DeCock: Who will win the ACC title - and why

Luke DeCock predicts who will win the ACC – and why

ldecock@newsobserver.comNovember 2, 2012 

DeCock’s projected team MVPs, from left, Lorenzo Brown (N.C. State), Mason Plumlee (Duke), Michael Snaer (Florida State) and Dexter Strickland (North Carolina).

N&O STAFF AND AP

Duke

1 2011-12: 27-7, 13-3 ACC (2nd), lost to Lehigh in opening game of NCAA tournament.

Hot topics

1. The extremely disappointing finish to last season obscures the fact that a Duke team that played very little defense, had massive chemistry issues and no point guard to speak of still won 27 games and returns almost its entire roster.

2. The chemistry issues last season weren’t Austin Rivers’ fault – a lack of senior leadership was as much to blame – but his departure should fix them, especially if Ryan Kelly and Tyler Thornton assert themselves.

3. One of Duke’s biggest weaknesses last season was defending big shooting guards and small forwards on the perimeter. Redshirt freshman Alex Murphy and incoming freshman Amile Jefferson, both 6-foot-8, should fill that void nicely, as will freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon, who at 6-4 has the potential to be a bigger version of Nolan Smith.

MVP: Mason Plumlee. Mike Krzyzewski has played the Kyrie Irving card with Plumlee, talking him up in the offseason as an ACC and national player-of-the-year candidate. Plumlee has the talent; can he exert his authority and take over games?

Unsung hero: Because of injuries both before and during the season, Quinn Cook never really had the chance to show what made him so highly regarded coming out of high school. Fully healthy, he should give Duke the true point guard it hasn’t had since Jason Williams (11 games of Kyrie Irving aside).

Realistic expectations: Compete for the ACC title, advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Best-case scenario: Compete for the national title, if the whole turns out to be more than the sum of its parts.

N.C. State

2 2011-12: 24-13, 9-7 ACC (t-4th), lost to Kansas in Sweet 16 of NCAA tournament.

Hot topics

1. How will the Wolfpack handle expectations? Picked to finish first by the coaches and the media, they’ll have to learn how to play as favorites after playing the underdog card for all it was worth last season. (“They’ve got to guard us, too, pal.”)

2. There’s probably as much talent here as any team in the league. Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie could start for any team in the league, Richard Howell and Scott Wood are quietly effective, and the freshmen – Rodney Purvis, T.J. Warren and Tyler Lewis – are full of raw ability.

3. For all the buzz about the freshmen, the departures of C.J. Williams, DeShawn Painter and Alex Johnson will hit the Wolfpack particularly hard on defense, where Williams was one of the ACC’s best perimeter defenders and Painter’s transfer leaves the Wolfpack extremely thin at forward.

MVP: If Leslie continues to grow and develop, this might end up being him, but Brown holds the Wolfpack together, a true combo guard who is as dangerous a passer as he is scorer.

Unsung hero: When Wood scored in double figures, N.C. State was 20-5. He worked hard this summer to find ways to get off more shots without relying on his teammates, screens, etc.

Realistic expectations: Compete for the ACC title, return to the Sweet 16.

Best-case scenario: If they find some depth at forward and the freshmen click right away, the Wolfpack could hang another banner.

Florida State

3 2011-12: 25-10, 12-4 ACC (3rd), lost to Cincinnati in round of 32 of NCAA tournament.

Hot topics

1. A decade in, Leonard Hamilton has the Seminoles rolling: Four consecutive 20-win seasons and NCAA appearances, and the players he recruits now walk in the door buying into his grinding, defensive style.

2. Michael Snaer took over the ACC tournament, and this summer, he took over the Florida State program, rousting players out of bed and leading workouts. At ACC media day, Snaer was outspoken about how he and the Seminoles were being overlooked, and he’s proven before he has the game to back up his talk.

3. It will be curious to see how the three-headed point guard monster of junior Ian Miller and freshmen Devon Bookert and Montay Brandon develops. Miller, from Charlotte, is the veteran; Bookert is a pure point guard from Alaska, and Brandon can play the point at 6-foot-7.

MVP: A lockdown perimeter defender who’s also a proven clutch scorer, Snaer averaged a team-high 14.0 points a year ago while beating Duke and Virginia Tech with last-second 3s.

Unsung hero: With big Bernard James gone, the Seminoles may have found another junior-college transfer to replace him, 6-9 Robert Gilchrist, from England. Gilchrist will be competing with two freshman 7-footers, Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo, to be the first forward off the bench.

Realistic expectations: Compete for the ACC title, reach the Sweet 16.

Best-case scenario: The upward trajectory of Hamilton’s program could take the Seminoles as far as the Final Four.

North Carolina

4 2011-12: 32-6, 14-2 ACC (1st), lost to Kansas in Elite Eight of NCAA tournament.

Hot topics

1. Listed at a wispy 157 pounds, freshman Marcus Paige is the heir to Kendall Marshall, Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton in North Carolina’s recent point guard tradition. His teammates have raved about him in preseason workouts. Despite his size, Paige can really slash to the rim.

2. While the losses were severe – four first-round NBA draft picks – Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald return from injury and give the Tar Heels an immediate boost in the backcourt, where wings Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston return as well.

3. Was James Michael McAdoo’s postseason a sign of things to come or a fluke? The big sophomore didn’t get many chances to shine last season, but he made the most of them at the end. He would have been a lottery pick based on that limited viewing alone.

MVP: Others might score more, but as the only senior and the Tar Heels’ best perimeter defender, Strickland will be relied upon to set the tone in the locker room and at the defensive end.

Unsung hero: Freshman forward Joel James is as physically imposing a newcomer as Roy Williams has had in his career. His body is ACC-ready; how quickly the rest of his game adapts could answer many questions for the Tar Heels on the inside.

Realistic expectations: Compete for the ACC title, reach the Sweet 16.

Best-case scenario: If Paige can live up to the tradition at his position, and McAdoo can build on last season’s finish, the Tar Heels have the potential to make a Final Four run.

Maryland

5 2011-12: 17-15, 6-10 ACC (8th).

Hot topics

1. Despite the departure of high-scoring guard Terrell Stoglin (21.6 ppg), the Terrapins are primed to compete for an ACC title. Three starters return – four if you count Pe’Shon Howard, who missed most of the season with injuries – and Nick Faust improved throughout his freshman season.

2. As Mark Turgeon’s first year in charge ended, but the Terrapins were starting to grasp his grinding, defensive style. Without the talented but mercurial Stoglin, Maryland should be more balanced and less mistake-prone.

3. Transfer Dez Wells, from Raleigh via Xavier, applied for immediate eligibility but the NCAA rejected it. Maryland is appealing the NCAA’s decision.

MVP: Faust’s scoring average jumped from 7.1 in his first 23 games to 13.4 in his final nine, culminating in a 19-point outburst in a first-round ACC tournament win. The 6-foot-6 guard is extremely difficult to defend.

Unsung hero: It took Ukranian 7-footer Alex Len a while to get eligible, and longer than that to adjust to the American college game, but the Terrapins are expecting much bigger things from the big man this season.

Realistic expectations: Finish in the top half of the ACC, return to NCAA tournament after missing the past two.

Best-case scenario: If Maryland wins its appeal and Wells becomes eligible, Faust and Len take big leaps and freshmen Shaq Cleare and Jake Layman contribute right away, the Terrapins might have an outside shot at winning the ACC tournament.

Miami

6 2011-12: 20-13, 9-7 ACC (t-4th), lost to Minnesota in second round of NIT.

Hot topics

1. The Hurricanes return four starters, eight rotation players and five seniors from a 20-win team in Jim Larranaga’s first season. That includes three legitimate stars in Reggie Johnson, Durand Scott and Kenny Kadji.

2. Johnson is not only down to 280 pounds – from 290 a year ago and 325-plus before that – but has won permission from Larranaga to hoist up 3-pointers (he took 11 last season).

3. In many ways, it feels like Scott is still trying to live up to his breakthrough performance as a freshman at the 2010 ACC tournament. Maybe this is the season he dominates an entire season the way he dominated Miami’s games in Greensboro that year.

MVP: Scott and Johnson get most of the attention, but Kadji – who transferred from Florida after playing sparingly there for two years – made things work last year. At 6-foot-11, he’s as comfortable on the perimeter as banging inside. He can score, rebound and defend, and ACC opponents had a hard time handling him.

Unsung hero: As a freshman, Shane Larkin – son of MLB Hall-of-Famer Barry Larkin – was one of the ACC’s biggest surprises. He’ll be handed the keys at point guard.

Realistic expectations: Another top-six finish in the ACC, another NCAA tournament berth and a few more big wins over ACC’s heavyweights.

Best-case scenario: There’s nothing stopping a healthy Miami from competing for the ACC title and making a run to the Sweet 16.

Virginia

7 2011-12: 22-10, 9-7 ACC (t-4th), lost to Florida in opening game of NCAA tournament.

Hot topics

1. So long, Mike Scott. For two coaches and over five years – he missed almost all of the 2010-11 season to injury – Scott was the Cavs’ heart and soul. Replacing him will not be easy. Tony Bennett added some useful bigs, notably 6-11 forward Mike Tobey.

2. The transition to a Bennett shoot-and-defend team continues, as most of the roster consists of sophomores and freshmen he recruited. This might be a bit of a transition year as those players adjust to ACC competition.

3 . Senior point guard Jontel Evans, an excellent defender, had surgery on his right foot and likely won’t be ready to start the season. Sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon is still working his way back from a foot injury.

MVP: Joe Harris averaged 10.4 points as a freshman and 11.3 as a sophomore. Those stats could rise a lot higher as the offense becomes more perimeter oriented.

Unsung hero: Besides Harris, the Cavaliers have five other young wing shooters who are 6-foot-5 or taller. Brogden, who played extensively as a freshman, is the most talented. Bennett also likes freshman Evan Nolte, a 6-foot-8 shooter.

Realistic expectations: While 22 wins and another NCAA tournament bid might be too much, a .500 ACC record isn’t.

Best-case scenario: If the 3-pointers go in, Virginia will be as tough to beat as Bennett’s first two Washington State teams, which each won 26 games.

Georgia Tech

8 2011-12: 11-20, 4-12 ACC (t-9th).

Hot topics

1. Georgia Tech is promoting the return of all five starters, but that conveniently glosses over the departure of Glen Rice Jr., the team’s leading scorer who came off the bench last season before being dismissed before the ACC tournament for legal issues. The Jackets do retain some valuable experience and add a big-time recruit in power forward Robert Carter, so it will be interesting to see how much more Brian Gregory can get out of this mix in his second year.

2. Jason Morris took over a starting spot when Rice was suspended and thrived with increased playing time. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 7.8 points over the course of the season, but his biggest scoring outbursts came in the final month.

3. Only one player is from outside Georgia. After recruiting nationally under Paul Hewitt, Gregory and his staff have committed to mine the fertile grounds of the Atlanta area.

MVP: After deferring to Iman Shumpert as a freshman and sophomore, Mfon Udofia thrived as a junior. The 6-foot-2 point guard is the lone senior on Georgia Tech’s roster, but he’s a quality point guard who should continue to improve.

Unsung hero: In the ACC, only Bernard James and John Henson blocked more shots than 6-foot-11 center Daniel Miller last year. Miller was 23rd nationally with 75 blocks.

Realistic expectations: With the experience and continuity returning, the Yellow Jackets should push .500 in the ACC and end up in the 15-20 win range.

Best-case scenario: Build on last year to win 20 games and get a postseason bid of some kind.

Clemson

9 2011-12: 16-15, 8-8 ACC (7th).

Hot topics

1. The Tigers must replace their backcourt, although Rod Hall and T.J. Sapp started some games as freshmen. Departed guards Andre Young and Tanner Smith combined for 24.5 points per game and both averaged more than 32 minutes. Big shoes to fill.

2. On the other hand, in Devin Booker and Milton Jennings, Clemson has two forwards who can score and rebound. They combined for 20.2 points per game. The issue will be whether Clemson’s inexperienced guards can get them the ball.

3. If we’ve learned anything from watching Brad Brownell in his two years at Clemson, it’s that his teams will play defense and play hard. He squeezed 16 wins out of a similar team a year ago, and it’ll take another stellar coaching job to do that with this team.

MVP: Booker, the younger brother of former Tigers standout Trevor Booker, is building a nice resume. He is the leading returning scorer (10.5) and rebounding (7.0).

Unsung hero: K.J. McDaniels started one game as a freshman, but his role increased throughout the season. The 6-foot-6 forward had three double-figure scoring games in the Tigers’ final 10 games and should see continued improvement.

Realistic expectations: Another .500 ACC finish would be a solid accomplishment.

Best-case scenario: Improve from 16 to 20 wins and push for an NCAA tournament bid.

Virginia Tech

10 2011-12: 16-17, 4-12 ACC (t-9th).

Hot topics

1. There are some pieces – Erick Green, Jarell Eddie, Robert Brown – but also equal parts disarray and continuity since Seth Greenberg was fired and former assistant James Johnson, who had just jumped to Clemson, was quickly brought back to replace him. Johnson knows the personnel, so there shouldn’t be too much of a transition there, but he wants to play faster.

2. Green led the Hokies in scoring (15.6) and assists (2.8) last season, but he won’t have shooter Dorenzo Hudson at his side to draw defenders and open driving lanes or turn his passes into buckets. The pressure is on Green to make his teammates better this season.

3. Eddie, a 6-foot-7 swingman, went from little-used bench player to important rotation player last season. It will be interesting to see if the junior has hit his ceiling or he has more to offer.

MVP: As a sophomore, Green emerged as a point guard. As a junior, he emerged as a scoring threat. What’s next for the 6-foot-3 guard as a senior?

Unsung hero: Cadarian Raines came out of nowhere to provide some useful inside minutes and played his way into the starting lineup. With leading rebounder Dorian Finney-Smith transferring, Raines will be key to Virginia Tech’s success on the boards.

Realistic expectations: Five or six wins in the ACC.

Best-case scenario: A .500 record in the ACC would be a considerable success for a team that lost key players and added no impact recruits.

Boston College

11 2011-12: 9-22, 4-12 ACC (t-9th).

Hot topics

1. Coach Steve Donahue talks about the 50-game rule: It takes 50 games for a college player to become comfortable. Boston College’s six core sophomores will hit the 50-game mark right about the North Carolina game on Jan. 29, with 11 games to go in the season.

2. Despite last season’s growing pains, the Eagles still managed an upset win over Florida State and went 4-4 at home in the ACC despite no home-court advantage to speak of. If BC fans ever start coming to Conte Forum for something other than hockey, the Eagles might have a real edge at home.

3. Watch out for Patrick Heckmann, who was slowed by mononucleosis last season. When healthy, the 6-foot-5 German wing showed flashes scoring ability.

MVP: Ryan Anderson was only the 11th freshman in ACC history to lead his team in scoring and rebounding. At 6-foot-8, 220 pounds, he’s a legitimate force down low.

Unsung hero: Reliable junior guard Danny Rubin is the team’s lone upperclassman and the only holdover from Donahue’s first BC team that won 21 games.

Realistic expectations: Show steady improvement, win double-digit games.

Best-case scenario: If the 50-game leap turns out to be a great leap, the Eagles might upset more than just the Seminoles down the stretch.

Wake Forest

12 2011-12: 13-18, 4-12 ACC (t-9th).

Hot topics

1. Wake Forest had never lost more than 39 games in a two-season period until the first two years of the Jeff Bzdelik Era, when the Deacons lost 42. His mandate has been culture change, and he can reel off a long list of accomplishments in that department, but he knows he needs to get above .500 this season or someone else will finish the job.

2. Once again, Wake Forest will build around C.J. Harris and Travis McKie with a mess of freshmen, including two point guards. Wake’s offense didn’t do nearly a good enough job of generating shots for that talented duo last season; it’s hard to argue why anyone else on this team should even think about it.

3. Bzdelik has said freshmen Codi Miller-McIntyre (Concord) and Madison Jones (Raleigh) are the unquestioned starters at point guard. (Harris can play there as well.) How quickly they adapt will determine just how quickly Wake Forest improves.

MVP: A local kid from Winston-Salem, no one would like to restore the Deacons to past glories more than Harris, a third-team all-ACC selection last year. He’s stuck it out to the finish while a half-dozen of his teammates have transferred or been kicked off the team.

Unsung hero: While Miller-McIntyre was the prized recruit, word around the Wake program is that Jones, who played at Ravenscroft, may play as big a role as a freshman.

Realistic expectations: Meet or exceed last season’s 13-win mark.

Best-case scenario: Bzdelik has said the freshmen can’t think of themselves as freshmen. If they play like sophomores, Wake might be able to push .500 in the ACC.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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