An offseason look around the ACC

September, 15, 2011
9/15/11
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The battle between North Carolina and Duke for ACC supremacy isn’t just the talk of Tobacco Road. Soon enough, the rivalry will be renewed, and no hype machine will be needed for the nation to know the conference presents national championship possibilities.

Star-studded rosters and the addition of blue-chip recruits is a good recipe for plenty of preseason buzz surrounding both teams. But what of the rest of the ACC, where teams continue to try mightily to shift the balance of power?

Here’s a quick peek around the Atlantic Coast Conference ...

Title contenders: North Carolina coach Roy Williams was one on the biggest winners of the offseason, as his top three scorers -- Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes and John Henson -- announced they were staying in school.

[+] EnlargeTyler Zeller
Andrew Synowiez/US PresswireUNC and Duke are again expected to be the giants of ACC hoops.
Barnes is a National Player of the Year candidate who was expected to be a lottery pick had he declared for the NBA draft; Zeller is the ACC’s leading returning scorer; and Henson is the conference’s leading returning rebounder, giving the Tar Heels a formidable frontcourt. Top 3-point shooter Leslie McDonald is sidelined with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but with Kendall Marshall getting a full season as the starting point guard after blossoming as a freshman, North Carolina is in position to not only defend its ACC title, but win a national championship.

Despite watching guard Kyrie Irving leave to become the No. 1 overall pick and bidding farewell to national championship-winning veterans Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, Duke is expected to be right there with its rival from Chapel Hill. The Blue Devils have only one senior but a number of rising players ready to take on more prominent roles. Guards Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins got starting experience last season, and more production is expected from forwards Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, who led the team in scoring during the team’s preseason tour of Asia.

Either the Blue Devils or Tar Heels have won the regular-season title for the past eight seasons, with both programs winning national championships during that time. They’re both expected to be atop the ACC again.

Diaper-dandies: With the entire ACC all-freshman team of Barnes, Marshall, Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin, North Carolina State’s C.J. Leslie and Wake Forest’s Travis McKie returning, there is plenty of young talent in the league. And there's more to come.

Duke freshman Austin Rivers, like Irving last season, gives Mike Krzyzewski a player to revolve the offense around because of the spellbinding talent. The nation’s top-ranked shooting guard showed off his ability on the preseason tour, averaging 14.3 points while also making some rookie mistakes and committing a team-high 15 turnovers in four games.

But the son of Doc Rivers isn’t the only wunderkind who has the potential to make a big impact for Duke. Quinn Cook, Michael Gbinije, Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee are also top-50 recruits.

Not to be outdone, UNC added the third-ranked shooting guard in P.J. Hairston, and he is expected to play immediately along with Reggie Bullock after McDonald went down with a serious injury. The prize of the Tar Heels’ recruiting class, 6-foot-9 James Michael McAdoo, is so highly regarded that the team had considered enrolling him a year early. McAdoo is the sixth-ranked recruit regardless of position.

The other top-50 recruits in the ACC are Virginia Tech forward Dorian Finney-Smith and Maryland guard Nick Faust, who recommitted to the Terrapins after Mark Turgeon replaced a retiring Gary Williams.

Miami mess: Frank Haith left to take the job at Missouri, and at the time Jim Larranaga decided to depart from George Mason, he couldn’t have known that taking over for Haith would mean inheriting a mess.

Jim Larranaga
University of Miami photographer JC Ridley As it turns out, Jim Larranaga walked into a mess at Miami. Will he and the Canes weather the storm?
But according to a Yahoo! Sports story that broke last month, renegade Miami booster Nevin Shapiro alleged that Haith knew about a $10,000 payment to the family of then-recruit DeQuan Jones to secure his commitment. Haith and Jones’ mother have denied any wrongdoing.

The story not only leaves the eligibility of Jones in question but raises questions about what penalties the program could face if the NCAA finds that major violations occurred.

The Hurricanes were hopeful that with top two scorers -- Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott -- returning, the backcourt mates could lead them to an NCAA tournament appearance. But after withdrawing his name from the NBA draft, center Reggie Johnson, the team’s top rebounder and third-leading scorer, needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus and is expected to miss the nonconference slate. Another big man, Julian Gamble, tore his ACL and is likely out for the season.

Still, if Miami can succeed in the nonconference and put itself in good position for when Johnson returns, the NCAAs are within reach. The Hurricanes have transfers Kenny Kadji and Trey McKinney Jones becoming eligible. And with Larranaga’s history of being an underdog, who’s to say he can’t set aside the distractions and have a strong first season?

Coaching carousel: News of the retirement of Williams at Maryland came out of the blue. The Terrapins set their sights on Sean Miller, but when he decided to stay at Arizona, they hired Turgeon away from Texas A&M. While Turgeon has a national championship legacy to uphold and will be soon coaching on a Comcast Center floor named in honor of his predecessor, the rebuilding project won’t be easy in the early going.

Maryland is currently left with only nine scholarship players after losing four of its top five scorers, including Jordan Williams to the NBA draft. With a guard-heavy lineup of Stoglin, Sean Mosley and Pe’Shon Howard returning, the backcourt is expected to be the Terrapins’ strength.

At NC State, Mark Gottfried took over for Sidney Lowe, who stepped down after struggling to get the program out of the cellar. The Wolfpack have returning talent in Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and Scott Wood, but lost Ryan Harrow to a transfer.

With Brian Gregory’s arrival from Dayton after the firing of Paul Hewitt, top scorer and rebounder Iman Shumpert declared for the NBA draft and third-leading scorer Brian Oliver transferred. Leading returning scorer Glen Rice Jr. went through disciplinary issues last season. And while Gregory has recruited well thus far, he’ll have to deal with a few restrictions after the NCAA ruled the Yellow Jackets had committed recruiting violations under Hewitt.

Everyone else: Florida State has gone to three straight NCAA tournaments under Leonard Hamilton, but he’ll now have to operate without top scorer and rebounder Chris Singleton, who left after his junior year for the NBA draft. The Seminoles still have guard Michel Snaer and forward Bernard James and bring in top-100 recruit Antwan Space.

Virginia hopes to make a jump into the upper half of the conference with most of its core group returning. Senior Mike Scott had been leading the team in scoring and rebounding last season before going down with an ankle injury, and he was awarded a medical redshirt following surgery. The Cavaliers also added two top 100 recruits in Georgia Mr. Basketball Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson.

[+] EnlargeSeth Greenberg
Richard Mackson/US PresswireCan Seth Greenberg, Erick Green and the Hokies finally make it to the NCAA tournament?
Virginia Tech has seen its NCAA tournament bubble burst the past two seasons, as 25- and 22-win seasons have landed the Hokies in the NIT. This year, the challenge will be to replace top two scorers Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen. They have returning guards Erick Green and Dorenzo Hudson, who is coming off season-ending foot surgery, while adding top 100 recruits Finney-Smith, Robert Brown and C.J. Barksdale. Allan Chaney was denied medical clearance due to a heart condition.

Clemson made it to a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament in coach Brad Brownell’s first year, but the challenge will be to replace top two scorers Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant. Senior guards Andre Young and Tanner Smith return, but the Tigers are otherwise a young team.

Boston College is rebuilding after losing top scorer Reggie Jackson to the NBA draft, as well as four other top scorers. The hope is that a four-player recruiting class from California, led by top 100 recruit and Mr. Basketball Ryan Anderson, will inject life back into the program.

Wake Forest is looking to rebound after Jeff Bzdelik’s first season resulted in only one conference win. The Demon Deacons have a nice piece in McKie, a sophomore who after leading the team in scoring and rebounding tried out for the USA Under-19 team this summer. But there are questions as to whether the personnel is there. Second-leading scorer J.T. Terrell left the team last week after being charged with driving while impaired, Ari Stewart transferred and senior Ty Walker is suspended for the semester for violating the student code of conduct.

Here are some juicy nonconference games to keep an eye on:

North Carolina vs. Michigan State, Nov. 11: A game against a big-time opponent on an aircraft carrier docked in San Diego will serve as the Tar Heels’ season opener. In front of military personnel, a UNC team expected to be at the top of the national polls will state a rematch of the 2009 national championship game. The Carrier Classic will be big. In every sense of the word.

Duke vs. Michigan State, Nov. 15: The Blue Devils get their first significant test in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden. It‘s a grand stage for Rivers to announce his arrival and the rest of the team to show it can become championship-caliber. MSU will become the first team to open with North Carolina and Duke back to back since 1976.

Duke at Maui Invitational, Nov. 21-23: The championship rounds of the tournament should test the Devils. They get a first-round date with Tennessee then play either Memphis or Michigan. A game against the Wolverines would be a rematch of their NCAA tournament battle that resulted in a close win and a Sweet 16 appearance. Georgetown, Kansas or UCLA are possible opponents in a potential title game.

Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Nov. 29-30: Duke at Ohio State headlines the slate, with a potential matchup between top-five teams that feature National Player of the Year candidate Jared Sullinger. Wisconsin at North Carolina could be a matchup of probable top-10 teams. Florida State at Michigan State, Michigan at Virginia and Miami at Purdue feature potential battles between NCAA tournament teams.

North Carolina at Kentucky, Dec. 3: This marquee matchup will be popular for NBA scouts, media members and fans alike with a boatload of talent being showcased at Rupp Arena. The game will also be significant because the winner is expected to become the early favorite to win it all in the eyes of many. All eyes will be on Lexington for this potential 1 versus 2 epic.

Memphis at Miami, Dec. 6: A young and talented Memphis team should present quite a challenge for a Miami squad that is not only dealing with distractions, but also without one of its top players in the injured Johnson. The Tigers’ schedule is loaded with opportunities for big-time wins, so the Hurricanes might need this one a little more.

Virginia at Oregon, Dec. 18: Coach Tony Bennett returns to the Pacific Northwest to face a rising Oregon team in Matthew Knight Arena. It’s an intriguing matchup between two potential sleepers looking to make a move up in their respective conferences. A road win would really allow the Cavs to gain momentum heading into league play.

Florida State at Florida, Dec. 22: The rivalry game will be a good measuring stick for Florida State, as it will go on the road and attempt to slow down a guard-heavy Florida team that also is coming off a deep run in the NCAA tournament. What do the Seminoles have without Singleton? We will find out here.

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