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Featherston: Re-Ranking The ACC

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Heading into the Christmas break, I feel pretty good about my preseason prediction that Duke was being underrated by most prognosticators.

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But before I pat myself on the back for that wise prediction, I should point out that I was way off base with my confidence that Florida State would be as good or better in 2012-13 as the Seminoles were the year before.

So far, FSU has been a disaster.

About the only thing I can say in my defense is that slow starts are normal in Tallahassee. A year ago, FSU lost to Harvard and Princeton in early season play, then lost to Clemson in its ACC opener. That team went on to win 15 of its next 18 ACC games, including two victories in two games with UNC and two out of three games with Duke. It's become almost tradition for Leonard Hamilton's team to stumble early, but finish strong in the ACC.

Is it possible that this team will do something similar?

I guess anything is possible, but I would be very surprised if this team makes suck a dramatic turnaround as last season. The scary thing is that the Seminoles are not playing good defense. In the past, FSU's slow starts were due to offensive struggles - Leonard Hamilton's defense has always been a given.

Well, the offense is struggling again (an ACC high 16 turnovers a game), which is to be expected with so many newcomers trying to fit into the lineup. But even with a solid core of veterans to build around, the defense has not been close to what we've come to expect from FSU. In the four seasons between 2009 and 2012, Ken Pomeroy rated Florida State as a top 15 defensive team (No. 1 in 2010 and 2011). Currently, the 'Noles rank 81st defensively.

Michael Snaer, my preseason ACC player of the year, has almost exactly the same stats as he had last season (14 points a game, 40 percent 3-point shooting), but in the games I've seen, he has not been an effective player. He recently sat out a game for what Hamilton termed "a discipline issue."

If I had to re-rank the ACC today, based on what we've seen so far, I don't know where I would put the Seminoles. Certainly not third as I had them preseason, but probably not 10th, where Andrew Jones listed them in his power ratings. Since Jones is talking about a snapshot of the league, I can't disagree with his assessment of the 'Noles current status. Right now, they deserve to be 10th. But I'm still looking at where they will finish and I do expect them to get better.

Still, re-ranking the ACC is not a bad idea. We always start a new season with preconceived ideas based on what we saw last year and upon recruiting rankings. But returning players sometimes get a lot better as we've seen at Duke with Quinn Cook and Mason Plumlee this season. Incoming freshmen are often overrated or undervalued (such as Shane Larkin last year or Marcus Georges-Hunt this season). Teams have good chemistry one year and bad the next - or vice versa.

Now, early season play might not be definitive, but it offers us a better idea of how good or bad teams really are. This is a good time to revisit our preseason predictions. Most ACC teams are entering a slow period dictated by exams/holidays. There will be few significant games until the new year.

From what we've seen so far, my new ACC projection would be:

(1) Duke - No surprise. Duke has not only been the ACC's best team, but it's accomplished more than anybody else in college basketball. It's not just the three top 5 wins. Just look at the current RPI - Duke already has seven top 100 victories. One other team has five and two more have four. Duke's edge over Michigan is wider than the margin between the No. 2 Wolverines and No. 10 Arizona!

Duke's November success has received plenty of national attention. But the one aspect of the story that I think has been missed - or at least underappreciated - is how much room for growth this team has. The Blue Devils are usually portrayed as a finished product, but this is a team relying heavily on two first-year starters in the backcourt. Sophomore point guard Quinn Cook, who saw little action a year ago, and freshman wing Rasheed Sulaimon are still testing their skills. Both have been good, but both are going to be much, much better.

And that doesn't count the potential of freshman center Marshall Plumlee, finally ready to return from injury, and freshmen forwards Alex Murphy and Amile Jefferson. I expect Mike Krzyzewski to use the next month of practice time and patsy games to figure out roles for his three young frontcourt players.

If there is one concern about Duke's future, I would point to the troublesome leg problem that is likely to plague Seth Curry all season. We've seen the difference he makes at his best - against Kentucky, against Minnesota and against Temple. But we've also seem him wear down after seeing extensive action in several games over a short period.

It's something to watch - Curry at his best makes Duke awfully hard to cope with.

(2) N.C. State - It would be easy to bail on the Pack after their meltdown against Oklahoma State. It was like something out of the Sidney Lowe era. And they followed that performance with a near-nightmare against UNC Asheville at home.

But I've been impressed with how they've bounced back from that low point. I thought they played well in a close loss to No. 2 Michigan in Ann Arbor. They took care of business against a decent UConn team in New York and against a solid Stanford team in Raleigh.

To me, N.C. State's early stumble represents a learning experience. This is a veteran team, but it's never had to deal with the pressure of expectations. They might have been over-praised in preseason, but I think they're undervalued now. They're learning.

The biggest surprise to me has been that Richard Howell has been their best player. I thought it would be Lorenzo Brown, but he hasn't stepped up his game yet (although that might have started against Stanford). I'm not surprised that T.J. Warren has been their best freshman. He gives them a lot of versatility in his ability to play on the wing or inside.

I've got to give props to my friend Mark Watson, who covers recruiting for his website. He told me last summer than while the much-hyped Rodney Purvis was very talented, that he expected Warren to have more impact this season at N.C. State.

This is still a very thin team up front. Howell is the team's only effective big man. Warren and C.J. Leslie are good enough athletes to play in the post, but beyond that trio, they don't have anything worth talking about inside.

(3) North Carolina - I think we've seen some of the limitations of UNC's 2012-13 team so far. The Tar Heels have more wings than the Anchor Bar, but there's not a great one in the mix, just a bunch of solid players.

There is even less in the post, where James Michael McAdoo has struggled to live up to the preseason hype. He's been good so far, but not the all-star player he was supposed to be. And at the point, freshman Marcus Paige has been a good young player, but he's struggling to make an impact at the point - so much so that Dexter Strickland (UNC's version of Tyler Thornton) is getting most of the minutes at the point.

[Note: Just to be clear, that's not meant as a slur upon Thornton or Strickland. I think both are fine players - veterans who play good defense, take care of the ball and can hit an occasional big shot. But neither is a dynamic playmaker or an explosive scorer.]

Going into Wednesday night's game at Texas, the Tar Heels had played two teams in Pomeroy's top 100 - and lost to both (trailing in both defeats by 29 points in the second half).

I'm not sure what this team's ceiling is. Roy Williams has a lot of good players, but he doesn't have a great point guard (all his great teams had great points) and he hasn't found a leader. On the other hand, the Heels are playing very good defense (despite the 61 second-half points to ECU, UNC has a top 20 defense) and with so many nearly equal weapons on the perimeter, they may be a little like Duke last year - as long as two or three of their weapons are hot, they can be dangerous.

This team could wind up being the 2006 Tar Heels, a young team that finished second in the ACC with freshman Bobby Frasor at the point (of course, that team had a great senior leader in David Noel and a legitimately great big man in Tyler Hansbrough). Or it could wind up more like the 2010 Heels, a dysfunctional group that failed to play up to its talent.

The outcome of Wednesday night's game at Texas should help us gauge how far this team has come since its debacle at Indiana. And this season will tell us a lot of about Williams' ability to coach and develop a team that's not loaded with overwhelming talent.

(4) Miami - It's tempting to move the Hurricanes up past UNC. I think they have accomplished more this season than the Tar Heels. Certainly, going into the Texas game, UNC has nothing as impressive on its resume as Miami's homecourt victory over Michigan State, the blowout of unbeaten Charlotte or even the road win at UMass.

Forget the team's first three games, played without senior point guard Durand Scott (serving an NCAA suspension). In the long run, that embarrassing loss to Florida Gulf Coast shouldn't weigh too heavily on their resume.

Sophomore Shane Larkin, the second-best freshman in the ACC last season, has stepped up his game. He's always been a defensive dynamo, but so far this season he's been one of the top 3-point shooters in the ACC. Senior Trey McKinney-Jones has been almost as deadly.

I confess to being a little disappointed in senior Reggie Johnson. Preseason, everything I heard was how the chronically overweight and out-of-shape big man was going to have a great senor year. He was healthy for a change and poised to make an NBA salary run. Well, he hasn't been bad - but he's basically the same player we've seen for the last two seasons: powerful, dangerous, but wildly inconsistent.

But the Miami defense - which Coach Jim Larranaga predicted would be smothering in preseason - has yet to coalesce. And ther Hurricanes lost a little backcourt depth with the transfer of freshman Bishop Daniels.

(5) Florida State - Okay, call me stubborn, but I still think the Seminoles have a higher ceiling that the half-dozen other ACC teams that are playing better so far.

I believe that Snaer is going to end up at least as good as he was a year ago. I think that Hamilton's young big men will start playing better and that the team defense will improve. Most of all, I like the way 6-7 freshman point guard Montay Brandon is developing - if he can provide steady point guard play, it will allow Ian Miller to return to the wing guard position he played so well last season.

But this isn't going to be an NCAA team unless the Seminoles start playing defense again.

(6) Maryland - It might be Virginia here. I don't know. The Terps certainly look impressive, but it's against a ridiculously weak schedule.

Maryland got a lot of credit for playing Kentucky so tough, but we can see now that the Wildcats aren't yet the juggernaut they were projected to be. The Terps deserve credit for going to Evanston and routing a so-so Northwestern team (probably NIT bound).

But that's about it.

Still, you have to admire the progress Alex Len has made. The Ukranian big man was a marginal player last season, but so far this year he's been a force - pro scouts are now talking about Len as a top 10 NBA draft pick.

A healthy Pe'Shon Howard has settled into the point guard role and is leading the ACC in assists. That frees sophomore Nick Faust to play the wing, along with Xavier transfer Dez Wells, who provides a strong offensive threat. Mark Turgeon is still trying to find roles from some impressive freshmen - especially power forward Charles Mitchell, who has been much more effective than the more celebrated Shaquille Cleare.

This team has a lot of growth potential. Unfortunately, the schedule is so weak, we won't get a true gauge of its strength until ACC play starts in January.

(7) Virginia - Maybe I'm still underrating the Cavaliers, but I can't shake my concern for the status of senior point guard Jontel Evans.

When he didn't play early, the Cavs were awful - losing at home to Delaware and at George Mason (which was missing two of its starters that night).

Evans returned to play a limited role and the Cavs got better. Their victory at Wisconsin was a stunning surprise and they've followed that up with a solid homecourt victory over Tennessee. Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell have been outstanding and unheralded freshman big man Mike Tobey has been a very pleasant surprise.

But just when it looked like we were going to have to take Virginia seriously as a contender, Evans re-injured the foot he broke in preseason. The holiday/exam break gives him some time to heal. Coach Tony Bennett reports that x-rays reveal no real damage, but after two abortive returns, he's not going to rush his senior playmaker back this time.

Virginia needs Evans to be a contender. He's not a great offensive player, but he's a solid playmaker and the best on-the-ball defender in the ACC (at least he was last season). His absence is magnified because soph Malcolm Brogdon, who was projected to get minutes as what Tony Bennett called "a power point guard", is going to miss the season with long-term physical woes.

(8) Georgia Tech - Call the Jackets a wild card because they are doing something that few college teams ever do at midseason ... they are remaking their team.

Brian Gregory is adding two Poole brothers, were both be eligible for the first time Monday night against Alabama State.

Stacey Poole is a former prep All-American who originally signed with Kentucky and transferred to Tech a year ago. He's a 6-4 wing guard who has been practicing with the team since midseason a year ago. He should add some perimeter firepower (although he barely made a blip on the radar in his debut).

His younger brother Solomon Poole could have more impact. The 6-1 point guard graduated from prep school this fall and enrolled at Georgia Tech last week. He received clearance from the NCAA Saturday. That was the first time he could practice with the team.

Maybe that's why he didn't get off the bench against Alabama State 48 hours later.

It's going to take him some time to acclimate. However, the younger Poole could solve Tech's biggest problem - the lack of a true point guard. Senior Mfon Udofia and junior Brandon Reed have gamely tried to fill the role, but while both are decent players, neither is a true point (a year ago, Udofia had 88 assists/85 turnovers; Reed had 38 assists/59 turnovers).

If Solomon Poole can step in quickly and run this team, the Jackets have a chance to be much better than we've projected them. Gregory has good size in the post and plenty of capable wings - freshman Marcus Georges-Hunt has been one of the most effective freshmen in the ACC so far.

The Jackets have four easy games to work the Poole brothers into their rotation before they are put to the test Jan. 5 when Miami visits Atlanta for the two teams' ACC opener.

But for now, this is almost like another preseason projection. We simply don't know how much impact the Poole brothers will have.

(9) Clemson - It's amazing how much Brad Brownell is able to extract from so little.

The Tigers started the season with the least experienced team in the ACC - with almost no proven players beyond the senior post combo of Devin Booker and Brandon Jennings. And Jennings ranks with N.C. State's C.J. Leslie as one of the most erratic personalities in the ACC - after missing time last year for mental issues, he's already missed two games this year after a marijuana arrest.

Brownell lost his best returning sophomore (Devin Coleman) and his most heralded recruit (Jaron Blossomgame) with season-ending injuries. Sophomore T.J. Sapp, who started the first seven games, quit school at the end of first semester.

And, yet, the Tigers have held their own early this season. There aren’t any great victories – unless you count a road win at so-so South Carolina. But there haven’t been any of the embarrassing losses that dot the resumes of so many ACC teams (Note: This was written before Wednesday night’s loss at Coastal Carolina. While that’s not as bad a defeat as several other ACC losses, it certainly qualifies as a disappointing loss for the Tigers). Clemson was actually pretty competitive in an eight-point neutral court loss to No. 14 Gonzaga and in a 12-point homecourt loss to No. 4 Arizona (the Tigers led by six with 14 minutes to play).

Booker and (when he plays) Jennings have been the anchors, but Brownell is getting some surprisingly effective player from unheralded young players such as freshman guard Adonis Filer and sophomore guard Rod Hall and sophomore wings K.J. McDaniels and Demarcus Harrison.

Clemson might not be an NCAA threat, but the Tigers are going to be a difficult team to play - especially at Littlejohn Coliseum.

(10) Virginia Tech - These guys were touted as the surprise of the ACC when they started 7-0 … and even after a one-point loss at West Virginia, the Hokies looked like a potential ACC contender.

Then came Saturday's crushing homecourt loss to Georgia Southern, which illustrated the limitations of the team first-year head coach James Johnson inherited from Seth Greenberg.

He just doesn't have enough players. Senior guard Erick Green is a stud - a contender for ACC player of the year honors. Junior forward Jarrell Eddie is a dangerous offensive player. Sophomore guard Robert Brown can occasionally provide some firepower from the wing.

But that's it, unless you count junior center Cardaian Raines. He is a so-so rebounder (just over six boards a game) and a decent defender, but don't ask him to score. This is a team that really misses transfer power forward Dorian Finney-Smith and/or top recruit Montrezl Harrel (both transferred out after Greenberg was fired).

There are some benefits of a team as thin as the Hokies. Roles are easily defined and there are rarely chemistry issues. But in the long term, teams that lack depth have little room for error - either in terms of injury or just the normal fluctuations that players go through. What happens when Green has a bad night? The Hokies lose.

Johnson has loosened some of the offensive reins and that's helped generate some enthusiasm in Blacksburg. Green is a gifted player with the ball in his hands and that's enough to make the Hokies a dangerous team … but not a contending team.

(11) Boston College - Along with my positive preseason feelings about Duke and Florida State, I also thought Boston College would take a step forward.

So far, that hasn't happened.

However, I would argue that there is more reason for optimism in Chestnut Hill than at several other ACC locales.

Steve Donahue has spent the first six weeks of the season integrating freshman guards Olivier Hanlan and Joe Rahon into the starting lineup. There have been times when they have struggled and times when the young duo have sparkled - Hanlan was outstanding in a 10-point loss to Baylor; Rahon was at his best in a road win at Penn State.

Still, the best player for BC has been sophomore forward Ryan Anderson, who was brilliant (25 points) in the loss to Baylor before he hurt his ankle and was either sidelined or hobbled for the next two weeks. He proved that he is back at full speed Sunday when he had 23 points and 19 rebounds in the narrow victory over Bryant College.

Unfortunately, just as Anderson returned from injury, sophomore center Dennis Clifford - the team's second best player - was sidelined with his own foot injury. Donahue hopes to get him back Saturday when the Eagles host Providence.

Boston College still has a long way to go to move up the ACC ladder, but if Donahue can ever get both his big men healthy at the same time and his young guards a bit more experienced, the Eagles have a chance to do some damage.

At least things are looking up in Chestnut Hill, which is more than we can say about …

(12) Wake Forest - This program is on the verge of meltdown, even as third-year coach Jeff Bzdelik tries to blend a fairly talented freshman class with his two veterans - senior guard C.J. Harris and junior forward Travis McKie.

The Deacons have been ravaged by player defections and by a fan revolt.

So far, much heralded freshman point guard Codi Miller-McIntyre has been a bit disappointing. His eight points a game is okay, but less than three assists and more than two turnovers is not.

However, the real problem is that the veterans are not playing as well as they did last year. Harris' game is off a little. McKie's game is off a lot -- his shooting is down from 47.8 percent to 41.4 (from 37.9 on 3-pointers to 22.2).

The 3-2 start wasn't too terrible, considering that one of the losses was a six-point neutral court loss to a decent UConn team. But in losing three of the next four - including a 16-point homecourt loss to mediocre Nebraska and a last minute homecourt meltdown to Seton Hall - the Deacs have been brutal.

Earlier this week, Bzdelik received the dreaded vote-of-confidence from athletic director Ron Wellman. We all know what that means.

There is some hope - the big three of Harris, McKie and Miller-McIntyre all played well Tuesday night against Furman - we'll see right after the new year when the Deacs face Xavier at home, then open the ACC at Duke and with Virginia at home.


I wrote a bit about Duke's new No. 1 ranking earlier in the week. In the last three days, I've been studying the record book and trying to measure the significance of the No. 1 ranking.

I did find this -- in the 64 seasons since the Associated Press started ranking teams, the eventual national champion has been ranked No. 1 at some point during the season 34 times - more than half the seasons. Interestingly, 16 other eventual champs peaked at No. 2.

That means that if you want to win the title, it's a good idea to be ranked No. 1 or No. 2 at some point during the season (50 of 64). In all, 60 of the 64 champs were ranked in the top 10 at some point. The four outliers:

1959 California - the Golden Bears peaked at No. 11 (their final poll ranking). They were unranked early in the season and spent most of the year mired at the bottom of the second 10.

2003 Syracuse - Spent the first half of the season unranked. Starting in January, the Orange began to climb slowly in the rankings, peaking at No. 11 in the next-to-last week (finished No. 13).

1984 Villanova - Started the season unranked, but spent six weeks in the second 10 at midseason, peaking at No. 14, then dropped out of the rankings for the final four weeks of the season.

1983 N.C. State -Started the year at No. 16 and stayed in bottom of the second 10 for eight weeks until dropping out in mid-January. After missing eight straight polls, the Pack claimed the No. 16 ranking after winning the ACC Tournament. But the peak was 15 for two weeks in December.

I guess the point is that it's hard to win the national championship without establishing yourself as a top team at some point. Being No. 1 is no guarantee - plenty of No. 1 teams (at some point in the season) have failed to make the playoffs or to last long if they did. But more than half the eventual champs were ranked No. 1 at some point and 60 of 64 were ranked (at some point) in the top 10.

Hmm. Let's break it down some more.

I count 12 teams that were voted No. 1 every week of the season. Of that magic dozen, seven won national titles ('56 San Francsico; '67 UCLA; '69 UCLA; '72 UCLA; '73 UCLA; '76 Indiana; and '92 Duke).

Four more lost in the national title game ('60 Cincinnati; '61 Ohio State; '62 Ohio State; '63 Cincinnati). One lost in the NCAA semifinals ('91 UNLV - to Duke).

That four-year run from 1960-63 is interesting - Cincinnati (with Oscar Robertson as a senior) was the No. 1 team all year … but they lost in the title game to a sophomore-dominated Ohio State team. Those Buckeyes, number one every week in 1961 and 1962, lost to an Oscar-less Cincinnati in the finals both years. Then a senior dominated Cincinnati team, with two national titles under its belt, was No. 1 every week in 1963, but lost the title game to Loyola in overtime.

Wild times.

I also noticed that in 44 of 64 seasons, one team has been No. 1 for a majority of the weeks (in 20 other seasons, the No. 1 honor rotated frequently). 16 of those 44 "majority" number ones won the national title - 25 of the 44 reached the Final Four.

Not sure that proves anything, but it's interesting to me.