ACC basketball: North Carolina, NC State trying to catch up to Duke

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 5, 2013 

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Duke's Quinn Cook goes in to score over Tyler Thornton during practice at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. Saturday Sept. 28, 2013.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

The only bad thing about starting college basketball practice so early, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said recently was that it would cut into time he would normally reserve for a few final preseason rounds of golf.

The Tar Heels and Duke began practicing last week. N.C. State started practicing Tuesday. Thanks to a new NCAA rule, college basketball teams can begin practicing 42 days before their first game.

It means less time for golf but more time to start building team chemistry and addressing questions – of which there are many locally: Can Duke’s Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood meet expectations and make people forget about all the Blue Devils lost from last season? Will UNC develop a reliable interior offensive game that allows Williams to go back to his preferred playing style? And at N.C. State, how will an almost entirely overhauled roster come together?

Collectively, Duke, UNC and N.C. State won’t enter the season with the kind of expectations they shared a year ago. Duke is expected to compete for a national championship, while N.C. State is rebuilding. The Tar Heels are likely to enter the season ranked among the top 20, but they have plenty of questions.

Here’s a detailed look at each team:

Duke

•  2012-13 record: 30-6, 14-4 ACC (2nd place)

•  Postseason: Lost 85-63 against Louisville in NCAA tournament Midwest Regional final.

•  Key losses: F Mason Plumlee (17.1 ppg, 10 rpg); G Seth Curry (17.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg); F Ryan Kelly (12.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg).

•  Key returnees: G Quinn Cook (11.7 ppg, 5.3 apg); G Rasheed Sulaimon (11.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg); F Amile Jefferson (4 ppg, 2.9 rpg).

•  Newcomers to watch: Jabari Parker, a 6-foot-8 forward from Chicago, was considered the No. 2 prospect in the class of 2013, behind Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins. Rodney Hood, a 6-8 forward, transferred from Mississippi State, where he averaged 10.3 points and 4.8 rebounds during the 2011-12 season.

•  Strengths: This should be Duke’s most athletic, fast-paced team in awhile. Cook doesn’t hesitate to push the tempo at point guard, and no one would be surprised if the duo of Parker and Hood turns out to be the best one-two punch in the ACC. Parker would have been an All-American candidate no matter where he went, but he could be even better than advertised under coach Mike Krzyzewski.

•  Weaknesses: The Blue Devils don’t have a reliable interior presence and they lack a clear heir to Mason Plumlee, who during the past two seasons was among the most reliable post players in the nation. Amile Jefferson, the 6-9 sophomore, might stand the best chance to replace Plumlee in the starting lineup. The position might not matter much, though, given what Duke has everywhere else.

•  Preseason priorities: Duke might be more talented than it was at this time last year, but the Blue Devils lost a lot of chemistry and proven leadership. Rebuilding those intangibles will be important. Parker is a rare talent, and could be Duke’s second one-and-done player in the past four seasons. The expectations are high for Hood too. Still, Duke’s two best players have yet to play a game for the Blue Devils. Krzyzewski is a master at building team chemistry but it’s still unknown how Duke’s individual parts, which are among the best in the nation, will come together.

North Carolina

•  2012-13 record: 25-11, 12-6 ACC (3rd place)

•  Postseason: Lost 70-58 against Kansas in NCAA tournament round of 32.

•  Key losses: G Reggie Bullock (13.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg); G Dexter Strickland (7.8 ppg, 4.2 apg).

•  Key returnees: G P.J. Hairston (14.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg); F James Michael McAdoo (14.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg); G Marcus Paige (8.2 ppg, 4.6 apg).

•  Newcomers to watch: Isaiah Hicks, the 6-8 forward, was considered the top high school prospect in North Carolina last year. Kennedy Meeks, the 6-9 forward from Charlotte, is a large physical presence but will need to work his way into shape before he contributes.

•  Strengths: The Tar Heels have experience and production returning in the frontcourt and backcourt, and should be more balanced than they were a season ago, when they relied heavily on perimeter shooting. Marcus Paige should be among the ACC’s best point guards in his second season and, after an inconsistent sophomore season, forward James Michael McAdoo returned to school to play a larger role and improve. He has All-America potential.

•  Weaknesses: Outside of McAdoo, who’s not a traditional back-to-the-basket post player, the Tar Heels lack a proven playmaker in the frontcourt. Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson all shared starts at center last season before coach Roy Williams elected to go small, and those three will have to prove they’re ready for more meaningful roles. UNC also lost its most versatile player in Reggie Bullock. Who fills his jack-of-all-trades role?

•  Preseason priorities: Early on, UNC will be without P.J. Hairston, who will serve a suspension and miss an undetermined number of games for his offseason troubles. Identifying the best way to compensate for Hairston’s absence is likely the top preseason priority for Williams. Beyond that, UNC is likely to focus on establishing roles on the interior. Johnson is the most polished offensive player on the inside, but he must prove he’s ready defensively. Senior guard Leslie McDonald is working his way out of Williams’ doghouse and probably has the inside track on starting alongside Paige in the backcourt. Still, with Hairston out early, Paige and McAdoo are probably the only two definitive starters.

N.C. State

•  2012-13 record: 24-11, 11-7 ACC (4th place)

•  Postseason: Lost 76-72 against Temple in NCAA tournament round of 64.

•  Key losses: F C.J. Leslie (15.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg); F Richard Howell (12.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg); G Lorenzo Brown (12.4 ppg, 7.2 apg); G Scott Wood (12.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg), G Rodney Purvis (8.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg)

•  Key returnees: F T.J. Warren (12.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg); G Tyler Lewis (3.5 ppg, 1.4 apg)

•  Newcomers to watch: Anthony “Cat” Barber, a 6-2 point guard, is the most touted of the Wolfpack’s five-man recruiting class. It also includes BeeJay Anya, a 6-9 center, and Kyle Washington, a 6-9 power forward – both of whom were four-star prospects, according to ESPN.com. Ralson Turner, a 6-5 guard who transferred from LSU, should contribute immediately, and Desmond Lee, a 6-4 guard who was a second-team junior college All-American last season, will be in the rotation.

•  Strengths: With so many newcomers – and so many losses – it’s difficult to know what kind of team coach Mark Gottfried has in Raleigh. The Wolfpack is a completely different team than the one that ended a disappointing 2012-13 season with a disappointing loss against Temple in the first round of the NCAA tournament. N.C. State does have some quality pieces. Barber, Lee, Lewis and Turner should form a workable backcourt, and Warren is among the most skilled forwards in the ACC.

•  Weaknesses: The Wolfpack lost its top four scorers from last season, and five of its top six. Outside of Warren, there are no proven returning scorers. Turner averaged 9.1 points per game two seasons ago at LSU, but he’ll need to do more for the Wolfpack. N.C. State is really a mishmash of parts. The pieces might turn out to fit well together, but with so many questions, and so many unknowns, it’s hard to predict anything.

•  Preseason priorities: N.C. State will need to establish roles and a rotation. Warren will start but, outside of that, the rotation is unclear. The Wolfpack will be heavily reliant on players who either weren’t around last season, or weren’t eligible to play last season, and so developing chemistry will be a must. Overall, though, N.C. State is essentially starting over in Gottfried’s third season.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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