer's effortless excellence at the point guard spot? And what about experience? The 2009-10 Dukies started three seniors and two juniors; will the influx of youth, for all its talent, give Coach K challenges? Those are niggling questions -- Duke should still win the ACC if only for lack of serious competition -- but they are questions all the same.
Best case: Florida State managed last year's third-place ACC finish thanks to one thing: defense. That defense was comprehensively awesome -- it was the No. 1-ranked unit in adjusted efficiency, and allowed a mere 0.845 adjusted points per possession in 2009-10 -- but it was thanks in large part to the efforts of 6-foot-9 forward Chris Singleton and 7-foot-1 center Soloman Alabi. The bad news is that Alabi, one of the nation's best shot-blockers, was so good the NBA poached him. The good news is that Singleton remains, and with much of last year's team returning around him, the Seminoles should still be one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Worst case: Whether or not that defense translates into another top-five ACC finish will depend on whether FSU improves in other facets of the game. Florida State was one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country in 2009-10; the Seminoles gave the ball away on 24.3 percent of their possessions, which ranked them at No. 329 in the country. It's no wonder the offense -- a unit that rebounded very well and shot well enough -- was ranked outside the top 100 in adjusted efficiency. If Singleton doesn't suddenly become a more efficient offensive player, and the guards around him -- Michael Snaer, Derwin Kitchen, and Deividas Dulkys -- don't curb their turnovers, Florida State is probably bound to repeat its 2009-10 performance. At best.
Best case: You didn't have to be a Georgia Tech fan to be frustrated by the Yellow Jackets in 2009-10. With a frontcourt of Derrick Favors (the No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft) and Gani Lawal (the team's best rebounder and low-post scorer) Paul Hewitt's team should have been -- could have been -- dominant. Instead, it was mediocre. Now, without those big men, Georgia Tech is putting its focus on the team's guards, many of whom return for another year. Iman Shumpert (who gets immediate points for having a first name spelled the way indifferent sandwich vendors frequently spell mine) had flashes of brilliance last season; if those flashes are a sign of things to come in Shumpert's junior season, maybe Georgia Tech won't fall as far as their frontcourt losses ought to dictate.
Worst case: "Putting the focus on the guards," in Georgia Tech's case, is tantamount to saying "we have players that play guard!" It's not exactly a guarantee of success. Why? Because Georgia Tech's guards were the main reason Lawal and Favors didn't accomplish more in 2009-10. Shumpert is a point guard who turns the ball over on 26.7 percent of his possessions, and his effective field goal percentage hovered around the 45 percent mark for most of the year. That's just inefficient play. Freshman Brian Oliver showed some promise (and some shooting ability) in 2009-10, and guards Mfon Udofia, Glen Rice Jr., and Maurice Miller could all benefit from more possessions. Really, though, the 2010-11 Jackets are a team led by the very aspect that held them back in 2010-11. That's not a harbinger of success. It's a portent of decline.
Best case: The 2009-10 Maryland Terrapins were one of the country's most underrated teams for most of the season. A top five offense in per-possession terms, Gary Williams' team was led by a trio of seniors: guard Eric Hayes, forward Landon Milbourne and, of course, point guard Greivis Vasquez. All three are gone. Say hello, then, to the hour of Maryland's youth. The Terps will lean heavily on sophomore forward Jordan Williams and junior guard Sean Mosley; both players scored at an efficient rate in 2009-10, and both players should up their production considerably with so many more opportunities available. Seniors Adrian Bowie and Cliff Tucker will be needed for much more than spot work while Gary Williams incorporates two top-100 freshmen guards in Mychal Parker and Terrell Stoglin. There is, in other words, plenty of talent and promise here; Williams could be one of the ACC's best players as soon as this season. It will take that sort of leap to engender anything like a best-case finish, which might be as good as an NCAA tournament bid.
Worst case: Sorry, but the Terps just lost too much. Williams and Mosley will be an interesting duo, but without the likes of Vasquez -- who lorded over this team on and off the court in 2009-10 -- and the Terrapins' other seniors, it's hard to imagine them scoring at the same high rate as last season. Instead, Gary Williams might consider this a rebuilding (or, if he prefers, a reloading) campaign, all the while working toward a true rebirth in 2011-12.
Best case: Best case for the Miami Hurricanes? LeBron James decides he's sick of NBA basketball, seeks an amateurism exemption from the NCAA (the first of its kind; LeBron has that kind of pull) and suits up for the Hurricanes on the way to an NCAA title. (Which brings up an interesting question: If LeBron James played college basketball, would his team automatically win the title? How bad would his teammates have to be for him to NOT win it all? Noodle on that while I get back to talking about Miami.) Alas, that probably won't happen. What will happen is less certain. The Hurricanes return a solid batch of young talent in Reggie Johnson (who posted a 122.4 offensive rating in 2009-10 and some impressive rebounding numbers to boot), DeQuan Jones, Durand Scott and Julian Gamble. Junior Malcolm Grant could be the team's best offensive player. This Hurricanes group, LeBron James or no, could be talented enough to finish in the top half of the ACC and return, after a one-year hiatus, to the NCAA tournament.
Worst case: OK, so that might be a little optimistic. The Hurricanes' young talent obscures the fact that this is the same team that finished 4-12 in the ACC in 2009-10, now without its two most productive scorers in seniors Dwayne Collins and James Dews. Miami was already a turnover-prone bunch; losing Dews, who had the lowest turnover rate on the team, won't help that statistic any. If the ACC is in for a down year, Miami could capitalize. But it will have to prove itself much improved to hold off a handful of teams looking to do the very same thing.
Best case: The 2009-10 Tar Heels were an exercise in youthful confusion. Guards Larry Drew III and Dexter Strickland turned the ball over at an average rate of 29 percent. Forwards John Henson, Ed Davis, and Deon Thompson seemed unable to combine their overriding talents (length, athleticism, offensive rebounding, and so on) into anything resembling productivity. Tyler Zeller missed much of the year with an injury. What's the solution to all this precocious disorganization? More youth? UNC fans will hope so. Then again, Harrison Barnes isn't just any young player. He's the No. 1 overall player in the class of 2010, a versatile 6-foot-8 power forward who can be just as effective from the perimeter as the low block. He should be a star. He'll be complemented by Henson, who's packed on some much-needed pounds in the offseason, and Zeller, who is healthy again. Strickland and Drew III should benefit from their year of turnover-happy experience, but if they don't, Williams has star freshmen Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall to take their place. The result of all this is hard to predict, but it's almost unfathomable to imagine such a talented team going 5-11 in this conference again. The best case: A No. 2 finish behind Duke, with a return to prominence and the NCAA tournament not far behind.
Worst case: It can't get much worse than last year, but the Tar Heels will have their challenges. This is still a vastly inexperienced team. It will rely on a thin frontcourt. It will be led by a shaky frontcourt. It lost two potential star forwards in Travis and David Wear to transfer. If Barnes isn't as immediately good as advertised, and if Strickland and Drew III can't figure out how to run Williams' secondary break without giving the ball away, North Carolina could suffer an only slightly better version of the 2009-10 disaster all over again.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE
Best case: Sidney Lowe's time is now. The NC State coach has his best recruiting class ever -- a class that features power forward C.J. Leslie and point guard Ryan Harrow, both top ten recruits at their positions -- arriving this fall. That group will be led by the talented senior duo of Tracy Smith and Javier Gonzalez. Smith was largely ignored last year, but his interior scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking efficiency were all impressive attributes, and with a hyper-talented group around him for the first time in his career, he could lead the Wolfpack back to respectability. More than that, he could lead them to the top of the sub-Duke heap and, if all goes well, to the NCAA tournament appearance his beleaguered coach so desperately needs.
Worst case: Much like their brethren in Chapel Hill, this NC State team will be counting on much of its improvement coming from young players. That's always a dodgy enterprise. If Leslie or Harrow disappoint, the Wolfpack will need to find a consistently efficient scorer not named Tracy Smith. This team should be better than any Lowe-coached NC State team before it, but that bar isn't exactly high. A mid-ACC finish, though an improvement, would also count as a disappointment. How hot will Lowe's seat be by then?
Best case: We have lots of words for it. There are rebuilds, reloads, holdover years, and any number of ways to qualify a team's performance when the chips are down. Distinctions aside, Virginia coach Tony Bennett is in the midst of a full-on, capital-R Rebuild. Talented guard Sylvan Landesburg left for the NBA after a late-season suspension in 2009-10, meaning Bennett will rely heavily on seniors forward Mike Scott and a batch of six scholarship freshmen. Two of those freshmen -- K.T. Harrell and James Johnson -- are ESPNU top 100 players, so the Cavaliers have that going for them, which is nice. But Bennett's time at Washington State was less about individual stars and more about building a unit capable of dominating with cohesive team defense. If his six frosh are quick learners, that process could begin as early as this season.
Worst case: Whatever happens in 2010-11, the Cavaliers aren't an NCAA tournament team. The important part, then, is to make progress. If Bennett doesn't do that right away, the Cavaliers are in for a last-place ACC finish, but that's not the worst-case scenario. It gets worse if the program takes a step back, if the freshmen don't gel, if Bennett can't instill the slow-down, defensive-oriented scheme that took him to prominence at Washington State. It doesn't matter where the Cavaliers finish the season. It's where they seem headed that will be the true barometer.
Best case: March has a few yearly traditions. One of the recent favorites is hearing Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg politely and thoughtfully complain about his team's exclusion from the NCAA tournament. The Hokies have missed out on the dance the past three seasons thanks largely to problems of their own making -- losing to inferior opponents, scheduling a feast of nonconference cupcakes, fading down the stretch. All three problems -- and Greenberg's yearly media appointment -- should be non-issues in 2010-11. The Hokies return basically everybody from last year's 10-win ACC team. Malcolm Delaney led the conference in scoring. Jeff Allen is a force on the boards. Dorenzo Hudson, Terrell Bell, Victor Davila, J.T. Thompson, and Ben Boggs form a core group of players that will be motivated, cohesive and, most importantly, talented. The Hokies won't miss the NCAA tournament, but that shouldn't be their only goal. The real accomplishment would be challenging Duke for the ACC title. It's not out of the question.
Worst case: Another NIT-level performance. Just that simple. It's hard to imagine Delaney leading this experienced and talented bunch to anything but an NCAA-worthy finish, but this is essentially the same team that beat bad teams and lost to good ones throughout the 2009-10 season. What if that happens again? What if the Hokies win a bunch of games, but none of them come against top competition? The gnashing of teeth would be severe, but just like last March, Virginia Tech would have no one to blame but themselves.
Best case: Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman took a big risk this offseason. He fired Dino Gaudio, architect of two consecutive NCAA tournament berths, and hired journeyman (and personal friend) Jeff Bzdelik, who just finished his third under-.500 season at Colorado. What gives? Wellman thinks the Demon Deacons were too frequently headed in the wrong direction at the end of the year under Gaudio, and he wanted a coach that would move his teams in the opposite direction. Whether he has that sort of long-term program-builder in Bzdelik will take a while to figure out. In the near term, Wellman will get to test his theory with Gaudio's talent. Before departing, Gaudio compiled one of the country's best recruiting classes, all of whom Bzdelik convinced to stay. The Demon Deacons lost Al-Farouq Aminu to the NBA and guard Ish Smith to graduation, but if Bzdelik can be as persuasive with young players on the court as off, Wake Forest could ride its young talent to a surprisingly strong finish in the ACC.
Worst case: The Bzdelik-for-Gaudio trade will end up being one of three things: prudent, indifferent, or just plain dumb. None of those will be determined this season. But it will be interesting to see if Bzdelik has the coaching chops Wellman thinks he does. If Wake Forest, with all that incoming talent, ends up last in the ACC -- not out of the question, by any means -- the hire will start to look suspect. And if Wake isn't competing with the big boys in the ACC in the next few years, can we credit Bzdelik (and not his talent, or lack thereof, depending on the job) for the failure?
The ESPN.com summer previewing tour continues again this week with Summer Shootaround, our exhaustive August look at key college hoops conferences. In addition to helping out with the Shootarounds, yours truly will be adding some related commentary on the blog.