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Al Featherston: The ACC Still Reloading

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In March of 1961, my father got us tickets for the NCAA East Regional championship in the old Charlotte Coliseum (the one shaped like a round silver-topped cupcake). We watched Wake Forest - the team featuring big man Lennie Chappell and already balding point guard Billy Packer - upset No. 3 St. Bonaventure in the semifinals.

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My younger brother (he was nine years old at the time) got away from us during the game and made his way down the Deacon bench, determined to get an autograph from Wake Forest coach Bones McKinney. The ball was in play and Bones - one of the most volatile coaches ever to stalk the sidelines - was ranting about something or other when my brother tugged at his sports coat and asked him to sign his program.

An usher (I don't remember security guards in that more-innocent era) arrived and pulled my brother away, preventing an incident. He did get Bones' autograph after the game. I was lucky enough to get Thomas Stith, the Bonnies' All-American forward, to sign for me.

One night later, we were back in our seats behind the Wake Forest bench as the Deacons fell to unranked St. Joseph's in the East Regional title game. I can't remember any details of the game other than my 12-year-old fascination with the St. Joe's mascot - a guy in a Hawk costume who was required to flap his wings/arms for the entire game.

It's only in hindsight that I realize what a significant game that was. Wake's demise in what we would now call the Elite Eight was regarded as a great showing for the ACC at that time. Indeed, in 1961 just two previous ACC teams had made it that far in NCAA play - UNC's 1957 NCAA champs and Duke's 1960 East Regional runner-ups.

A year later, the Chappell-Packer Wake Forest team would beat St. Joe's in the East semifinals, then get past Villanova in the finals to reach the Final Four. That would start a deluge of ACC Final Four participants - Duke in 1963, 1964 and 1966; UNC in 1967, 1968 and 1969 … UNC in 1972; N.C. State in 1974 …

The list goes on and on, through Duke in 2010.

Looking at this list, here's what I noticed - when Wake Forest fell short in 1961, that marked the fourth straight season (since UNC 1957) that the ACC missed the Final Four. Since Wake Forest won the East in 1962, the ACC has never gone more than two years in a row without a Final Four team.

That's 51 years and counting, but the countdown is winding down. Since Duke cut down the nets in Indianapolis in 2010, the ACC has come up short in 2011 and 2012. If the league doesn't produce a Final Four team in 2013, the streak will be broken.

So what are the chances of one or two (the ACC has produced two Final Four teams four times) ACC teams reaching Atlanta in early April?

To determine that, let's take a closer look at the ACC going into the 2012-13 season. Last week, I took a fairly close look at Duke - a team that certainly has a chance this spring, but would probably not be rated a Final Four favorite.

But Duke is not the only ACC superpower. Over the last 15 years, Maryland, Georgia Tech and North Carolina have also produced Final Four teams. N.C. State hasn't, but the Wolfpack goes into the season as the league's highest rated team.

"This league is a very proud one," ACC commissioner John Swofford told the media last Wednesday at ACC Operation Basketball in Charlotte.

"Our tradition is built on winning - both on depth and on winning championships ar the top. When I look at the league now, what I see is our depth coming back."

Allow me to agree with Swofford - as long as we understand that "coming back" is not the same as "back."

Over the last four seasons, the ACC has turned over three-fourths of its coaches (nine of 12). Although the transition has removed at least a couple of outstanding coaches (I would rate Maryland's Gary Williams as Hall of Fame caliber, while Clemson's Oliver Purnell and BC's Al Skinner were both very good), on the whole, the transition has strengthened the league by removing some real deadwood (Sidney Lowe at N.C. State; Dave Leitao at Virginia).

The key word in that paragraph is "transition." It takes time for most coaches to establish their program and get it in high gear. Just ask Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski, the two greatest coaches in ACC history.

My point is that it's still too early to judge guys like Steve Donahue at Boston College or Brian Gregory at Georgia Tech. Mark Gottfried at N.C. State is definitely ahead of the curve at N.C. State, but Clemson's Brad Brownell is (much like Coach K in his early years) still trying to recruit as well as he coaches.

In this era of transition, I don't see a lot of depth in the league. In my opinion, the ACC has five teams that should be in the NCAA Tournament and one more that is a borderline candidate. Now, there's good balance in that top five, but once you get below Maryland at No. 6, you find a lot of rebuilding programs.

But that's just my opinion. Maybe you prefer the polls - the traditional preseason media poll and the brand new coaches' preseason poll.

There's not a lot of difference - but there is some. The coaches predicted the ACC this way:

1. N.C. State (8)

2. Duke (3)

3. UNC (1)

4. Miami

5. Florida State

6. Maryland

7. Virginia

8. Clemson

9. Georgia Tech

T10. Virginia Tech

T10. Wake Forest

12. Boston College

Contrast that with the writers' poll:

1. NC State (26)

2. Duke (21)

3. UNC

4. Florida State (6)

5. Miami

6. Maryland

7. Virginia

8. Clemson

9. Georgia Tech

10. Virginia Tech

11. Wake Forest

12. Boston College

So the only real difference is that the writers and coaches flip-flopped Miami and Florida State (although in fact both were nearly even in both polls - the coaches had Miami in front of FSU by exactly one vote). The writers also gave Virginia Tech a handful of votes more than Wake Forest for 10th place, while the coaches had them tied.

So no real differences of opinion. Interesting that the two polls were identical when it came to individual preseason honors. Both polls had the same All-ACC team:

  • Lorenzo Brown, N.C. State
  • C.J. Leslie, N.C. State
  • James McAdoo, UNC (his father doesn't use his middle name, so why should I?)
  • Mason Plumlee, Duke
  • Michael Snaer, Florida State.

Both polls picked Leslie as preseason player of the year and both picked Rodney Purvis of N.C. State as rookie of the year.

None of those choices - either the rankings or the player picks - are ridiculous. You could make strong arguments for all of them. You could also disagree with some of those joint judgments.

And, in my case, I do have a couple of disagreements - maybe strong disagreements.

RESPECT FOR THE 'NOLES

It's very interesting that Florida State got more respect from the media and the national coaches than they did from the ACC coaches. The ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll picked FSU 24th nationally - well ahead of Miami (which got just two votes in the poll). Six writers, including me, picked FSU No. 1 in the ACC's preseason poll.

To be honest, I think Duke will probably finish first in the regular season. My vote was more a protest to the lack of respect Leonard Hamilton's program has received from my comrades in the media (and, evidently, from Hamilton's own peers).

Allow me to offer just one example. Just before I left Charlotte Wednesday, I had a brief conversation with Joe Ovies and Adam Gold of 99.9 the Fan radio, who were broadcasting from the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, just outside the meeting rooms where the interviews were going on.

Joe showed me his ballot, which had Duke at No. 1. I told them that I was going to pick Florida State No. 1. We talked for a couple of moments, then their commercial break ended and I had to return to the interview area.

Later that afternoon, driving home, I was listening to their show when they began to discuss their rankings. Gold said (and I'm just paraphrasing here - I was driving and wasn't going to try and take notes) that while he had heard some people talking up FSU, he was till skeptical, because, "We've heard this before - how Florida State is going to be great … and then they let us down."

That got me thinking: When was the last time Florida State was a hot preseason team that flopped or disappointed us?

When I got home, I pulled out my sheet listing former preseason polls to see when the last time FSU was overrated going into the season.

It turns out that was 2007, when the media picked FSU fifth and the 'Noles finished eighth. Of course, the year before that, we picked FSU 11th and Hamilton's team finished fifth.

My feeling is that after years of struggle, Hamilton got his program climbing in the right direction in 2009, when FSU won 25 games, played in the ACC title game for the first time, and made the NCAA for the first time. Starting that year, Florida State has gotten better every single season. The Seminoles have won at least 10 ACC games every year in that span (capped by a high of 12 last season).

And, of course, they are the defending ACC champion.

Contrary to Gold's assertion that FSU has failed to live up to expectations, they have been consistently underrated by the ACC voters. Over the last five years (starting in 2008) the Seminoles were picked ninth and finished seventh; picked 10th and finished fourth; picked seventh and finished third and picked fifth and finished third again.

A year ago, we got it exactly right - picking FSU third, exactly where it finished.

That means that over the last five years, Florida State has finished 14 games better than we've projected the 'Noles. That got me wondering how that compares with the rest of the ACC teams. I came up with this list (over the last five years) … from underrated to overrated:

1. (tie) Florida State +14

Boston College +14

3. (tie) Virginia Tech +5

Maryland +5

5. Virginia +2

6. Miami --

7. Duke -1

8. (tie) Clemson --2

N.C. State -2

10. Wake Forest -5

11. UNC -6

12. Georgia Tech -9

Just a few notes about this list:

-- Even though Miami balances out over the five-year period, that doesn't mean the voters have gotten them right … just that the misses high perfectly balance the misses low.

-- North Carolina's place on the list is almost totally determined by the 2010 season, when UNC was picked first (actually tied for first with Duke) and finished tied for ninth.

-- Duke has been the most accurately predicted team in the poll. The voters have gotten Duke exactly right every year except 2011, when the Devils were picked first and in fact finished second after losing Kyrie Irving.

-- UNC's fall from first to ninth in 2010 matches the biggest fall from preseason projections. It's tied with N.C. State in 2008 - picked third, the Pack finished tied for 11th. The biggest unexpected climb in the last five years is shared by Miami in 2008 (picked 12th, finished fifth) and Boston College in 2009 (picked 11th, finished fourth).

I guess the most important point about the list is to understand that Florida State and Boston College have been the two most underrated programs in the ACC over the last five years. More on the Eagles later, but for now, let's look closer at FSU going into the new season.

Last summer, when I was talking to Coach Hamilton about the losses he suffered after winning the ACC championship last spring, I might have suggested that the Seminoles would be rebuilding. After all, he was losing four starters off that championship team and six seniors in all. After consistently improving over the last five seasons, the 'Noles would have to take a step back this year, right?

"I think we're still improving," Hamilton told me. "In fact, we expect to be better this year."

The FSU coach pointed out how nobody expects North Carolina to step back after losing four starters off the team that lost to FSU in the ACC title game. Indeed, the 'Noles return four of their top five scorers (UNC returns one of five). You could argue - and I will - that FSU's proven core of Michael Snaer, Ian Miller and Okaro White is significantly better than UNC's core - Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland, James McAdoo.

Of course, there is a lot more to it than that, but I'm a little baffled why everybody is so sure North Carolina is going to be better than FSU this year? Does anybody remember 2010, when UNC lost four starters to the NBA and tried to rebuild around a highly rated recruiting class and sophomore forward who was projected as an NBA lottery pick?

"It appears to me that we're caught in a situation where we're still trying to get a breakthrough in public perception about who we are," Hamilton said.

The Florida State coach, while clearly perturbed at the lack of respect for his team, has been careful to be diplomatic. Michael Snaer is a bit more straightforward:

"It's really expected," he said of the lack of respect. "We know that's going to happen. Every year we make them look stupid for doing that. I don't know why people don't figure this out. I don't understand.

"These professionals have to figure this out that we keep getting better every year. We don't have those All-Americans coming out of high school because Coach Hamilton doesn't recruit those guys, but he recruits guys who are tough and are going to get the job done. He's been doing it for a long time. This is the best talent I've ever seen him bring in since I've been following Florida State.

"If I was in the media, I'd want to be the first one to say it: This is team is going to be great."

What has to happen to make Florida State great?

Well, start with the core of Snaer, Miller and White. I would argue that's the best perimeter trio in the ACC. Snaer, of course, is the top returning All-ACC vote-getter from last season. There's no doubt in my mind that he - and not C.J. Leslie - is the best player in the league this year. He's virtually the same offensive player as Leslie. Both averaged just over 14 points a game. Leslie is better inside, Snaer a much better 3-point shooter … in fact, he has almost the same 3-point average as Scott Woods, a player State is touting as the best 3-point shooter in the ACC. Snear is a better ballhandler and a much better free throw shooter (almost 85 percent from the line; Leslie is under 60).

When it comes to the defensive end, it's not even close - Snaer is the best defensive player in the ACC. Well, maybe Virginia's Jontel Evans could make a claim, but Leslie wouldn't be in the conversation.

And on top of THAT, Snaer is the best clutch player in the ACC - three times he hit buzzer-beating 3-pointers (remember the one in Cameron?) last season … and that doesn't count the late 3-pointer he hit to erase Duke's last lead in Atlanta and provide the winning margin the ACC Tournament semifinals.

In other words, Snaer is damn good. Combined with White - a long, athletic 6-8 junior who can guard big men in the post, wings and even guards - Snaer will help insure that defense remains the foundation of Hamilton's program.

"People have to realize that last year we weren't that good an offensive team," Snaer said. "No matter what people say, we still had so much more room to grow. I thought we were a great defensive team - not because of our personnel - our personnel is way more athletic this year than last year. No offense to the guys we had leaving, but Luke Loucks and [Deivadas Dulkys], those guys couldn't really stay in front of their men and we had to rely on our principles a lot. This year we have guys coming in who are crazy athletic and we still have the same principles.

"Defensively, what are we are scared of? We don't have guys we have to hide any more. Other teams may have all this talent, but when they come play us, you're not going to see that. Our defense is going to shut all that down. If our offense gets better and our defense stays the same … who do you think is going to win those games?"

For Florida State to prove it's a great team, the Seminoles are going to have to prove that they've replaced the talent lost in the post. Bernard James and Xavier Gibson were a formidable combo. Hamilton does have three new seven-footers on the roster (two foreign imports, one a redshirt) and a touted juco power forward, but the 'Noles all acknowledge that the key is 6-8, 240-pound junior Terrance Shannon, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury.

"He's a monster," Snaer said. "He's the strongest guy I've ever been around in the weight room. He clears everything. He's crazy athletic - he can jump out of the gym. Last year, he was leading our bigs in so many categories that it was unbelievable.

"That's going to be the guy who's going to be the biggest surprise in the conference. When you've got a caged animal like that guy, just locked up and waiting … I can't even put it any clearer - when I talk to him about it, he wants to take somebody's head off. He just can't wait to get out there and prove to everybody who he is."

Snaer said that Shannon's work ethic - and his bruising, physical style of play - is toughening up those three seven-footers.

We'll see. Everybody is optimistic in preseason and it's possible that Florida State will miss the experience it has lost. Shannon remains a question mark - is he as good as the 'Noles think and, even if he is, can he remain healthy for a season? Can Miller and two freshmen replace the flour leadership that 2012 point guard Loucks provided?

But every team has question marks. I think Hamilton has proved over the last five years that he deserves the same benefit of the doubt that Duke and UNC usually get after suffering healthy losses.

It's a funny thing, but I was listening to Gold and Ovies again Thirsday when they had Jeff Goodman of CBSsports.com on as a guest. Goodman was explaining why he liked UNC as the ACC favorite, especially when compared to Duke. That's fine … while I disagree, that's not an unreasonable opinion.

But Goodman said that the reason he preferred UNC to Duke this year was that UNC had less question marks than the Blue Devils.

I almost drove off the road - (note to self: I gotta stop listening to sports talk radio in the car).

Look, I can see making a case that North Carolina will end up as the best team in the ACC. Roy Williams has a lot of talented players on hand. There is plenty of potential in Chapel Hill. Despite jibes about the similarities between 2013 and 2010, I definitely see UNC in the mix to be one of the ACC's top teams this season.

But no reasonable person can suggest that UNC has less question marks that Duke … NC. State or almost any other top team.

The Tar Heels return ONE starter from last year's team. They are planning to depend on a 157-pound freshman point guard. They're building their hopes around a sophomore forward who averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds a year ago. Two of their top players are returning from season-ending injuries. The guy who is supposed to be their best 3-point shooter hit 27 percent from the arch last year. Their current freshman class is deep, but doesn't include a single top 25 prospect and only two in the top 50 (according to RSCI).

Consider this - UNC doesn't have a single player on the roster who has averaged double figures in college basketball.

Now, you might argue that you are confident that UNC's questions will all (or mostly) be answered in the positive, but you can't claim they don't have as many questions as Duke - which does return four starters off a team that was almost as good as UNC last year. The Devils have three seniors who averaged double figures last season. Duke has two players returning who made third-team All-ACC a year ago.

Yes, Duke has questions, but not nearly as many as UNC.

THE BIG FIVE

I don't want to sound like I'm dismissing North Carolina as an ACC contender. The Tar Heels are certainly a viable candidate to finish first in the ACC.

But so are - I would argue - Duke, N.C. State, Florida State and even Miami.

The thundering media herd has anointed N.C. State as the preseason ACC favorite - joined, I see, by two-thirds of the ACC's coaches.

Again, not unreasonable. There's a lot I like about N.C. State - I respect how Mark Gottfried has gotten C.J. Leslie's game under control and I love Richard Howell's prowess inside. On top of that, I believe Lorenzo Brown is the best all-around point guard in the ACC. Add a good freshman class (personally, I think Rodney Purvis is a touch overrated, while I think T.J. Warren is equally underrated … Tyler Lewis should fit perfectly in the role he'll be asked to play as a backup PG) and you have a solid team.

But, like everybody else, the Pack has questions. The most obvious is frontcourt depth. Gottfried himself suggested the defection of DeShawn Painter really hurt. A year ago, he provided a huge 22 minutes a game, subbing for the erratic Leslie and the foul-prone Howell.

Without Painter, Gottfried either has to hope (1) Howell has learned how to play without fouling; (2) Leslie can stay consistently on gameplan and avoid the cramps that plagued him a year ago; or (3) Jordan Vandenberg and/or Thomas de Thaey can develop into useful subs.

However, there is a bigger issue facing N.C. State. I've noted before is that all the accolades are based on how the team finished last season. But as Gottfried himself admits, State was not a great team last year. In fact, until they beat Georgetown in the NCAA second round, they had lost to every quality team that they faced.

It's interesting to look at the top three ACC teams last year and how they fared against each other:

  • FSU 4-1
  • Duke 2-3
  • UNC 1-3

If you add NC State into the mix since everybody thinks they are so great and make it the top four teams head to head:

  • FSU 5-1
  • UNC 4-3
  • Duke 3-3
  • NC State 0-5

I haven't talked much about Miami, but they did finish tied with N.C. State (and Virginia) in the 2012 ACC standings. The 'Canes return all five 2012 starters and their top seven leading scorers last year. They have a healthy Reggie Johnson (down to 285 pounds) all season and they get back Julian Gamble - a veteran big man who missed last year with injury.

Miami was good enough to win at Duke and to rout Florida State in Miami a year ago. They should be better in Jim Larranaga's second season at the helm.

"I think we've got six very good, very experienced seniors," he said. "These guys have proved to me that they want to be successful."

Larranaga plans to turn up the defensive pressure to take advantage of sophomore guard Shane Larkin and redshirt freshman Bishop Daniels, whom he rates as a comparable ballhawk. Obviously, he plans to focus on the wonderfully complementary post combo of the massive Johnson and the sharpshooting Kenny Kadji.

That's a good team too …. The big question mark is whether they can make the huge mental leap that it takes to become a winning team. Duke and UNC have that mentality as a birthright. Hamilton has hammered it into his kids over the last five years. N.C. State seems to have made the leap last postseason.

Miami still has to make it.

But I think they belong in the discussion. I see five teams that should be in the NCAA Tournament this year … and it wouldn't shock me if any one of the five ended up No. 1 in the ACC regular season.

I'm not sure that any one of them has the upside to be a Final Four team and save the ACC from a three-year drought. But in a wide open year nationally, the odds are good that at least one will get hot at the right time.

THE BOTTOM SEVEN

I found one writer in Charlotte who believes in a top six, rather than a top five. He argued that Maryland belonged in the mix with my five contenders.

I don't agree, but the Terps are clearly (at least in preseason) the best of the rest of the ACC pack. I could see Maryland actually finishing ahead of one or two of my top five if they run into trouble, but I can't see the Terps challenging for the title.

They are still way ahead of No. 7 Virginia in my mind. Tony Bennett had constructed a top 25 team midway through his third season in Charlottesville. Then 7-footer Assane Sene got hurt and the Cavs - 15-2 at that point - dropped a notch. They were 7-8 without Sene and were only that good because forward Mike Scott was having an ACC player of the year type year.

Now Scott is gone, along with James Johnson, K.T. Harrell, Billy Baron and others - young players who should have been the next generation of standouts in Bennett's program. Instead, Joe Harris looks around and wonders where everybody went.

"I came in with six people," Harris said. "Now, it's just me and Akil [Mitchell]."

Harris is a solid wing shooter and Jontel Evans is the best defensive point guard in the ACC. Bennett's team will play a slow, patient style that will drive opponents crazy. But it's hard to see the firepower to contend with the top teams in the league.

I'm not going to break down Georgia Tech, Clemson, Virginia Tech or Wake Forest. They have some good players between them, but not enough to escape the second division.

I do want to talk about one also-ran.

I see both the coaches and media picked Boston College dead last. That's funny because a year ago, when they were an almost all-freshman team and the youngest team in ACC history, they didn't finish dead last. Actually, they finished tied for last with three other teams - none of which return as many players as the Eagles.

Donahue should have been in the running for ACC Coach of the Year last season for winning four ACC games (including a homecourt victory over Florida State). Over the course of the season, he developed some quality ACC players in center Dennis Clifford and especially power forward Ryan Anderson. Guard Lonnie Jackson hit almost 40 percent of 143 3-poinjt attempts. Donahue might have had one more young stud - freshman wing Patrick Heckman was his best player through the first part of the season before he came down with mono and was relatively ineffective in ACC play.

BC did lose one player - but the departure of Matt Humphey may prove to be addition by subtraction. The 6-5 Oregon transfer led the Eagles in shots taken, but hit just 35.0 % from the floor. He was the one player who didn't seem to fit the disciplined, unselfish style that the former Cornell coach was trying to install.

Look for the Eagles to run more this season with the addition of two quality guards. Canadian Oliver Hanlan is a powerful point who reminds Donohue of former standout Reggie Jackson. Joe Rahon is a combo guard from San Diego who has surprised the BC coach in preseason.

"Joe is better than I thought," Donahue said. "I thought we were getting a kid who could make shots. He's turned out to be a better all-around scorer and and much tougher than I thought. With Oliver and Joe, we can do a lot more at the guard spots."

The Eagles are still going to be young - two freshmen and at least seven sophomores in the rotation. One upperclassman - junior walk-on Danny Rubin may get minutes.

Still, it's an older, more experienced and more talented team than the one that won four ACC games and finished tied for 12th in the ACC last year.

I think Duke or Florida State will win the ACC regular season title, but I wouldn't bet on it. I think Duke, FSU, N.C. State, UNC and Miami will be NCAA teams, but I wouldn't bet on it. I think Michael Snaer is the best player in the ACC. I don't think Rodney Purvis will be the rookie of the year.

But I could be wrong.

I don't think Boston College will finish 12th in the ACC this season. THAT is the one opinion I'd be willing to back with a serious wager.