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InsideHoops [College Basketball]

ACC Hoops Preview





/ Nov. 25, 2004


The ACC is by far the best college basketball conference in America. Because the conference features three of the top four teams in the country, nobody will be surprised if at least one or two ACC teams are playing in St. Louis in early April in the Final Four. Last year’s national finalist Georgia Tech, conference tournament champion Maryland, and conference regular season silver medallist North Carolina State all have promising rosters. With the expansion of the conference, the ACC welcomes newcomers Miami and Virginia Tech, while still featuring the usual suspects Duke and North Carolina. However it might be that “other” team on Tobacco Road that takes home the conference gold this year.

Clemson Tigers

The Tigers will definitely lead the ACC in one category—players with the most syllables in the their names. Between Akin Akingbala and Olu Babalola, Clemson will give PA announcers on the road fits. The opposition, however, might have an easier time with the Tigers, a pesky team that finished eight games below .500 last year. Clemson does have three players to watch, though. Senior forward Sharrod Ford, junior guard Shawan Robinson, and sophomore playmaking point guard Vernon Hamilton were the team’s leaders in most major categories last year. Head coach Oliver Purnell has also brought in a stellar recruiting class featuring point guard Troy Mathis. Clemson is extremely young, with seven players being freshmen or sophomores. At best, the Tigers could contend for an NIT birth.

Duke Blue Devils

For the first time in about seven years, Duke is not the odds on favorite to win the conference. The graduation of Chris Duhon, the premature departure of Luol Deng, and the jump to the NBA by high school sensation Shaun Livingston, leaves the Blue Devils with an eight-man rotation this year. Duke does feature one of the premier starting lineups in the country with junior point guard Sean Dockery, junior sharpshooter J.J. Redick, senior Daniel Ewing, junior forward Shavlik Randolph, and the premier big man in the conference, junior Shelden Williams. However, with the lack of depth, many questions surround this Duke team. Can Williams stay out of foul trouble? Can Dockery replace Duhon as the floor general? Can Ewing, a reserve his whole career, step into the starting lineup and perform? Can Randolph finally live up to his pre-Duke hype? For Duke to be at the top of the conference, the answers to all of these questions must be yes.

As always, the Blue Devils welcome another McDonald’s All-American in point guard DeMarcus Nelson, the all-time leading scorer in California high school history (3,462 points). He should be able to fill in and spell Dockery, more of a defensive specialist, if the Blue Devils need a scoring punch. The other newcomer is forward David McClure, the Gatorade Connecticut High School Player of the Year. Both freshmen are expected to contribute important minutes right away. The other reserve the Blue Devils are counting on is senior Patrick Johnson, a seldom used reserve in past years that will be the main low post substitute.

With all of the uncertainty surrounding this Duke team, there’s one thing everybody can count on: with Coach Krzyzewski still running the show, after turning down an opportunity to coach the Los Angeles Lakers, this Duke team will fight hard, and be a tough out come tournament time.

Florida State Seminoles

Team leader Tim Pickett is gone, but head coach Leonard Hamilton has plenty of talent to work with, to try and mold his Seminoles into an NCAA tournament team. Sophomore Von Wafer takes over as the team’s main scoring threat, and sophomore center Alexander Johnson had a solid freshman year that garners promise for this year. If senior forward Anthony Richardson can finally realize the potential he had when he was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, he could put the Seminoles over the top, and into the NCAA tournament.

The other senior on the team is forward Adam Waleskowski, who led the team in steals, rebounding, and blocked shots last year, and can score from beyond the arc as well as taking it to the hoop.

Coach Hamilton did a great job for the second straight year in bringing in a top rate recruiting class that features guards Isaiah Swann and Jason Rich. Both should be able to contribute this year. A bubble team that barely missed out on the NCAA tournament last year, Florida State has the players necessary to make it to the big dance this year.

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

With all the hype in the ACC surrounding the talent of all the point guards, Jarrett Jack sometimes gets overlooked, getting passed over by the likes of Chris Paul, Raymond Felton, and John Gilchrist. But the clutch-shooting junior signal caller leads this team that made it to the NCAA Finals last season, and has most of its key components returning. The Ramblin’ Wreck return last season’s surprise, center Luke Schenscher, leading scorer B.J. Elder, high flying dunk machine Isma’il Muhammad, and a guard who can shoot the three and penetrate to the basket, Will Bynum. These five give head coach Paul Hewitt good reason to believe that his Yellow Jackets will buzz their way deep into the NCAA tournament again.

The losses of Marvin Lewis and Clarence Moore from last year’s squad hurt, as Lewis could score from anywhere on the floor, and Moore was a very serviceable substitute. Depth should not be an issue, though, as those minutes left behind are ready to be picked up by senior swingman Anthony McHenry, junior forward Theodis Tarver, and freshman forward Ra’Sean Dickey.

This is a very experienced team, as the top seven players are all either juniors or seniors. Returning this much talented experience from a team that was one game short from winning the national championship should scare every other team in the country, let alone the conference.

Maryland Terrapins

The Terrapins return 10 letter-winners from a team that shocked the college basketball world last year by running the gauntlet in the ACC tournament. The Terps knocked off 3rd seeded Wake Forest, 2nd seeded N.C. State, and top seeded Duke to improbably capture the conference championship, and to go from a team on the bubble to a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Now Terrapin Nation is not concerned with making the NCAA tournament for the 12th year in a row—it is focused on winning the whole thing. And why not? Expectations are high in College Park, as the most important of the returnees is reigning ACC tournament MVP, John Gilchrist. The junior point guard put on a show in the tournament, and in the regular season led the Terrapins in both points and assists. He plays with extreme intensity on both sides of the floor, and an All-ACC First Team bid is well within reach.

Maryland’s starting lineup features four of the five starters from last year. Last year’s production from lone senior Jamar Smith can be replaced by sophomore forward Ekene Ibekwe, who is poised for a breakout season. Junior forward Nik Caner-Medley has improved on the predictability of his game last year. Junior forward Travis Garrison provides double-double ability, and junior guard Chris McCray’s hustle and clutch plays make this a starting five to recon with.

The bench includes three sophomores: defensive stalwart D.J. Strawberry, sharpshooting 3-point specialist Mike Jones, and large body Hassan Fofana. The most important part of the bench, though, might be JUCO transfer Sterling Ledbetter, who, as a true point guard, can spell Gilchrist for minutes at a time, a luxury the Terrapins did not have last year.

With another year under head coach Gary Williams’ watchful eye and sweat-stained suits, age and experience no longer a factor, and depth not an issue, consistent play is the only thing stopping the Terrapins from making The Leap to college basketball’s forefront.

North Carolina Tar Heels

The color of this college basketball season might be Carolina Blue. With the polished trio of Raymond Felton, Sean May, and Rashad McCants returning to Chapel Hill for their junior years, this season is full of promise for the Tar Heels. Along with the star power of the big three, the Tar Heels feature ACC Preseason Freshman of the Year Marvin Williams, and senior leadership. The senior threesome of forward Jawad Williams, and swingmen David Noel and Jackie Manuel provide the leadership necessary to guide a team to those difficult March victories. Having coach Roy Williams at the helm does not hurt, either.

Down in Chapel Hill, people feel that this is the year that the big three of Felton, May, and McCants take this team to the next level, and bring the championship hardware back to the Dean Dome. After all, last year Felton led the ACC in assists per game (7.07), May led the ACC in rebounds per game (9.8), and McCants led the ACC in points per game (20.0). However, it is going to take a better defensive effort than last year if any championship, league or national, is going to be won.

Last year Carolina allowed opponents to shoot almost 45 percent from the field a game. This area must be improved on a consistent basis for Carolina to be victorious. The addition of the freshmen Williams and Quentin Thomas provide added depth, improving a need for the team, as Thomas gives the Tar Heels a legitimate backup to Felton. If Coach Williams can preach consistent defense, and the trio of superstars can take this team on their backs, then at the beginning of April it could be the Tar Heels cutting down the nets in St. Louis.

North Carolina State Wolfpack

The Wolfpack lost two key components from last year’s team that finished second in the conference: sharp shooting Scooter Sherill, and the versatile three-point shooter/low post presence Marcus Melvin. They still return reigning ACC Player of the Year, senior do-it-all-man Julius Hodge, and a whole slew of other cast members that make this team one to watch in the ACC.

On board to fill some of the scoring void is Georgetown transfer Tony Bethel, and returning players Engin Atsur, Ilian Evtimov, and Levi Watkins. Bethel will handle point guard duties, while the trio of Atsur, Evtimov, and Watkins can be on the money from three-point land.

No matter what, though, the season will hinge on the play of the versatile Hodge and his ability to make the rest of his Wolfpack better. Hodge will be wearing a proverbial bull’s eye on his chest, as he has driven opposing ACC coaches and players wild with his outstanding play, and sometimes cocky attitude, for three years. He does not want to leave N.C. State without some championship hardware, and has the will and talent to drive his team, behind head coach Herb Sendek, to the top of the ACC.

Virginia Cavaliers

Many questions surround this Virginia team, and the prospects of this season rides on the answers to each of them. Can senior forward/center Elton Brown stay out of foul trouble? Can senior forward Devin Smith stay healthy? Can the sophomore tandem of Gary Forbes and J.R. Reynolds build on their successful freshmen campaigns? Can T.J. Bannister be as effective a point guard as he was at the end of last year? A “no” answer to any of these questions could mean the difference between making the NCAA tournament and making the NIT. The clutch-shooting Todd Billet is gone, but with four out of five starters from last year’s young bubble team returning, Virginia has a shot at making the Big Dance.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Move over Tim Duncan. The Mayor of Winston-Salem has just challenged you for greatest player in school history. That’s how good Chris Paul is. Paul is the Preseason ACC Player of the Year, and a favorite to win the ACC and NCAA Player of the Year awards. He leads a Wake Forest team picked by many to win the national championship—and for good reason. Coach Skip Prosser welcomes back every key player from his team that reached the Sweet 16 last season. If Paul can lead his team to the top, then he will have accomplished something that even the immortal Duncan could not do.

Paul’s supporting cast includes overlooked and dangerous scoring threat Justin Gray (All-ACC First Team last year), center Eric Williams, rebounding machine Jamaal Levy, and veteran forward Vytas Danelius, who looks to bounce back after an injury-plagued 2003-2004 campaign. The Deacons can win in any number of ways. Gray, Paul, and senior guard Taron Downey are each lethal from beyond the three-point arc. Williams, and sophomore center Kyle Visser can each maintain position down low and dominate the post. The versatile Levy and Danelius are capable of double-double numbers in points and rebounds on any night. Wake Forest hustles well, runs the fast break well, executes in the half-court well, and defends well.

If this team has a weakness, it is free throw shooting. The Deacons shot 71 percent from the charity stripe last year, and in those close ACC battles down the stretch, free throw shooting might be the difference. If anybody besides Paul and Gray is at the line with the game on the line, Deacon fans should hold their collective breath.

With two premier players in Paul and Gray, senior leadership, depth, versatility, and tournament experience, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons have a great shot at winning their first-ever national championship.


Miami Hurricanes

The Hurricanes lost their superstar forward and All-Big East Second Team member Darius Rice (nephew of NFL great Jerry Rice), and team assist leader Armondo Surratt transferred, leaving huge holes for first year head coach Frank Haith to fill. To help ease the pain, Haith will have the services of guards Guillermo Diaz (All-Big East Rookie Team last year) and Robert Hite, the team’s top returning scorer (15.2 PPG). But the missing pieces from last year’s team that finished below .500 combined with the transitions from Big East to ACC and from former head coach Perry Clark to Haith, could spell a disaster of hurricane-like proportions for Miami this season.

Virginia Tech Hokies

Like Miami, the Hokies, too, lost their best player from last season, Bryant Matthews (All-Big East First Team member), to graduation. With him and his 22.1 points per game out of the mix, it could be a very long season for head coach Seth Greenberg. Virginia Tech was a pleasant surprise in the Big East last year, finishing the season unexpectedly over .500. The switch to the ACC could hurt them badly this year though, as the competition is up a notch over that in the Big East. The Hokies gain back the services of senior forward Carlos Dixon, who redshirted last season because of a broken foot. The combination of Dixon’s ability to score and freshman point guard Marquie Cooke’s toughness and ability to run the floor, gives Virginia Tech some hope for the upcoming season.

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