ACC in Transition in 2011, Except at Top
Historically speaking, figuring out which team will win the ACC hasn't exactly been an order on the level of, say, unraveling the mysteries of "Lost" or Venus Williams' wardrobe.
Rather, it's been more of a paint-by-number operation with a two-color palette.
Carolina blue or Duke blue.
Generally speaking, you might find more drama reading the owner's guide to your dishwasher than projecting the top of the ACC.
Since 1997, one end of Tobacco Road's most famous rivalry has won the ACC tournament each year except 2004. Even then, it took a furious comeback and an overtime victory by Maryland to upset Duke and put the lone red mark on the long blue streak that dates back to Vince Carter's freshman year in college (or Shane Battier's junior year in high school, if you're so inclined).
Only twice during that period has one of the two schools not finished atop the league in the regular season.
So, when it comes to ACC supremacy, betting on both black and red on a roulette wheel -- or betting against an NFL player in a paternity suit -- seems like a sucker's bet by comparison.
What the ACC lacks might lack in unpredictability, however, it makes up in talent. In the past 10 seasons, the league has placed nine teams in the Final Four, by four different schools, and won five national championships, most recently back-to-back efforts by, predictably, North Carolina and Duke.
In 2011, it'll make up for it in variety as well.
Greivis Vasquez and freshman of the year Derrick Favors. Three starters are gone from Duke. North Carolina graduated Deon Thompson, the NCAA's all-time leader in games played. Wake Forest seemingly graduates everyone except the mascot and mainstays like Clemson's Trevor Booker, Miami's Dwayne Collins and Maryland's Eric Hayes are all out of eligibility.
Meanwhile, the coaching roster looks a little like the league put Al Davis in charge of HR. A quarter of the ACC changed coaches in April. Clemson's Oliver Purnell surprisingly left for DePaul, a team that's spent more time in the basement than Christmas decorations. Boston College parted ways with longtime coach Al Skinner and Wake Forest fired Dino Gaudio after consecutive late season swoons.
The league isn't short on talent, though. Final Four Most Outstanding Player Kyle Singler opted to return to Duke for a senior year, as did ACC leading scorer Malcolm Delaney at Virgina Tech, and exactly half the league, six teams, finished in Scout.com's top 20 recruiting classes.
But if it takes a few games to figure out who these guys are, you'll know immediately who it is they're losing to.
Like any other season, it's Duke and North Carolina.
1. Duke (2010 Record: 35-5, 13-3 in the ACC; NCAA champion)
The Blue Devils lose three starters from last year's championship team – center Brian Zoubek, combo guard Jon Scheyer and Lance Thomas, the cup of coffee in basketball shorts that gave the Duke defense its frenetic motivation. But they return an intriguing cast which should be more suited to classic Duke spread offenses, transition and aggressive perimeter defense. Five-star point guard Kyrie Irving has drawn comparison to another star New Jersey point guard that led Duke to a national title – Jason Williams – but if the weight of expectation slows him down, it would be the first thing to do so. The brothers Plumlee (rising sophomore Mason and rising junior Miles) give Duke are more athletic frontcourt. Seth Curry, a redshirt sophomore after transferring from Liberty, is eligible and with Andre Dawkins, the duo should keep the Devils sharp from 3-point range. (Duke players, however, have talked up Curry's ability to get to the rim as well). And two-thirds of the Big Three is back with seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, an impressive amount of stability for a national championship team in an era where college basketball's best players are young enough to get carded by the Good Humor man.
2. Virginia Tech (25-9, 10-6; NIT quarterfinals)
Call him Mr. 66 or the human cut line. No coach in the 65-team NCAA tournament era wound up just beyond the cusp of March Madness more often than Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg, who visited the NIT three straight years after earning a bid into the 2007 tournament. In 2010, the Hokies were left out of the tournament despite a 10-6 ACC record, the first such 10-win team in the league to be snubbed by the Big Dance. The field will expand to 68 next season, but it's unlikely the Hokies will need much in the way of charity from the selection committee. Malcolm Delaney, who led the ACC in scoring in 2011, withdrew from the NBA draft, which means the Hokies return all five starters and 98.5 percent of their scoring. Florida transfer Allan Chaney, a Scout.com four-star forward as a high school senior in 2008, should complement Greenberg's deepest and most talented team. Greenberg can worry about fighting off Duke and North Carolina this season. Some other team else can worry about No. 69.
3. North Carolina (20-16, 5-11; NIT finals)
The losses just kept coming for the Tar Heels. North Carolina was hit hard by injuries and hampered by unreliable guard play all season, resulting in a surprising NIT berth after starting the year as a top 10 team. Then the Heels lost their most reliable player, Deon Thompson to graduation, fellow tower Ed Davis to the NBA and the Wear twins to transfer, leaving North Carolina with a two-man post rotation. But it never missed a beat on the recruiting trail. The Heels bring in two Scout.com five-star players, Harrison Barnes, a 6-foot-6 swingman ranked No. 1 overall and shooting guard Reggie Bullock, as well as another option at point guard, Kendall Marshall. Alabama transfer Justin Knox, who is eligible immediately under the NCAA's graduate student transfer rules, shores up the post. North Carolina will still have to solve its fundamental problems of shooting (204th in the nation in effective field goal percentage last year), defense (262nd in turnovers forced) and limiting turnovers (192nd in turnovers committed), but Roy Williams will have an interesting assortment of tools to work with and more players who can create their own offense. Lack of post depth and point guard play remain the two areas of concern, so the Tar Heels could challenge Duke for league supremacy or slump to the middle of the pack.
4. N.C. State (20-16, 5-11)
For a man who's had to endure every possible joke about shoplifting from Santa's closet, Christmas finally came early on the recruiting trail for college basketball's Red coat, Sidney Lowe. Lowe lined up Scout.com's fifth-ranked recruiting class including a hat trick of five-star prospects. Boy next door C.J. Leslie (from Raleigh's Word of God, alma mater of John Wall) is the prize of the bunch, but both shooting guard Lorenzo Brown and point guard Ryan Harrow will be immediate talent upgrades. Javi Gonzalez might struggle relinquishing the point guard duty, but an offensive rating of 90.7 indicates he needs to. Replacing Dennis Horner might not be all that easy, but with Tracy Smith back, the Wolfpack roster will be much improved on the 2010 edition. It's on Lowe to prove he can coach elite talent to the top of the ACC – and he'll need to figure out how to defend the perimeter better – but the 'Pack are among a small group capable of winning the league.
5. Florida State (22-10, 10-6 NCAA first round)
Center Solomon Alabi is gone to the NBA, which leaves a hole every bit as big as Alabi's 7-foot-1, 250-pound frame. The Seminoles return ACC defensive player of the year Chris Singleton, but Alabi was one of the nation's finest shot blocker and the biggest reason opposing teams hit just 40.3 percent against the Seminoles from inside the 3-point arc. Alabi was also one of the team's few efficient offensive options. Only Alabi and much improved shooter Deividas Dulkys managed offensive ratings noticeably above the national average. But Leonard Hamilton will be able to plug in plenty of talent from another solid recruiting class. The Seminoles' four-man group is ranked 20th in the nation by Scout.com (Though how's this for a tough neighborhood? It's just sixth, league average, for the ACC). Incoming point guard Ian Miller could be the breakout star of the 2011 season, a gifted scorer and made-to-order heir to Toney Douglas. Jon Kreft, formerly a highly touted recruit himself before his career was derailed by a felony drug arrest, is back in the Seminole fold. FSU will defend; if they can score as well, they could be a darkhorse for the league title and are among the league's clear five best teams.
6. Miami (20-13, 4-12)
The Hurricanes lost their best player at season's end and actually played better, which has to be an encouraging sign for Frank Haith's club. After winning just three of its final 14 regular season games, the Hurricanes won two in a row in the ACC tournament before losing a tight contest to Duke, all without leading scorer and rebound Dwayne Collins. Collins and forward James Dews both graduated in 2010, but the future in the interior seems bright with rising sophomore Reggie Johnson. Johnson averaged 13.7 points and eight rebounds a game in the ACC tournament and may have been the biggest reason for Miami's success in Greensboro. Unfortunately, that's both literally and metaphorically. The 6-foot-10 center recently weighed in at 310 pounds, according to the Palm Beach Post, and may need to be a belt notch or four smaller to carry the increased minutes. Rising Sophomore Durand Scott is as good a scorer as there is in the ACC, but must improve on poor 3-point and free throw percentages.
7. Maryland (24-9, 13-3; NCAA second round)
The Terps are this low because of who they lost – longtime stars Vasquez, Hayes and Landon Milbourne – and this high because of who they haven't – coach Gary Williams. He'll have to replace three starters and their combined 43.6 points per game, more than half Maryland's offense in 2010, but Williams always finds a way. There is still talent left in College Park, notably center Jordan Williams, who, after an impressive freshman campaign, may become the Terps' best post player since Lonnie Baxter and Chris Wilcox in 2002. Picking Maryland seventh, however, is a blind vote of confidence to Williams, one of the nation's finest, and somehow still underrated, coaches. Sean Mosley and Adrian Bowie should form a nice backcourt and incoming wing Mychal Parker could be a pleasant surprise for a team in need of a scoring punch. Expect the typical rebuilding year from the longtime coach: a few painful losses early and a team no one will look forward to facing by season's end.
8. Clemson (21-11, 9-7; NCAA first round)
The Tigers lose Trevor Booker, the school's only first-team All-ACC member in the past 20 years and the team's leading rebounder and shot-blocker the last two seasons. Booker was also the team's best defensive player and the face of the program. If replacing the 6-foot-7 forward wasn't enough, the Tigers also have to replace coach Oliver Purnell, who bolted for the less-green pastures of DePaul. Purnell hadn't managed to win an NCAA tournament game while at Clemson, but he had put the Tigers firmly in the league's upper half. Point guard Demontez Stitt returns, as do guards Andre Young and Tanner Smith. Four of the top five scorers return, but in the first year under coach Brad Brownwell figures to be one of some upheaval for Clemson. Rising senior Jerai Grant needs to step up and could be the team's breakout player.
9. Wake Forest (20-11, 9-7; NCAA second round)
Like Clemson, the Demon Deacons are under new management. Colorado coach Jeff Bzdelik, who coached Air Force to the NCAA tournament in 2004 and served as coach of the Nuggets takes over for Dino Gaudio, whom Wake Forest fired after two consecutive late season collapses. The good news for Wake Forest is that expectations are running low relative to the amount of talent in Winston-Salem. Of course, most of the team will be just as new to Winston-Salem as Bzdelik. Star forward Al-Farouq Aminu is gone to the NBA while point guard, NCAA tournament hero Ish Smith graduates. Seven-foot bruiser Chas MacFarland, who routinely led the league in penalty minutes, is also gone. Only sophomores C.J. Harris and Ari Stewart return, putting the Deacons hope on four four-star freshmen and an assortment of youth. Bzdelik, however, has traditionally gotten the most out of his teams, so Wake may challenge for a spot higher in the middle of the pack, particularly if the Deacons can get production out of one-time star recruit Ty Walker.
10. Georgia Tech (23-13. 7-9; NCAA second round)
The bad news is that Yellow Jackets lose more talent in the front court than a handful of NBA teams could boast. The good news is that Georgia Tech's guards never seemed to warm to the idea of passing the ball to likely top-five pick Derrick Favors, likely first rounder Gani Lawal or senior Zach Peacock. Paul Hewitt's teams have developed an unfortunate knack for underachieving, but the talented backcourt (Glen Rice Jr., Brian Oliver, Iman Shumpert) should put a faster, higher-scoring Yellow Jacket team back on the cusp of the NCAA tournament. It may not, however, keep Hewitt of the hot seat.
11. Boston College (15-16, 6-10)
Tell us who will play for coach Steve Donahue, who parlayed his Sweet 16 run at Clemson into the Eagles job, replacing Al Skinner, and we'll tell you where they'll finish. Star forward Rakim Sanders is following former assistant Ed Cooley to Fairfield. Redshirt freshman Brady Heslip is transferring as is forward Evan Ravenel, who became an increasingly important player late in the season. The Eagles top player, Reggie Jackson, returns, as does Joe Trapani and Corey Raji, a solid returning trio. However, there's little depth behind the big three and Donahue will likely institute a markedly different offense than the flex system Skinner employed. If the Eagles had returned intact, they might've been a top-six level team. Now they're the league's biggest coaching challenge.
12. Virginia (15-16, 5-11)
For a coach entering his second year, Tony Bennett already has a surplus of former players. Transfers and early entries have left Bennett's first year and change without much stability. Foremost among them was ACC freshman of the year in 2008 Sylvan Landesberg, who was suspended and then kicked off the team last season for academic issues. The Cavaliers played well in his absence, nearly toppling Maryland in the regular season finale before Bennett's ill-timed technical in the closing minutes, and knocking off Boston College in the ACC tournament before losing competitively to Duke. The Cavs bring in six players in this recruiting class, but there's less quality than quantity. Of course, if anyone can do more with less, it's the son of former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, who once took an eight seed all the way to the Final Four. Advance the 'Hoos to the top four of the ACC, and it'll be a similarly impressive achievement.