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Al Featherston On ACC Operation Basketball!

For a little kid, there's Christmas morning.For a sports fanatic stranded in the football wasteland known as Tobacco Road, there's ACC Operation Basketball.

It's not really the start of the season - practice opened a little over a week ago and there are still several weeks before the first game - but the annual gathering of the ACC-area media to meet with the league's head coaches and the selected players has always been a special event - at least to me.

The reason is simple. I've been covering the three Triangle schools for more than 35 years. In that time, I'm never covered one of those schools in a major bowl. Not once. I've covered four football teams in 35-plus years that finished in the top 10 (UNC 10th in 1980, ninth 1981, 10th in 1996 and sixth in 1998). I've never covered a Triangle football team that even sniffed a national title.

In contrast, I've covered eight national championship basketball teams. I've covered 49 top 10 finishers, including 12 that have finished No. 1 in the final AP poll. It's a rare year that I don't cover a team with legitimate national title hopes.

The DBR Writer’s Fundraiser- Getting Close!

A few years ago, Chuck Amato was stunned to see stories about the eligibility of basketball prospect Jason Parker steal the August headlines from the start of preseason football practice.

"Don't you guys like football?" he screamed at a collection of writers and broadcasters.

Amato should have known better. He played at N.C. State in an era when Dean Smith was just starting to wrest ACC mastery from Vic Bubas. He was an assistant in Raleigh when David Thompson was taking N.C. State basketball to the top of the college basketball world.

He should have known that basketball was king ... although, to be fair, he played on the last Triangle football team to make a legitimate run at a national title. He was a star linebacker on the 1967 Wolfpack team that reached No. 3 in the rankings before suffering a narrow early November defeat at Penn State.

But Amato spent most of his professional career in Tallahassee, where basketball is clearly the third-place sport behind football and baseball. I know that can be debated, but I was there in 1999 when No. 1 Duke visited and the basketball game was played below the fold - underneath stories about a big baseball series with Southern Cal and the latest news from spring practice.

The Florida mindset used to drive Norm Sloan crazy.

Sloan, who grew up in hoop heaven Indiana then played for Everett Case on Tobacco Road, couldn't believe the apathy at Florida when he took over the Gator program in the early 1960s. He used to get into violent arguments with athletic director Ray Graves - who also happened to be the head football coach. Once, "Stormin' Norman' got so upset by Graves' distain for basketball that he slammed a fist down on Graves' desk - shattering the glass top.

Sloan got a measure of revenge in the fall of 1975, when Florida visited Raleigh to play one of Lou Holtz's best Wolfpack football teams. He hosted a tailgate party before the game and invited many of his old friends from Gainesville. Sloan wrote in his autobiography about how much pleasure he took hearing their outrage that the headlines in the Raleigh paper were not about the upcoming football game, but about the start of practice for his defending national championship basketball team.

Too bad Stormin' Norman is no longer with us. It would be interesting to hear his reaction to Florida's recent basketball success.

But the football/basketball dichotomy in the Triangle would make him feel right at home. It's perfect - despite N.C. State's victory at East Carolina last Saturday, the three Triangle teams are a combined 5-16 on the gridiron (3-16 against 1-A opposition); meanwhile the ACC media's preseason basketball poll, taken Sunday at Operation Basketball projected:

1. North Carolina

2. Duke

3. N.C. State

Yeah, Chuck, we like football ... but we like good basketball better than bad football.


How much faith can you put in the media's preseason poll?

A year ago, North Carolina was picked first in the preseason rankings and, indeed, the Tar Heels finished tied for first in the ACC regular season standings. The only trouble is that UNC finished tied with Virginia - which was projected to finish eighth in the preseason vote.

The writers and broadcasters have been making their preseason picks at ACC Operation Basketball for the last 38 seasons. The voters' pick as No. 1 has either finished first or tied for first in 17 of those 38 years. The voters' No. 2 pick has won 12 regular season titles with three more titles going to the No. 3 preseason pick. That means that, historically, there is an 84.2 percent change that UNC, Duke or N.C. State will win the regular season title this season.

The worst projections (beyond last year's Virginia miss) were:

  • 1980, when Albert King and Buck Williams helped Maryland win the regular season title outright after being picked sixth in preseason.
  • 1996, when Stephon Marbury led Georgia Tech to the title after being picked sixth in preseason.
  • 2003, when Josh Howard led Wake Forest, also picked sixth, to the regular season title.

I can offer no excuses for the first two of those big mistakes, but as for the third, I don't think the media was to blame. I think the Deacons would have been picked third or maybe fourth that year, except that Skip Prosser and Howard spent the entire interview sessions emphasizing their concern about the health of Howard (who was reported to have major back problems and was unable to practice) and center Vytas Danelius. I don't think they were intentionally poor-mouthing their chances - Danelius was bothered by back problems the next year - but the emphasis on health concerns did tend to drive the Deacons down in the preseason poll.

On the other hand, can I suggest that the 1978 preseason poll was the voters' finest hour. It wasn't just that they tabbed the top two finishers in order - No. 1 UNC and No. 2 Duke. But the choice of the Blue Devils at number two was a courageous pick. True, the Devils were adding celebrated prep star Gene Banks, but keep in mind that Duke had finished either last or tied for last in the ACC in 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977. To expect them to jump all the way to second - as they did - was amazingly prescient.

Just looking at projections for Duke, the voters got the Devils finish exactly right 13 times in 38 years; within one spot in the standings 13 times; within two spots in the standings three times and within three spots in the standings three times.

Duke has been seriously over-estimated just twice by my estimation:

  • 1995: picked third, Duke finished ninth. We all know what happened that nightmarish year.
  • 2007: picked second, Duke finished tied for sixth. Of course, the difference between that sixth place finish and a possible second (or even first), were a handful of plays - missed game-winning attempts at the buzzer against FSU and Virginia alone prevented Duke from finishing in a second-place tie.

You might also count 1980 as a year when Duke was overestimated - picked second, a banged up Blue Devil team finished fifth, but won the ACC Tournament.

On the other hand, Duke has been seriously underestimated three times:

  1. 1984: Picked seventh, Coach K's first outstanding Duke team finished tied for third and played in the ACC title game.
  2. 1987: Picked sixth, Duke finished third in the season that Coach K was building a consistent program and not just a single great team.
  3. 1997: Picked fourth after two mediocre seasons, Coach K returned to the top with a small, 3-point shooting team that overcame Tim Duncan at Wake Forest; the Antwan Jamison-Vince Carter combo at UNC; and Rick Barnes' best Clemson team.

So based on the history of the vote, I think the odds are good (about 76.3 percent) that Duke will finish in the top four of the league.

But what do we media types know?


Can I talk for a minute about how hard it is to project teams from one season to the next? I want to use, as an example, N.C. State.

A year ago, the Wolfpack was one of the worst teams in the ACC when starting point guard Engin Atsur was hurt and not in the lineup. When Atsur was healthy and on the floor, N.C. State was one of the best teams in the ACC - as they proved in their ACC Tournament run to the championship game.

The problem is that N.C. State returns four of five starters from last season - but loses Atsur.

Should we downgrade the Pack's chances because they proved last season that they couldn't play first-division ACC basketball without the Turkish playmaker?

Obviously, it's not that simple. Okay, we have a pretty good idea that neither Gavin Grant nor Courtney Fells can fill in at the point. But Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe has three newcomers at the point, each hoping to step into Atsur's shoes. The problem is that few of the voters have seen Iowa State transfer Farnold Degand, Tennessee transfer Marques Johnson or Miami prep standout Javier Gonzalez.

Can any one of the three provide the floor leadership that N.C. State lacked in Atsur's absence a year ago?

"It very important for us to find a point guard," Lowe, the point guard for Jim Valvano's 1983 national champs, said. "At least this year we have some point guards. I think they'll do a nice jump running the show."

Right now, Degand has the edge after practicing with the team all last season. Johnson, a 6-5 Indiana product, won't become eligible until the end of first semester. And Gonzalez is sidelined for another couple of weeks with a wrist injury.

If just one of those three can come through for Lowe, it would not be hard to see N.C. State challenge UNC for dominance in the ACC. Versatile post performers Brandon Costner and Ben McCauley proved their value a year ago and should be even better. And they are joined by prep All-American J.J. Hickson - who ranks second to Duke's Kyle Singler as the top-rated newcomer in the league.

A year ago, N.C. State was the thinnest team in the ACC ... now they are one of the deepest.

So where do you rank them? If you believe all the optimism about the newcomers at the point, it makes sense to project the Pack at second or third in the league.

But it's dangerous to believe that optimism. You have to understand that one lesson you learn about more than 30-plus years of ACC Operation Basketball is that EVERYBODY is optimistic at this time of year. Every problem will be solved, either by a freshman underrated by the experts, or by a veteran who just hasn't gotten a chance to show what he can do yet.

I don't mean to sound cynical because many times those optimistic predictions do work out. Gene Banks was a program-changer; Josh Howard did emerge as a superstar in his senior season; Chris Carrawell was another player who went from three years as a role player to a star as a senior; Juan Dixon was overlooked by the recruiting gurus ... I could cite a dozen more instances where a team's preseason optimism was justified.

But I could cite three times as many instances when a coach's fondest preseason hopes fizzled.

Going into this season, at least four (and maybe five) ACC teams are planning to start new point guards. N.C. State, Georgia Tech and maybe Clemson could contend if they find a stud playmaker. Play at the point should mean the difference between the middle of the pack and the bottom for Miami and Virginia Tech.

The problem is that most of the voters have little first-hand knowledge about the players who will have such a huge impact on the ACC race. Personally, I've seen N.C. State's Johnson (but never Degand or Gonzalez) and Miami's Edwin Rios. I haven't seen Georgia Tech's Maurice Miller, Clemson's Demontez Stitt or Virginia Tech's Hank Thorns.

How do a project teams depending on those players?

My ballot was pretty conventional. I had North Carolina No. 1, Duke No. 2 and N.C. State No. 3.

None of that was based on anything I heard Sunday. I like the Heels because they have a great college player in Tyler Hansbrough and several sophomores who played well as freshmen, but should take a big step up as sophomores. The same reasoning (minus the presence of Hansbrough) is behind my optimism about Duke - last year's freshmen showed me enough to make me think they'll be much better players as sophs. Plus I've seen all three of the freshmen and I'm pretty confident that all three will contribute.

N.C. State at No. 3 is a compromise between what they might be if one of the three point guards comes through and what happens if all three fizzle. Overall, I find it hard to believe that a staff with that many great playmakers - not only Lowe, but Monte Towe as well - will fail to develop at least an adequate playmaker.

Just a few observations about the "lower nine" teams:

-- Like the majority, I also had Clemson at No. 4. Everybody back from a 25-win team except Vernon Hamilton, who was a very good player, but a bad point guard. Oliver Purnell is giving Stitt - North Carolina's Mr. Basketball last season - a chance to start at the point, but even if he fails, either Cliff Hammonds or K.C. Rivers can do an adequate job at the position.

I also think Clemson will benefit from increased depth. The injury that hobbled Julius Powell last season really hurt the Tigers. He's back at full speed and freshman Jerai Grant (the son of Harvey and the nephew of Horace) is another long, lean big man who can function in the James Mays role in the middle of Purnell's press.

-- I had Georgia Tech rated a lot higher than the majority. I know the Jackets have a major point guard issue, but Hewitt is loaded everywhere else. The return of Lewis Clinch on the wing, combined with the return to health by Anthony Morrow (bothered by a bad back all last year) gives Tech two of the best offensive wings in the league. And nobody has more capable post players, starting with seniors Jeremis Smith and Ra'Sean Dickey (expected to rejoin the team in mid-December). Throw in impressive soph Zach Peacock and improving junior Alade Aminu, then add freshman dynamo Gani Lawal and you've got some impressive depth at a position where many ACC teams are shy.

Listening to Hewitt discuss his options up front made me start thinking again about the old idea of trades. Maryland has two dynamic young point guards, but needs wings - maybe Eric Hayes for Anthony Morrow? Or Duke could use another post player - Nolan Smith for Gani Lawal? Or would Hewitt have to throw in Peacock to even it out?

-- I really have no idea how to rank Virginia, Florida State and/or Maryland. I could see any of the three jumping into the top tier (as the Cavs did a year ago). Sean Singletary returns to push Hansbrough as the ACC's top player, but he loses his running mate in J.R. Reynolds. I really don't know how much that hurts, but I do like 6-4 freshman Jeff Jones (who is nothing like the ex-Virginia coach of the same name). Jones originally committed to Maryland and he would be a perfect fit for a team looking for wing players. The Terps are very young (James Gist and Bambale Osby are the only upperclassmen who have played), but I love Maryland's two young guards. FSU lost its best player in Al Thornton, but Leonard Hamilton has three veteran perimeter guys with talent (Toney Douglas, Jason Rich and Isaiah Swann) and adds a couple of good young big men.

-- I would have ranked Virginia Tech as my sleeper before the off-season defection of point guard Nigel Munson. Seth Greenberg had his program perfectly set up to withstand the graduation loss of three four-year starters. He'll have a strong pair of veteran wings in Deron Washington (IMHO the biggest omission from the preseason All-ACC team) and A.J. Vassallo and plenty of strong post players, especially with 6-7, 258-pound Jeff Allen joining the mix.

The problem is that Greenberg had Munson, a former playmaking star at DeMatha, all set to inherit the quarterbacking duties. Now, he'll depend on the unheralded Thorns or the only slightly more heralded Malcolm Delaney.

-- I also disagree with the projection that Miami will finish 12th.

I think the Hurricanes have a lot going for them. Last season was a nightmare for coach Frank Haith that saw starting center Anthony King lost after eight games, top power forward Jimmy Graham hobbled all year and talented guard Denis Clemente kicked off the team.

Despite all the problems, Miami finished the year surprisingly strong - beating co-regular season champ Virginia and taking both Clemson and FSU to overtime to close out the regular season, then beating Maryland and taking Boston College to overtime in the ACC Tournament.

Nobody appears to have noticed how Haith turned his team around late last year. I happen to think that momentum carries over into this year. High scoring guard Jack McClinton returns, along with forwards Dewayne Collins and Brian Asbury. Graham is back healthy, along with forward Raymond Hicks, who was suspended nine games a year ago.

Best of all, King won an appeal for an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA. He'll be the best shotblocker and maybe the best rebounder in the ACC.

There's no way this is the worst team in the ACC. True, the 'Canes are not going to contend for the title, but if Rios lives up to his early hype (once rated a top 20 national prospect, he dropped into the 50s after a so-so senior year), Haith could have this team in the ACC's middle echelon.

-- That leaves Boston College and Wake Forest. On talent terms, I have these two teams at the bottom of the league ... but I'm not comfortable either pick.

Al Skinner seems to be a genius at finding undiscovered talent. And he does have a great offensive guard in Tyrese Rice and a couple of solid (if offensively challenged) big men. But unless Rakim Sanders or Corey Raji turn out to be sleepers on a par with Craig Smith or Jared Dudley its hard to see the Eagles escaping the ACC's bottom third.

And with Wake Forest, all the attention is on the tragic coaching transition. But maybe a little more attention should be paid to the transition in the middle, where senior Kyle Visser, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, is gone, along with Robert Drum, the team's top 3-point shooter. And off-season defections have cost new coach Dino Gaudio forward Kevin Swinton and guards Anthony Gurley and Shamaine Dukes.

Gaudio is left without a senior and with just two juniors on his roster. His rotation is likely to include three freshmen and four or five sophomores.

That's not a recipe for success in the ACC. Still, a lot of people around the league will be pulling for the Deacons - the same impulse that made Virginia Tech football so popular after the off-season tragedy in Blacksburg,

Who knows how the Deacon players respond to the death of Skip Prosser? They could take inspiration from the memory of their late coach and surprise us all with a better-than-expected season ... or they could run into adversity and respond by feeling sorry for themselves.

I certainly don't claim to have a crystal ball. All I know if that moving from table to table at the Grandover Resort outside Greensboro, listening to the coaches and players talk about their seasons and the issues facing them, is the most fun I've had since the 2007 season wrapped up last April.

Baseball is a nice time-waster and every fall I delude myself into believing that football will be worth getting excited about. I could be suffering the same delusions about this basketball season, but I don't think so. When you live on Tobacco Road, college basketball is the one sport you learn to count on.

The first game is still weeks away, but as far as I'm concerned, the season started Sunday at ACC Operation Basketball.

2007-08 ACC Operation Basketball Pre-Season Media Poll

Grandover Resort & Conference Center

Greensboro, N.C.

Team Predictions

School Total 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 11th 12th
North Carolina 768 64 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Duke 653 0 29 22 10 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
NC State 641 0 27 21 9 6 0 0 1 0 0 0 0
Clemson 514 0 6 9 18 10 9 2 4 4 1 1 0
Virginia 492 0 1 7 14 14 13 9 4 2 0 0 0
Maryland 447 0 0 3 7 14 17 12 9 1 0 1 0
Georgia Tech 389 0 0 1 4 10 11 20 4 8 2 4 0
Boston College 332 0 1 1 2 5 6 10 14 9 14 1 1
Florida State 284 0 0 0 0 2 4 7 17 18 9 7 0
Virginia Tech 162 0 0 0 0 0 3 1 5 7 10 14 24
Wake Forest 157 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 3 9 13 18 19
Miami 153 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 3 6 15 18 20

ACC Pre-Season Team

  • Tyler Hansbrough, Jr., North Carolina
  • Sean Singletary, Sr., Virginia
  • Tyrese Rice, Jr., Boston College
  • Brandon Costner, So., NC State
  • Ty Lawson, So., North Carolina

ACC Pre-Season Player of the Year

  • Tyler Hansbrough, Jr., North Carolina (60)
  • Sean Singletary, Sr., Virginia (4)

ACC Pre-Season Rookie of the Year

  • Kyle Singler, Duke (36)
  • J.J. Hickson, NC State (15)
  • Nolan Smith, Duke (5)
  • 5 others with 8 votes