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Feather On Next Year

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By Al Featherston

One of the saving graces offered by sports is that there is always a next year. No matter how disappointing the end of one season, there's always another one coming up.

Actually, "Wait 'til next year" - the immortal battle-cry of the Brooklyn Dodgers - resonates more after a disappointing finish than after a successful one. A year ago, Duke fans were in no hurry to move on after the Blue Devils' triumph in Indianapolis. The prospects for 2011 were bright, but it was almost like we knew that nothing could match the surprise and wonder of 2010's unexpected title run. After Duke's Sweet 16 knockout last week in Anaheim, 2012 can't get here soon enough.

But before we move on, pause for just a moment and consider just how spoiled Duke fans have become during Mike Krzyzewski's tenure. The 2011 Blue Devils won 32 games, claimed the ACC title, won two of three games from North Carolina, finished No. 3 in the final AP poll, boasted a consensus first-team All-American and reached the Sweet 16 - and we're disappointed?

To put that season into context, let me offer the following comparisons:

-- Those 32 wins are more than nine of the 12 ACC teams have ever achieved. Maryland matched that total in 2002. North Carolina has won 32 games several times and surpassed it four times (with a high of 36 in 2008). Duke has won 32 or more games eight times (with a high of 37 in both 1986 and 1999), while topping the 30 point barrier 11 times. Duke has averaged 29.4 wins over the last decade - that's more than nine of the other 11 ACC teams have ever won in a single season!

-- The No. 3 finish in the AP is a better finish than eight ACC teams have ever achieved. Wake Forest has done it once (in 1995). N.C. State has finished third or better four times - twice in the mid-1950s with Ron Shavlik; twice in the early 1970s with David Thompson. Duke has finished No. 3 or better 14 times, including nine of the last 14 years. UNC has finished that high 10 times, although to be fair to Dean Smith's remarkable consistency, I should point out that the Tar Heels have finished No. 4 eight times (and No. 5 three other times).

-- The Sweet 16 finish is disappointing for Duke, but it's a significant milestone at most ACC rivals. Heck, Virginia Tech has never reached the Sweet 16. N.C. State, Miami, Clemson and Wake have gone that far (but no farther) once each in the last 20 years. Virginia hasn't gotten that far since 2005. When Florida State reached the regional semifinals this March, it was the first time for the 'Noles since 1993. BC has done it once since 1994. Maryland used to go to the Sweet 16 regularly, but hasn't reached the second weekend since 2003. Georgia Tech had the great run to the NCAA title game in 2004, but that was the Jackets' only Sweet 16 appearance since 1996.

-- Nolan Smith is well on his way to being a unanimous first-team All-America and he's assured of being on the NCAA's consensus first-team list. That's a high honor. In this century, just 10 other ACC players have been consensus first-team picks: Tyler Hansbrough (three times), J.J. Redick (two times), Jason Williams (two times), Shane Battier, Chris Carrawell, Shelden Williams, Chris Paul, Josh Howard, Juan Dixon, and Joe Forte. Four ACC schools have never in their history had a consensus first-team All-American.

And don't disparage that ACC championship either - five of the 12 ACC schools have never won one (including Clemson, a charter member of the league).

Obviously, Duke has higher standards than its rivals (other than the Tar Heels) but high standards should not be confused with ridiculous expectations. The lopsided loss to Arizona in Anaheim was tough to take, but it should not obscure the fact that Duke enjoyed a wonderful 2011 season.

But the beauty of sports is that we can always dream of next year being even better.

LOOKING AHEAD

It's really too early to make any educated guesses about how the ACC and the nation stack up for next season. Before we starting projecting potential lineups and creating preseason rankings, we need to get through some significant offseason issues. To take them one at a time:

(1) The new coaches. As I write this, N.C. State still has a coaching vacancy. Georgia Tech just replaced Paul Hewitt with Dayton's Brian Gregory.

It will be interesting to watch Gregory try to re-connect with a fan base that has turned its back on basketball. It won't be easy next season, especially with the Yellow Jackets slated to play a vagabond existence while Alexander Memorial Coliseum is rebuilt. Georgia Tech will play as many of its home games as possible in the downtown Phillips Arena, just a few minutes from campus, but will have to play the remainder in Gwinnett County's facility - a long haul from the Tech campus.

But I like Gregory. During the ACC Tournament, when ACC officials and members of the media were debating the possible replacements of Hewitt and Lowe, Gregory was my favorite candidate. I liked him because he was not a flavor-of-the-month - by that I mean a mid-major coach who is hot because his team made a great NCAA Tournament run. But he's a 44-year-old guy who is a disciple of Tom Izzo with a long track record of success at Dayton. He inherited the program from Oliver Purnell and took it up a notch.

I know there were many Dayton fans happy to see him go. I'm not close enough to the program to know if they were right as I think N.C. State fans were right to celebrate Herb Sendek's departure … or as wrong as the Boston College football fans who applauded when Tom O'Brien left the Eagles for N.C. State.

I know that Gregory's greatest accomplishment is winning the 2010 NIT, which isn't much, except that he smacked down North Carolina in the championship game. If I were a Tech fan, I'd cling to that.

The truth is that Georgia Tech was somewhat hamstrung in its coaching search. The school did not have a huge bankroll to lure a big-name coach. That's a combination of the massive investment in rebuilding the team's basketball arena, the huge payout that Hewitt will be collecting in the next few years (in the neighborhood of seven million dollars), along with the $900,000 still owed former football coach Chan Gailey.

On the other hand, I know that N.C. State - thanks to some deep-pocket boosters - will be able to pony up the money to get the coach it wants.

That doesn't mean Brad Stevens, who turned down a virtual blank check from Knight last spring to move to Oregon. He may leave Butler at some point, but I think it will be to a blueblood program - maybe Indiana if Crean gives up on that rebuilding job … maybe Kentucky if Calipari is soon nailed by the NCAA … maybe Duke or North Carolina when those jobs come open in the next 3-5-10 years.

Frankly, I don't have a clue what Wolfpack athletic director Debbie Yow is thinking - and neither do my colleagues in the media. In contrast to Lee Fowler's marathon coaching search/circus in 2006, this one has been conducted behind closed doors. The so-called stories - my favorite was Sean Miller's father responding to message board rumors that his son was in negotiations with the Pack - have been rank speculation without a hint of real news.

As a lifelong journalist, it's kind of embarrassing to see members of my profession feel the need to respond to message board fodder. I also love the questions to rumored targets - VCU's Shaka Smart was asked about job offers at a pre-Final Four press conference and replied that he couldn't conceive of leaving his kids at VCU. Sounds great until you remember Bonnie Bernstein asking the 2003 Kansas coach about the open UNC job at the Final Four and Roy Williams telling her, "I don't give a **** about North Carolina." A week later, he was introduced as the UNC coach.

So don't believe anything you hear or read until somebody comes up with some tangible news.

I'm as curious as anybody to see who Yow comes up with. I respect her reputation and admire the way she's handled the search so far. I think the only mistake she has made were the comments she made during her press conference last week, when she described her ideal candidate:

"The ideal candidate would be a person who is a career college coach, who has been highly successful, multiple trips to the NCAA Tournament and a person who has built a program," she said.

The problem with that description is it created an expectation that N.C. State would make a major hire - Sean Miller, Rick Barnes (again!), Ben Howland, Jamie Wright and, most recently, Billy Donovan are names the Wolfpack fans have focused on (please, if any media members are reading this, I have no indication that any of these guys are on Yow's radar, just that they are names that the fans have targeted). At least those names meet the qualifications that Yow outlined.

Unfortunately, her ideal candidate would not include Mike Krzyzewski in 1980 or Bobby Cremins in 1981, when those two coaching giants were hired by Duke and Georgia Tech respectively. It wouldn't include Dean Smith in 1961, when he got to the UNC job. It wouldn't include Vic Bubas in 1959, Norm Sloan in 1967 or Roy Williams when he was hired by Kansas in 1988. Heck, it wouldn't have included John Wooden when he was hired at UCLA or those two high school coaches who made good - Everett Case at N.C. State or Adolph Rupp at Kentucky.

And the requirement for "multiple trips to the NCAA Tournament" would eliminate Shaka Smart of VCU, who is making his first NCAA trip.

To be fair, her criteria would have eliminated Sidney Lowe as a candidate in 2006 (not a career college coach) and Herb Sendek in 1996 (just one, not multiple, NCAA appearances). It would seem to include Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall, who made seven NCAA trips in nine years at Winthrop (but won just one game). Whether or not Yow considers Marshall "highly successful", I have no idea.

My point is not that Marshall or Smart would be bad hires, but that Yow's comments have raised fan expectation to the point where hiring a good mid-major coach - which has worked many, many times in the ACC - is going to be viewed by at least a large segment of her fan base as a disappointment.

But don't make that mistake. Winning the press conference is a very different thing than winning the hire. It's going to be tough for Yow to do the former … just don't bet against her doing the latter.

And whoever inherits the young talent that Lowe assembled has a chance to make the same kind of immediate smash that Brownell achieved this season at Clemson and Donohue at Boston College.

(2) The NBA draft: The other factor that is going to have a huge impact on the 2012 ACC season is the number of underclassmen who decide to turn pro. The issue this spring may be complicated by the threat of an NBA lockout or perhaps fears of a new NBA rookie pay scale.

But the issue is always complicated and kids don't always make rational decisions.

So far, a number of ACC players have announced that they'll test the waters - Iman Shumpert at Georgia Tech, Jordan Williams at Maryland and Reggie Jackson of Boston College. All three have said they won't hire an agent and will keep the option of returning open.

The only potential ACC early entrant I've heard say that he's staying is N.C. State's C.J. Leslie, but no one believes his promise to return. We'll see.

I'll confess that I have no inside knowledge about the local kids, but I do have a well-polished rule of thumb:

-- If a player is universally projected as a lottery pick, I expect him to go.

-- If a player is projected as a late first-round pick or later, I take a wait-and-see approach. I'd rate guys in that category as 50-50.

There have been exceptions to the first group over the years - Tim Duncan passed up being the No. 1 pick after his sophomore and junior seasons at Wake. Jason Williams would have been the No. 1 pick in 2001.

But on the whole, my rule has been pretty effective. When you look at the great players who have come back to play in college - from Tyler Hansbrough to J.J. Redick to Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith - it's always kids who would have gone late in the first round. Ty Lawson was anxious to go pro after 2008, but after his DUI in Chapel Hill that spring, he couldn't get a first-round guarantee, so he returned to UNC and helped the Heels to the 2009 national title.

Of course, quite a few guys leave despite the prospect of going late in the first round or later - but that's MUCH more common than kids who pass up the lottery to come back. I can reel off the names of kids who were good students and who wanted to play another year, but couldn't resist the lure of the lottery (most recently Luol Deng and Mike Dunleavy at Duke; Sean May, Brandan Wright and Marvin Williams at UNC).

None of the three ACC players who have declared for the draft are likely to go in the lottery, so I think there is a reasonable chance that any or all of them return next season.

Who's likely to go?

Well, if you check out ESPN's current draft board, Chad Ford has three ACC players in the lottery:

(1) Kyrie Irving, Duke

(2) Harrison Barnes, UNC

(14) John Henson, UNC

UNC's Tyler Zeller is the No. 2 rated center on the board, but is projected just outside the lottery at No. 17. Other ESPN first round projections include Duke's Mason Plumlee (23), BC's Jackson (25). Draft Express projects Irving No. 1, Barnes No. 4, Henson No. 12 and Zeller No. 21.

Draft Express also projects FSU's Chris Singleton as a late first-round pick. ESPN has him at No. 37 (early second round), right behind No. 36 C.J. Leslie.

Now, the exact order is not nearly as important as the overall perception of the prospects. By my rule-of-thumb, I'd expect Irving, Barnes and Henson to go pro. I keep an open mind on all the rest. From what I hear from people at their schools, Singleton and Leslie are likely to go pro. I have no idea about the rest of the candidates.

This makes a HUGE difference in the way the ACC shapes up next season.

Just take Maryland. If Jordan Williams returns to anchor the middle for the Terps, Gary Williams could have a team good enough to challenge for the ACC regular season title. His young guards will be better next season and he adds a couple of dynamic offensive players in guard Sterling Gibbs and forward Nick Faust. But take Williams out of the equation at Maryland and it's hard to see how the Terps could crack the league's first division.

And, obviously, the relative status of Duke and North Carolina will depend on the exit or return of players such as Irving, Barnes and Henson. Earlier this week, a Raleigh columnist decided that every draft candidate was going to leave and projected UNC - minus Barnes, Henson and Zeller - as the No. 5 team in the ACC. On the other hand, I know Carolina fans who think none of their draft candidates will leave and project that with incoming prep stars James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston joining the core of this year's Elite Eight team, UNC could be preseason No. 1.

Both projections are equally valid … and equally ridiculous until those decisions are made.

As for Duke, clearly the Devils would be much better if Irving surprises us and returns, but the Blue Devils will still be loaded in the backcourt without him. I'm pretty sure that Krzyzewski's pursuit of Quinn Cook last fall was predicated on his expectation that Irving was a one-year-player. Coach K has prepared for that eventuality.

Now, if Mason Plumlee surprises us and leaves … well, that would be a blow.

(3) Other defections: NBA draft defections are not the only off-season concerns. In recent years, there have been a growing number of transfers and other personnel losses. From Elliot Williams at Duke to the Wear twins at UNC to Terrence Oglesby at Clemson to Rakim Sanders at Boston College to Julian Mays at N.C. State, ACC coaches have had to deal with key players leaving for various reasons.

Such defections are hard to predict. There's usually turnover when there's a coaching change and there have been a lot of those in the last few years (six ACC coaching spots have changed in the last two years - half the league).

We know about a little change at Wake Forest, where sophomore forward Ari Stewart recently got his release. It's still not clear whether or not freshman forward Melvin Tabb will be back - he was suspended from the team late in the season, but I was told the Deacs were trying to convince him to return.

That will be something else to watch in the offseason.

THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME

I'm not so foolish as to make any 2011-12 ACC projections at this point.

But I can point out a rough shape that I expect to be refined after the next few months are played out:

-- Duke and North Carolina will be among the ACC contenders. That's easy - they almost always are (2010 UNC was an aberration). Deciding which to pick first and which to pick second will depend on NBA draft decisions, plus the outcome of Duke's late pursuit of forward DeAndre Daniels, the last 2011 impact player on the ACC's recruiting radar.

-- Florida State will be very good, even if Singleton does (as expected) turn pro. The 'Noles have the best collection of big men in the ACC and budding young shooters in Michael Snaer and Ian Miller. Plus, they'll always play defense for Leonard Hamilton.

-- Second-year coaches Brad Brownell and Steve Donohue should each take a step back after surprising debut seasons. Brownell loses the two best players off his NCAA team (Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant) and it's going to take time for his own recruiting to kick in. Donohue loses either everybody or almost everybody who was a factor this season (depending on whether Reggie Jackson turns pro or returns). If Jackson does come back, the Eagles will be too young to compete for the upper echelon in the ACC. If he doesn't, well … think Wake Forest last season.

-- Speaking of Wake Forest, expect the Deacons to be better next season. Not much better - if Jackson returns at BC, I still expect to pick them 12th -- but not historically bad either (as they were this season).

-- Look for Virginia to be much better in Tony Bennett's third year. Losing Mike Scott to injury this year hurt, but it means he'll have the veteran power forward back next season for a fifth year. He'll join redshirt freshman James Johnson - a 6-9 beast - to give the Cavs a powerful inside duo. If Bennett had a real point guard, Virginia could be a contender.

-- Frank Haith will be on the hot seat next season. He has one NCAA bid in seven seasons at Miami and hasn't finished with a winning record in the ACC yet. He'll have everybody back from this year's NIT team (except expendable sixth-year shooter Adrian Thomas), provided point guard Durand Scott doesn't do something stupid and go pro in the offseason (reportedly he's considering it). Miami should be an NCAA team next year - but if it's not, the 'Canes may finally run out of patience with the likeable Haith.

-- Expect Virginia Tech to be on the bubble again. That's actually better than what 2012 looked like a year ago, when it appeared Seth Greenberg would have to replace everybody. But injuries robbed him of Dorenzo Hudson, J.T. Thompson and Cadarian Raines last season and all three will be back this year (Hudson and Thompson as fifth-year seniors). Along with Erik Green and Victor Davila, Greenberg has a solid, veteran core. He adds a talented recruiting class, headlined by gifted combo forward Dorian Finney-Smith.

Then again, picking Virginia Tech to be on the bubble is about as safe a pick as predicting that Duke and UNC will be near the top of the standings.

-- Maryland, Georgia Tech and N.C. State are my wild cards - Maryland because I don't know what Williams will do; N.C. State because I don't know who will coach them. I do think the right guy could use the Ryan Harrow/Lorenzo Brown backcourt to mold at least a borderline NCAA team; I also think Gregory inherits some nice pieces in Atlanta, although Shumpert's decision is key - and I believe it's going to be hard to pick a homeless team to excel. Think of the 1943 Ruppert Mundays ...

That reminds me. I always try to re-read The Great American Novel every season after the basketball season ends. For me, the 2011 season ended last week in Anaheim.

So time to join Word Smith for a summer in the Patriot League, getting reacquainted with Big John Baal, Nickname Damur and the great-but-tragic Roland Agni. Reading about the hapless Mundays and dreaming of next year is much more fulfilling than watching Kentucky and UConn in the Final Four.

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