We are going to make our best
guess on how the ACC will finish next season, but like everyone else, it's just
a guess, and we'll get a lot wrong like everyone else will.Â There are a
lot of interesting things to consider this year, not least of all how the
various coaching transitions are working out, the retention of talent this
season as opposed to recent years, and the continuing evolution of the
conference after the retirement of Dean Smith, the league's longest shadow.
We are picking Duke first, not
because we are chauvinists even though we are, of course, but because of the
recent track record: Duke has eaten this league alive lately.Â And they
did it last season with a six man rotation.Â Chris Carrawell is gone of
course, but stepping up are Mike Dunleavy, Casey Sanders, Chris Duhon, and an
even better Jason Williams. Duke will be able to cope with his absence though
there may be some particular defensive matchups which are difficult.Â But
increased depth will make a big difference in every aspect of Duke's game.
The other reason we are picking
Duke relates to a theory we have in the tournament: never bet against superior
coaching.Â Currently, the only established first rate coach in the
conference is Krzyzewski.Â Williams is sound, but never having made it
past the Sweet 16, and never having won the ACC, he's not exactly making an
argument for the Hall of Fame.Â Odom has done a nice job as well,
particularly for those of us who remember Wake as sort of the little sister of
the conference in years past.Â Tough, gritty, not an easy game, but
usually a win.Â Odom has really established Wake as a solid program, but
Top 25 year in and year out? Not quite. Gillen is making a big push, and the
others are still building their reputations.Â We think they are doing
excellent jobs in some cases, but they're not proven yet.
For second place, we're going to
buck the trend and pick UNC instead of Maryland. Maryland is deep and talented,
but with all due respect, they've been deep and talented for the previous two
seasons.Â The Francis team was briefly compared to the UCLA teams of yore.
Not quite, as it turned out.Â
Maryland has a lot of talent, and great pieces to work with. Unfortunately,
they also have Gary Williams, whose temperament is brittle.Â We're not
saying he hasn't done a great job - he has, and the ACC owes him, because
Maryland is the big school in the DC/Baltimore corridor now, reclaiming that
status for the conference.Â It's a big deal, because the high school
players get caught up in it and either dream of the ACC or the Big East. We
want them dreaming of the ACC.Â But his last two teams have tanked down
the stretch.Â We think he has a superb backcourt, but nonetheless,Â
until Maryland has a great year, we're not going to predict one.Â In other
words, we're betting on what we know, rather than what might be.
UNC is in a slightly different
situation, off of a disappointing year, though they did ride into the Final
Four. But they still lost nine of their last sixteen games, and they gave up Ed
Cota to the draft...oh wait, to the EA All-Stars.Â Oops.Â Â
That doesn't take away from a
brilliant career at UNC, though. He did as fine a job as anyone ever has done
at getting the ball to his guys where they need it.Â In one game, Antwan
Jamison scored about 33 points in something like 57 seconds of possession time.
That was Cota, dropping the dime where it needed to be dropped, and that's a
kind of genius.
On the other end of the court
though,Â he was the Ted Baxter of defenses, posing and posturing and
talking but never doing much.Â We don't think he took a single charge in
his career.Â Not many anyway.
This is something we have only
recently come to consider when looking at UNC's hopes for next season, and it's
important.Â Matt Doherty has inadvertently exposed a weakness in how Bill
Guthridge ran the team, which was conditioning.Â The players all talk
about how they are in much better condition, and how the new staff has really
invigorated the program.Â Will Cota be missed? Yes - on offense.Â But
the flipside of that is that this team is likely to be drastically improved
defensively. The athleticism is still a problem, but if you raise their
conditioning and figure that whoever plays point will play better defense than
Cota did, and that balances some of what they lose on offense.Â And don't
forget, Ronald Curry will be coming over soon (not to mention Peppers) unless
UNC gets hot and plays their way into a bowl game.Â Ron Curry, Joseph
Forte, and Brian Morrison - that's a pretty good group of perimeter defenders.
We like the chances of this team better than Maryland's.
As we said earlier, Maryland has
talent and potential, but that has been true before under Williams, and hasn't
translated into significant success.Â That's not to say it won't this
year, but we'll believe it when we see it.Â A more interesting question
has to do with Gary Williams and pressure: if this team falls short of
expectations, will Maryland fans get impatient?Â When Lefty said Maryland
could be the UCLA of the East (old UCLA, not todays), he was exagerrating
(imagine that), but there is a kernel of truth as well. Maryland is a sleeping
giant. If Gary can't make it with this team, how tolerant will the fans
be?Â There's absolutely no reason why Maryland shouldn't be a power in
college basketball.Â Having said that, it would be the height of
ingratitude.Â Maryland fans may have forgotten where Maryland was when
Gary showed up, but they shouldn't. They owe him, big time.Â Do we like
Williams? Not particularly, no. Is he maximizing Maryland's potential? Not even
close.Â But he did save that program.
After that things get a bit
fuzzier in the conference.Â The next tier is Virginia, Wake Forest, and
State, and each team has key injuries or personnel problems. Wake's are
probably the most critical -Â Rafael Vidaurreta has a knee problem which
will keep him out for at least another month, and Ervin Murray has mono, which
will set him back. At least it's early and he might recover but it's tough to
get your stamina back.Â Both players are critical to Wake's success. After
last season's beautiful ending, it'd be a shame if the momentum was snapped.
Virginia lost Majestic Mapp,
likely for the season with an ACL injury.Â That hurts their depth and
their rotation but they have a better chance of overcoming it than Wake does,
at least in the short term.
State lost Damon Thornton to
idiocy.Â Arrested for drunk driving, Thornton is suspended until further
notice.Â Ron Kelley can fill in, and since State is and has been building
towards a Pitino-type pressure system, it may be surmountable.Â Â
State has excellent depth, just not at Thornton's position. But on a running
and pressing team that can be overcome, a la UVa.
We would pick Virginia fourth,
State fifth, and Wake sixth, but only because the injuries could greatly harm
them. If they were healthy, we would pick them fourth and possibly third.
The third tier is also in flux, as
all three programs are possibly improving a great deal. That said, they could
improve a great deal and not win a lot. But they won't be as horrible as they
were last season.
Clemson has our vote for #7.Â
The Tigers have recovered from last season's devastating wave of injuries,
although Chuckie (Cheese) Gilmore is out, and they have enough athletes now to
keep up with most teams.Â Additionally, Larry Shyatt, we suspect, is a
fair game tactician and will have more tools to work with.Â The first
option is Will Solomon, who had a phenomenal year last year, and he can open
the floor up for other players, particularly slashers like Dwon Clifton.Â
Tony Stockman and Edward Scott round out a nice backcourt.Â Up front
Allenspach returns, and they can surround with him Ray Henderson, Chris Hobbs,
and possibly Dwon Clifton. Shyatt has already talked about going with a 3 guard
For # 8 we'll go with FSU, only
because they have a reasonable amount of talent this season.Â Delvon
Arrington, Adrian Crawford, Monte Cummings, Antwaun Dixon and Michael Joiner
allow for some athletic defense, and if they can get decent play out of David
Anderson and Nigel "Big Jelly" Dixon it could be a respectable
team.Â Rodney Tucker would help, but his trial for rape is pending and
nothing will happen while charges are outstanding, not even at FSU.Â But
it's an improved core of athletes, and they'll be well coached. We'll
Georgia Tech will bring up the
rear in their once-traditional position, back when they first joined the
ACC.Â We have a healthy respect for Paul Hewitt.Â But talent is a
fundamental requirement, and Tech doesn't have very much.Â He does have
Alvin Jones, though, and they seem to have hit it off, and he does have a quick
point in Tony Akins.Â Clarence Moore is a reasonable athlete, but beyond
that it gets kind of skimpy and small, too: there are only four players on the
team over 6-4.Â It's one thing to be small and quick, another to be small
and not all that quick.Â
In sharp contrast to Bobby Cremins,
however, Hewitt plans to play a lot of players (as if he has a choice), and
Pete Gillen did miracles in his first season at UVa. Maybe Hewitt can do the
same. Then again, maybe not. We'll know soon.