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2015-16: A Look At ACC Basketball

With the much-ballyhooed Big 12 a dismal 5-7 in tournament play (with just one Sweet 16 team and no Elite Eight teams), it was obvious that the ACC had regained its spot as the nation’s premier conference in 2015. But was that a sign of a new order in college basketball or was it a one-year illusion?

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After almost a decade of NCAA mediocrity – certainly when compared to the league’s greatness in the 1980-2005 era – the ACC kicked butt in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. The 15-team league – overshadowed for most of the season by the Big 12 and the Big Ten – got just six bids to the tournament. But all six ACC entries won their first game … five of the six reached the Sweet 16 … three ACC teams reached the Elite Eight and, of course, Duke cut down the nets after beating Wisconsin in the national title game.

It was the third ACC championship in the last decade, which is a pretty impressive figure. But when UNC won in 2009 and Duke in 2010, those were aberrations – the ACC won just nine NCAA Tournament games in each of those two seasons – meaning the rest of the league managed just three each year.

That wasn’t the case this time – the ACC won 17 games (the second-highest total for a conference in NCAA history). The five Sweet 16 teams matched the highest total in NCAA Tournament history.

With the much-ballyhooed Big 12 a dismal 5-7 in tournament play (with just one Sweet 16 team and no Elite Eight teams), it was obvious that the ACC had regained its spot as the nation’s premier conference in 2015.

But was that a sign of a new order in college basketball or was it a one-year illusion?

It’s impossible to know the future, but looking ahead to 2015-16, it appears that the ACC is poised to have another strong year, despite some heavy personnel losses this spring. Obviously, it’s early and NBA Draft defections or recruiting success – plus the growing spring transfer market – could have dramatic impact on a number of teams.

We’ve already seen that at Virginia, where the departure of rising senior Justin Anderson to the NBA leaves a void that will likely cost the Cavs a potential preseason No. 1 national ranking – although Tony Bennett’s veteran team will remain a national contender.

On the other hand, UNC’s only NBA loss is the strange departure of rising senior forward J.P. Tokoto, which impacts the Heels – but not nearly as much as if Marcus Paige or Brice Johnson had bolted for the league.

Obviously, the early departure of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones makes a huge difference at Duke next season. But we talked about that yesterday. Let’s leave Duke out of the mix for the moment and look at the rest of the ACC going into next season – as it now stands:

THE CONTENDERS

North Carolina returns the bulk of its Sweet 16 team intact. N.C. State expected to do the same before the sudden and shocking (to the Pack staff) loss of Trevor Lacy Wednesday (later in the evening part-time starter Kyle Washington announced his plans to transfer). Add Virginia, which lost in the second round of the NCAA playoffs, but still returns the core of the team that won the ACC regular season title.

In fact, Virginia is coming off back-to-back 30-win seasons (a first in the program’s history), a feat accomplished largely because of a rising senior class that includes All-ACC guard Malcolm Brogdon, third-team All-ACC forward Anthony Gill, plus Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey. Add junior point guard London Perrantes as a key player on Virginia’s last two top 10 teams.

Bennett does have to replace Anderson, who was in ACC player of the year contention before getting hurt last season, and forward Darion Atkins, who was voted ACC Defensive Player of the Year (only because Virginia refused to nominate Brogdon).

But Bennett’s pack-line defense, which has been the core of Virginia’s recent run of success, should not suffer. Brogdon, the coaches’ choice as ACC Defensive Player of the Year (unlike the writers’ they weren’t limited by the nomination process), returns as does Gill, who also made the coaches’ all-defensive team. That’s a pretty good defensive core.

Virginia was 21-1 before Anderson was hurt last season and 7-1 in the games that he missed (losing only at Louisville on a last-second shot by an unlikely player). The Cavs were 2-2 in the games he tried to play after returning – a not unfamiliar scenario in the ACC. Both UNC in 1984, when Dean Smith brought Kenny Smith back late, and Duke in 2011, when Coach K brought Kyrie Irving back late, also suffered while trying to re-integrate a great player.

I think Virginia will be fine without Anderson. As things now stand, they are still my choice as the ACC’s preseason No. 1 team.

Why not North Carolina?

The Tar Heels lost less (Tokoto and Jackson Simmons aren’t in a class with Anderson and Atkins) and have a host of established players returning -- Paige and Johnson in the senior class, rising juniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks and rising sophs Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, a talented wing who missed most of the year with an injury.

There is potential for growth there among the three rising sophs – especially Jackson, who showed signs of excellence late. Plus, the foot injury that hobbled Paige all season ought to be a thing of the past.

All of that is going to lead a lot of so-called experts into picking North Carolina as a top – maybe even No. 1 – preseason national choice next season.

That’s not impossible, but I have my doubts.

The fact is that UNC was a good, but hardly elite team last season. The Heels were 4-7 against the ACC’s NCAA teams last season. I know the narrative is that they struggled early (when they lost at home to Iowa and on a neutral court to Butler), but supposedly finished strong. Yet, when I look at the record, I see a team that finished 9-8 in its last 17 games. Yes, they beat Virginia in the ACC Tournament – when Bennett was stubbornly trying to re-integrate Anderson – and they played Wisconsin tough in the Sweet 16, although that was their pattern all season – to play good teams tough, then lose.

Can a team (and we’re talking about basically the same set of characters) suddenly find the toughness to win the clutch?

I think North Carolina will be very good next season, but I don’t see them as a legit national title contender – or even as the preseason No. 1 ACC team. Maybe if Roy Williams scores big on the recruiting trail this spring – he’s in the mix for such kids as Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown (although a longshot for both) – I’ll revise my opinion.

But at the moment, I think North Carolina is closer to N.C. State than they are to Virginia. At least I did before Lacey surprised me and turned pro.

The Wolfpack was pretty mediocre for about two-thirds of last season (despite the decisive victory over Duke in Raleigh). But somewhere along the way, the light went on for sophomore point guard Anthony "Cat" Barber, who is perhaps the most physically gifted playmaker in the ACC. In addition, Gottfried’s bevy of young big men began to play better and better, especially at the defensive end.

By late February and into March, N.C. State was a formidable team (again, excepting the rematch with Duke). The Pack went to Louisville and won, then went to Chapel Hill and absolutely dominated UNC in the Smith Center. Unlike UNC which finished 9-8 down the stretch, N.C. State won eight of its last 11 games, including an upset of No. 1 seed Villanova in the NCAA second round.

Gottfried does have to replace sharp-shooter Ralston Turner, but West Virginia transfer Terry Henderson, eligible after sitting out last season, has long been slated to fill that role. Gottfried is still pursuing a number of top-rated prospects (although, like Roy, it would be an upset if he scored an impact guy).

The loss of Lacey won’t be so easy to make up for. The Alabama transfer was the team’s leading scorer and its backup point guard. He was one of the best one-on-one players in the ACC. Together with Barber, he would have given N.C. State the best backcourt in the ACC.

Now, the concern is whether Barber will follow Lacey’s lead and jump to the NBA (well, in both cases, it would be more like a jump to European pro ball or the NBDL).

While the backcourt is now in flux, Gottfried is now loaded with improving young big men up front – especially Abdul-Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya. And don’t sleep on Caleb Martin, the better of the two Martin twins, who showed a lot potential as a freshman. He might inherit Lacey’s starting role in the backcourt

A sidelight to the UNC-N.C. State rivalry: the two teams both have so many strengths and weaknesses that their seasons might turn on which overweight center gets into shape next year – UNC’s Meeks or N.C. State’s Anya. Both were too fat to play effectively in 2014. Both trimmed their bodies a bit in 2015 and were both better players. But both still need to do more – and the one that does could be a real stud.

NEXT IN LINE

Along with Duke, those are my top four ACC teams going into next season. But there are a number of teams with the potential to challenge for league honors … but also have the potential to slip into the middle of the league.

I’m going to start with the two Elite Eight teams. Both suffered major postseason losses, but both Mike Brey at Notre Dame and Rick Pitino at Louisville have a history of consistency.

I know Notre Dame struggled in 2014, but under Brey the Irish have won 24-plus games and reached the NCAA in seven of the last nine years.

ACC Tournament MVP Jerian Grant will be hard to replace. So will Pat Connaughton, one of the ACC’s toughest players (who excelled as a 6-foot-5 power forward).

But Brey has a nice core. Big man Zack Auguste was exceptional in postseason, as was point guard Demetrius Jackson. Sophomore wing Steve Vasturia is a baby-faced killer with the knack of making big shots. V.J. Beachem and Bonzie Colson are young players with a lot of potential – Colson really hurt Duke in the ACC Tournament.

Brey does need more size to help Auguste down low. He has a couple of young guys on his bench who didn’t show much this year, but four-star freshman power forward Elijah Burns might be the best option. Four-star shooting guard Rex Pfueger could also make an impact.

Pitino has even more holes to fill after losing Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier, Wayne Blackshear and Anton Gill off last year’s 27-win team. And that doesn’t count guard Chris Jones, who left the team in late February.

There’s not much left. Freshman guard Quentin Snider had some promising moments after replacing Jones in the lineup. And the big man combo of Mangok Mathiang and Chinanu Onuaku are effective defensively and on the boards.

Pitino has already started to reload, adding graduate transfer Trey Lewis, a 6-2 guard who averaged 16.2 points and made the All-Horizon League first team last season at Cleveland State.

Still, if Pitino is going to return to the NCAA for the 10th straight time at Louisville, he’s going to need a huge contribution from his freshman class. Fortunately for the Cards, it’s a very good freshman class, headed by 6-7 SF Deng Adel, 6-9 PF Raymond Spaulding and 6-2 guard Donovan Mitchell.

Pitino is still in the hunt for such impact guys as 7-foot Thon Maker and five-star PF Cheick Diallo – landing either could put him back among the nation’s elite.

Add two more teams to this group – two teams that missed the NCAA last season.

In Miami’s case, it was a crime – the ‘Canes were 21-12 on Selection Sunday, including 10-8 in ACC play. That included wins at Duke and at home against Sweet 16 team N.C. State. Seven of the ‘Canes’ 12 losses came to NCAA Tournament teams, including four to Elite Eight teams Louisville and Notre Dame.

Teams with poorer resumes from the Big 12 (Texas?) and Big Ten (Indiana?) got in. So did Ole Miss and UCLA, neither of which has as many good wins.

Miami went on to reach the NIT finals, losing to Stanford in overtime in the championship game.

Jim Larranaga returns almost everybody that matters. The only losses so far are sophomore point guard Manu Lecomte and freshman wing guard Deandre Bennett, who will transfer. But with Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan returning, the ‘Canes aren’t hurting in the backcourt. And with Davon Reed, James Palmer and Ja’Quan Newton back, Miami doesn’t lack backcourt depth, despite the transfers. Rising senior Tonye Jekiri, a good defender and the ACC’s best rebounder, anchors the post, but he needs some help down low.

That’s why I think Florida State has a better chance to challenge the ACC leaders next season, despite this past year’s mediocre 17-16 (8-10 ACC) record.

The Seminoles were rocked by the early season departure/dismissal of swing man Aaron Thomas, the team’s best player. They never really recovered.

Still, the young team showed some fight and a balance of talent that Miami lacks. The biggest problem was finding a consistent scorer to help freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes. I think incoming frosh Dwayne Bacon, a McDonald’s All-American, is that guy. If he’s not then either Malik Beasley or Terrance Mann – two more highly rated shooting guards – might be.

Leonard Hamilton has a ton of physically gifted players in all shapes and sizes. He’ll have three 7-footers again – Kiel Turpin is leaving, but Jean Marc Christ Koumadjie (variously listed as 7-2 to 7-5) will be arriving.

That’s eight ACC teams that I see in NCAA contention next season – Virginia, UNC, Duke, N.C. State, Notre Dame, Louisville, FSU and Miami. Don’t hold me to that order … it’s very, very tentative.

If there is a ninth candidate, I’d say Syracuse, but only because Jim Boeheim has missed the NCAA Tournament twice in a row just once (2007-08) since 1984.

But I don’t like his mix of talent.

Duke transfer Michael Gbinije stepped up his game late last season, but rising senior guard Trevor Cooney remains awfully inconsistent as a 3-point weapon (30.9 percent for the year). The graduation of Rakeem Christmas, the NBA defection of Chris McCullough and the transfer of Tyler Roberson and Ron Patterson all hurt. An awful lot depends on DaJuan Coleman’s recovery from an injury that has sidelined him for more than a year and a half.

On paper, Boeheim has the nation’s fifth ranked recruiting class with four four-star recruits. Gifted shooting guard Malachi Richardson could put Cooney on the bench, which would help. And Moustapha Diagne and Tyler Lyndon are the kind of long, lanky wings that Boeheim loves in his zone.

That could be good enough to earn an NCAA bid, now that the Orange is off self-imposed probation. But it’s going to be a tough haul.

THE ALSO-RANS

I don’t see any of the other six ACC teams making an NCAA run, although a couple of new coaches seem to be making progress.

-- I think Clemson will be the "best of the rest" next season, both because I respect Brad Brownell’s coaching ability – he always gets his team to play hard and good defense – plus he’s got some developing players such as rising junior Jaron Blossomgame and rising sophs Gabe DeVoe and Donte Graham. And rising senior center Landry Nnoko is a good defender and rebounder in the middle.

I just don’t see the kind of elite recruits it takes to win in the ACC – not even the just barely below elite that Bennett has used to build a powerhouse at Virginia. Ty Hudson, a four star shooting guard, is the best newcomer for next season.

-- Not long ago, it looked like Jamie Dixon had one of the most solid programs in the country. But the move to the ACC has not been kind to the Panthers. The program seems to be slipping after last years’ 19-15 (8-10 ACC) finish.

Dixon loses Cameron Wright and Derrick Randall out of last year’s rotation. I know that the Pitt people thought Durand Johnson – who missed 2014 with an ACL and 2015 with a suspension – would provide an immediate lift … but he just transferred out.

That leaves a small core – veteran point guard James Robinson and forwards Michael Young and James Artis are ACC players. Josh Newkirk and Vandy transfer Sheldon Jeter have had their moments.

But there is not a lot of size or depth. The only new guy who looks like he can help is 6-5 guard Damon Wilson Jr.

Unless Dixon hits a home run with a recruit or grad student transfer this spring, it’s hard to see this team making the NCAA Tournament.

-- The most improved team from the bottom echelon of the ACC is likely to be Virginia Tech, where Buzz Williams will combine a talented crop of 2015 freshmen – Jalen Hudson, Justin Bibbs, Ahmed Hill – with transfers Seth Allen and Zach LaDay and with three four-star recruits. That’s not enough to threaten the ACC’s first division, but it’s coming soon for the Hokies.

-- Wake Forest is still waiting on Danny Manning to use his big name to lure recruits. He does have rising seniors Devin Thomas and Cody Miller-McIntyre returning, along with promising 2015 freshmen Mitchell Wilbekin and Konstantinos Mitoglou, but that’s not enough to escape the second division. There doesn’t appear to be an impact guy in the incoming freshman class, although 7-footer Doral Moore has good potential.

-- The best hope for Georgia Tech is the law of averages. The Jackets finished 12-19 with a 3-15 ACC record, but lost one game in double overtime, one game in overtime, four games by one point, two games by two points, one by three, one by four and one by five.

Is there any reason to think Brian Gregory’s team will start winning all the close games? It’s hard to see how Georgia Tech will be much better – the graduation loss of Demarcus Cox and Robert Sampson hurt. Rising seniors Marcus Georges-Hunt, Chris Bolden and Charles Mitchell are back, but the best newcomer appears to be Alabama transfer Nick Jacobs (on paper, he looks similar to Cox).

The only recruit so far is a three-star big man from Maryland, although Gregory has (very) faint hopes over convincing Jaylen Brown (from the Atlanta suburbs) of coming to Tech. That would be a game-charger … otherwise, I wouldn’t look for more than minimal improvement.

-- As bad as Boston College was last season (13-19, 4-14 ACC), it’s hard to see how the Eagles won’t be much, much worse in 2016. Not only did Jim Christian lose All-ACC guard Olivier Hanlan to the NBA draft, he also lost seniors Dimitri Batten, Aaron Brown, Eddie Odio, Patrick Heckman and Alex Dragicevich.

There’s almost nothing left – Dennis Clifford, Garland Owens and Will Magarity are the only returnees who saw significant action last season. Christian has one four-star recruit arriving, small forward A.J. Turner, but he’s not projected as an impact guy. Look for BC to hit the grad student transfer market hard this off-season (as Christian did with some success a year ago)

Christian did some good things as a first-year coach, but it’s going to be a long, long haul to make the Eagles competitive again.

I’m not sure how I’ll rank the bottom of the ACC going into the season, except that I’m 99 percent sure I’ll have Boston College last.