September 6, 2011

Wiederer: Around the ACC

For the ACC, opening weekend of the 2011 football season didn't go so well. Boston College fell at home to Northwestern. Duke lost to Richmond. Again. Clemson struggled with Troy. N.C. State was far from impressive in its win over Liberty.

Sure, Virginia Tech and Florida State showed they have the firepower we all expected. And North Carolina was both efficient and dominant in its 42-10 thrashing of James Madison.

But if opening week is any indication, it seems clear that the ACC as a whole is lacking again in its football prowess. Which, for me, triggers one instinct: to fast forward to basketball season.

Too early for that? Nonsense. The opening weekend of practice is now less than six weeks away.

So naturally, it seems only fitting to take a quick (if somewhat premature) spin around the landscape of ACC hoops with a pre-preseason preview of what's ahead. Here goes …


THE PECKING ORDER


Stop me if you've heard this one before. But the ACC heads into the 2011-12 season looking very much like a two-team league. It's North Carolina and Duke and everyone else. (Insert redundant yawn here.) But if you're looking to break the conference down into a class system, here goes.

Top tier: North Carolina, Duke, Florida State

The quick breakdown: Yep, the Seminoles are good enough to receive a preseason invitation to join this caste. They've won 131 games over the past six seasons and last season came within an eyelash of reaching the Elite Eight. Chris Singleton left school early for the NBA and Derwin Kitchen graduated.

But the corps of returners Leonard Hamilton has to work with gives Florida State plenty of potential for 2011-12. Senior Bernard James will be 27 years old by the end of next season, navigating the home stretch of a unique journey that took him on a six-year tour of duty in the Air Force and also a stop at Tallahassee Community College.

James could emerge as one of the marquee big men in the league. And his maturity and leadership skills should provide a stabilizing force for the Seminoles. Plus, he should have plenty of help from fellow veterans Xavier Gibson and Deividas Dulkys and a pair of players who seem ready to breakout: junior Michael Snaer and sophomore Ian Miller.

As we've said 1,000 times since April, UNC appears to be on a tier all its own heading into the season.

The Tar Heels likely won't leave the top five of the AP poll at any point this winter. And Duke, while inexperienced and very rough around the edges, has the combination of talent and coaching to become a dangerous team by late January. Florida State may need everything to go right to finish second in the league. But the Seminoles are the only other team in the ACC that you can pencil in for 10 league wins and not feel silly about doing so.

Middle tier: Miami, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Clemson, N.C. State

The quick breakdown: There's a lot to love about the Hurricanes on paper. All five starters return from a year ago, including senior guard Malcolm Grant, who was a third-team All-ACC selection last season and is the only non-UNC all-conference honoree from 2010-11 who will be back this winter.

Grant will have aid on the perimeter from Durand Scott, who when playing to his potential is as slick of a player as there is in the ACC. Meanwhile, Reggie Johnson continues to develop into one of the league's most reliable big men. And now that Jim Larranaga has arrived from George Mason to call the shots in Coral Gables, Fla., you have to think that the Hurricanes will be able to jell into a legitimate NCAA tournament squad.

Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is still stinging from a strange four-year run in which they've won 87 games overall and posted a 35-29 mark in ACC play, yet failed to make the NCAA tournament all four years.

Seth Greenberg will have to regroup some after losing his top two players from last season - Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen.

But Greenberg also gets two talented and experienced players back from injury this season. Guard Dorenzo Hudson, already a proven standout, missed the final 24 games of last season after foot surgery. Forward J.T. Thompson missed all of last season after tearing his ACL in the preseason.

The Hokies have no excuse not to finish in the upper half of the conference. But once again, they've accomplished that feat in three of the last four seasons and haven't gotten a Selection Sunday reward for it.

Bottom tier: Georgia Tech, Maryland, Boston College, Wake Forest

The quick breakdown: BC's Steve Donahue is considered to be one of the brightest coaches in the country, a shrewd strategist who gets the most out of his players. Yet this season we'll see what Donahue is really made of.

The Eagles lost their five best players from last season, leaving baby-faced sophomore Danny Rubin as the team's top returning scorer. Rubin, for what it's worth, averaged only 4.1 points per game last season. Still, if Donahue is adding extra Excedrin to the team's equipment bag this winter, then what do we make of the uphill battle Jeff Bzdelik is trying to fight at Wake Forest.

The Demon Deacons lost 24 of their 32 games last season and only managed one measly ACC win - a 76-71 home defeat of Virginia. Don't be surprised if there's another winless watch in Winston-Salem this season.

The Demon Deacons will start the season with only six returning scholarship players. There's nowhere to go but up after last season. Yet a realistic bar for the Deacs may be winning four ACC games. Oh, and just so you know, BC and Wake get to play twice this season - Jan. 21 at Conte Forum and Feb. 25 at Joel Coliseum.


THE STANDOUTS


Here's an early look at the top 15 players in the league this season"

All-ACC first team: Harrison Barnes (UNC); Tyler Zeller (UNC); Austin Rivers (Duke); John Henson (UNC); Malcolm Grant (Miami)

Notable: Earlier this summer, in penciling out my All-ACC selections, I left Henson off of the first team and instead had Duke's Mason Plumlee with this group.

I've since had a change of heart.

My initial logic was simple: as good as Henson is, he'll be sharing the spotlight all season with so many other stars in Chapel Hill, most notably Barnes and Zeller, who are both primed for explosive seasons.

On top of that, only once in the 58-year history of the ACC has one team placed three players on the all-conference first team in the same season.

That was Duke in 2002 with Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer all honored.

But look. I've had time to think this through now. Henson deserves a first-team nod.

After watching Duke play in China and Dubai last month, I still see potential in Plumlee. But he's too inconsistent right now to be considered one of the league's stars.

Henson? He's coming off a sophomore campaign in which he averaged 11.7 points. 10.1 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game.

And, oh yeah, he's also the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the league.

Second team: Dorenzo Hudson (Virginia Tech); Kendall Marshall (UNC); Seth Curry (Duke); Mike Scott (Virginia); Andre Young (Clemson)

Notable: At present, there's a trio of underrated playmakers on this list. Hudson averaged 15.2 points per game for the Hokies in 2009-10 and now, with Delaney gone, will be asked to carry more of the offensive load. Scott was off to a fantastic start last season, averaging 18.4 points and 10.1 rebounds over Virginia's first eight games before an ankle injury put him on the shelf for the year and gave him a medical redshirt to use.

And Young can affect a game in so many ways.

He averaged a modest 11.1 points per game as a junior last winter. But he had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.6 (best in the ACC); contributed 1.4 steals per game (ninth in the ACC); and made 80 3-pointers (fourth best in the league). Underrated for now, but perhaps not for long.

Third team: Mason Plumlee (Duke); Bernard James (Florida State); Travis McKie (Wake Forest); Durand Scott (Miami); Terrell Stoglin (Maryland)

Notable: Poor Travis McKie. The kid is the real deal, a hard-working and versatile forward who turned in a sensational effort as a freshman last season.

The problem was he played for Wake, which was off the radar before Thanksgiving, leaving McKie to put up strong numbers (13.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg) in relative obscurity.

Quietly, however, the energetic sophomore seems to be positioning himself to emerge as a major difference maker in 2011-12.

Same goes for Stoglin, who had a late-season scoring explosion for Maryland last winter. Over one five-game stretch in late February and early March, Stoglin averaged 23 points per game. He finished as the 19th leading scorer in ACC play, averaging 12.5 points, ranking right between Clemson's Jerai Grant (12.6 ppg) and Henson (12.4).


THE NEW GUYS


For the first time in history, the ACC welcomes four new coaches to the stage in the same season. Larranaga has the best chance to do something memorable in Year 1. But first he'll have to get his players to block out the distractions of the ongoing Nevin Shapiro scandal that has rocked the football program and shaken the hoops program.

Of all the new coaches, Larranaga is the only one who has been to a Final Four, taking George Mason there in 2006.

At Maryland, Mark Turgeon should be plenty capable of building on the success that Gary Williams forged. There just might not be a whole lot of winning in Year 1 with a squad that is low on talent and depth, especially down low.

Turgeon's biggest battle in 2011-12 will be making strides on the recruiting trail and working Maryland back into the mix with stars in its region and nationwide.

Georgia Tech welcomes Brian Gregory, who has one thing going for him right out of the gates. He's not Paul Hewitt.

Hewitt led the Yellow Jackets to a national title game appearance in 2004 and parlayed that impressive run into a wildly lucrative contract extension. But then his teams began a prolonged run of underachieving.

Over Hewitt's final seven seasons in Atlanta, the Yellow Jackets never posted a winning record in ACC play and had an overall league winning percentage of .366, making just three NCAA tournament appearances in that span.

Speaking of NCAA appearances, that's a goal N.C. State fans desperately want to achieve. The Wolfpack hasn't been back to the big dance since a second-round loss to Texas in 2006.

Since that stumble, North Carolina has won 16 NCAA tournament games; Duke has won 11. Mark Gottfried, fresh off two seasons as an ESPN analyst, now returns to the coaching mix, trying to whip State's players into shape.

Thanks to a down year in the ACC, Gottfried should be able to help the Wolfpack do something it never did under Sidney Lowe - finish at least 8-8 in the conference.

It's too early to say whether Gottfried can produce an NCAA trip in his first year in Raleigh. But simply getting the Wolfpack into the bubble conversation in February would be significant progress.

A few last pieces of statistical trivia these new coaches should keep in mind. Before this spring, 13 coaches had been hired into the ACC in the 21st century. Those 13 coaches combined to average an overall record of 18-14 in their first seasons in the conference with an average mark of 7-9 in ACC play.

Only four of the 13 posted a winning ACC record in Year 1: Matt Doherty (13-3 in 2000-01 at North Carolina); Skip Prosser (9-7 in 2001-02 at Wake Forest); Donahue (9-7 last season at Boston College); and Brad Brownell (9-7 last season at Clemson).










 

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